Friday, September 30, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday

What women can learn about feelings from men who won't talk about feelings
"I have no idea what is going on in there."

At one point or another, most women will say something like that to a man. And it's such a commonplace observation to say that women are in touch with feelings and that men aren't that it may seems ludicrous to suggest that men are, in fact, better at managing their feelings than women.

And yet the measurable evidence is unequivocal. Women are far more likely to need therapy than men. Women are far more likely to suffer from depression than men. Women suffer from far more stress-related illnesses.

Women are certainly better judges of how to respond to and respect other people's feelings but women, especially young women, manage their own feelings the way teenage boys drive cars. They are far too confident in their ability to handle everything that comes at them and they drive too fast and take too many chances.

In order to draw out some of the differences in the ways men understand feelings, let me give you a trivial example of a trick that lots of guys use to gauge women's feelings. It is a trick and it may offend you but is so common that I'm tempted to say that every single heterosexual guy in the history of the universe has used it. It's probably been used on you. You've certainly seen it happen.

Here goes. A couple are talking. They have been a couple for a while. Maybe they are all alone and maybe they are with others; it doesn't matter the trick works either way. And at some point the guy makes a suggestive remark and the woman responds.

That's the whole trick.

Now most people watch the woman when this happens but force yourself to watch the man the next time you see it. If she reacts badly, you'll see disappointment. If she reacts positively, you can see him deciding that this weekend is looking pretty good after all. Either way, it will hit you that the woman probably doesn't have a clue what really just happened or why.

Okay, that's pretty simple and even crude. What does it tell us us about the way men understand feelings?

First of all it tells us that men think observing your behaviour is a better guide to figuring out how you are feeling than what you tell us. Does that offend you? It shouldn't because it's true and you already know it's true. You see it in other people all the time. People (both women and men) are not reliable witnesses to their own feelings.

Your feelings aren't something you see when you "look deep inside yourself" they are the lens that you see everything through. We only have a vague idea of how much that lens is or is not distorting what we are seeing. When you are feeling impatient there is a very good chance you don't know that. From your perspective, other people are being stupid and inefficient. When you are in the mood for love you don't necessarily notice anything about yourself. From your perspective, the suggestive remark he has just made is clever and funny even though you'd hate the exact same remark if you weren't ready to be aroused.

Second, it tells us that feelings change. The same woman who says, "Why do you say things like that when you know it disgusts me," on Friday, will respond with a devious smile and an equally suggestive reply of her own next Wednesday.

Finally, it tells us that we can change our feelings. What guys do is figure out what your feelings are and then modify ours to fit. We don't do this perfectly. We'd rather you responded positively to the suggestive remark every time but we can swallow our disappointment and then we can start working up our enthusiasm to do something else.

What can you take away from this?

Most trivially, you can see from the first point why men hate answering questions about our feelings. We try to figure out what your feelings are right now rather than asking you and we expect you to try to figure us out rather than asking. We also value your independent judgment about what you can figure out about our feelings (provided it's given in a  sensitive way).

We can see that you like sitting around talking about feelings but we don't think it accomplishes any more important than our sitting around talking about sports does.

From the second comes what is perhaps the most important lesson: human feelings change all the time. You don't learn any deep truths about other people or about yourself from talking about feelings.  That's like deciding whether you'd like the climate in Denver based on the weather report as of 4 o'clock on a random Tuesday. It's not just that the weather report is often wrong, it's that we have no way of knowing whether this report is typical or unusual weather.

The last tells us something terribly important about love. The feelings of love are just a symptom. The real spring of love is the commitment you make and nurture. When in doubt go back to the promises you have made and remake them rather than trusting how you feel right now as a measure of your love. Then use that commitment to change your feelings.

And you can do that. Your feelings will follow your behaviour if you are consistent and persistent about it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

If the meek inherit the earth, who will drive the big trucks?
Repeat after me: sometimes men are right and women are wrong!

I use the plural here advisedly because I mean that sometimes men in general are more likely to be right than women in general are. Most men are better at navigating than most women are and no amount of cheap shots about men not asking for directions will change that. Most men are also better at managing their feelings than most women and no amount of complaining about how men don't like to talk about their feelings will ever change that.

(BTW: there is a powerful clue here about how human beings fail. If you quickly give in and ask for directions, you'll never figure out how to find your way around and if you always talk about your feelings, you'll never figure out how to control them.)

Anyway, another thing women tend to be wrong about is testosterone. It's become a favourite bête noir in a certain kind of lazy, post-feminist thinking. Latest case in point, Margaret Wente (who, I should acknowledge, is often worth reading on other subjects). Responding to ads about new testosterone drugs she writes:
I really hope men ignore those ads. Of course they won’t, because testosterone is the core of their identity. But society has too much of it. Less testosterone is good for family life and good for the entire world. Men with lower levels of testosterone are nicer, more social and less aggressive. They’re a lot less likely to go out, get drunk and wrap their car around a tree.
It's not that that isn't factually true.  The problem is that it is factually selective. Because men who have less testosterone are also less likely to do hard physical labour, less likely to train for and work in dangerous jobs such as firefighting, police, operating powerful machinery and the military, and they will be less likely to push the boundaries to create new products and services.

Rather simplistically, Wente also concludes that the recent financial crisis is a consequence of testosterone:
 On the dark side, testosterone is implicated in the world’s financial woes. Perhaps you’ve noticed that not a single woman was involved with the reckless speculation that led to the debacle of 2008, and to the European banking crisis of today.
Actually, women voted heavily in favour of candidates who  passed all sorts of laws that hamstrung the "evil, testosterone-driven bankers" who were turning mortgages down based on applicants' credit histories and that sort of "niceness" had as much to do with the financial crisis as testosterone-driven speculation did.

But, as long as we're at it, if you want to get upset about all the bad things you think testosterone-driven behaviour in the market did, you also have to give credit for all the good it has done. To paraphrase a line from Camille Paglia: Hey honey, you'd be living in a mud hut if it weren't for testosterone.

As long as I got my rant up here, a final shot on this gem of a paragraph:
New research has found that men’s testosterone levels plummet as soon as they become fathers. (Not all fathers welcome this news, as you can imagine.) This explains why even the wildest and most reckless guys are tamed by fatherhood. According to the research, men who are involved in child care have testosterone levels that are lower still. No one knows exactly why this happens, but it makes evolutionary sense. “The real take-home message is that male parental care is important,” Peter Ellison, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, told The New York Times. “It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men.”
This would be very touching if we didn't live in a society where the value of male parental care has been systematically demeaned  for decades now.  A society where the law says that a woman is the only one who gets to decide whether she is going to carry her child to term and yet , if she does so decide, gives the man no choice but to be financially responsible for that child and will throw him in jail if he fails. A society where two thirds of divorces are triggered by women and yet the child custody law is heavily rigged in women's favour.

Wente has, in fact, got the real point exactly backwards. Evolutionary biology has recognized the importance of fatherhood, women have not and need to be reminded.

(By the way, a note to any women who have a man in their life who regularly puts his more testosterone-driven interests on hold to make their relationship work. If you really appreciate this guy, you should regularly make time to put on your best clothes, flirt with the guy and then give him a really good ... ah ... time.)

And, as long as I'm on this subject, testosterone is really good for women too. You may want to try exercising more, especially resistance exercise such as weight-lifting (as opposed to wimpy, girlie stuff like Yoga). Those things will drive your testosterone level up and will make you more assertive and less likely to be exploited, it will give you more energy so you'll be in a better mood and you'll get  a long better with friends, family and colleages and finally, it will increase your sex drive thereby improving your relationship with the man in your life.

Testosterone, it makes you a happier and better person. "Nice", on the other hand,  is derived from a Latin word meaning ignorant. It first meant, a simple-minded or feeble person. That we now have a culture where women such as Margaret Wente think they prefer "nicer men" says much more, and nothing good, about modern women than it says about testosterone-driven men.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Robert Frost

The other night a lone goose went over in the middle of the night.

There is nothing surprising in this. The geese have been gathering this week. But I sat and listened in bed as he went over calling and calling as he looked for other geese to respond so he could flock with them. Geese and ducks can and do fly in the dark but it still seems a daunting experience. It would be so easy to run into something hard. In any case, it seemed a sad, plaintive thing as it went over.

We have no idea whether geese can feel the sorts of emotions I projected onto this one that night. In any case, it got me thinking of Robert Frost and I pulled down his collected poems the next day, opened it in the middle and started reading.

I love Frost but haven't read him in a couple of years. I read a lot of him the year my mother died.

That's the thing about Frost, he writes about themes that are meaningful to most North Americans. He, William Carlos Williams and Edna St. Vincent Millay and were probably the last poets taken seriously in the academic world to do so. You could bring their poetry to Thanksgiving dinner and reasonably expect every one present from grandparent to grandchild to respond and have something interesting to say in response. Try that with Eliot, Pound or Wallace Stevens and you'll just get blank looks (except maybe for Eliot's cat poems).

For that reason, a lot of people are hesitant to call Frost Williams and Millay modern. Modern literature has tended to be an elitist project.

It also has tended to be urban and Frost writes about life in the countryside: picking blueberries, stacking firewood, noticing that one brook in a watershed runs west while all the others run east. These are the sorts of experiences a kid in the country or a kid who lives in a suburb that ends at the woods might have.

And yet he has to be modern if the word is to mean anything because he writes about these things in ways that modern people not only understand but appreciate.

What really endeared him to me this time was that I found a really bad poem. I was reading through the poems in the bathroom (making my revelation like Luther's), when I hit this real dud. It's called "the Peaceful Shepherd".

I don't mean that it is a poem that doesn't quite come off or that it's okay but not really up to Frost's standards. No, I mean the poem is an absolute piece of crap that Frost never should have published. It's a sophomoric bit of pseudo-profundity and poorly expressed at that. Even the beats, who specialized in this sort of garbage, would, while not having anything more profound to say, have managed to say it better.

It put me off for several days.

And then I started reading again. It hit me that it was stupid to think there would not be poems like this in any poet's œuvre, even the really good ones. It brought Frost closer, made him more human.

And then, just a page or two past the bad poem, I tripped over a hidden gem.

The thing about poems like "The Peaceful Shepherd" is that they get taught a lot because, trite as it may be, it gives professors an excuse to try to indoctrinate students with their own moral views. The hidden gem is a poem I've never seen anyone ever teach and it's called "The Lovely Shall Be Choosers".

Anyone who grew up in the Northeast last century will immediately spot the allusion in the title. My Grandmother used to say it all the time: beggars can't be choosers. The obvious point being that if you have to ask for something, you'll take what you are given and be happy with it. The deeper implication was always that no one can be a chooser because everyone is dependent on others. It's a warning against something like hubris but with a slight protestant Christian twist (and I think that is really important to this poem). But the lovely will think they can be choosers won't they?
 She would refuse love safe with wealth and honor!
The lovely shall be choosers, shall they?
Then let them choose!
Those words are spoken by "The Voice". And we think we know this story, she will get her comeuppance. From here on in it ought to be like one of those awful Booth Tarkington novels. But it isn't. The poem tells us she will gain wisdom and the poem talks about "seven joys" that will give her wisdom.

Wisdom, of course, is always a mixed blessing and, like all the really good Frost poems (and unlike "The Peaceful Shepherd") "The Lovely Shall be Choosers" does not permit simple moral conclusions.

But seven joys! What a fascinating thing for Frost to settle on. Even with his protestant upbringing, he has to have known what that would recall.

More suicide stuff

Read the following and see if you have the same reaction I had:
The causes of suicide are complex – an interplay of psychological, biological, social and environmental factors, often sparked by a personal crisis like a failed romance. But about 95 per cent of cases spring from a mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia. 
That's from a Globe and Mail series on teen suicide by André Picard.  I knew André and his wife for years and like the guy a lot. But, seriously, did anyone edit this text? The first sentence says that the causes are complex and cites a whole lot of causes. The second sentence says that 95 percent of cases spring from mental illnesses.

This is wheel spinning. If that second claim is right, then the whole issue is a question of managing mental illness. Nothing else matters—which is to say the "interplay of psychological, biological, social and environmental factors, often sparked by a personal crisis like a failed romance" is just padding.

Magical "enlightenment" thinking

I love stuff like this:
If you provide people sufficient background information, they are capable of behaving correctly and making the right decisions.
That's from Daniel Domscheit-Berg writing in his book Inside Wikileaks.

The telling word here is "right" used to qualify "decisions". The notion was that Wikileaks would just dump massive amounts of government information and that members of the public would analyze this information and reach the "right" conclusions.

But what are the "right" conclusions? You can't really know what they are without having done the analysis and Daniel Domscheit-Berg hadn't done the analysis because he was waiting for the public to do it. But he thought he already knew what the right conclusions were. In fact, he was certain of it.

Because he never seriously doubted that all this information—which he had never seen or analyzed—would do anything but justify the things he already believed.

It didn't work out that way.

What you see here is the central fallacy of the enlightenment at work.

The whole idea of "Enlightenment" rests on the assumption that if everyone has access to the facts and they all reason logically, they will all arrive at the same "truth". It never seems to occur to Enlightenment rationalists that a group of people could look at the same data set and all analyze it rationally and arrive at different conclusions.

And you can see in that why the Enlightenment promptly produced totalitarian nightmares.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Suicide prevention?

I heard a guy speak about a suicide prevention program in a northern community. What really hit me was that the guy stood there and told anecdotes of failure.

That's interesting because we usually criticize people who use anecdotal evidence to justify a program like this. We'd demand not anecdotes but quantifiable proof. The guy speaking didn't even try to offer that because he knows there isn't any. All the actual evidence is grim and depressing.

When I say he told anecdotes of failure, however, I might give you the wrong impression. He did tell anecdotes in which kids kept committing suicide despite the efforts of the people behind the suicide prevention program but that wasn't why he was telling the stories; that wasn't the point of his stories.

The point of his stories was that the people in the program were keeping their hope up even in the face of repeated failures. He told about how they had forged bonds with the elders of the community they were trying to serve and how these bonds were holding up even in the face of failure. And that is telling. It is, in fact, the real point not just of the stories but of the program's existence. These things exist so that caring people can have something to do that will make their lives meaningful and purposeful.

And you can see the concern. If the bonds break down in the face of repeated failure, then the people running the program will be asked to leave. It's not just hope they will have to give up but also a program that gives their lives purpose and meaning.

Don't think I'm sneering here. I'm not and I have gotten involved in programs like this myself. The problem is that the sneering goes the other way.

People do all sorts of things to make their lives seem meaningful and purposeful. They form barbershop quartets, they watch Monday Night Football, they try to maintain the most beautiful lawn in the neighbourhood, and people who devote their lives to charity and doing good sneer at the people who do those things.

They know they aren't actually making a difference but they mean to. The intentionality here is very important. That's why the anecdotes were meant to show that the intention is still alive. "We're not giving up hope."

The local anarchists tell themselves the same sort of story. Anarchism has zero chance of being widely adopted and they know that. And yet they keep going to protests and trying to foment riots. They know none of this stuff will ever make a difference but they keep doing it because believing in this cause is important to them.

Now the trying-to-prevent-suicide-in-a-northern-community people might step up here and say but we're trying to do good and anarchists are trying to cause riot and destruction. I've never heard them actually condemn anarchists but they might. But suppose they did make such an argument? How much do good intentions count for if they never produce results?

The problem, of course, is that the choice isn't between an approach that doesn't work and some alternative that might work. The problem is that the choice is between this program that doesn't work doing nothing at all. We can always say, "at least we are doing something". Mind you, the person pouring gasoline on a raging fire can say that too.

Someone who takes up baton twirling as an adult, on the other hand, not only does something that makes her life meaningful, she can also point to positive, measurable progress.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Vote compass?

The CBC has their Vote Compass up again. They were widely mocked last time and the same is happening again.

The problem is quite simple: What happens if you answer neutral on every single question? This happens:

Okay, now note which party shows up as closest to the "center". It's the Greens. So anyone answering as I did should be closer to the Greens than any other party. Except that they're not:

How did that happen?

I won't be coy, it happened because the software the CBC has provided is biased in favour of the Liberals.

Not, though, for the reasons you might think. I don't think it was designed to produce such a result. I think it happened because the people who put the thing together are unaware of their own biases. To fully explain would be a long exercise so I'll just give a teaser.

Here is one of the questions you are asked to answer by the Vote Compass. It's a stupid question.
The right to protest is more important than public order.
The problem is that the statement has no meaningful content. All protest tends to upset the public order. Protests slow traffic, block sidewalks, make noise. The issue is that some protestors feel they have the right to disrupt other people's lives in aggressive ways by blocking roads, destroying public property, invading the private lives of public figures and even by threatening people who disagree with them. Every single one of these things is a serious, go-to-jail crime. And yet a number of people in the political class think that is just fine. They feel that these crimes can be excused because they reflect the passion of the protestors.

Now that is an interesting issue but no one outside of the narrow class of people who are intensely interested in politics will have the vaguest notion of what "public order" means here. This entire "Vote Compass"exercise was created by people who simply do not speak the same language as the rest of the population does.

Sort of political Monday

An open letter bloggers and twitters supporting the Ontario Liberals
Some random thoughts on diverse subjects

The thing is, media-sponsored polls are useless and media-sponsored polls that come out during an election campaign are especially so. In every election in my memory, the media sponsored polls that came out during the campaign showed a tightening race. In most (but not all) elections in my memory, the leading party ended up getting very close to what the more reliable non-media pollsters had been saying they would get before the campaign began.

An interesting example of this is the recent federal election. There was all sorts of motion in the polls but the Conservatives got pretty much exactly what the campaigns for several months before the beginning of the campaign indicated.

That is not a prediction but a warning. Don't look at the polls and tell yourself you are closing the gap because you probably aren't doing as well as those polls would lead you to believe.

Name calling, accusations of corruption  and sneering
Stop doing this. I appreciate that it makes you feel good but it's dumb, dumb, dumb.

The Liberals are not a majority party. They (like every other party on the Ontario landscape) win with a plurality of votes when they do win. That plurality, when you get it, is made up of hard core supporters and swing votes from the undecided. Sneering and name calling and accusations of corruption alienates undecided voters. The only people it impresses are people who would vote for you anyway.

I know why you are doing it. You're terrified, and not surprisingly, that the public will suddenly make a massive shift to the NDP like they did on the federal level. That's a legitimate fear but if sneering and name calling and accusations of corruption worked you guys would have won the federal election because you did tons of it.

Don't stand on principle
I appreciate that many of you have deeply held moral and political principles  and that your support for the Liberal party derives from those principles. The public, however, does not and never will see the Liberals as a principled party.


I'm sorry but the entire history of the party is working against you here.

This is your winning issue. The public likes the Liberals when you deliver reassuring stability. are good managers. Scandals don't hurt you guys like they hurt the other parties because everyone sees you guys as dispensers of largesse. We vote for you when we believe you'll keep things in control.

That is your big problem this election, the public believes that the Liberals are content to keep paying off your core constituencies while Ontario slides into its dotage. That's the impression you need to change.

Friday, September 23, 2011

You want narcissism? She's got it for you.

The staggering thing about Jenna Rose is that she is a viral phenomenon. She can't sing, she can't dance, she can't act. What she can do is tell little girls what they want to be told about themselves. She isn't something foisted on little girls by big, evil corporations. She is something that little girls foisted on the rest of us. They picked her by making her go viral on YouTube.

You don't want to watch this but watch it anyway. Watch it right to the end so you cannot  walk away and pretend this isn't happening. The problem here is not the result of sexualizing kids, the problem here is the result of our post-feminist society telling little girls that they are morally superior beings. This is what happens when adults pretend that every stupid thing girls do is somehow really the fault of evil men or Walt Disney.

Womanly Virtues Friday

Lingering on female exhibitionism: The Emma Watson edition
Yes, I'm probably doing this for the worst of reasons.

But there still are issues worth exploring here. One is that there is a double standard. If women were arrested for exhibitionism on the same criteria that men are, every second building would have to be a jail.

A second issue is the gap between celebrities and the characters they play.  If you really admire a celebrity, it's best not to read their biography. There are exceptions, Jimmy Stewart, for example, where the celebrity was a genuinely admirable person but usually not. One place the gap is particularly big is between the characters men fall in love with and the women who play them.

I've hit on this before but Joey Potter is much better person than Katie Holmes and Jennie Garth is preferable to Shannen Dougherty and Serena van der Woodsen, even though some people (misguidedly) hate her, still stands head and shoulders above Blake Lively. Of course, all these characters have a huge advantage over the women who play them. No, it's not that they are fictional characters. Fictional characters actually have to meet higher standards than the rest of us do. The big advantage they have is that they are not celebrities.

In the same line, better to be Hermione Granger than Emma Watson. (By the way, notice that all these characters have supremely perfect white-protestant-girl names? All they would need to step into an Edith Wharton novel are cosmetic changes to their speech and dress, otherwise they are Edith Wharton characters.)

In dog training, there is something we call the little-dog syndrome. Little dogs often become behavioural nightmares because people let them get away with stuff they shouldn't. Stuff that no one would tolerate in a Doberman becomes a deeply ingrained trait in a Yorkshire Terrier because its little and so darn cute.  And it keeps going until one day it's not cute but rather a danger to the dog. Something similar happens with really attractive young women and particularly with really attractive young women celebrities.

I'm going to use some screen captures from other sites to make my point. I have no idea where these first appeared because they have been reproduced all over the Internet and none of the sites I found them on gave credits. I believe my use of these pictures to make a critical point constitutes fair use but if anyone who owns the rights to them disagrees, let me know.

Emma had a "wardrobe malfunction" (this happened quite a while ago, so if you are looking for the pictures of her latest slip, you have come to the wrong place). Actually, she has had a bunch of them but I want to focus on only the first because it is morally revealing even though not particularly revealing in any other sense.

"Wardrobe malfunction" is a fascinating term because it was invented by people who had intentionally engaged in flagrant exhibitionism and then tried to pretend they had not. So lets have a look here. Emma was on the carpet, going to the premiere of one of the Harry Potter films. It was a windy night and this happened.

Okay, let's spend too much time analyzing this. Although you can't see it clearly at this angle , that dress is open from above her waist all the way to the ground. So the obvious question is: In what sense is this a malfunction? The dress is only doing what it was clearly designed to do. Writers in women's magazines commonly call this sort of dressing "daring". And it is daring because the wearer cannot control exactly when or where this will happen but she does know that the risk of it happening is always there and, therefore, that one day it will blow open.

And once it happened by "accident" as it were, young Ms.Watson, as we see below, made it happen again only very much not by accident.

Okay, but I hear you asking, So what? Well, I don't think it is unique or socially significant that a 19-year-old did this. I live next to a university campus, I only need to look out my window to see this sort of thing (a lot of the girls on campus are wearing denim hot pants this year, in case you are wondering). What is interesting is the cover-up done on her behalf by the press.

Here, for example, is what Us Magazine wrote:
The actress inadvertently flashed her underwear at Tuesday's London Harry Potter premiere while adjusting her floor-length vintage Ozzie Clark dress in the pouring rain.
Adjusting eh? In case you are wondering what they are talking about, here she is "adjusting".

If you believe that was inadvertant, I have some stock in a new technology based on cold fusion to sell you. What exactly is she supposed to be adjusting here? And catch the facial expression that goes with it:

Guys, if you spot that look on the face of the woman you are out on a date with, you're headed for a happy ending. As I say, it's not that she does this that is disturbing. This is normal hormone-driven behaviour in a 19 year old. She wore a "daring" dress, the wind blew it open and she got a little too into it. What is disturbing is that no one calls her on it. Also not surprisingly, this was only the first in a number of such "malfunctions".

No man would ever be allowed to get away with this. No woman should be allowed to get away with it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Something I wrote two years ago that still seems right

I found a great reference to William James a while ago:

William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”
It was in an article about Ayn Rand, of all places, in New York Magazine. In any case, it got me wondering what my temperamental prejudices are; what I think gives me my intensely odd personal flavour. Not things that I believe based on argument or logic or could in any way hope to adequately defend, but the things I believe because I want to believe them. Here is what I think they are:

  1. I resist any attempt to treat purity as a moral concept.
  2. I have a deep prejudice against religious and moral promotion of asceticism. No, damnit, I will not give up long hot showers to save the planet or my soul!
  3. I always prefer bourgeois moral values. For me, a world of Elinor Dashwoods is infinitely preferable to a world of Holden Caulfields.
  4. I believe that there is nothing necessarily ennobling about poverty and suffering. Suffering is an opportunity to build character but a lot of people just become even more petty, mean and selfish than they otherwise would be.
  5. I resolutely believe that God loves us and wants the best for us. I appreciate that tragedies happen and that they are often beyond the control of the people they happen to but I believe that God wants us to be comfortable and content. The normal human life is comedic not tragic. In fact, I believe that if we are not currently happy, we have a moral obligation to work towards being happy.
  6. I believe foolish people are foolish, mad people are mad and children are childish. They do not go around spouting deep truths that no one else can see and I get very impatient with people who try to make it seem like foolish and mad characters or children have profound lessons to teach us. They do not.

A Mad Men post

I've been meaning to post something new about Mad Men for a while now. I don't promote or advertise this site in any way but I am vain enough to watch the statistics on the site and my posts about the show remain the most popular I've ever written. For example, two or three people have come by to read this post every single day since it went up.

And these always-popular posts have been even more so lately. So I've been casting around for something to build a series of posts around. I haven't found it yet.

What I did find was The Last Psychiatrist writing about the relative importance of characters in the Star Wars movies and he passes along the following:
Lucas said that the movies are driven by the character R2D2; not that he is the most important, and not because he saves everyone at various points, but because he provides the impetus for everyone’s actions. This makes R2D2 the perfect Macguffin; inexplicable but desirable, pushing and pulling all the characters. 
And so I ask you a question, is there anything in that description of R2D2 that isn't also true of Don Draper?

Okay, not new: I have been saying that Don Draper and his secret past are a Macguffin for a long time now. But think about it: "inexplicable but desirable, pushing and pulling all the characters" is what the man is.

If you want to understand the show, don't look for the explanation in him. Look at Peter and Peggy, they are the keys to the show.

Manly Thor's Day Special

The Gierach problem
One of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons shows Calvin sitting in front of a coffee table. He has created a small forest on top of the table by hammering a whole lot of nails partially into the surface. His mother walks in, surveys the scene with horror and says, "Calvin, what have you done to that coffee table?" He looks at the table, then looks back at her and says, "Is that a trick question?"

Like Calvin, John Gierach himself doesn't see any "Gierach problem". It is a problem that other people—including, as he cheerfully acknowledges, a couple of ex-wives—have with him. The problem people have is that they don't like the vocation he has chosen. He sets this vocation out quite succinctly in an essay he wrote called "The Fishing Car" in his book The View from Rat Lake. The "fishing car" in question belonged to his uncle Leonard.
The idea of the fishing car spoke to me of a way of life. It was the thought that you could be a sportsman in the same way you could be a Baptist or a farmer or a blond; that being a fisherman could be as much a part a part of your identity as your fingerprints. And I was at the age where I had just started to puzzle over my identity.
And that identity, if you take the trouble to read two or three of his sixteen books (every single one of which is still in print, by the way, and that is a claim very few writers can make), is a mixture of classic gentleman and social subversion. The classic gentleman may come as a surprise as he makes gestures in the opposite direction but Gierach is very much a classic gentleman and it ought to tell us something that such a writer is so popular with men.

Although Gierach doesn't say so, this combination of gentleman and subversive is an old one with what is, in some ways any, a respectable lineage. Many people will think of the British gentleman who was not only proud of being a hunter but also proud of not having a career but there is also a long association of this sort of life with political subversion. Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches is a an important work of literature but also an important protest against the abuses perpetrated in old Russia. There were also hunter's lodges all across Europe in which radical, liberal and conservative ideas that changed the world were first developed.

Gierach's particular protest is smaller and perhaps less easy to take seriously at first. In the essay about the fishing car, for example, he talks about a last fishing trip he and his Uncle Leonard took before a family wedding. The two of them drive hundreds of miles fishing and talking and not shaving, bathing or changing their clothes very often.

It's a protest against a certain kind of male submission and he doesn't quiet say so in so many words but you know what he means when you read this paragraph:
It wasn't until a few hours before the wedding—not quite the last possible moment—that we strolled in the back door sublimely unconcerned, wearing clothes we'd fished in for a week and carrying armloads of filets. The house was in a uniform state of hysteria: the women were all at a dead run or off in a corner weeping, while the men were looking mounted in suits that had last been worn at funerals. I've since learned to recognize the pained, furtive look they wore as symptomatic of the powerful need for a drink.
 I was out fishing with my best friend of my old age a while ago and we got back to the car and I was wet and I said, "Do you want me to change before we drive back?" And he said, "I hope I never have a car that I care so much about that I wouldn't want to sit in it after wading." If his wife had heard that remark, I'm sure she would have laughed but she might have given us a look that said, "This is a funny but change into dry clothes before you get in the car."

Before going on, we should note that some of the criticism you might want to make of Gierach don't really hold. He not only pays his mortgage, he directly and indirectly creates employment through his writing. He is no leech on society but is contributing more to it than most.

Gierach is the almost inevitable result of a post-feminist age. I can't find it now but there is one of his pieces where Gierach describes being out with friends and one of his friend's dogs. The dog busies itself by clearing the area of small animals by chasing them away. And Gierach comments that dogs love to have a job and that if you don't give them one, they'll make one up for themselves. And it will be fun. And then Gierach tells us there is a lesson in that.

And there is, take away the notion that both men and women have responsibilities and duties towards one another as men or women and that is what they will do. They'll create a sense of duty for themselves. And it will be fun.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dead Leaves Falling

They aren't actually. Not yet.

It's the anticipation I guess. This week Mark Steyn has a piece up about the English version of a great French song. His piece on "Autumn Leaves" is well worth your time and it will only be up until the end of the week.

Mr. James Lileks has a piece that relates well, although not meant to. In the 1920s, pulp magazines used to run ads where people could ask for help finding (usually) relatives who just left without explanation. People who may have run away or may have just fallen in the river and the body was never discovered. Most likely, though, they were gone and didn't want to be found. You'll find it here.

Do you have someone you knew once who you wonder about? Someone you kissed once, or maybe more, and it wasn't love and it wasn't suppposed to be love. It was just one of those things that happen in that odd stage of life after you cease to be a child but before you really start living your adult life. You're not sure she'd really want to see you and you aren't even sure she'd remember you but you couldn't forget her even if you wanted to and you don't want to.

That's the scary thing, that this memory that has becomes so important to you might just be forgotten. I remember Alison Crouse (not her real name) and I've been remembering her for years now. A lot of stuff has happened since when I knew her but I remember the time I knew her as a time when the sun shone more brightly than it does today. I think of her on days like today and ... well, sometimes the more you say the less it means.

Jacques Prévert wrote the words to the French song. It's called Les Feuilles Mortes which means The Dead Leaves. If that sounds unpoetic, that's good. The song is ridiculously simple and that is its brilliance. The second war had just ended and no one needed any help grieving.

It's one of the few songs where the recitative, or spoken intro, is really, really important. "Tu voix, je n'ai pas oublié" says the singer just before beginning. That means, simply, "You see, I haven't forgotten".  In the late 1940s, it was very important to be able to think that some things hadn't been forgotten. With so much of life destroyed, it was an act of defiance to assert the importance of lost love.

Oh yeah, one more thing, here's a question: Could you live without "love"? I mean without the word. It seems so important but there are languages, such as French, that have no equivalent to the English word "love". In French we use the word that means "to like" to also mean "to be in love". You'd think that would make a difference but it doesn't. There are more great French love songs than there are great love songs in English.

There are people you think you couldn't live without who leave and it never really bothers you. And there are others you thought only that you liked them and so you let them go easily and their memory haunts you for years.

Over to you Juliette Greco (the best version, I think, because she does the spoken intro perfectly):

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An encounter with a man of science

We ended up at a dinner this summer with a man famous for his research on joint injuries. He was a sweet guy and a great dinner companion, so I won't say any more about who he is. But there was a telling moment worth recounting.

The guy placed a special order for dinner. It didn't slow anybody down. Restaurants are used to this sort of thing. What it did was to provide an opening for this guy to tell us his medical history.

A few years ago, this guy became convinced that he had Celiac disease. So he went to his doctor. His doctor sent him to a specialist. The specialist had some tests done and found no evidence of Celiac disease. He told the man of science he was feeling the normal effects of aging.

So what did the man of science do? He went ballistic on the poor specialist. He was quite proud of this. He told us he'd shouted, "Do you think I don't know what is happening with my own body?' at the poor guy.

To get the full sense of it, imagine how our man of science would have responded to a patient who insisted that a bone was out of joint  because "It hurt so much", even though a series of X-rays showed everything was where it was supposed to be. Would he say to himself, "Well, this man must know what is happening with his own body"?

It's not impossible, of course, that tests might be wrong. It is unlikely though: the tests for Celiac disease are, as is common practice, set up so that a false positive is many times more likely than a false negative. But, whatever, the case, it was fascinating how quickly the man of science ditched science when it conflicted with something he really wanted to believe. Celiac disease is a real phenomenon but it's also the flavour of the month and lots of people will falsely diagnose it in themselves. Why? Most probably for the same reasons the man of science did, it's more comforting to think there is a condition at the base of your problems than to face the fact that your body is running down because you, like everyone else, are mortal.

Science is just as subject to vanity as any other field. Scientists are just as vulnerable to bias and fad as hairdressers are. If they really want to believe something, they will push that belief in the face of evidence to the contrary; they will notice evidence that backs up their belief and ignore evidence that undermines it; they will fall victim to every kind of bias there is.

This is just one guy but when considering science as a whole, it's worth remembering that scientists as a class, share certain values and prejudices. Scientists will try and tell us that they believe these things because the sort of smart people who do science are better judges than the rest of us. They are not. A joint specialist has important things to say about joints (but even that is subject to bias), an organic chemist has important things to say about organic chemistry and  so on. But there isn't a stupid belief about religion (try reading what Newton thought about religion), or morality (have a close look at the personal behaviour of Tycho Brahe) or politics (have a look at the long, long list of scientists who embraced fascism and socialism in the twentieth century) that has not been embraced by otherwise brilliant scientists. None of them should have any special authority at all when it comes to religion, morality or politics.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Who's afraid of the prosperity gospel?

It certainly has people stirred up. I wonder why?

For while lots of self-declared orthodox Christians have been quick to condemn the prosperity gospel,  the fact is that most Christians live as if they believed the prosperity gospel. We work to accumulate wealth and comfort and we do so not furtively or guiltily, but openly and comfortably. We aren't racked with guilt or with fear of being exposed as hypocrites.

Okay, the prosperity gospel is crass and vulgar. But how wrong is it really?

There is a tendency in Christianity to play up the hard message: "Sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor and come follow me." There is very little evidence that anyone actually believes that however.

ADDED for Billy Carmichael:

How does it feel to win a fight?

Update: Thanks to FouthCheckRaise for the link.

Instapundit quotes Col. Jeff Cooper:
We are told from all sides that if one wins a lethal encounter, he will feel dreadful. It is odd that no one seems to have felt dreadful about this until very recently. Throughout recorded history the winning of a fight has generally been considered a subject for congratulation. It is only just now that it has become presumably tainted. . . . a predatory felon who victimizes innocent non-combatants on the streets is a proven goblin, sentenced by his own initiative. Some men may be upset by killing him, but not anyone I have met.
I don't know what it would feel like to win a lethal encounter but I do know what it feels like to win one I thought might be lethal. I think I may have written about this before but I think it is worth repeating.

In the fall of 1990 I was walking by the gas station on the corner of Bank and Catherine streets in Ottawa when I saw a guy pull a knife and brandish it at the teenaged gas jockey. I stepped in between the kid and the guy and he turned away started running up Bank Street. But then he stopped and came at me.

The fight was very one-sided in the end. The guy managed to get a few hits in, including a kick in the head when I threw him down on his back and started to pin him, but it didn't do him any good. I was stronger, faster and smarter. He didn't have a chance. When the police arrived (they got there in about three minutes, which is impressive), I had the guy pinned down on the sidewalk and all they had to do was cuff him and throw him in the car.

I felt and feel very good about it. I was a young, single man and I did what a man is supposed to do.

But I got a rude shock a few years ago. I got a call from the police. The guy I had captured had been arrested again in Calgary. It was only the latest in a long-line of arrests for violent crimes and they wanted to sentence him as a dangerous offender. The officer who called me wanted to know if I'd be willing to testify about the effects this encounter had had on me. She assumed the effects were devastating.

I told her that it was one of the great events of my life. I'd been tested and I'd done the right thing and I'd passed the test. I'd behaved up to the standard that I think men should behave and you never really know how you are going to act until you are actually tested that way. She was surprised to hear this. The file she had, the file the investigating officer wrote up, described me as a victim.

Sort of political Monday

Ontario election edition
Well, here we are in the middle of a campaign.

So, here's a question for you: Why do we pay attention to campaigns?

To help you make up your mind, take a look at the people who take campaigns very seriously. Political junkies are among the shallowest people on earth. Jersey Shore fans are deep thinkers with deep meaningful things to say about life compared to the bloggers you'll find at this link.

My father used to say that if you ever wanted to know what not to buy, just take a look at what gets stolen most often. You can make yourself a better person simply by not owning or coveting the things that people who willingly steal or willingly buy as stolen goods want. Politicians may or may not be crooks but political junkies are very much like people who deal in stolen goods, no matter who you vote for you want to reject the values of political junkies.

These people spent a huge amount of pixels critiquing the campaign bus of one of the candidates. Do you want to make political decisions based on those values?

Here's another way to think about it: Do you want to fire Dalton McGuinty or do you want to keep him? That's the real question. He's been in power a few years, how happy or unhappy are you with the guy?

Imagine that you've been asked to do a performance assessment of an employee but instead of sitting down and considering the work the guy has done the last few years, he wants you to come down to the boardroom and listen to a PowerPoint presentation and assess him based on that. And he is going to spend most of this presentation talking about anything but his past record. That doesn't make sense, so why decide how to vote that way?

Remember that he works for you. These guys are just a politicians. They aren't admirable people and they always land on their feet. He's a lot richer and more powerful than you are and he'll still be that even if you help fire him. Don't spend any time worrying about the fate of the leaders or their parties.

And don't worry about negative consequences. Things may go bad—in fact, they almost certainly will—but nothing you can vote for or against will have the slightest effect on the larger forces that are at work in politics. Both parties agree on far more than they disagree and even the points they disagree about amount to little more than nuance.

Remember, also, that there is a huge and deeply interested public service that is heavily invested in maintaining growth in the government sector place on the one side and an existing set of programs that are already sucking up all the available cash on the other side. Even a radical conservative candidate could only slightly slow the growth of government and even a radical progressive could only slightly speed it up. And there are no radical candidates in this election anyway.

That's the political junkies' biggest lie. They want you to believe that a huge amount hangs on who you vote for. That's crap. Who you vote for is a small, unimportant decision in your life.

My advice is this, decide who'd you want to vote for on the the day the campaign starts without paying any attention to what the politicians or political junkies say and stick with your choice. And find an advance poll, it gets the campaign over with more quickly.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

In our self-awareness department

Doug Bell reviews the latest Conrad Black book for the Globe and Mail this weekend. He writes the following portrait of of Black based on his book:
... a chronicle of this caged odyssey is the scribbling equivalent of a rolling 50-car pile-up on the 401. You simply cannot turn away. He is by turns eloquent, mordant, funny (as hell), angry (ferociously and acidly), small (no slight too insignificant), generous and, above all, utterly unself-conscious and, it must be said, at times wincingly self-destructive. 
That may or may not be accurate—I neither know nor care—but it's a staggering thing to read from the man who wrote this  book in which he confesses to each of the failings he notes in Black above (except smallness perhaps) and every page of which displays a painful lack of discretion and self respect. I knew Doug briefly during and just after university and I can tell you that he has wincingly self-destructive down pat, and, again, there is tons of evidence of this in his book.

The key difference is that lots of people will and have read Conrad Black's books and not many have or ever will read Bell's book. Doug Bell knows what he wrote though and you would think it would have humbled him more.

All of which suggests that the maxims advising us to "know thyself' are highly over-rated.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Womanly virtues friday

Do you have nude photos of yourself on your phone?
While, ah "researching" for this morning's post, I also clicked on a link about the recently leaked photos of Scarlett Johansson's breasts.

Anyway, the folks over at How About We ... think we should stop blaming the victim when celebrity photos get leaked this way. Or do they? I mean, they could be that stupid but I doubt it. If I told them I'd left a case of liquor on the front seat of my unlocked car and someone had stolen the booze, I'm sure they'd have no trouble seeing that I'd done something stupid even though it is primarily the thief's fault. It's not like there isn't tons of evidence that this is an incredibly risky thing to do.

Bad risk assessment skills pretty much defines celebrity. No well-adjusted person would act the way they do. Any time you find yourself behaving in ways that celebrities behave, you should worry.

But what exactly is the problem? The temptation is to think that celebrities want the photos to leak. I don't think that is the case. Having seen them (yes, I peaked) the Johansson photos are not the sort you'd leak. And if Johansson had decided that she wanted nude photos of herself out there for publicity reasons, she could easily have arranged to have them taken and leaked. Heck, she could have taken a whole bunch on her cellphone and deleted all but the most flattering. Or, for that matter, she could have convinced herself to do a movie role where nudity is required for "artistic" reasons.

No, what characterizes these photos is not the exhibitionism but the poor impulse control. Put an easy to use phone with a camera in the hands of a female celebrity such as Scarlett Johansson and she will take nude pictures of herself. This scenario has happened so often now that we can safely conclude that the only reason we don't have nude photos of every single female celebrity in existence is because the hackers haven't figured out how to get into every single one of their phones yet.

In Johansson's case, I suspect the impulse that drove her to take the photos was insecurity. They aren't the sort of photos that you take to sext someone but the photos you take way wondering if you still have it. She took these photos for the same reasons that guys sometimes measure their erections.

But what about women who aren't celebrities who, for whatever reasons, take nude photos of themselves? Or, what percentage of women in general have the same poor impulse control celebrities have? Probably a lot. The subtext of the How about we ...piece is that it's normal to do this and it probably is pretty common. As I've said before, a good way to think of celebrity is on analogy with lottery ticket buyers: everyone who buys a lottery ticket is stupid even though some people win lotteries. The additional point here, is that there thousands more losers than winners and there are thousands of women you've never heard of with nude photos of themselves on their cellphones for every celebrity.

Okay, but is it normal? Sort of. Let me put it this way, I bet there are many more women with nude pictures of themselves on their cellphones than there are men with the same. I'm certain this is the case because most women have a strong need for validation of their sexual worth. This need is much stronger than their need for actual sex. That is why women behave and dress the way they do. Pulling your camera and taking a picture of yourself is just an extreme manifestation of this impulse.

The problem is not having the impulse but being unable to control it. The folks at How About We ... follow the general feminist prescription that no one should be able to criticize women for doing what women tend to do. And they are right ... to a point.

There is a place to draw a line, however.

Womanly virtues Friday

How not to be high maintenance
No, I'm not serious. Someone over at the woman's site The Frisky is though. That link is probably not worth your time. I say probably because you may, like me, have a thing about trashy woman's magazine-style writing. Sometimes I gobble this stuff up the same way I go through potato chips.

The piece at the link is a classic example: even while reading it I can tell it's got no substance or value but I gobble it up anyway. A writer named Emily Bracken compiled a list out of her imagination of what makes a high maintenance man and then, in a  spirit of fair play no doubt, made a similar list for women. Some of the traits she lists are worth thinking about and some are a display of Ms. Bracken's personal prejudices (she doesn't like tea or or cosmos or the people who drink them).

But the overall traits she identifies are interesting. She thinks metrosexual men are high maintenance and she thinks that girlie girls are high maintenance. There, now you don't have to read it.

My experience is that what makes a someone high maintenance is that he or she thinks you are responsible for their happiness. Everything he or she does with you will come with a list of conditions and any time anything goes wrong it will be your fault. The list may be implied or it may be set out by them before or during but it will be there. There is a simple test too: ask him or her to do some activity that you know about and they don't. If they are not high maintenance they'll be looking to you for guidance. If they are, they'll arrive insisting on certain conditions.

But you don't really need the test do you? What troubles us is the thought that we might be high maintenance and not know it.

Here is another way to approach the problem: make a list of your narcissistic tendencies.

I know, "But I'm not a narcissist."

Actually, we all pretty much have to be. Anyone in a society as narcissistic as ours will have narcissistic tendencies. The more worrisome thing is not having narcissistic tendencies but denying them. A friend of my mothers who treats alcoholics once said, "It's a danger sign if you find yourself saying 'I'm not an alcoholic'".

And we cater to that. I suspect no true narcissistic could fail any of the narcissistic personality tests available. It's too easy to figure out what you are supposed to say in order to pass.

So take the opposite tack and ask yourself what is undeniably narcissistic about you.

Sure, I'll go first. Taking the seven deadly sins of narcissism as my guide, here are mine:
Shamelessness: Yup, when I do something stupid, my first instinct is often pure shamelessness. For example: I once said something nasty about someone not realizing he was sitting within earshot. When told about it, my response was, he's such a jerk that I don't care.
Magical thinking: This is my classic response when politics don't go my way. I find myself expecting the scandal that will save the day for my side.
Arrogance: Do I respond to defeats by denigrating the person who defeated me? You bet I do.
Envy: Do I sometimes treat people in superior positions by denigrating them? Guilty.
Entitlement: "Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special." Ba ha ha ha ... I mean, yes, I've done this.
Exploitation: Have I exploited others without regard for their feelings or interests? Yes and I'm worse at it with the people closest to me.
Bad boundaries: I've only become aware of this recently. I'm especially prone to it when I'm in a relatively intimate situation. When talking to the person cutting my hair or cleaning my teeth for example.
I'm seven for seven.

I know, the tempting thing to say is that these are all normal human tendencies and even healthy to some extent. I might even go a step further and try to argue that my ability to recognize these failings is healthy. I don't buy that though.

Here's something I haven't told you, although I'm guilty on all seven, I'm much worse at two of the above than the rest. No, I won't say which ones. I will say that I have to make a concerted effort to control them.

Your turn.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

We'll here it is nearly six o'clock on the day of the funeral. It took a long time and then I had to take down fifty feet of cedar hedge. I barely have the strength to lift my whisky.

If we go on the old standard of there being a new generation every fifteen years. there were five generations of men from where I grew up at the funeral. Looking them over, it's hard not to think that it has been downhill all the way.

I have no time for a real post so some general thoughts:

Two eulogies is two too many. The problem with these things is that there are two different kinds of motivations behind them and they are both bad. The first motivation is pride. Someone in the family is a good public speaker and everyone else in the family thinks they should get up and say something. And they do but the foundation of everyone's belief that this guy is a good public speaker is his ability as an after-dinner speaker. So he gets up tells jokes.

The other motive is because someone has something they really want to say. That is worse. They mumble so you can barely hear them, what they want to say is really about themselves and not about the deceased and then they get all worked up and cry.

Someone with authority in the Catholic church should do everyone a favour and ban the phrase "a celebration of the life of" from all Catholic funerals. For starters, it's a %&*#ing funeral not a celebration. But even if it is a good idea to celebrate somebody's life, and it usually isn't, for heaven's sake do it while they are still alive. When they are gone the more sincere thing to do is to mourn.

But not to mourn as those who have no hope do.

One rather sad moment, the son of the deceased remembered his father loved to sing along to Ghost Riders in the Sky, and suggested in his eulogy that his dad was now up there "riding hard" having apparently never noticed that the reason the ghost riders are in the sky is because they have been eternally damned.

Oh well. Here's praying he is not riding but sitting around a fire ring harmonizing with the Sons of the Pioneers.


The funeral of the father of a close friend from high school today and I'm off to it.

A full life, a friend of prime ministers, died in harness at 90 years of age (his last published work appeared on August 28).

Anyway, I'll get my post up this afternoon. If your inclined that way, you might ask Saint Theresa to help pray for a man who was a good man and a good father.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I loved Fellini and especially this film and Roma. I saw this movie at least twenty times back in the 1980s. I have to admit, however, that I loved it because I misundersood. as do most people. The way most people see this film, and the way I saw it the first night I caught it, is contrary to what Fellini meant the film to be.

The film we tend to see is a tender and moving recreation of life through a child's eyes very similar to Meet Me in St. Louis. You have the ineffectual father, the knowing mother, the same sorts of spectacle (Here the Grand Hotel and a passing Ocean liner take the place of the world's fair). We also have a similar story structure of vignettes tied together in the loosest possible way by a narrative that follows through the seasons beginning in the spring.

As we follow through, the film relies heavily on dramatic irony. The characters are all engrossed in their immediate concerns while we in the theatre know we are watching a world that has been swept away by modernity. This is all the more poignant because we can see that the characters all think they are the latest modern things themselves.

You can even match some scenes up. The shots of the youngest of the two sons in Amarcord going to school through the fog  are very similar to the scenes of young Tootie out on Halloween in Meet Me in St. Louis. The younger children are always up to mischief and the older children are always playing with fire sex but always to no real intent.

The primary difference between the two movies is, or ought to be, that the Italian film is pessimistic and the American one is very optimistic. And little wonder. The audience for Amarcord knows that all this childish innocence was swept away by fascism and the horror of war. The audience for Meet Me in Saint Louis saw a world that had been swept away by progress and prosperity. Neither audience would look back on the changes with unmixed feelings but the gap is obvious.

Or it ought to be. Everyone who ever saw Amarcord came away enchanted. Part of the reason for this is that Fellini was hugely influenced by American culture and he couldn't resist the wonder of the movies. There is one enchanting scene after another in Amarcord. My favourite, and I'm far from alone in this, is when the young boys visit the Grand Hotel after it is closed for the season. They stand on the terrace where the elegant couples danced just a  few months before and peer in.

There is also a scene where the boys are having a snowball fight and the local nobleman's peacock has escaped. There is a wonderful fantasy scene of the town beauty and visiting royalty. And it just goes on and on.

But Fellini's intention was to show that the Catholic church infantilized Italians, leaving them unable to grow beyond childish understandings of politics and sex. And that is the problem. Fellini was dodging responsibility here. He sees fascism as something that happened to Italians as opposed to seeing it as something they did.

You often find Germans remembering the Nazi period in similar fashion. You might think that the Nazis and the fascists were an alien force who occupied Germany and Italy against the will of the locals and that the only fault of the people was not being strong enough to resist it.

This is most evident in Amarcord in a sequence in which the protagonist's father, a communist, taunts the fascists and they track him down and force him to drink a glass of castor oil leading to the obvious consequences and his humiliation in front of his son.

This is the usual trick of intellectuals with romantic notions about the one of the most destructive and hateful ideologies ever conceived by humanity; communists are presented as well-meaning people who were innocent in the face of evil. In fact, the Italian communists used the rise of fascism and the second world war as an opportunity to ruthlessly eliminate ... wait for it ... not their fascist opponents but their rivals on the left, the anarchists. (The anarchists were no better and were just as eager to eliminate the communists only they lost  just like the Bloods lost to the Crips.)

In retrospect, communists like to argue that they at least saw the danger of fascism. In fact, communists in the 1930s spent their time trying to convince everyone that the real danger was FDR.

Teh real problem is that Fellini never grew up. He never stopped being the enchanted child. He was a bitter enchanted child but an enchanted child nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


The issue here is not race but culture. Deep culture.

The thing that was most impressive about Tiger Woods was his ability to come back from a bad lie. It's an essential skill in golf because no one can hit good clean shots all the time. On any given day, you will find yourself having to struggle back after hitting a bad shot. And to see Tiger play in his glory days, was to be humbled at how good he was at that. He was better than anyone else I ever saw play the game.

So the obvious question is why can't he do the same in real life? Why is it that, having screwed up on a massive scale, he can't come back?

I got thinking about that after watching this fascinating diavlog between Robert Wright and Jonah Goldberg:

The two men have clearly found something to agree upon here and that is interesting because they are two men who usually have no trouble finding things to disagree about. What they are in agreement about is virtue. Wright lets that show early in the discussion by using the word "hubris". That Greek word tells us that the concern here is something so deep in Western culture that it tends to underpin what we say and do even if we, like Robert Wright, like to think we are capable of putting a critical distance on that culture.

What I think the two men miss, however, is that Tiger Woods' ongoing struggle comes about because he also shares this cultural heritage. Now you might think, "Of course he does", but it isn't so obvious that a black man would given modern racial politics. The very fact that Woods excelled at the game of golf is important here. It is a game that comes with built in cultural assumptions. Golf requires prudence in a way that basketball or hockey, for example, do not.

A lot of white people, whether we like to admit or not, were thrilled to see Woods succeed because we saw his success at golf as proof that the some of things that keep black men down are cultural not racial. We saw Woods succeed and thought, given the same cultural values that young white men are given, young black men too can succeed at golf. And that is important because we see golf as a marker for success in life in general. We can admire someone who becomes a huge success at at basketball or hockey but we see that as success in just one thing. No one thinks that being good at these games requires the same sorts of virtues that success in life does. Golf is a one of a very small number of sports that do.

And that is why Woods ongoing failure is so moving. As Robert Wright correctly notes above, the public is more than ready for his redemption. The problem is that Woods himself is not. He can't just forgive himself and play brilliantly again. The man is torn right down the middle. He betrayed not just his family, friends and fans, he betrayed everything he stood for. His case is more like Jospeh Conrad's hero Lord Jim than it is like other public failures such as Michael Vick, Eliot Sptizer and Anthony Weiner. Those men were all frauds and hypocrites who were caught out being frauds and hypocrites. Woods was found betraying their very values that make him the man he is and has wanted to be his entire life.

Pray for him.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sort of political Monday

September 12, 2001
I remember heading out with the dog that morning, still in a daze. I remember feeling, as someone else I was reading this morning put it, completely unmanned. I think that if I had found someone or something to get very angry at that morning, I would have done so. I wasn't looking for such a thing, it's just that that is what unmanned men do. The most dangerous men in the world are the ones who are weak and know they are. (That is what the men who committed the atrocity were.)

What I found instead was an American flag. It was hand made and posted in the window of a woman I know. That may not seem like an unusual thing but it was in this neighbourhood even on September 12, 2001. To the best of my knowledge, she and I were the only persons in the entire neighbourhood to express such overt support of the USA.

And I think what she did was much braver than my response. Everyone who knew me, already knew how I'd respond. Anyone who knew her would have expected the exact opposite. She was the sort of person who spoke of a decline of America with great enthusiasm before that horrible day ten years and a day ago today. Confronted with those events, she had suddenly seen there was something wrong with the views she usually expressed.

She was the only one to publicly show support but she wasn't the only one to suddenly feel uncomfortable about their past anti-Americanism. The people in my neighbourhood are almost all anti-American (university educated Canadians are overwhelmingly anti-American). Talking to them the next few days, I found that the conventional liberals and conventional conservatives, for the most part, remained reflexively anti-Americanism but were suddenly qualifying and explaining and acting guilty.

They reminded me of children with hatreds. You may seen this. A group of kids develop and nurse a hatred for some adult or other kid. And then something horrible happens to the object of their hatred and you get this sudden moment of clarity. Everyone has to decide whether they are going to grow up or whether they are going to bitterly cling to their childish hatred.

Anti-Americanism is like that in a country like Canada. It's the immature childish stance of many Canadians. It's not a game. People who are playing a game can drop it easily. It's something deep in their personalities. There was a moment after the attacks, however, when it became obvious that some were more self aware than others.

It didn't last. Within a few years, the war in Iraq gave everyone an excuse to slip back to the security of their former stances.

It's odd because Canada and the USA are not rivals. We couldn't be. For starters Canada is only one tenth the size of the USA. More importantly, however, Canada can only exist because of the USA. This is a country that has always owed its very existence to the protection of others. Historically, Canada has only been possible because France, Britain and then the USA were willing to protect it.

To take only the most obvious example, imagine how different Canada would be if we had to mount a credible defence of our borders? We'd have to spend a huge amount more than we currently do and that would eat into other spending. It is questionable whether the country would have it's current borders in the first place if we had had only our own credibility to defend the territory ourselves during the years the country grew.

Rather than face this, many Canadians choose instead to engage in the childish fantasy that the USA represents some sort of ominous threat to our very existence.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A rather bleak portrait of the women who use dating sites

In the earlier post, I quoted this argument about what does or does not constitute sexual promiscuity from a  site called How about we ...
The average American woman loses her virginity at 17 years old. So that's one sexual encounter.

So the average 30-year-old American woman will have been sexually active for 13 years. This means that, in addition to the initial sexual encounter, if a woman has sex with 4 partners over the course of 13 years, she's considered promiscuous. That's about 1 sexual encounter every three years.

Come on, men! Having sex once every three years does not a promiscuous woman make!
The folks at How about we ... publish a fair number of pieces arguing that women are unfairly represented in other places, Ask Men being a favourite target which isn't surprising given that five and half million women visit Ask Men every week month. You might even call these articles feminist in intent. Well, you would if you didn't step back and consider the portrait implicit in those paragraphs above.

 It may be possible to present a bleaker picture of the "average 30 year-old American woman" than those three paragraphs but I don't know how you could do it.

For starters, lets look at the interesting linguistic slips here. The word "average", for example, tells us that this article is aimed at people who want to be thought average, which is to say "not weird". But the staggering bit of vocabulary is "sexual encounter". The survey that inspired this response asked men how many sexual partners a woman has to have before they would consider her sexually promiscuous. The writer at How about we ... read that as "how many sexual encounters ...."

So if we fill out the portrait we are getting of a typical user of dating services here we are getting a picture of a ... a loser. Yeah, I'm sorry to be so blunt but really:
  • She's single in her thirties,
  • she's been sexually active for thirteen years but her sex life consists mostly of encounters and not long-lasting relationships.
Now maybe the writer at How about we ... is just wrong about the women who use the site. That would be reassuring. She is almost certainly wrong about some of them but I wouldn't count on her being wrong about most.

By the way, does the average American woman lose her virginity at 17? If you go the link they give (it's Wikipedia) what you find is by some point in their seventeenth year fifty percent of American women lose their virginity. That does not correspond to any meaningful definition of "average".

And who wants to settle for average in any case? The word is only being used because the article is aimed at women who are still single (or single again after a divorce) in their thirties and are looking for reassurance that they are normal, well-adjusted women who would make good partners after all.

And when we read it that way, the thing gets trickier. We know that early sex is a bad thing if you want a successful marriage. That means that you don't want to be like the significant chunk of that fifty percent who have their first sex before their seventeenth birthday. I'd suggest a more meaningful conclusion is that waiting until you are seventeen is the minimum threshold to aim for.

Womanly virtues Friday

Sexually promiscuous?
So here is the basic story. Every year, the very popular Ask Men site does a survey of men's attitudes about a wide variety of subjects. One of the questions they ask is, "At what point does a woman become sexually promiscuous?" The answer they are looking for is the number of sexual partners at which this threshold is crossed.

In response to the numbers that respondents gave, the writers at a site called How About We ..., which is really a dating service, were incredulous.

I'll get to the numbers in a minute but let me point out something we might miss because it's too close to the surface here: men don't want promiscuous women and women don't like to be thought of as promiscuous. The good folks at How about we ... dispute the number of partners it takes to be considered promiscuous, they most pointedly did not say, "What's the matter with promiscuity?" Think about that for a while!

For six decades now the media have been running stories telling us that there has been a massive shift in attitudes about sex. If we believe the media, our society has been getting steadily more permissive and more experimental about sex. This is nonsense.

Okay, here are the conservative numbers I've got you primed for (and the ones of note are the ones under the American flag*).

Defusing the threat
What I want to convince you of now is that both these sites are really in the business of reassuring their readers. The real point of the response and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Ask Men survey is to reassure people in certain target groups that they are either normal or close enough to normal that they don't have to worry.

Let's start with the two sites. How do they make money? How about we ...  is a dating site so they make their money by attracting clients and the clients they need most are women. Keep that in mind as you read the counter-argument they make:
The average American woman loses her virginity at 17 years old. So that's one sexual encounter.

So the average 30-year-old American woman will have been sexually active for 13 years. This means that, in addition to the initial sexual encounter, if a woman has sex with 4 partners over the course of 13 years, she's considered promiscuous. That's about 1 sexual encounter every three years.

Come on, men! Having sex once every three years does not a promiscuous woman make!
Now let's forget about whether we agree with that or not for a moment and ask ourselves this: why the average thirty year old woman? Why pick that age? And the answer to that is because women in their thirties are the ones who use dating services.

What these women are seeking is confirmation that they are desirable partners and so they want to be reassured that they are not sexually promiscuous. That's why the site had to respond to the survey.

The question is easier with Ask Men because they make their money from advertisers. The key demographic for advertisers is men between 25 to 34 years of age with above average incomes. And we should be aware that some of these men, particularly the ones on the high side of the scale, will be married.

To make money, Ask Men has to attract these readers. Lots of other people, including millions of young women, visit the site everyday but the ones they really want are those men. That means that they want to be absolutely sure those men see their own attitudes, hopes and fears reflected back at them when they go to Ask Men.

So you can be certain that this survey is, in fact, an accurate reflection of how men in that group think. And that also means I have bad news for the women who are threatened by the thought that these men will think them promiscuous if they have had five or more sexual partners.

If you read the whole survey, you'll find that these men are mostly a pretty conservative lot. They are also largely a decent lot—much more so than most media at women would lead you to believe—although there is clearly a small subset of total creeps in the group.

Okay, okay, enough with the cute analysis Jules, do you really thing a woman with five or more sexual partners is sexually promiscuous?
That's the wrong question. The question is why do 42 percent of American men think she is?

Let's start with an important assumption: most men seek a partner who is a few years younger than them. What that tells us is that "promiscuous" really means "a woman a few years younger than me who has already has had as many or more sexual partners as I have".

Yeah, let's take our hats off to Ask Men because they have asked the question, "How many sexual partners have you had?" in the only form that could possibly get a really honest answer. So the take away here is that among college-educated men between the ages of 25 to 34 (the most desirable marriage partners for most women):
  • Forty-two percent have had five or fewer than five sexual partners,
  • Thirty percent have had somewhere around ten sexual partners,
  • Ten percent have had somewhere around twenty partners, and
  • Three percent have had somewhere around fifty sexual partners.
And we might turn the question around and ask, which of these men are women most likely to want as partners in a serious relationship?

But we can also see the answer to the question of where promiscuity starts. Most people have somewhere between one to ten sexual partners. Passing the fifth partner means that you are moving into the upper range of normal. Passing the tenth means you are moving out of normal.

The only thing to add is that normal is nothing to sneeze at.

* Canadian readers will note that our numbers are virtually identical and the Aussies aren't far off. The oddballs are the sex-crazed Brits.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

Social Convention ≠ Arbitrary
Pastabagel has an interesting and challenging post about what parents should do when their son says he wants to wear dresses. It's interesting and challenging because his answer is that you should not let your son do this.

He isn't quite sure how firmly he wants to say this however. First time, he wants to be all rational and agreeable about it.
So when the girl says “I want to use the boys’ bathroom” or the boy says “I want to wear pink dresses” they aren’t revealing their gender identity or their sexual preference. They simply have encountered a social rule that they can’t understand rationally, and they are looking for you to explain it.
If we stop right there, we can begin to see the problem. The obvious question is, "Explain what?" There is very little to explain.
Question: "Why can't I wear a pink dress like my sister?"
Answer: "Because boys don't wear dresses."
Question: "Why don't boys where dresses?"
Answer: "Because they don't."
And anybody who has ever played the why-game with a child knows this can go on forever. That's because the why-game doesn't seek an explanation. As Pastabagel notes, the child is looking for limits in exactly the same way they do when they misbehave. Your son isn't stupid, he already knows that boys don't wear dresses and he already knows that you don't like being asked "why?" twenty times in a row. (By the way, he still knows this even if he has seen a boy on television or in a movie wearing a dress. He's a boy, he knows how to recognize transgression when he sees it*.)

So what does the child want? He may not necessarily want anything at all. For the most part kids and adults just do stuff without thinking why. The more important question is, "What does he need?" but let's leave that aside for a minute and go back to what Pastabagel wrote:
What matters is not that the child presented the challenge to the rule, what matters is the parent’s response. Is the parent going to enforce the rule, permit me to break the rule, or signal that in fact there is no rule at all. It’s not about permissiveness, it’s about acknowledging reality.
And there is the real rub. The reason the challenge is so difficult is that it forces the parent to take a stand. The child is not, as I say, seeking anything but they are putting you in a position where you have to act and you don't want to.

Why don't you want to act? Well partly because you don't feel comfortable with what you already know is your response. You don't want your son to grow up to be a transvestite. If you're a good enlightened parent you don't want to say that because it makes you look, well, bad. You don't hate transvestites and you don't hate gays and you'd still love your son if he grew up to be either or both but you'd really rather that didn't happen.

In fact, either of those eventualities are way off the scale. You want your son to grow up to be a pretty typical man in all sorts of ways. You want him to be a healthy, handsome guy who gets a good job in a good field, marries a good woman and has children. But you can't quite bring yourself to believe that is okay for you to want this enough to signal to your son.

Why not?

Mostly you can't do it because of a move that Pastabagel makes elsewhere in his argument. This move:
Gender, as the left is fond of pointing out, is a social construction. Boys get blue, girls get pink. It’s not biology that determines that, it’s just a social convention. In fact the rule is so arbitrary it used to be the opposite and through some clever marketing and accidents of history, it switched.
"Social construction" is a pretentious way of saying, it could have been different. In some cases, as in the case Pastabagel cites, it actually has been different. In other cases, not so much. Despite a lot of pretending otherwise, for example, there has never been a society that was really tolerant of male homosexuality. But Pastabagel's first premise is sound; many social conventions regarding gender identity have been different in the past.

Now "gender" is a lame word in many instances but it applies here. These are factors about being a boy or a man that are socially determined; not "constructed but "determined". And I say that because notice how the word "arbitrary" just slips into the discussion here.

What's wrong with "arbitrary"? What's wrong is that there is nothing arbitrary about social conventions. Consider this possibility. Your son grows up to be a teen and he and his friends start harassing an effeminate boy at school. You get a call from the school and confront your son and he says, "Your rule is just arbitrary, for most of history what I am doing was perfectly acceptable. We aren't physically hurting the boy, we're just letting him know where his place is." You're not going to accept that. You're going to tell your son that he is wrong and you are right and that's the end of that. And you may even remind him that our society takes this particular "social construction" so seriously that it is willing to use the criminal justice system to discipline boys who harass boys the way he has been doing.

To go back to my earlier question, "What does he need?, the answer is that your son (or daughter) needs authority. They need you to tell them and show them what kind of person you want them to be. You are their father, you not only have the right to do this, you have an obligation. They need to know that you stand for something. The day will certainly come when they, as adults, come to you and tell you that they can't or won't be some of what you want them to be but, for now, they need to be shown.

And, yes, because you are a good parent, you will forgive and accept them when they tell you this.

Yes, I did write "forgive". You are an authority because you are a parent and that is what authorities do. Authorities who say, "Decide for yourself" about everything aren't authorities.

* And it is transgression, the adult male who wears dresses wouldn't like doing so if wearing dresses was the normal thing for boys and men to do.