Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Top ten posts for January 2012

These are the posts that drew the most traffic with some comment from me. "Most traffic" being a relative term as this is not and does not pretend to be a high traffic site.

More on Lana Del Rey
In which I explain what girls get and what critics don't get about Lana Del Rey. That this got a lot of traffic isn't surprising.

What are they selling: Another image
This is part of a semi-regular series I do analyzing images that send different messages from what the text accompanying them implies. In this case it is an image from a Salvation Army ad. This was linked by The Wingnut Musings (formerly known as the Fourth Check Raise). He has been very generous with his links to me. I have also linked to him but my traffic is not as large as his so I can hardly return the favour.

Somewhat related to my earlier post
This is more than a year old and is short and I would have thought not particularly interesting and yet it pulls all sorts of traffic in. I have no idea why.

Manly Thor's Day Special
A commentary I did on a study of how women respond to men who are flashy spenders. This is another perennial favourite and it is a rare day that it doesn't pull in a few readers. I am grateful for and flattered by the interest.

One more try on the Phillipa Foot post
A post on The Trolley Problem and one of the most popular posts I have ever written. My theory is that everyone who doesn't teach moral philosophy hates the Trolley Problem but no one in the academic world is willing to criticize it. So they come to me. Thank you for doing so.

"It's different when we do it"
A post about other people's hypocrisy and that is always more fun than considering our own hypocrisy.

We're flawed because we want so much more
This is the most popular post I have ever written. It's about a Mad Men episode called "The Summer Man" and it is a year and half old and yet it has been one of my top ten posts every single month since it was published. I'm flattered beyond words at this but I can't quite figure out what the attraction is.

For a long time I thought it was because there was an intriguing bit of dialogue from the show that I transcribed that people were searching for. But I created a separate post just for people looking for that quote so they wouldn't have to read my analysis of the entire episode just to get what they wanted and it gets almost no traffic.

Another Mad Men related post looking at the large "666" from the Tishman building visible in the background of some shots. In this case the explanation is obvious: people see the 666 and then Google it and they get me as I'm the only one who was willing to devote too much time to it.

What are they selling? Another image
Another of a semi-regular series I do analyzing images that send different messages from what the text accompanying them implies. An analysis of the Millais painting Ophelia. Ophelia, who is supposedly drowning, has a facial expression that suggests a woman in a high state of sexual arousal. Perhaps I am the only one vulgar enough to point this out?

Sort of political Monday
Some commentary on what is probably a fake letter from a constituent to a Senator.

Branches and Rain: Why You Should Read "A Dance to the Music of Time"

Late in life, I've discovered an appetite for monumental works of fiction.
That's from a blog I like to follow called Branches and Rain. I don't think many people develop an appetite for monumental works of fiction when they are young. One of my sisters did but only one.

One reason suspect some of us get more interested in longer books as we get older is that one of the really human things about people is our tendency to keep taking the bus to Cleveland.

Cleveland? It's from an expression I heard a chastity advocate use when she visited my university back in the 1980s. She said, "If you don't want to go to Cleveland you shouldn't get on the bus that goes here". I went to see her because I had zero sympathy for her views and was only looking for something to mock but that changed a little after hearing her speak. I had to admire her courage. I, as I say, had no sympathy for her views but the auditorium where she spoke that day was full of people who hated her. It was an ugly scene and the hatred clearly scared and intimidated her but she said what she believed. No one else in that room would have endured what she did for the sake of our beliefs.

And she made one very important point with that remark about the bus to Cleveland. We tend to think of morality as a matter of making choices but it's really more a matter of making a pilgimage. When we make bad moral "decisions" there is typically very little decision making involved at the moment we make the bad choice. How well we perform under pressure is a consequence of hundreds of smaller decisions that didn't feel particularly momentous but that lead up to that momentous one.

For example, there are a lot of people who remain faithful to their spouses out of timidity rather than moral conviction. As I've said before, they may feel they are doing well but all they need is a situation where the risk level drops to a point where it feels negligible and away they go. The bus to Cleveland is a local and it makes lots of stops. A lot of our moral decisions are really non-decisions to stay on the bus even though we tell ourselves and everyone else that we don't want to go to Cleveland.

And most people don't see what they are doing as getting on and staying on the bus. They don't see the things they are doing now as moral things and they don't see what they are doing now as determining what will happen later. The woman who gets involved with a series of angry, antisocial loners doesn't think the fact that she always ends up miserable as a consequence of the type of man she is attracted to. If that was all it was then all she would have to do is choose differently. It would take a massive effort on her part to be able to be attracted to guys who weren't like that. Even at the onset of puberty, she is already on the bus and by age 19 it would be very difficult for her to get off of it.

So she convinces herself that the bus that always took her to Cleveland in the past will go somewhere different this time.

Only in long fiction can we see this portrayed properly.

Brett at Branches and Rain recommends Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and I second that. One of the best things about it is the characters that Powell creates and the way they keep getting on different buses bound for different places. Most of them end up in Cleveland again and again.

There is one fascinating exception and that is Frederica Tolland who is, for my money, the most interesting and attractive character in the Dance. She hardly get mentioned as most people are more interested in others but if you really wanted to learn about virtue, you couldn't pick a more worthwhile study.

Essential reading

Get Religion has a great post up on the issue of "honour killings" and Islam:
But some of the analyses have fallen short and in a few cases come across as special pleading that there is only one legitimate view in Islam on these issues, when experience tells us that there is not a single view on the morality of honor killings in Islam — just as there is no single Islam.
You'll want to read the whole thing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Stereotype watch

So House of Lies is a new show portraying a world of rich and powerful people in a cutthroat struggle for status and power. These people live in a world dominated by illusion and hypocrisy but regularly surprise us with their humanity underneath it all.

And in this world, there is a willful and determined woman who balances the occasional insanity of others by her stability and clear sight. She's blond, she's hot and she has a Dutch name: Jeannie Van Der Hooven.

Good thing no one ever thought of that before.

Sort of political Monday: Are you willing to destroy a way of life to make the world a better place?

The other day I asked: Would our era would be willing to fight a war like the civil war to end slavery? Obviously, the people with "War is not the answer" on their rear bumpers wouldn't. But what about the rest of us. Is there a cause we'd be willing to fight such a war in support of?

But it isn't just the heavy cost in human life that is the issue. The other thing about the civil war is that it was fought by people who were willing to destroy a way of life in order to win. That is what the war required. I don't think Lincoln or anyone else realized that going in. But then Lincoln doesn't seem to have realized that emancipation was a necessary requirement of preserving the union until that was forced on him either. There was a deep dark night of the soul for the North when they realized part way through just what the real costs were going to be. And, when faced with those questions, they pushed through.

Would we?

Here in Canada this morning, we are all abuzz about a guilty verdict in a recent "honour killing" trial. A lot of people don't like that term: honour killing. There are a lot of arguments, most of them disingenuous, being put forward against using the term. "There is no honour in murder" is a favourite. Yeah, I suppose. I could also argue that we shouldn't use the term "slave" because "human beings aren't property". But that is dodging the central issue which is that there was (and still are) ways of life in which human beings can be and sometimes are property. And solving the problem meant being willing to destroy that way of life if required.

There are ways of life wherein killing women who refuse to subject their sexuality to a male relative can be a matter of honour and there are people who follow that way of life moving to Canada everyday.

We don't want to face that or to think seriously about what confronting that might require. We blanch at the person who will even stand up and say some ways of life are worse than others or that some ways of life are evil. But go read that link, it's an article written by Canada's very best crime reporter and ask yourself if this is really just the acts of a few individuals or a clash of ways of life.

Anxious to avoid the second interpretation is James C Morton. Morton is not just any guy but a past president of the Ontario Bar Association. He is also a good guy to start with because he recognizes that the term "honour killing" is not what the debate is really about. Here is his conclusion:
In the end, this was just a sordid case of a tyrannical father, who convinced a second wife and a deluded son to help murder his first wife and some disobedient daughters. Nasty yes. But not very different (except in scale) from spousal murders across Canada.
Just a sordid case of a tyrannical father? Yeah, just like that meanie up the street when you were growing up who wouldn't let his daughter go out on dates of wear lipstick. Except for the killing part. And except that the tyrannical father in this case comes from a culture where honour killing is widely supported. Again, read the Christie Blatchford piece and note how relatives back in Pakistan responded when told of the murdered girls' behaviour.

Does motive matter?
On his way to the conclusion I cited above, Morton makes a number of dubious moves. The first is when he says this:
Broadly put, the motivation for murder is irrelevant. The question is not 'why' but 'if'? 
That is nonsense on three levels.
  1. It's nonsense because establishing motive is often a key element in establishing guilt.
  2. It's nonsense because motive makes a difference at sentencing time. There was a case a few years ago in Ontario where a guy ran down a cyclist and the lack of skid marks or evidence of any attempt to steer away was taken by the courts as evidence that the guy did just for the thrill of killing someone and that ended up mattering a whole lot at his sentencing.
  3. It's nonsense because it would have mattered a whole lot if the victim had been a gay teenager or a member of a visible minority group killed out of hatred.
As Aquinas noted a long, long time ago, a big part of the spectacle of criminal justice is to force socially sanctioned values on people. That motorist who ran down the cyclist, like the famous Leopold and Loeb, stir a particular horror in us because we recognize that these people held beliefs that would be detrimental to our way of life. Likewise the special sanctions against hate crimes.

Which brings me to an interesting hypocrisy here. It jumps right out at us if we cite just one paragraph from a Montreal Gazette story that Morton links to:

It’s rare for a coverage of a crime to fixate so strongly on motive, she added, citing the example of Marc Lépine’s 1989 shooting spree at École polytechnique in Montreal.

“We did pay a bit of attention to (Lépine’s motive), but in the end ... we focused on the deaths of those women.
She in this case is Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. And she is speaking nonsense. Every year in Canada there are commemorations of the Montreal massacre and every year those commemorations are used as an opportunity to speak about the supposed motives of men to hurt women. The imputed motive* for their deaths is absolutely central to the way they are remembered. If the fourteen women killed that day had been in a building that collapsed they'd be long forgotten by now.

The Kingston police chief interestingly referred to the case as one of "domestic violence"  and that it certainly is. But I have yet to see a single spokesperson from a group fighting domestic violence step forward to condemn it as an example of domestic violence.

Why not? I'd say because there is a way of life involved.

* I say imputed motive for the media figures and other people who have commented on the Marc Lepine case have shown very little interest in the actual Marc Lepine or his likely motives for doing what he did. He has just been taken as proof of a widespread hatred for women that is supposed to exist in men. The known facts of Lepine's life and beliefs don't support this.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Wings of the Dove

Chapter 33

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

People have been saying how much this novel resembles film noir for decades before I got to it. It's fascinating that many of the standard conventions and scenes and even character types show up here. William Gass has suggested, and I think he is right, that James is concerned with what happens when people abandon moral realism. When that happens, all distinction between moral argument and moral manipulation disappears and people become, as Gass puts it, "consumers of persons".

That is certainly what Merton Densher and Kate Croy have become. But so has Lord Mark who cared nothing for the risks he took by revealing Merton and Kate's secret to Milly. And I'm not sure that Susan Stringham would fare much better if we examined her closely.

How much influence did Henry James have on film noir? Well, with the caveat that Lillian Hellman is not always a reliable source, she reports that Dashiell Hammett told her that he figured out how to write mystery stories by reading Henry James. And I'm inclined to believe her in this case as Hellman tended to lie out of vanity and there is nothing to prop up her vanity in that story.

In any case, this chapter opens with a brilliant scene in which the two partners in crime meet after Merton has returned. Not immediately afterwards for Merton has tarried in re-establishing contact. And we have a classic noir scene in which the male lead is meeting the femme fatale and neither can be sure what or how much the other knows and neither is sure they can trust the other.
"Then it has been--what do you say? a whole fortnight?--without your making a sign?"

Kate put that to him distinctly, in the December dusk of Lancaster Gate and on the matter of the time he had been back; but he saw with it straightway that she was as admirably true as ever to her instinct--which was a system as well--of not admitting the possibility between them of small resentments, of trifles to trip up their general trust. That by itself, the renewed beauty of it, would at this fresh sight of her have stirred him to his depths if something else, something no less vivid but quite separate, hadn't stirred him still more. 
And in those two sentences describing Merton's response to Kate's remark is everything. Kate is impressive and this sort of thing has always inspired Merton in the past. But now he has another vision that troubles him. We don't know exactly what that is for the crucial meeting between Merton and Milly after Lord Mark's bombshell took place off stage.

Here is what Merton knows:
  • He knows that stupid Lord Mark rushed to Venice with the awful secret in an attempt to win Milly for himself.  (By the way, what pathetic, horrid excuse for a man Lord Mark is. )
  • He knows that he didn't tell anyone the secret so the only source for Lord Mark's knowledge of it is Kate Croy.
But then there is a whole lot he doesn't know. It may be, for example,
  • That Lord Mark, thinking his chances with Milly ruined, proposed marriage and, because of the tenor of her refusal, he has guessed what was up.
  • Or, it may be that he guessed what was up and accused Kate directly and she fessed up.
  • Then again, maybe Kate was so careless of Milly's interest that she simply confessed the facts to Lord Mark.
  • But in the darkest places of his soul, he must also be wondering if Kate, tired of waiting for Milly to die didn't tell Lord Mark knowing full well that he would do the stupid thing he did do and thereby hasten Milly's death.
And we have a whole chapter in which the two feel one another out. It's brilliant, brilliant writing so just go read it.


Today is the memorial for Saint Thomas Aquinas and that got me thinking.

Sometimes when I talk to people in their twenties about some great figure from the past—typically the 19th century, 1920s, 1950s—they will summarily dismiss him of her by saying that this person was racist. I think they "teach" them this stuff at university. I always try to point out that their observation is trite and pointless because everyone was racist back then.

I was thinking about that reading another blogger who is trying to understand how slavery was possible.

That seems the wrong question to me. I find hatred, torture and enslavement too easy to understand. We all have the instincts to do these horrible things. What needs explaining is how we ever managed to move beyond them. That's the really amazing thing. We aren't better people than they were "back then".

Ron Paul, for example, is getting much criticism for suggesting that the civil war was unnecessary and he is wrong about that but I wonder if anyone in our era would have the intestinal fortitude to fight such a war. Slavery still exists in some places after all. And if it existed here I suspect a lot of those who casually condemn Ron Paul would suddenly be using claims that would sound a lot like his to argue why such a war would be unnecessary.

It's amazing that we ever got to where we are.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Wings of the Dove

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

Chapters 31 and 32
This is the chapter in which everything falls apart for Merton. That is not surprising. But the first thing we learn is that things are falling apart for Milly. Susan comes to see Merton.
They came to it almost immediately; he was to wonder afterwards at the fewness of their steps. "She has turned her face to the wall."

"You mean she's worse?"
Well yes, but there is more to it than that Mr. Densher. For the sake of dramatic irony, James has to pretend that he can reasonably expect all of his readers to spot the Biblical allusion here while Merton Densher himself misses it. And he will continue to miss it even though the phrase "turned her face to the wall" gets repeated several times over the next few chapters.

Just so we're all on the same page, here is the way chapter 38 of the book of the prophet Isaiah opens:
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, "Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover." Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall ...
And the significance of that is pretty obvious. The thing not to do is what Merton and a number of web sites and critics I have read do and assume the challenge here is to figure out what the fact that she has turned her face to the wall tells us about what Milly is thinking. The important thing is to remind ourselves what happens to Hezekiah after he turns his face to the wall to pray and weep bitterly.
Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the LORD, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.
That sounds good but there is a problem. Our buddy Hezekiah invites the Babylonians round and shows them all the treasure of the kingdom. He does this on the (faulty) logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And Isaiah tells him, prophesying correctly, that all this treasure will be carried away to Babylonia. And then, well let's just say all sorts of stuff happens.

Now Milly is not going to get 15 more years but she is in a  fix not unlike that of Hezekiah. She has no real friends (even Susan is in this for mixed motives). And she has Lord Mark who hates Merton and Merton who returns the favour. So which is the best to expose her treasure to? There is no right answer.

By the way, can we talk about names? For we have two people who come to visit Milly in Venice:
Lord Mark in chapter 31 and
Sir Luke Strett in chapter 32
Is it just a coincidence that these two have the same names as the authors of two of the Gospels? And Sir Luke is a physician!

Saint Mark is traditionally associated with death. As is Venice. Certainly, within the logic of the novel so far it seems like what Lord Mark tells Milly must kill her.  Except that Sir Luke brings something that feels  like hope again. Will be only to have Milly expose her treasure to Babylonia?

With Sir Luke's arrival, the weather gets better and Milly asks to see Merton.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Wings of the Dove

Chapters 29 and 30

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

Chapter 29
I've read that James wanted the character of Milly to be a sort of a monument to his dead cousin Minny Temple. Knowing that, it is my sad duty to report that this novel just dies when Kate Croy isn't in the scene. You can't quite bring yourself to admire her. On the other hand, you can't help not admiring her. Milly, on the other hand, is a vague character most of the time and when she isn't vague she is insipid.

Okay, let's go back to the Veronese in chapter 28. Susan Stringham tells Merton that he too has a place in the picture:
You'll be the grand young man who surpasses the others and holds up his head and the wine-cup.
There is, as I noted before, no young man holding his head and cup up in Christ at the House of Levi.  I've since learned that some people identify the painting as the Wedding Feast at Cana. Perhaps because of this guy:

The problem is that that guy isn't surpassing the others and while he is holding up a  wine cup; and he isn't holding up his head particularly either. And there is no dwarf in the foreground of this painting.

I can see a logic to it. Susan might have two paintings in mind. The first might be to describe the moment when she speaks with Densher by comparing it to Christ in the House of Levi. The second might be the Wedding at Cana to define her hopes for the later moment when Sir Luke and the musicians show up. It would also describe what Susan (and presumably Milly) is hoping for.

But that stretches the point and there is a person in the first painting who surpasses all the others and holds up his head and the wine cup. That person is Jesus. Obscene comparison? Well yes, but that would be the point. Christ at the House of Levi is a travesty of the Last Supper.

And looks what happens on page 405 of my edition (emphasis added):

"You'll want"--Milly had thrown herself into it--"the best part of your days."

He thought a moment: he did what he could to wreathe it in smiles. "Oh I shall make shift with the worst part. The best will be for YOU." And he wished Kate could hear him. It didn't help him moreover that he visibly, even pathetically, imaged to her by such touches his quest for comfort against discipline. He was to bury Kate's so signal snub, and also the hard law she had now laid on him, under a high intellectual effort. This at least was his crucifixion—that Milly was so interested.
That's obscene. That Merton who, however good Kate is at manipulating him, might see the fact that his victim really loves him as his suffering and, much worse, that he should mentally liken it to the crucifixion, is obscene. And James, of course, means for it to be.

There is a brilliant psychological touch in the opening of this chapter. Merton is rather quietly accepting of Milly's death while she struggles. I wouldn't mention it at all except that we see this played out the opposite way in so many movies nowadays. How often do we see the dying person being in full acceptance while the living are in denial and unable to get over it. In real life, we get over other people's deaths so quickly it's chilling.

Chapter 30
I mentioned a while ago that Merton is the one character in the book who is an insufferable snob. And we see more of it here where he is tortured by the fact that Milly's servant visibly doesn't approve of what he is doing:
One had come to a queer pass when a servant's opinion so mattered.
Part of the problem for Densher is that everyone else, including Milly herself, is encouraging him to do the wrong thing. Except that isn't such a rare moral quandary is it?

The big thing that happens in this chapter is that Lord Mark shows up and speaks with Milly. We don't know what he says as that all happens offstage. Not yet anyway. But Densher seems to. How?

His guilty conscience projecting? Perhaps but it would be weird if that conscience should be correct about what other people are really doing and thinking.

More telling, and what ought to be more important to our understanding is a comparison Densher makes toward the end of the Chapter. Because Merton imagines Lord Mark as having said something to discredit him to Milly, he thinks of himself as separated from both women. First Milly:
He thought of the two women, in their silence, at last--he at all events thought of Milly--as probably, for her reasons, now intensely wishing him to go. The cold breath of her reasons was, with everything else, in the air; but he didn't care for them any more than for her wish itself, and he would stay in spite of her, stay in spite of odium, stay in spite perhaps of some final experience that would be, for the pain of it, all but unbearable. That would be his one way, purified though he was, to mark his virtue beyond any mistake. It would be accepting the disagreeable, and the disagreeable would be a proof; a proof of his not having stayed for the thing--the agreeable, as it were--that Kate had named.
Does it bother you as much as it bothers me that Merton seems to see himself as some sort of noble victim here? 

Now on to his thoughts about Kate (emphasis added):
The thing Kate had named was not to have been the odium of staying in spite of hints. It was part of the odium as actual too that Kate was, for her comfort, just now well aloof. These were the first hours since her flight in which his sense of what she had done for him on the eve of that event was to incur a qualification. It was strange, it was perhaps base, to be thinking such things so soon; but one of the intimations of his solitude was that she had provided for herself. She was out of it all, by her act, as much as he was in it; and this difference grew, positively, as his own intensity increased.
These two excerpts follow immediately upon one another by the way ( on p. 422 my edition). Which brings me back, as you knew I would come back, to that final visit to Merton in his rooms just before she left. What did she do/ Well, I think she had sex with him. And notice how he now qualifying that. he sees her as doing this partly in her own interest. Okay, but he really pushed for this. She didn't.

No I'm not blind to the huge problem with Kate's behaviour we are probably about to discover next chapter. (Actually, we'll definitely discover but I'll maintain the polite fiction that I haven't yet read it here.) But Merton doesn't know that yet and he is already sliding away from her. The two thieves are already at odds with one another and each is as bad as the other. And Kate is least every inch a woman. Merton isn't much of a man.

Manly Thor's Day Special: Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist

 "We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school." Bruce Springsteen

"When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." Paul Simon

"This [jazz] was something we had found for ourselves, that wasn't taught at school (what a prerequisite that is of nearly everything worthwhile) ..." Philip Larkin

"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." Ralph Waldo Emerson
Those quotes tell you something about boys and young men. They tell you something that isn't completely good.

There was a kid on the bus going back to campus with a case of beer last Saturday. He was talking to his buddies and he said, "I went to the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam and afterwards they gave us free tastings and I stole every glass they handed me." He was a wimpy little boy and my I thought, not seriously, about getting off at his stop and taking his case of beer away from him and then asking him why, given that he'd just bragged about stealing stuff from people who'd given him hospitality, I shouldn't feel completely justified in doing so.

 But who would I be kidding? I'm sure the Heineken people calculated for guys like him when they budgeted for their tastings and my own record on this front is far from perfect. It's probably a lot worse than I remember. And if anyone had treated me that way back in the day, the only lesson I would have learned was how to be angry and resentful, which was hardly anything I needed more help with.

And this aggressive rejection of social norms is something guys just do. More than a few girls do it too but it's more a guy thing. I know a few professors and they always complain about how increasingly docile and compliant students have become in recent decades and I think, "Does this really surprise you given that the proportion of women has gone up?" Sometimes I even say it out loud.

 It's a guy thing to react to authority. And there isn't enough sensitivity training or Ritalin in the entire university to stop us, so get used to it.

Emerson tried to formalize it all. He tried to give it a fancy name of "self reliance" but that's nonsense. We aren't self reliant and Messrs Springsteen, Simon and Larkin would all have ended up begging on street corners if they'd had to get through life solely on what they'd learned from records. We are all dependent on others. The obnoxious little turd on the bus I complain of above can only be what he is because he is protected by the very property laws he brags of flouting. (And while I could take his beer without much effort, there are lots of other guys out there who could take my beer just as easily, especially so now that I'm not so young as I used to be.)

The notion that we can be nonconformists is an illusion but it is a healthy illusion. Try it and you'll find that you simply jump from one sort of conformism to another. And there is no form of conformism more rigid and unforgiving than the conformism of the self-declared rebel.

But even if ya gotta serve somebody, a moment of thinking you don't is good for you because it matters a whole helluva lot who and what you serve.

Back in university during the eighties, I saw a guy spraying graffiti on a wall and took his paint away from him and spray-painted his leather jacket and Nike runners for him. He was very unhappy about it. I'm pretty sure he learned nothing at all from the experience but it sure felt good doing it to him. If I took a time machine back to talk to my twenty year old self that night, I'd pat myself on the back.

And if I met that guy I'd spray painted again, I'd laugh in his face.

Was what I did nonconformist?  Depends how you define such things. A lot of my fellow students, and the guy himself was one of them, would have insisted that he was expressing legitimate free speech rights and that property rights didn't matter. I certainly wasn't conforming to their values. Others would have agreed the guy was doing something wrong but insisted that two wrongs don't make a right. I would have told them I didn't care. Others would have argued that no matter how justified I felt, what I did was a serious go-to-jail crime. I'd admit that was true but that it didn't matter. I mean the guy was hardly going to call the police.

Yeah, it was nonconformist. I wouldn't do it now though.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Even more Lana Del Rey

Someone has leaked the new CD and now the battle begins again.

Ta-Nehisi Coates blunders into the truth:
I've gotta say, I've never quite understood the hate Lana Del Rey gets. OK, it's not cool to lie about being poor. But "Video Games"--an OK song, I guess--always struck me as kiddie music. It strikes me as something a young lady might play in those angsty years before she gets her driver's license and is imagining what adulthood is like.
Or you could put the thought more charitably as I did:
Like the Ode to Billy Joe, there is an experience here that speaks to millions of teenage girls. And that is what makes it pop music: if it doesn't speak to girls from 15 to 19 years old, it isn't pop music.
Pop music is defined by young girls and there is no point resenting that fact. Girls are just as entitled to a culture that speaks to them as anyone else is. (And if you are more than 25 years old you really should have started to look outside pop culture by now.)

The deeper problem here, as I argued in many previous posts on the subject, is that people don't like what pop culture is telling them about young girls. I mean, how dare they like all this princess stuff? It's supposed to be a brave new world for girls and they, damnit, haven't gotten the memo and insist on behaving like ... , well, like girls.

The last few years we've seen a  relentless attack on boys and young men for being boys and young men. Apparently it's now the turn of girls and young women to get the same abuse.

By the way, if you read only one book on the history of pop music, it should be How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll by Elijah Wald.

Womanly virtues Wednesday: Complaining about your Ex

I'm not sure how I feel about Newt Gingrich. He doesn't strike me as a dependable, solid guy and his marriage history is an embarrassment. But no matter how you feel about him, you can't deny that his ex-wife's recent appearance on ABC news has had no impact on his popularity.

No negative impact that is. For if there has been any change, the man is more popular than he was before she made her charges.

It's actually the second time she has gone public with her complaints. The last time was for magazine interview a few years ago. That time no one paid attention. She must now be wishing they had done so again.

Here's the thing: Don't bad mouth your ex. Men make this mistake less often. Not because we are better people but because no one puts up with it from us. When women do it, we all clench our teeth and nod sympathetically, "Gee, how awful for you."

But that is just outside. Inside we're thinking, "Isn't this the same guy she was gaga about and bragging about how good it was with him just a while ago?"

And if there is one thing worse than complaining about your ex, it's still complaining about him years later. "What? You're not over this yet? What's wrong with you?" Again, very few people will say this to the woman complaining but we're thinking it. And we'll certainly say it behind her back. And then we'll make an effort to be nice to her ex the next time we see him.

And if there is one thing worse than still complaining to your friends about your ex years after the fact, it's going public with your complaints as the ex-Ms. Gingrich has done. "What a mean, vindictive, spiteful  ____  she is," we all say to just about anyone who happens to be willing to listen.

(As I've said before, another reason you really, really, really don't want to tell all your best girlfriends what a horrible bastard your ex was and how glad you are to be rid of him is that one of them will almost certainly see this as justifying her having an affair with him now that you're out of the way. I'll spare you the details but trust me, I know whereof I speak here.)

In addition to all the above, eventually your complaints will sound hollow even to you. After all, you once chose this person. The worse you make them sound, the worse your judgment looks. And, crazy as this may sound now, you don't want to convince yourself that you wasted part of your life with this guy.  You need to find something good in this to take forward.

Here's the trick: Say nothing but nice things about your ex. It can be done. I did it, you can too. You don't have to mean them at first because everyone knows you don't. But they will credit you for behaving in a generous, noble and dignified way and it will make your ex look even worse than they already do if he or she chooses to bad mouth you.

Don't go overboard in your praise. The less said the better but what you do say should be positive.

The first and most important thing to do is to admit that you regret the break up. Don't suggest you want the guy back even if you do. Just say you had a lot invested in this and you hoped it would work and now that it's over, you're suffering. "I really liked the guy and when it was good it was very good."

Practice your responses. Walk around your place saying them out loud. You'll be able to pick out the things that sound hollow.

Practice behaving like someone who is over it now when you aren't.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How the Brits are ruining the C-word* for everyone

Earlier today I was writing about the crass and vulgar way the Brits treat sex. A really good example of this, if you'll pardon me, is how the Brits have ruined the C-word for everyone.  For them it is just a term of anger and hatred. Jarvis Cocker has a song called "C___ts are still running the world" and, contrary to what you might guess, it's a song about politics. For him all the C-word means is an evil or stupid person. Anywhere else that title would be taken as an expression of women's sexual power. That the word now means nothing more to him than what we in North America mean when we say "asshole" tells you how little the Brits value sex; for them, it is just another crude bodily function.

Ironically enough, it's part of the British national mythology to think of themselves as terribly uptight about sex: "No sex please we're British". But the truth is they aren't uptight enough about it. Whether they are restricted or unrestricted about sex, the Brits always think of it as a crude bodily function and not as something exalted. You cannot even begin to appreciate sex unless you acknowledge the power and sacredness of women's sexuality. That is why the Brits always have to turn to either Americans or the French to get their ideas of what is sexy.

The reason that Jarvis Cocker wrote a song as crass and awful as "C__ts are still ruling the world" is because they do not, in fact, rule his world.

*No I won't spell it out. I think the word has it's place but this blog isn't it. And I already get enough people finding this site  by entering search strings that creep me out into Google as it is thank you.

The Wings of the Dove

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

The title of this book refers to Psalm 55 so the image of a dove that we find there is what first occurs to us when Milly is compared to a dove:
My heart is sore pained within me:
and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. 
Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me,
and horror hath overwhelmed me. 
And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove!
For then would I fly away, and be at rest.
That is not the only image of the dove that we find in the Bible. For example, Psalm 68 came up in Matins today:
At home the women already share the spoil.
They are covered with silver as the wings of a dove,
its feathers brilliant with shining gold
and jewels flashing like snow on Mount Zalmon.
By the way, although we think of the dove as a white bird, the bird referred to here is the common rock dove, or rock pigeon, which is to say the bird we all call a pigeon. And take the time to study them carefully and you'll notice they are beautiful birds.
"She's a dove," Kate went on, "and one somehow doesn't think of doves as bejewelled. Yet they suit her down to the ground."
If we don't it's because we are blind.

Keeping you up to date about the really important stuff

Britsih lingerie vendor Agent Provocateur are changing their approach:
Creative director Sarah Shotton reveals she is a huge fan of "the glowing scenes from the gently erotic films such as Emmanuelle and The Story of O", and that her collection of vintage Playboy Magazines made her "want to re-introduce the sensuality and flirtation of the 70's into our campaigns."
Last year's approach, in case you didn't know,  was inspired by actresses flashing people with cameras accidentally on purpose. So now they're going introduce "sensuality and flirtation". Why is this happening? I'd guess that it's mostly because that is what men want.

Sitting on the bus with a bunch of college girls last night I was struck at how astonishingly servile these women are towards men. I see these women a lot and it seems to me that they'll do almost anything to get men's attention. I suspect that they've tried flash and trash and found that while that will get them laid, it isn't getting them love. So now we move to "sensuality and flirtation".

Next step on this path is soft, romantic and, dare I say it, feminine.

One hilarious side note, the Telegraph article at that link blames "flash trash" on Hollywood and there is something to that. But coming from the English, who have done more to vulgarize sex than any other nation on earth, it's hilarious.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Wings of the Dove

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

Chapter 28 begins with Merton Densher musing after a conversation with Susan about Milly not joining the group downstairs at her place that there is a sort of unspoken agreement that no one will bring up Milly's illness. Of course, only a spoken agreement can really be an agreement so this thought very gently slides into an exploration of the reasons Densher himself might refrain from bringing it up:

... this passage with Mrs. Stringham offered him his first licence to open his eyes. He had gladly enough held them closed; all the more that his doing so performed for his own spirit a useful function. If he positively wanted not to be brought up with his nose against Milly's facts, what better proof could he have that his conduct was marked by straightness?
And the important discovery here is that Densher apparently needs to reassure himself about his own integrity in this matter. If you have to ask ...

Later in their conversation, Susan Stringham compares the gathering at Milly's to a Veronese:
It's a Veronese picture, as near as can be--with me as the inevitable dwarf, the small blackamoor, put into a corner of the foreground for effect. If I only had a hawk or a hound or something of that sort I should do the scene more honour. (P. 377)

She has something like this (Courtesy of Wikipedia) in mind:

And here is a dwarf for from just in front of the rail to the left her to be:

And Densher worries because he doesn't see any place for himself in this picture. Susan assures him there is even though he never asks her:
"You'll be the grand young man who surpasses the others and holds up his head and the wine-cup. What we hope," Mrs. Stringham pursued, "is that you'll be faithful to us—that you've not come for a mere foolish few days." (p. 377)
What can that mean? The painting above is Christ at the House of Levi and I think it is likely the one James had in mind because it's in Venice.  But, as near as In can tell there is no man holding up his head and the wine cup unless ...

Because, as we all know, the painting above was originally meant to be a Last Supper and Veronese retitled it after offending the church (and little wonder, it is offensive). So is this all meant to be a travesty of the Last Supper? With Densher the travesty Christ to whom Milly looks to for a resurrection? (Keep that thought in mind as I'll come back to it next chapter.)

Susan, however, is Mily's disciple:
"Oh the daily task and the daily wage, the golden guerdon or reward? No one knows better than I how they haunt one in the flight of the precious deceiving days. Aren't they just what I myself have given up? I've given up all to follow HER. (p. 379)
And that has to refer to the story of Jesus and the Rich young man:
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.”
That's from the Gospel of Mark. The story appears in all three synoptic Gospels but with different emphasis. In Mark, Jesus cuts Peter off when he tries to say he has given up everything implying that Peter misses the point.

Later, Kate joins Densher at the gathering at Milly's and two fascinating things happen. In the first, Milly is compared to a dove:
"She's a dove," Kate went on, "and one somehow doesn't think of doves as bejewelled. Yet they suit her down to the ground."

"Yes--down to the ground is the word." Densher saw now how they suited her, but was perhaps still more aware of something intense in his companion's feeling about them. Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sounds. It even came to him dimly that such wings could in a given case--HAD, truly, in the case with which he was concerned--spread themselves for protection. Hadn't they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren't Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren't Susan Shepherd and he, wasn't HE in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate ease? All this was a brighter blur in the general light, out of which he heard Kate presently going on.
That's chilling. We might just remember that while doves are associated with the Holy Spirit and with liberation in the Bible they are also sacrificial victims.

Then there follows a fascinating scene that I won't say too much about because I wouldn't ruin it. Suffice to say, Densher gets a fuller notion of what Kate has in mind but he doesn't think about his integrity because he is wrapped up in a struggle to make her come to visit him at his rooms. (In the course of this discussion, there is a fascinating biblical allusion in which Kate talks about Densher possibly "Washing his hands" of her.)

This duel to get her to come to his rooms, of course, goes back to chapter 17 in which Densher thinks about the reasons she would never do such a thing:
She would have to stop there, wouldn't come in with him, couldn't possibly; and he shouldn't be able to ask her, would feel he couldn't without betraying a deficiency of what would be called, even at their advanced stage, respect for her: that again was all that was clear except the further fact that it was maddening. Compressed and concentrated, confined to a single sharp pang or two, but none the less in wait for him there on the Euston platform and lifting its head as that of a snake in the garden, was the disconcerting sense that "respect," in their game, seemed somehow--he scarce knew what to call it--a fifth wheel to the coach. It was properly an inside thing, not an outside, a thing to make love greater, not to make happiness less.
Rather wrapped in this idea that she should do something for her, he continues that here. And she agrees.

What does she do when she is there? Her merely being there would be scandal enough at the time.

We don't find out as by the next chapter he is thinking of it in retrospect as something momentous but he doesn't say what. As I say, she doesn't need to have done anything more than to have visited to commit a major social transgression in Aunt Maud's eyes. That said, the thing is so momentous to Densher that I think she puts out. (I know, how utterly typical of me to think of it that way and to put it that way.)

Colour me skeptical

Ta Nehisi Coates cites Yale University professor David Blight:
In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself...
I suspect that there is a factual sense to that claim.  But it's also nonsense.

To get a hint of why it's nonsense consider the first line of The Wealth of Nations:
The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations. 
The real wealth of a nation is not the net value of its assets but it's capacity to produce.  Why is that important? Because on that measure there is simply no doubt that the North's ability to generate wealth greatly exceeded the South's. On that measure, the manufacturing capacity of the North was worth much, much more than the slaves. That more than anything else explains why the North beat the South. The North was not just wealthier than the South, it was much, much wealthier.

Okay then, you say, so why is the good professor able to cite figures establishing so much more value to the slaves as an asset than to all the factories of the north? (And let's take it as given that his numbers are good.)

Well, consider marijuana prices. Marijuana is a weed that will grow pretty much anywhere a weed will grow. It should have no significant value and it wouldn't except that it is so closely regulated by governments. This regulation drives the cost of the asset way up. Jason the Stoner pays top dollar for his weed because most of that price is to cover overhead costs created by laws restricting the growth, transport, sale and possession of marijuana.

Now it's obscene to talk about human beings in terms of market value but that is the way the world was in 1860 and slaves were a heavily regulated market. Considerable efforts had been made, for example, to make it difficult to import more slaves. This added a lot of overhead cost to the market. And all that was needed for that value to collapse was for conditions to change radically. And there are few things that will alter conditions quite so radically as a civil war.

Now that does not, as I am sure Coates would correctly insist, change the psychology of the issue any. The market price reflects what people were willing to pay and the cited price for slaves really was the market price for that era. And that tells us something about the reasons the South went to war. However, a huge component of that price derives from there not being many slaves on the market in the first place. And that should lead us to doubt the aggregate number cite by Professor Blight. You can't really compare the combined value of slaves with other assets.

In the end, the South was fighting to defend a way of life. The very high price of slaves was a reflection of their determination to do so.

Consider how you might feel if you bought something at a flea market for fifty cents and later discovered it was worth many times what you paid for it? Would you turn around and sell it immediately for the profit? You might not. You might decide that owning this valuable thing was worth more to you than it asset price even though it had no real value to you when you bought it. When I keep my Moorcroft vase and put it on my shelf that tells you much more about the way of life I treasure than it tells you about the asset price.

And my Moorcroft only has value because other people also want to hold onto theirs. If a plurality of Moorcroft owners noticed the going price on eBay and sold them all at the same time, the price would collapse. Again, it's obscene to think of human beings in these terms but if Southerners had decided to assess value that slaves represented to them purely in terms of their ability to generate wealth, there probably wouldn't have been a civil war.

It would be nice, by the way, to say that the North saw more value in the slaves in human rather than economic terms as compared to the South but I don't think we can do that. I suspect opposition to slavery was driven more by what white Northerners wanted to believe about themselves than what they believed about black Americans.

Sort of political Monday: Compassion

What's wrong with compassion? Well, in one sense, nothing. Like sincerity it's got its place in human life.

But it's not a virtue. Sincerity sounds like a virtue until you consider the sincere racist. Compassion, like sincerity, is an emotion. It can be misguided and wrong. It also can exist without doing any real work. Joe felt so bad about the injustice he'd seen that he sat in his room and cried all day.

The other thing about emotions is that you can't be wrong about them. You can reasonably dispute whether I should be sad but you can't convince that I am not sad.

Of course I can lie to you about my emotions. I can say I'm compassionate when I couldn't give a fig. And lies often work.

So what possible use could compassion possible have? Mostly it's a way of finding people like us. Compassion for the poor does little or nothing for the actual poor but it's a very good way for people who have similar attitudes about poverty to identify one another.

Don't sneer at that. I don't. You arrive at a  dinner party and your host has invited a bunch of other people you don't know. So you all sit around sipping your drinks before dinner trying to feel one another out. Nobody sits around discussing their life philosophy at moments like that. What we can do though is indicate our emotional responses and compassion is a good one.

Of course, as we saw with the Salvation Army ad, that compassion doesn't have to have anything to do with anything real in the world. This isn't unique to compassion. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I used to fall madly, passionately in love with women I didn't know anything about. And that was just fine so long as I never actually interacted with them.

Of course, we'd never try to talk anyone in the first place if we weren't capable of that emotion. I still remember the day The Serpentine One walked into my office and the way she looked in her skirt, white blouse and sweater and the way I couldn't breath I was so in love. And I barely knew her. But the fact that we have been together for more than twenty years had nothing to do with that initial overwhelming feeling of love but rather with the slow discovery of the shared values and interests that was slowly worked out over a long time after that.

All of which was only possible because we could actually talk to one another. And all of which is impossible when interacting with politicians.

And that is why Santorum  can't get past first base.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Saint Agnes Eve — ah better chill it was!

Minus 22 tonight. That's seven and half degrees below zero on the Fahrenheit scale.

That is bitter chill. No owls have been spotted. Did see a fox though. Went right up the road bold as brass and sooo beautiful.

Sweet dreams all.

Sex "addiction"

It's one of those topics that is apparently irresistible. I have said before that I doubt such a thing exists. Never say never but ... I have very strong doubts.

There was a piece last week that reminded me why I have such doubt. Before I cite the bit that made me wonder, think about someone addicted to cigarettes. Think of how they light up after sex, for example. Why do they do that and how does it make them feel?

Now read this description of what sex addicts supposedly seek:
Like a drug addict or alcoholic, the sex addict relentlessly seeks satisfaction from an external source to palliate an internal pain. Modern technology, such as the internet, provides a new external source that sex addicts use in their quest for sex partners.
So what is withdrawal then? Or, to put it another way, why do addicts feel pain when they are denied the thing they are addicted to? And why do they calm down when they get it.

Substance addiction seems to be closely connected to the firing of key brain chemistry that allow us to feel rewarded or comfortable. Hard core alcoholics who manage to stop drinking report that life loses all its glow. They can't get any feeling of satisfaction from beauty in the world.

Now consider our smoker who lights up after sex again. Why does she do it then? Because that is the way she can get the afterglow that normally comes at such a moment. That is what addiction does to you. It has nothing to do with any of the following:
Although sex addicts are enslaved to sex, it is far from their goal. Rather, the pursuit of sex is in service of a different goal — to dispel feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, rage or other feelings that the sex addict experiences as unbearable.
All those "feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, rage or other feelings" are consequences of addiction and not causes of it. There isn't any searching to "palliate an inner pain" here. The only inner pain is withdrawal symptoms. (The whole notion of "inner" pain is incoherent by the way. As opposed to what; the pain I feel two feet in front of my face?)

We don't know all that much about addictions but there is one thing we definitely do know and that is that addiction is not a coping mechanism. Alcoholics don't drink because they are unhappy, they drink because they are addicted to alcohol. They tend to be depressed in turn because not being able to stop drinking tends to mess up your life.

That said, you'd be surprised how long some people can be functioning alcoholics. I knew a woman who was a functioning alcoholic for virtually all her adult life and had fooled, among other people, her doctor. That was her downfall for her doctor prescribed her a painkiller at one point that significantly magnified the effects of the alcohol she consumed every day. Her marriage, her life fell apart in just a few months after that.

What is being called sexual addiction here sounds like something else to me. Or, to be more precise, it sounds like several something elses. And I worry, along with many others, that "sex addiction" is just a cover story for people who cannot master themselves. On the other end of the scale, I also worry that "sex addiction" might also be used to marginalize some people who have a stronger-than-normal sex drive. Some people, particularly some men people, just have very strong sex drives and they should not be treated as mental cases as a consequence.

Slept in ...

... and today is the day I visit shut ins so no posting until this afternoon some time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The race card: Requiescat in pace

James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates have had a rather rude awakening the last couple of days as they have both been forced to confront that the race card has lost its power to make people stand up and salute. It began with Fallows saying that Newt Gingrich's calling Obama the food stamp president" was a dog whistle signal to racists. One of Fallows'  reader quite rightly called him on this.

Fallows is standing by his guns:
You could call him the "pink slip president," the "foreclosure president," the "Walmart president," the "Wall Street president," the "Citibank president," the "bailout president," or any of a dozen other images that convey distress. You decide to go with "the food stamp president," and you're doing it on purpose. 
Yes, Mr. Fallows, you're doing it on purpose but to imply, on no evidence, that that purpose is to accuse someone of racism on no evidence and that is a vile ad hominem argument from someone who ought to know better.

And it is clearly obvious what Gingrich's actual purpose is here. He isn't talking about economic distress in general. He is talking specifically about the distress faced by students ill-served by the education system and who consequently will have a hard time getting a job and therefore run a great likelihood of ending up collecting food stamps. None of Fallows' alternative expressions applies to this case.

But what really interests me here is the Jane Austen point. Coates has a second response in which he quotes Jane Austen but misses her meaning entirely. Here is the Austen quote he cites:
The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough: for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.
"Her", in this case, is Mrs. John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. And it's important if you want to understand the significance of the passage, which Coates does not, that you know that Mrs. John Dashwood has been doing everything she can to exclude her two sisters in law from her society. And the bit Coates quotes comes immediatley after her efforts to do so have been undermined by an innocent action of one of her friends. Here is a bit more context:
I come now to the relation of a misfortune, which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood. It so happened that while her two sisters with Mrs. Jennings were first calling on her in Harley Street, another of her acquaintance had dropt in—a circumstance in itself not apparently likely to produce evil to her. But while the imaginations of other people will carry them away to form wrong judgments of our conduct, and to decide on it by slight appearances, one's happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance. In the present instance, this last-arrived lady allowed her fancy so far to outrun truth and probability, that on merely hearing the name of the Miss Dashwoods, and understanding them to be Mr. Dashwood's sisters, she immediately concluded them to be staying in Harley Street; and this misconstruction produced within a day or two afterwards, cards of invitation for them as well as for their brother and sister, to a small musical party at her house. The consequence of which was, that Mrs. John Dashwood was obliged to submit not only to the exceedingly great inconvenience of sending her carriage for the Miss Dashwoods, but, what was still worse, must be subject to all the unpleasantness of appearing to treat them with attention: and who could tell that they might not expect to go out with her a second time? The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough; for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them. 
So, as you is clear here, Mrs. John Dashwood has been shown up because a friend of hers showed up and acted without prejudice towards the two girls.  Note the irony here:
In the present instance, this last-arrived lady allowed her fancy so far to outrun truth and probability, that on merely hearing the name of the Miss Dashwoods, and understanding them to be Mr. Dashwood's sisters, she immediately concluded them to be staying in Harley Street ...
That is the indirect free speech Austen is famous for and the point here is not that the friend really did allow her fancy to outrun "truth and probability" but rather that she interpreted the situation the way the sort of person who doesn't make evil assumptions about others would. She simply assumed that Mrs. John Dashwood was treating her sisters in law fairly. In fact, to say she assumed anything is to say too much. Only someone as twisted as Mrs. John Dashwood would see it that way. She imagines a mistake in this other woman's perception because she cannot admit even to herself that her own assessment of Elinor and Marianne as unworthy of her society is driven by evil purpose. Elinor and Marianne really are her sisters in law! They aren't impostors.

And you can test this for yourself by asking yourself a simple question: Who in the above passage expects better of Mrs. John Dashwood? No one. There is no specific person who has charged her with anything here. It's all the price of her own hypocrisy. And the same is true of Coates who is the one behaving like Mrs. John Dashwood.

Look at his explanation of how the Austen quote is supposed to apply and you can see the resentment of someone who has been injured at the expectation that something better might be required of them:
People who are regularly complicit in wrong, are not in the habit of admitting such things. The unwillingness to admit wrong, the greedy claim upon the powers of disappointment,  the deep sense of injury is not coincidental--it is a necessary fact of wrong-doing. The charge that the NAACP are the actual racist [sic] is the descendant of the notion that abolitionists wanted to reduce Southern whites to "slavery,"  that the goal of civil rights was the rape of white women. That Barack Obama would have a "deep-seated hatred of white people" is not a new concept.
Wow, how did we get from "food stamps" to "raping white women"? This a crude, unfair caricature, Unfair to the point of being hatred pure and simple. This racism is in the eye of the beholder.

Manly Thor's Day Special: Of Italian sea captains

It's easy to mock. But let's consider what it was like to be this guy and ask what it would take to behave honourably as opposed to behaving as shamefully as this guy did.

To do that we have consider this: this man had failed irredeemably as of the second the ship touched bottom. I know, you're thinking, "Tell me something that isn't obvious Sherlock."

But put yourself in his head. He's taken a  stupid chance. You've taken stupid chances right? So he's taken a stupid chance and it's gone wrong. The second the ship hit ground—before he or anyone else knew how bad it was—our Italian sea captain knew his career was over. Running a ship aground is not like backing your car into someone else or sailing your own boat onto the rocks. They take away your license to do your job if you steer off course and then run aground.

If he'd just run aground near the channel he was supposed to have been in he could have blamed it on the steering mechanism. Ships rudders are driven by chain mechanisms not unlike a bicycle only on a much larger scale and they can skip. When ships coming up the Saint Lawrence Seaway just south of me run aground the captain always blames it on the steering mechanism skipping because there is no way of verifying that.

But such a pilot would have to be near the channel for the excuse to wash. If he was deliberately sailing outside the approved route to indulge in some whim, it wouldn't count as an excuse.

So that's the first thing to grasp. Even if nothing as serious as what did transpire had followed, his career was over. If he'd only scratched the paint, there would have been an inquiry and the board of inquiry would have taken away his license.

Okay, the obvious lesson is, don't take the stupid chance in the first place, but he's already done that. And we've all taken stupid chances. And the thing is, this can't have been the first time he did this; that's not the way it works with stupid chances. You can break the speed the limit, and break it by a lot, for years before getting a speeding ticket. You can speed all your life without ever having the woman and her child step out in front of you when it's too late to stop.

I think the really important thing to grasp here is that the guy no longer has any professional motive to behave honourably. And he has very little personal motive. He'll be fired, probably sued for negligent performance of his duties. Best case scenario, he'll lose his job, his savings, his house. And that's what happens if nothing else bad happens. From that moment on, nothing could go right for this guy.

And then it got worse. Much, much worse. He's already on the edge emotionally and it gets worse and worse. And at every stage, he has no professional motive and very little personal motive to do the right thing.

I'll tell you the worst part from a sailor's perspective: that he abandoned the ship. For starters—if I could insert a minor safety lesson here—you never abandon a ship or boat until you are certain it's going to sink. You're always better off on board than in the lifeboat and your infinitely better off on the boat than in the water. And, as you can check for yourself, a lot of that ship is still above water. Every single soul on board could have remained on board until the next day and still been evacuated safely. His life was never in danger. Never. There was never a moment in the operation when he was in danger of drowning or being hurt (barring the possibility of an angry passenger or crew member beating him up).

But who knows how he felt at that moment?

And that is the question. How would you behave if you got into such a fix? How could you know?

And here your imagination is useless. I could tell myself endlessly that I wouldn't do what that guy did but I don't really know that.

By the way, do you want to read a really great book? A really manly book? Then you want to read Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. It deals with a situation not unlike this one.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Womanly virtues Wednesday: In defence of the makeover

I was reading Cracked online. I know, that confirms your worst suspicions about me. But there is some good stuff there. It's spectacularly uneven and they have mastered the knack of pitching you with titles that make you click such as , "Six sex toys seemingly designed to ruin sex". No doubt you're a better person than me but I clicked on that.

Anyway, I also clicked on "Five horrible life lessons learned from teen movies". And I immediately found myself disagreeing with the first one which was "Undergoing a Physical and Mental Transformation is the Way to Lasting Happiness". Because I think that it is the way to lasting happiness. It's not all of it but it's a huge part of it.

Women instinctively get this. Men don't and it's a lesson we could learn from women. And once upon a time everyone knew it. It was a staple of old movies that men learned to be civilized from women and that we became civilized by undergoing physical and mental transformations for women. Even when this became a bit of a joke in the early 1960s it still followed the form. Frankie Avalon's character always figured out that he had to change if he really wanted Annette Funicello's character to love him.  But already it was becoming a joke.

Women also get that undergoing a physical and mental transformation is a damned difficult thing to do. To paraphrase the old line, people give up on it not because it doesn't work but because it's hard. You can't just buy the clothes, you have to train yourself to behave differently.

(And, for the benefit of the writers at Cracked, Grease was a parody.)

Anyway, the problem we moderns are supposed to have with the idea of changing yourself "outside" is that the real you is supposed to be "inside". As the editors at Cracked helpfully explain:
Can't get a date? The person you love doesn't love you back? Well, according to teen movies, it's probably because you dress in clothing that reflects your individuality, background and personal style. The solution couldn't be any simpler: Just completely erase any external evidence of your personality, and physically transform yourself into whatever you think your crush will like.
Teens dress to reflect their "individuality, background and personal style"? I wonder where that is. Oh, we have an example in the piece. In The Breakfast Club where "mysterious, silent Allison gets a makeover that transforms her from standard "cute goth" to "hip and sexy". The question here is not whether the new Allison is better than the old one. The question is whether the old Allison dressed in a way that reflects her individuality, background and personal style. Here's a picture:

Because you've never seen that look before. Wow, a leather jacket how terribly individualistic. And that haircut why in 1985, when this movie came out, you only saw that haircut twenty times a day. (And you only saw it that often because it was a left-over that anyone alive in 1985 would have recognized as a late 1970s style cut.)

(Again, I hate to have to explain basic plot points but, for the benefit of the editors at Cracked, Allison does not change in The Breakfast Club because she has a crush on "popular jock Andrew". She hates him as well as all the other popular kids. She thinks they hate her back but the truth is they laugh at her when they notice her at all. She is the narcissist in the story. The point of the transformation in the movie is that when Allison relaxes her anger at the world around her and adopts some of the then-prevailing standards, the world returns the favour by being interested in her. Does that bother you? Well, I have bad news for you 'cause that's the way people are. Don't believe me? Try dressing up like Mitt Romney and going to a Goth club; just make sure your affairs are in order and your will is up to date is up to date before you go.)

The problem with individuality is that no matter where you go to get it there is already a market waiting for you. Want to go Goth? There are movies to show you how, bands waiting to sell you the lifestyle and vendors willing to sell you the clothes and tattoo and piercing parlours waiting to mutilate you. It's probably a billion dollar per annum market.

No matter what you do, you're joining a club. So the question is: Which club do you want to be a part of? Think carefully because there are a lot of bad choices out there. Strange as this may seem, sullen people who wear leather jackets, skimp on personal hygiene tend to be difficult get along with, lack empathy and are sometimes even dangerous and violent rather than being people who are reflecting their "individuality, background and personal style".

And the club you want to join will be determined by whose in it.

Or it might not. A lot of people rebel against the idea of having to earn their way into a club. "If they won't take me as I am then screw them!" You can say that if you want but the truth is that they won't take you as you are and nothing is going to change that. Ever.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wings of the Dove

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

Chapter 27
There was a moment when I had a rather disloyal thought that perhaps the reason that the writing is so brilliant these last few chapters is simply because the fuse has been lit and that has given focus to the story. To put it bluntly, I wondered if James really deserved the praise I have been heaping on him or whether it was just the momentum that came from the plot kicking into a familiar pattern. Forw e will get a certain frisson from simply wondering whether Kate and Merton can pull the trick off or whether someone or something wil trip them up.

But no, James is brilliant and nowhere is that more obvious than at the opening of this chapter. Milly is at home, and Kate and Merton are alone on the Piazza San Marco because the rest of the party are in a shop. And they are dueling with one another although neither really understands why.

Merton, without really knowing why it is so important to him or even what the "it" he wants is, wants something from  Kate. He is talking to her of others' motives for they all seem to furthering the plan even though they could not possibly be in conspiracy. Except he doesn't really know that. He doesn't even know what is being conspired about. And he is one of only two conspirators!

Kate, for her part, is confronted with a young man who is very concerned about his honour. He is willing to play along so far without getting it because he loves her. She needs to lead him in further but must worry that, at any moment, he may pull up and simply refuse, or go home to London or go tell Milly everything.

Merton, of course, knows something is up. So neither really knows how game or howmercenary the other is willing to be. And thus we get this beautiful description:
Such was to-day, in its freshness, the moral air, as we may say, that hung about our young friends; these had been the small accidents and quiet forces to which they owed the advantage we have seen them in some sort enjoying. It seemed in fact fairly to deepen for them as they stayed their course again; the splendid Square, which had so notoriously, in all the years, witnessed more of the joy of life than any equal area in Europe, furnished them, in their remoteness from earshot, with solitude and security. It was as if, being in possession, they could say what they liked; and it was also as if, in consequence of that, each had an apprehension of what the other wanted to say.
And the thought I think we should keep in mind is this: this is what it's like for any couple falling in love. The plot regarding Milly heightens the emotion but any young couple slowly working their way into love is in a conspiracy and they are alone and free to say anything they want they will also be scared of what the other might say. And "the other" can screw it up in two ways: 2) they can not be ready to "go on" or 2) they could blurt out something to the effect of "going on" too quickly.

But these two are plotting. Let me give you a dialogue out of context here just for fun:
"We've gone too far," she none the less pulled herself together to reply. "Do you want to kill her?"

He had an hesitation that wasn't all candid. "Kill, you mean, Aunt Maud?"

"You know whom I mean. We've told too many lies."

Oh at this his head went up. "I, my dear, have told none!"

He had brought it out with a sharpness that did him good, but he had naturally, none the less, to take the look it made her give him. "Thank you very much."

Her expression, however, failed to check the words that had already risen to his lips. "Rather than lay myself open to the least appearance of it I'll go this very night."

"Then go," said Kate Croy.
 How did they get there? Let em assure that none of that "means" what the literal sense of the words would have you conclude.

You really need to read this novel.


Can I ask you to do something difficult? Try to forget how you feel about issues of freedom of choice in various contexts for a moment. What I'd like to do is to consider the logical implications of the following two stories.

The first is from a guy I went to university with named  André Picard. He writes about a provocative essay that appeared in the Huffington Post and asked whether breast augmentation surgery was a form of mutilation.
Sure, conditions are far more sanitary at Western plastic-surgery clinics where women’s breasts are sliced and “enhanced” than in dirt-poor villages in the developing world where girls and young women have their clitorises and labia excised ritualistically.

Yes, the breast augmentation is done voluntarily, but then so too is much female genital mutilation. But both practices are driven by ingrained notions of a woman’s place in society, the quest for an ideal of beauty/sexuality and social/religious norms. 
The consequence of believing this, it is important to remember,  would be to suggest that we might take this choice away from women.

Okay but how is this different from getting a  tattoo? Or, to make it really challenging, how is the woman who goes under the knife to get her breasts "enhanced" different from the woman who goes under the knife because she wants to "live as a man"?

Well there is an implied answer to that in the excerpt above. For the objection here is not really to the mutilation but for the reasons it is done. It's not really the mutilation that is objected to but the "ingrained notions of a woman’s place in society" and that is further specified as "the quest for an ideal of beauty/sexuality and social/religious norms".

Hey guys, did you know that you were attracted to large breasts because of social/religious norms? It's funny because when I was fourteen I got the distinct feeling that every social/religious norm out there was chastising me for being so interested in breasts.

And the expression "an ideal of" is doing a lot of work in the phrase "the quest for an ideal of beauty/sexuality". To see how much work, consider the phrase that we get if we take it out:
the quest for beauty/sexuality
No one would question a woman's pursuit of that. By suggesting that it's just "an ideal of", André delegitimizes the woman's choice.

In other words, you are free to choose what you want so long as you choose the right thing.

Here is the second story:
An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal is calling for doctors performing prenatal ultrasounds to conceal the sex of the baby for the first 30 weeks, to curb a trend toward "female feticide" in the Asian community.

While reaction to the idea of withholding such information from parents has been mixed, there appears to be broad agreement that the practice of female feticide should be eliminated.

As above, set aside your beliefs about the issue of abortion for a while and think about the logical implications of this.

For starters, note that it is apparently just fine to single out certain ethnic communities because you find behaviour patterns in these communities troubling. That's a rather big move if you think about it. Ask yourself, for example, if you'd accept a similar line of argument about crime in the black community?

And, again, ask yourself about the freedom of choice issue. If I have a right to do something that means I don't have to justify my reasons for doing it to you or anybody else. My rights cannot be limited simply because others believe I have bad reasons for exercising them or else they would cease to be rights.

A right can be limited if it risks hurting others. But who is hurt in this case? It can't be the fetus or else that would restrict the right to abortion generally. the whole pro-choice argument is founded on the assumption that the fetus has no separate status from its mother. And yet that claim vanishes like steam in this case.

Interim editor-in-chief of the CMAJ Dr. Rajendra Kale writes.
"A woman has the right to medical information about herself . . . (but) the sex of the fetus is medically irrelevant information — except when managing rare sex-linked illnesses — and does not affect care." 
But care of whom? If a woman has control over her own body then the only relevant care issue is what she wants for her body.

Of course we all know that there is a feminist concern here and I'd add that the concern is entirely legitimate. But again, let's consider the logical implications. There has been quite a trend towards feticide in general these last few decades. in fact, if some pro-life group started calling abortion "feticide" you can bet pro-choicers would scream blue murder about how this label was freighting what ought to be an argument about rights with emotion. Why is something that is generally supposed to be a right become wrong when a woman chooses abortion based on the sex of the fetus?

And what about consistency? If we take the pursuit of male children through selective abortion of female fetuses as effecting the rights of women generally then don't we have to take the pursuit of healthy children through the selective abortion of fetuses with a high risk of Down's Syndrome as affecting the rights of those with disabilities generally? Do some identities matter more than others?

Again, the message here is that you have the right to choose so long as you do so for the right reasons.

What are they selling: Another image

So what do you think when you see the following.

I shot this in a bus shelter so it's not the best image but I think we can see enough here to draw some conclusions. Such as, for example, that she's an exceptionally beautiful young woman with large breasts. That's not surprising as she is a model. Oh that poor Vermeer never got to paint her! (And yes, sharp-eyed readers can spot my accidental self portrait dressed for minus 20 degree weather in the reflection off to the left.)

What is surprising is that she seems to have been chosen to represent poverty and I put it to you that no one—especially the people who put this campaign together—ever seriously entertained the thought that her face was the face of poverty for even a nano-second.

Are you prepared to be shocked? Apparently this woman who obviously can afford cool retro-80s clothing, obviously can afford make up and obviously can afford a gym membership cannot afford, wait for it, a loaf of bread!

This is yet another ad that isn't about what it says it's about. It is an ad asking you to make a donation but the reason for doing so is not to help someone else regain the dignity that living in poverty has taken away from them. No one knows better than the Salvation Army what modern urban poverty looks like and that ain't it.

Here's a hint as to what it does look like from the report the Salvation Army prepared when they launched the Dignity Project in Canada about a year ago:
Many individuals that are living in poverty experience difficulty retaining stable employment, due to challenges such as mental health issues and addiction that inhibit their success ...
We could say a lot about that and I will next Monday in a post called "What's wrong with compassion?" For now, suffice to say, organizations like the Salvation Army no longer have any interest in associating realistic images of modern urban poverty with their appeals.  And before we get too hard on them, we should consider that this campaign probably works and that is why they use it. Here is the image that went with that report a year ago:

Same general concept and yet different. I walk by the Salvation Army shelter every Friday morning, by the way, and vast majority of those I see are men. The few women most definitely do not wear make-up  nor wear clothing anything like the young woman above.

But the man above isn't right either. He isn't smoking for starters. And he looks familiar doesn't he. Well, he'll look familiar to anyone old enough to have seen Peter Falk play Columbo. And while a Columbo lookalike probably doesn't pull in as much as the hot babe does, he does share something with her that I'll get to below.

What I'd like to suggest is that the ad works because it unintentionally succeeds on a different level from what it appears to be doing. To get that second sense, let's crop it just a smidge following the dividing line the creators have helpfully provided for us:

Now we can see that the picture is really aspirational. For even if we were to convince ourselves, against all odds, that she really was poor it would still be painfully clear that she doesn't need any help achieving dignity. She is a hip urban woman who embodies dignity and you, the unconscious suggestion goes, can also achieve dignity by donating to the Salvation Army. There is our potential donor at the bus stop in between her hot yoga session and the fair trade tea she is going to treat herself to when she gets home and her good friends at the Sally Ann feed her the perfect image of what she hopes she can be and associates that image with giving and something else.

The something else is religion. For cropping the picture like this also emphasizes the worshipful quality of it. The woman is reaching up. It's a content-free religion which isn't surprising in this day and age nor is it surprising from the Salvation Army which, while it definitely has a doctrine of belief, has long abandoned promoting that doctrine publicly. But it's perfect for someone who has found her yoga class meaningful but might wonder about the complete lack of any moral uplift associated with it. A problem that can me made to go away with a single donation ... "we accept all major credit cards; our operators are waiting".

The project manifesto gives it away:

I believe that:

  • Everyone should have access to life’s basic necessities
  • Poverty is a scourge on society that puts dignity out of reach
  • People’s lives change when they are treated with dignity
  • Everyone has a right to a sense of dignity
  • The fight against poverty deserves my personal attention

Think about point #4 for a while: "Everyone has a right to a sense of dignity". That's one of those claims that means less the more you think about it. What is "a sense of dignity"? Why not say "Everyone has the right to dignity?" Well, to say that would kinda give it away wouldn't it? Charlie Sheen clearly as a sense of dignity but he doesn't actually have much dignity. The way it's put above hides the fact that dignity is a human achievement and there cannot, as a consequence, be a right to it. At most their might be a right to the pursuit of dignity (a point Jefferson fully grasped 236 years ago).

But a sense of dignity well that's something else. To believe in that doesn't require that we think even a second about what modern urban poverty—a phenomenon caused mostly by single-parent families, addiction and mental illness—is really like or about whether a loaf of bread would really make any difference. No, all this ad wants to make you think about is yourself and who you want to be.