Monday, April 30, 2012

... and the order of the world is shaken

I just finished praying the Office for daytime and the second Psalm was 382 and it is described as a "Denunciation of evil judges". It is that but it is also, and perhaps more relevantly for most of us, a warning not to judge or condemn others unfairly.

Anyway, it features this magnificent couplet:
Unperceiving, they grope in the darkness
and the order of the world is shaken.
Do you see that as the consequence of your judgments?

Replay

Years ago I was in a relationship with a woman who had betrayed me and badly hurt me. And then ... then nothing.

It was one of those things you play and replay in your mind.

She wouldn't apologize except in that mealy mouthed way of saying"I'm sorry you were hurt" instead of "I'm sorry I was a heartless jerk". What goes with that is a lack of penitence. For even if you can't make it right, any real apology should be accompanied a desire to make it right enough to make you suffer. And she didn't. And I kept waiting for her to do something.

And then your mind starts playing tricks on you. First you think, maybe if I let her see how much I'm hurt she'll do something. But nothing changes and then you think, all I managed to project is weakness.

Or you start thinking, she isn't doing anything because her pride is in the way. She doesn't think of herself as the sort of person who does bad things so calling her on it has only made her defensive and angry. So you try to be supportive. But nothing changes and then you think, all I managed to project is weakness.

And then she makes a gesture and you are grateful for the gesture and you let it show. But nothing changes and then you think, all I managed to project is weakness.

So you try to convince her to do more than make a gesture and she responds by saying we need to work on this together. But that turns out to be a passive aggressive trick to make you shoulder half the responsibility for making things better when it was entirely her fault they went wrong in the first place. So nothing changes and then you think, all I managed to project is weakness.

Of course, everyone uses these tricks.  There isn't a trick here that I haven't pulled on someone I should have treated better at some point. It's the relentlessness and single-mindedness of it that is unusual. Over and over again, the only thing that mattered to her was her.

But it hurts decades later. I can have whole stupid fights in my head leading to the same roadblock and the same sense of helplessness and failure because all I managed to project is weakness.

In a novel, you could make this go round and round forever. In real life too. Because it's never in your hands.

Mad Men: At The Codfish Ball

Finally, a good episode. They even managed to make Roger's LSD trip made a certain sense.

Here's the weird thing: This was episode 7 and last year "The Suitcase" was episode 7. Just in case you don't remember, that was the episode from last year that gave us sudden insight into what was going on in everyone's heads and set up the rest of the season to blow us away.

Mind you, last year had been pretty good up until now and this year has been crappy, so I don't want to get my hopes up too high. At the very least though, we can start hoping that the show will stop sucking as badly as it has been this year. Maybe.

First, a little Canadian corner. There was a beautiful moment when Peggy said to Megan, "I don't know what the Canadian equivalent of baseball is," and Megan said, "We have baseball." Canadians love that.

Some might object that Megan's parents are really Parisians disguised as Montrealers but that is what most Montreal intellectuals were like in 1966.

By the way, that scene with Peggy and Megan? Did you catch it? I mean, did you catch the way the show played with our sexual stereotypes? Up until then it had been feeding us feminist propaganda where the men are all competitive and undercutting one another and the women are all supportive of one another. And then, they let the slip show and we saw Peggy's reaction after Megan walked out and we saw that Peggy may have said the supportive stuff but she didn't really feel it.

That kinda makes you wonder how Joan reacted after Peggy was out of sight. She said all these supportive things but you wonder if maybe Joan doesn't get tired of being a mother all the time.

Both sides. This show as really great because it kept showing you both sides.

And it used history brilliantly. For example, when Peggy and Abe break it to Peggy's mother that they are living together. You can feel how Peggy feels about her mother's reaction and how old-fashioned it must all feel to Peggy; you can feel how morally vindicated Peggy must feel. And yet, we know this modern stuff didn't work out so well. We know that all this brave new world stuff didn't turn out quite right.

There were also lots of brilliant little touches. Those brand new pajamas that Don wears because Megan's parents are over. And I loved Peggy's weird but all too typical clothing choice when she goes to see Abe at the dinner where he suggests they move in together. Empire waists look great on straight up and down girls. Peggy looked pregnant in hers. She tried that dress on at the store and she would have seen that. She might not have reasoned it through—but she would have felt it. Meanwhile Abe shows up in the leather jacket signalling bachelorhood only now with steady and easy access to Peggy for sex. We can see the very different expectations that they are bringing to this in those clothing choices.

Whose interest did the sexual revolution serve again? Oh yeah, women threw off the shackles of marriage. Right. Cause that is what women really wanted.

I saw one flaw? Or is it a flaw? Maybe it is inevitable that a show like this would unconsciously project too many modern sensitivities into the past.

Here is the thing. I was on the bus yesterday shamelessly eavesdropping on the young woman behind me talking to her friend. She and her guy are moving in together. And she was telling her friend about it and about telling her mother.But she had this doubt. You see her guy has hooked up with two other girls while in a relationship with the woman I was eavesdropping on. One of them was named Patricia and the young woman clearly very intimidated by Patricia's sexual power. What she wasn't was angry.

Things didn't used to be that way. Yes, most of the stuff that young people think they invented has gone on forever. Did you catch the lovely harmonic dissonance between the Heinz world where everything is the same and, to pick only one, the moment when Peggy's mother asks to Peggy and Abe if they really are so stupid to think they are the first ones to do this.

Well, I don't think the moment when Megan's mother gives Roger the blowjob was credible. It's not that they wouldn't have had sex nor is it that it wouldn't have ended up one sided. No, it was the speed that it went from flirting at the bar to tawdry. That is the sort of thing some young woman today would do. In the past, we paid more attention to convention. Roger would have had to pay much more lip service to convention before she paid lip service to ....

Two final thoughts for now.

Thought one: written by Jonathan Igla and directed by Michael Uppendahl. Igla wrote the brilliant "Tomorrowland" episode. Uppendahl has a mixed record with the show, directing the brilliant "The Beautiful Girls" but also the awful "The Color Blue". The director, however, is at the mercy of the writing so we shouldn't be too hard on him. What he is really good at is creating that eerie unsettling noir feeling without resorting to film noir clichés to achieve it. And last night he excelled. But the thing is, Matt Weiner wasn't a writer on this one and I have to wonder if that didn't help.

Last week, The Last Psychiatrist was picking on Don Draper, as he often does, but he let something slip and that was that he doesn't see any difference between Don Draper and Tony Soprano. Of course, part of that problem is Matt Weiner's doing. He isn't very good at both sides and, at his worst, everyone gets reduced to a variation on a small set of basic human types when Weiner has too much influence on the show.

Yeah, I know, it is his show. But Weiner is a mile wide and a quarter inch deep and he needs to let others have more input so the show can have some depth. 

Thought two: here is Shirley Temple singing At the Codfish Ball.



Wow what innocence. And it's Shirley Temple dancing with Buddy Ebsen. Both those names carry a lot of freight. But watch what happens at 2:38. Really. Just watch. Freeze the frame and look at what you see. Then watch the reactions afterwards.

You'll be disgusted but don't get angry with me. I didn't put that moment into a movie for children. Hollywood did. So here is the question. The most wonderful bit in this wonderful episode was the wind up where everyone who has been feeling so good gets this big reversal and they realize that The Copfish Ball isn't such a good thing all culminating in a nice touch when Sally calls calls the creep at the end and he asks how the city is and she says, "Dirty." Wonderful use of dramatic irony. But is it really the city that is dirty or is it the entertainment industry? Is the dirt here really in the advertising industry or is it in the minds of the people who produce entertainment and projected onto our world?

I mean, how did that moment of pedophilia get into a Shirley temple movie? It wasn't her idea; she couldn't have understood what was happening. But someone understood and put it in there. Why do we let them get away with making us think it's our fault?

Friday, April 27, 2012

A little light culture: Justify my love?

The thing we want to believe and the argument we use to justify it are two separate things. It's easy to believe that they are closely tied and if one goes the other must go with it.

Which brings me to Madonna and Lady Gaga. Both popstars argue for sexual freedom and tolerance of others' sexual preferences. You can agree or disagree with their position but both use incredibly stupid arguments to back it up.

Consider, for example, this stupid Madonna quote:
Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.
It's from a song called "Justify My Love" and it is plain from the context that the pleasures  in question are sexual. Well, which sexual pleasures don't depend on the permission of another? There's masturbation and there is rape. Everything else depends on the permission of another.

Madonna probably meant to say something more like, "Poor is the person* who needs society's permission to enjoy the kinds of sex they want." That's clunkier. And it's still stupid. How do you learn that rape is wrong if not from society?

And even a casual study of consenting adults who engage in unconventional sex shows just how important rules and permissions are in sex. People who do dominance-submission games, for example, use "safe words" so that the submissive can tell the dominant that she really wants him to stop this time. It's a tricky issue: If you want to play a game where one partner only pretends to mean it when she says "no" how does she really say "no". The answer is by saying some word that wouldn't normally come up during sex. "Tangerine" or "Fez" for example.

The further you get away from conventional sex, the more rules and permissions you need. The couple with absolutely conventional sexual tastes, on the other hand, can both rely on the their instincts because their desires and expectations will conform closely to what the other considers normal. The rules are still there but they are invisible. For them, sex is like math class is for the kid who really loves math—they don't need rules to make them go to class or to make them study. It's when you have unconventional tastes and wants that you have to negotiate rules and permissions.

(I used to mix with people with unconventional tastes back in my twenties but got bored with them surprisingly quickly. There is a point where they get to be just like moral scolds who hate sex. They have so many personal rules and things they just can't or won't do that it gets to be monotonous and constricting**. Both Madonna and Lady Gaga are like that; they are very preachy and moralistic about their views. Though both claim to be about freedom, they'd cheerfully impose their beliefs on you and even send people to jail for dissenting.)

Lady Gaga, a disciple of Madonna's, makes another but equally stupid argument in "Born This Way". The argument that it is okay to be X because you were born that way is beyond stupid. We spend billions of dollars teaching children not to behave the way they are born and a good thing too. As someone once quipped, it's a good thing two-year old children are small and helpless because a muscular, two-hundred pound two year old would kill you in one of their rages.

It may still be okay to be X, of course, but the claim that it's okay because some people are born that way is insane.



* I'm assuming that Madonna was  just being old-fashioned in her use of non-inclusive language: "Poor is the man ...." But I shouldn't preclude the possibility, given the context, that the song actually is based on a rape fantasy of Madonna's and she is effectively saying to her imagined partner, "Don't ask. Just take me." If Madonna and I ever end up at the same party or I notice her hanging from the next strap down on the bus at rush hour, I'll ask her and report back.

** The flip side of this is that those ordinary and reputedly "boring" people with "vanilla" tastes are actually quite varied in their sex lives. They can easily slip into role playing games without a whole lot of stage setting and rules ahead of time. A woman bringing her husband coffee, mockingly pretends to be the the young and inexperienced waitress and he plays along with her, then, even though she hadn't planned anything, she gets a twinkle in her eye as she realizes this could be fun and he, recognizing the twinkle, pushes things the next step and .... That sort of role playing is actually much easier for people with conventional heterosexual tastes because they can assume not just a whole set of rules but also have a whole lot of familiar roles and games they can draw on. You can find out for yourself if you have to, but there is nothing more restricting than trying to be completely free of social convention.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Boyz Gone Wild

"Boyz gone wild". That, seriously, was the headline on a piece in last weekend's paper. And just that inversion of replacing the girls who go wild with boys tells you that there is a serious attempt at revisionism going on here. I mean, weren't boys already supposed to be wild? The whole point of the "Girls gone wild" soft-core porn franchise was that this was unusual behaviour for girls. If the girls on your campus behaved that way, you wouldn't need to buy the videos 'cause you could see it right outside your dorm room.

To say that boys have gone wild is to make a claim that boys today are acting worse than has been the case in the past. So the obvious question is: What evidence is given for this claim? Answer: None at at all. The article and the various "experts" quoted in it simply assume the thing is true. If you already think men are the problem, then this article is for you.

Here is the teaser the Globe ran at the top of the article:
In a 'raunch culture' where most boys see porn before they're out of grade school, will they end up as disrespectful pigs? Zoisa Bielski reports on a new wave of educators seeking ways to build better men.
You read the question in the first sentence thinking that the article might set out to answer it. But the second sentence already assumes that the answer is "yes". Once again, we are being told that men are the problem.(And notice the casual assumption that educators have any business building "better men".)

Before we go any further, a little reality check is needed. Put yourself in the place of a Martian anthropologist for a moment. You have some background on sex roles in past centuries and you have also studied the ways boys and girls have typically behaved in recent decades. Okay, you arrive on the street in a typical North American town keen to determine the effects of 'raunch culture' on boys and girls. Okay, look around a bit at the way boys and girls dress and act. Which group are you likely to conclude most affected by 'raunch culture'?

Put it that way and the question answers itself. Something about girls in skin-tight leggings, push up bras and deep, plunging necklines makes it all obvious.

By the way, the one "fact" cited in that teaser is wrong. The data cited in the article says that one third of both boys and girls age 10 or younger had seen sexual images online. You don't get most until you get to high school not grade school. And, again the British survey cited says that both boys and girls had seen sexual images on line. So why are we so worried about boys again?

We might also wonder at the terms used. The vast majority of boys and girls had looked at "sexual images" (whatever that means) on line. That means they were curious. Given how easy it is, you'd be more surprised if they hadn't looked. There is no evidence in this article to suggest that they use porn regularly. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. We don't know on the sketchy evidence given here.

The trick here is a classic one for nanny prohibitionists. Anyone who remembers the "war on drugs" will remember how the study that (unsurprisingly for anyone who went to high school) found that most kids had tried marijuana would morph into proof that most kids were regularly using the stuff and ready to move on to heroin at the first opportunity. Similarly, the claim that most kids have done some binge drinking becomes a claim that they are all waking up face down in their own vomit 365 mornings a year. That trying drugs, experimenting with binge drinking and being curious about porn are all normal things for a teenager doesn't seem to cross these busybodies' minds.

Feminism by other means
We get our first hint at the real project in this paragraph:
It's a fine tightrope walk, to discuss these subjects without vilifying men, emasculating or using the dreaded F-word – feminism. That's tricky, given that the new programs for guys only “exist because of feminism,” according to Prof. Messner, author of It's All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports. He argues that although few young men today would self-identify as feminists (and neither would many of their female peers), a lot of them would agree with feminist positions on issues such as equal pay or violence against women. 
This is just feminism by other means. Having failed with girls, feminists are turning their attention to boys. Most girls are no longer listening to feminists and some are reclaiming traditional sex roles despite feminists' hopes to the contrary so who can they blame*. If you have a penis, they are coming for you: you will either be assimilated or vilified. Good luck!

I love, by the way, the description of opposing "violence against women" as a "feminist position". This gets dropped in as if there was legitimate reason to believe that most boys would have been in favour of violence against women and what a wonderful surprise that they agree with wise feminists on the issue. As if no one in the history of the world had thought that men using violence against women was wrong until feminists came and showed us the light. What a tragedy, then, that the word feminism has become "tainted".

That couldn't have anything to do with actual faults with feminism so boys and men are the problem. Prepare to be "solved" guys.

What is sex really like?
I defy anyone to read the article and find anything other than anecdotal evidence that boys are acting any more raunchy than they have in previous decades. There isn't any. And if we read carefully, we will note an admission of this in the quotes Bielski uses:
While that kind of machismo might have been more acute in decades past, “it's not a lot better either” today, Prof. Messner says. “We still contend with sexist hyper-masculinity as a dominant force on campuses.” 
Whoops, you mean it hasn't gotten worse? That it's probably better? That your real complaint is that things haven't moved far enough in the direction you want them to move? That's pretty pathetic.

And we get that sort of dishonesty all the way through. Look at this "expert quote":
“Two clicks away and you're watching people have sex, all kinds of ways of women being degraded,” laments Pam Krause, executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre. “Is there a message in urinating on a woman's face? If your parents aren't talking about sex with you, and you aren't getting good sex ed at school, that might be your first and perhaps only context for sex and sexuality for a while.” 
We haven't even established that kids are watching all that much porn and we are already onto claims that they are watching seriously degrading porn.(And I love the way that first sentence moves from "people have sex" to "women  being degraded"; you begin to wonder if Krause just finds sex degrading.)

How many teenage boys do you suppose go looking for extreme porn of the type Krause describes? I know porn that shows people being urinated upon exists because I saw it in an art gallery once. Yes, in an art gallery. It was gay porn (which probably makes it just fine for some) and it was the work of Robert Maplethorpe. I'm sure that you could find heterosexual porn of that type online if you really wanted to but you'd have to dig for it.

Most porn is of young women getting naked and doing erotic things such as masturbating or having sex. That is what most boys (and men) want to see: nude girls. At no time in his life does any man get to see as many naked teen girls getting aroused as he wants. (The number one search for on-line porn is for teen girls.)

The real rub for Pam Krause and those who think like her is in the last sentence of the paragraph I quote above.
"... If your parents aren't talking about sex with you, and you aren't getting good sex ed at school, that [porn] might be your first and perhaps only context for sex and sexuality for a while.”
 Yes, it probably is. And? Because a sex ed class is going to give us a more accurate representation than porn? In some ways yes but most boys (and girls) can figure that out. The problem is that they also know that they are being lied to in some ways. They are being told that sex is is this wonderfully egalitarian thing where women seek validation, love and respect and nothing else. Meanwhile every teenaged girl in the class secretly fantasizes about scenarios that aren't quite like that.

Here is the thing: Fifty Shades of Grey. It's selling like hotcakes to women. And, contrary to what you may have read, the vast majority of buyers are young, single women not suburban housewives. Why is it selling so well. Part of the answer is that it is available electronically. That young women no longer have to go to a store and actually slap the book with the lurid cover down on the counter to buy it has a lot to do with the sales. But that only explains why women are suddenly buying porn. It doesn't explain why they are buying this porn. It doesn't explain why they are buying mediocre writing about a woman being submissive and then telling all their friends that it will make their sex lives better to read this book.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that all women are turned on by tales of dominant-submissive sex in which the woman is submissive. But lots of women are. This is not a surprise; a ridiculous amount of research on women's sexual fantasies has shown similar trends there. As I've said before, women who like to be submissive in bed are about as rare as guys who like watching professional sports.

Let's get the false dichotomy out of the way and then reconsider the issues. If we are to believe Pam Krause we have (only) two alternatives: We can either educate boys according to feminist principles or we can let boys watch porn of women being urinated upon. Now what do you think the chances are that there is some territory between those two extremes?

Fans of Monty Python will remember the sketch where a guy makes all sorts of suggestive remarks—"say no more, say no more"—only to reveal that what he really wants is to know what sex is really like. That is what kids want and, unless they are stupid, they will quickly begin to suspect that neither their parents nor their sex ed class is really telling them the truth. Porn won't either but it will give them a powerful hint that there is whole world of sex out there that their teachers and parents aren't telling them about. And there is!




* This sentence has been tweaked because I decided the original missed the point.

At what point does anti-racism become indistinguishable from racism?

A question inspired by a perceptive remark  from Ann Althouse about the fantastic lengths the press went to impose a racial narrative on the Trayvon Martin shooting:
Ironically, anti-Zimmermania featured attacks on him for (suppposedly) shooting impulsively because of race, but the attacks on him were themselves shooting impulsively because of race.
It is ironic but it would probably would be less so if we better understood that being anti-anything carries risks. We tend to be defined by the things we are focused on and if we spend a lot of time and effort focusing on what we don't like those things we don't like will start to define us.

A classic bit of advice from motorcycle training: Don't look directly at the thing you don't want to hit.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portrait: Is young Stephen Dedalus good? Likeable?

After the opening, we quickly move to young Stephen's being sent away to school. This is a standard sort of passage in a coming of age story and it had been written hundreds of times before Joyce had his shot at it. Like the classic moment in western movies when there is a river crossing or a funeral, or the first kiss in a love story, there is a whole lot of stuff that necessarily comes along with it.  Stuff like this:
 He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.
Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Sallins
County Kildare
Ireland
Eiurope
The World
The Universe
And pretty soon he will be worrying about infinity. Every kid does this and more than one author has stuck this into a story of childhood. This isn't weakness or cliché on Joyce's part. We expect and even demand that this sort of stuff be in such a story. To not find here would be like a western movie without a gun duel or a romance without a marriage at the end.

The boy away at school had already been written often enough by the time that Joyce got to it that there were already established variations on the basic story. The one he gives us is of the sensitive boy who would never be good at games.
He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery. Rody Kickham was not like that: he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said.
Lots of stories feature this sensitive type. To pick the most obvious example, there is George Arthur in the old chestnut Tom Brown's School Days who is very much like Stephen right down to the battle with a fever.

Only George Arthur is actually at risk from the fever. Young Stephen is merely ill and the possible death is all part of his narcissistic fantasy. And I'm sorry but it is narcissistic. Perhaps not unusually so—what child has not fantasized about dying and all the people coming to their funeral. What makes it narcissistic is that we all forget, when indulging in this sort of thing, that we wouldn't be there for the funeral.

And while it is normal to have this experience, we do have to wonder about this sort of event being an important part of someone's moral formation. That little Billy felt this way at eleven is fine but if twenty-five year old Bill is still telling himself and others this story to explain who he is and why he became that person, I think we're entitled to think maybe something has gone wrong. For whatever reason, Joyce chose to tell us this little sequence and to leave out a lot of others from Stephen's days at Clongowes.

Stephen will even become very pious just like George Arthur but only for a while. He'll eventually become an artist instead of the sensitive religious type. And it is the being an artist rather than any capacity to produce art that matters here. It is artist as a way of life that matters. Heavily influenced by George Moore and Oscar Wilde, Joyce is one a of a whole bunch of artists who promoted this new way of being.

Historically, the big difference is that the sensitive religious type represented by George Arthur has not been much liked while the sensitive artist type represented by Stephen Dedalus has been much admired. Admired by intellectuals that is; most guys hate the type.

Stephen's encounter with Wells does not reflect well on Wells, of course, but Stephen doesn't show much character here either:
Then he went away from the door and Wells came over to Stephen and said:

  —Tell us, Dedalus, do you kiss your mother before you go to bed?

Stephen answered:

  —I do.
Wells turned to the other fellows and said:

  —O, I say, here's a fellow says he kisses his mother every night before he goes to bed.
The other fellows stopped their game and turned round, laughing. Stephen blushed under their eyes and said:

  —I do not.
Wells said:

  —O, I say, here's a fellow says he doesn't kiss his mother before he goes to bed.
They all laughed again. Stephen tried to laugh with them. He felt his whole body hot and confused in a moment. What was the right answer to the question? He had given two and still Wells laughed.
Yes, Wells is bullying Stephen but this is mild bullying of the sort that every child should be able to deal with. It's the way Stpehen deals with it that bothers me. He doesn't worry about kissing his mother and whether there is an age a boy should move past that (a question he might answer no to in private defiance of Wells) but rather tries to come up with the answer that will get him approval from other boys.  

How much did Joyce buy into the sensitive artist type himself? That is hard to say and it may not matter. What I mean is that this isn't a fact to discover so much as a lens to read the novel through. You can choose to identify Stephen with Joyce and read this novel as the promotion of a way of life. Or you can read Stephen as a creation and step back and examine him for flaws and question whether one should live the way he does.

I take the second approach. I think, Okay, he is young and small—he is a first-year boy after all—but what is he going to do about it? Hiding and not trying, as Stephen does, strikes me as normal enough but it also strikes me as something to grow out of. I think the sensitive artist type who endures school, never gets even moderately good at games and maintains a sense of self worth by feeling morally superior to bullies is a morally repulsive type all too typical of this ghastly age and, at this point at least, Stephen Dedalus seems like an all-too-typical example of one of these runty little twerps.

How many deaths does it take to count as a "toll"?

Crazy over-dramatic headline of the day comes from the CBC. Where they should have written, "Second death on BC sawmill fire", our taxpayer supported broadcaster came up with this:





That's sort of like saying "Village population doubles as second resident moves in".

The question though is this: Is this just incompetence or does it tell us something about the deep cynicism that prevails at the CBC that these things mean so little to them that they couldn't be bothered using words correctly?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sorta political: Directing your contempt at the right target

A while ago a famous clairvoyant went bankrupt. There was much snarking in the media that "she didn't see it coming". Keep that thought in mind as you read the following:
What was billed as one of the most hotly contested elections in recent memory instead turned into a success for Ms. Redford, whose majority victory cemented the country's longest-running political dynasty. 
Note the use of passive voice here. One of the things that all journalists are taught is not to use passive voice in a  news story.  The reason is simple: passive voice tells you that something happened without telling you who was responsible for making it happen. There are places where passive voice is an appropriate choice but not in a news story. Any time a news story tells you something was billed as something they should tell you who did the billing!

All the more so given that the answer to the obvious journalistic question, "Who did this billing?" is journalists! The Globe and Mail, where the above sentence appeared, was one of the prime offenders. They got this story as wrong as they possibly could have gotten and, shameless swine that they are, they are hiding this by their use of passive voice.

We should have nothing but contempt for most Canadian journalists this morning.

For weeks now they have led us in a wild narrative of rising and falling fortunes of the parties. First, they told us that the PCs were ahead. Then they told us that the Wildrose Party was surging. And now they are telling us that a last second surge to stop Wildrose turned everything around. And they are doing this on the basis of zero evidence. There is nothing whatsoever to justify any of this. For all we know, there may have been no change whatsoever in support throughout the campaign; the PCs may have gotten exactly the same number of votes they would have gotten had the election taken place on the first, third or twelfth day of the campaign. Journalists, like the clairvoyant, are frauds abusing our confidence to take our money.

You need to read that Globe story and see just how utterly awful it is (as of right now anyway, it may get "improved" as the day goes on). The Serpentine One, reading behind me, just pointed out this sentence:
It [the PC victory] amounted to a clear centrist mandate for Ms. Redford at a time when Alberta's role in Canada is as prominent as ever.
That sentence, as she pointed out, is absolutely meaningless. Look at the phrase "is as prominent as ever" for example. Meaning what exactly? Is there another province whose role isn't as prominent or, alternatively as insignificant as ever?

And, while we are at it, why is there so much editorializing in a news story? (That by the way, is probably why that sentence is so vague: if the Globe had come clean about what they meant by "centrist mandate" it would painfully obvious they were sermonizing and not reporting.

The lack of self awareness here is stunning. Read this assessment of the performance of Wild Rose.
Although the upstart Wildrose Party will form the official opposition, it fell short of expectations: both its own, and those of pollsters, most of whom were forecasting a Wildrose win. 
Notice who is forgotten again: journalists. They also were forecasting a much stronger performance for Wildrose. And catch the gratuitous modifier here:  "the upstart Wildrose Party." It's not like "upstart" carries any connotations or anything.

But suppose the media had done their job correctly here? Suppose they had started the story with an honest mea culpa admitting that they had gotten the story wrong all these weeks? That would change the tone a little. Esp[ecially when we hit this fascinating little detail buried in the last half of the story:
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was gracious in defeat, saying her party came a long way from four years ago – when it didn’t run a full slate and didn’t see a single candidate elected.
Four years ago, the party didn't win a single seat! Four years ago they couldn't even muster a full slate of candidates! And now they are the official opposition!

That 2008 election, by the way,w as the first ever election for the party which was officially registered that year. Also by the way, they not only rose from nothing to become the official opposition, they won twice as many seats as the party they replace as official opposition.

You probably could write a worse story than The Globe and Mail cranked out but you'd have to really work at it. They are like

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mad Men second thoughts: Give the people what they want

If you read Julia Turner's response over at Slate you'll see that she and I saw the same show. We saw exactly the same show. The only difference is that she liked it.

And her response tells you a lot about the news and entertainment world view that I think made the episode so unsatisfactory. Here's a few quotes with comments.
This was an episode with two marvelous set pieces—Roger’s excellent adventure with Jane, and Don’s Howard Johnson noir—but it was fundamentally about the families you make, and how it feels when they fall apart.
Because they always fall apart? I get the sense that Ms. Turner isn't any more capable of conceiving of a family that doesn't fall apart anymore than the writers of Mad Men are.
The more delightful of the two—and perhaps one of the most delightful scenes in Mad Men history—was Roger and Jane’s brutally honest acid trip.
Ah yes, "the brutally honest acid trip". Because that's what acid is all about people: brutal honesty.  No one who'd ever been around people on acid would ever write such crap. People on acid are often brutal but never honest. Mostly they are boring and stupid because they have ingested a drug that causes their brain to malfunction.

It's an old illusion (think of in vino veritas) but people who use drugs to get screwy don't become more honest, more insightful or play better music. They just get screwed up. Sometimes permanently.

They are almost as dishonest as TV writers who've written themselves into a corner and need some sort of magic trick to get out.

And Turner just loved Megan's despair:
When they reunite after Don’s night of terrified brooding under that garish orange roof, I loved and was crushed by Jessica Pare’s final heartbroken line reading: “Every time we fight it just diminishes this whole thing.”
You have to feel sorry for a generation that grows up thinking like that. No wonder so many of them are such losers.

Back to Turner's reaction to Roger's scene again:
The scene was full of great visual detail—Bert Cooper on the dollar bill, Jane’s midriff-baring let’s-go-tripping getup—and in that final, superbly written conversation, it managed to get Roger and Jane (who became a real character here, as rarely before) where they need to be (and where we need them to be): apart.
Every relationship is a tabloid relationship. Blissful love, marriage, maybe a baby, then on to the recognition that they need to be "apart". That's the "happy" story. The unhappy story is the one where the the couple don't realize they need to be "apart" so they "fall apart"; the only thing you can be sure of is that ends with people apart. That's the way it is in news and entertainment land. And the unhappiness that inevitably comes with this in real life—look up the divorce rate for third marriages if you think a real-life Roger would really be happier "apart"— that unhappiness is all, well, not their fault. It's certainly nothing to worry about.

And note that even Turner knows what is really going on here. "It managed to get Roger and Jane ... apart." She likes the scene because it gets Roger back to where he can be the character we know and love and that is what Turner likes about it. That is why she is willing to stomach the notion that people could take drugs and then work everything out and come back to earth all straightened out seriously.It's just a narrative trick to get us back to normal without actually, you know, actually working things through in the drama.

I kept thinking of an episode on the Simpsons where Lisa looks at the situation they are in and sinks into despair and Bart reassures her by telling her to worry because no matter how weird things get they always are back to normal by the start of the next show the following Thursday. And that is all the writers have done here is to inject a bunch of weirdness so they can get back to normal. Just put the red shoes on, click your heels together and think "there is no place like home".

A friend of mine did a lot of acid his first year at MIT. His only year at MIT. One day he locked himself in his room and the fire department had to break the door down to get him out. It's fun talking to him now. Sort of like talking into an empty box. And then there was my cousin Amy. Life not on drugs was never good enough for her after her first acid trip. She tried a whole lot of different drugs including a lot more acid until one day she went into a diabetic coma because she had been too busy getting high to remember about the insulin and her husband, who watched it happen, was too stoned to dial 911 so she died. That's the kind of brutal honesty that comes with acid.

Even good trips consisted of people standing around and saying "Wow man, that's so deep." If you asked them what "that" was, they couldn't tell you.

It's funny how people criticize the world Mad Men began with. That world was so "racist" and "sexist" and it "had to change". This is why the sixties "had to happen" if you buy into the mythology. Well, the sixties had to change too. If the 1950s were unsustainable, the period from 1967 to 1972 was even more so. (A good argument could be made that the real story of those years will be how everything was put back together again. Yes the world of the 1950s couldn't last but the chaos left after it fell apart was even worse so we elected Reagan in 1980. That's not a popular hypothesis in news and entertainment land but it's more plausible than the 1960s mythology is.)

The people who love these shows often say how novelistic they are. They certainly use a lot of novelistic techniques. But there is no story arc. The story isn't going anywhere.. It just rumbles along until the network gives up and then the writers have to cobble some sort of ending for it all. Which, oddly enough, is exactly how all the marriages in this series play out.

A Martian anthropologist studying the earth with only the radio and television signals that reached Mars would never guess that most first marriages succeed. And neither can Julia Turner or the writers of Mad Men. They may as well be on Mars for all they have in common with the rest of us.

Mad Men: Far Away Places

I'm not going to look it up.

I'm not going to look up whether any babies were ever born in concentration camps. That's what they want you to do. I'm not go and look up if it ever happened even though it should have been impossible. I'm not going to look anything up. I'm just going to type my response to the episode out stream of consciousness style.

What does this all add up to? Does it need to add up to anything? Is this all desperation as the makers shake everything up just to try and get a fresh start going?

The show is actually getting to the part of the 1960s that I have conscious memories of. I remember driving I-95 and stopping at Hojos. We did that trip hundreds of times between 1966 and 1971 and we'd stop at Hojos. No one ever bought the back-scratcher for kids though.

Hojos had these great gifts for parents to buy kids. There was the saltwater taffy, there were kaleidoscopes, there were sea monkeys and there was the back scratcher. The last adults got for themselves. Those were the reliable ones you could always find.

There was a time when I thought the 95 was connected to speed because that was the speed my father would drive it in the big Chrysler and Dodge cars he favoured in those days. There was a Dodge Polara was a beast of a car. It was an unassuming sedan on the outside but it could smoke and we would pass every car on the road. My father had a  way of driving in a really controlled way so that even while you were smoking along it felt slow. He'd have one hand on the top of the wheel and he moved in and out of the passing lane so smoothly. And the radio would be on and fill the car with a green glow and it all felt like a  dream.

Anyway, back to our plot. It was at this point in the 1960s that rock and roll started to run out of gas. Having tried every variation from the limited range of possibilities that rock and roll offers, producers and bands started doing weird things, strange instruments, tape effects, voice filters. I mention that because it feels to me that that is what the show tried last night.

Everything felt like a cheat. Roger and Jane try LSD and then, while they are high, say things they never otherwise would, and suddenly they are going to get divorced. Deus ex machina anyone?

Peggy tries to fire a client and then starts imitating Don. She goes to his office and drinks and then she goes to the movies and then she has casual sex. And, after all this, she turns around and calls her boyfriend and suddenly everything is okay again.

Don and Jane run away and have a fight. They get separated and then they get back together again.

Finally, Bert shows up at the office and tells Don he isn't doing enough. And he hasn't been. But that is entirely because the writers are feeling boxed in by all this domesticity. That's always been a problem with the show. It just dies when it goes domestic. It lives at the office. (That's a big part of why so many people hate Betty. She never appeared at the office. Jane was on the same dead end track.)

The show has been stuck in a rut so far this season. Are the writers signalling that they are going to try something new? Or are they just looking for a way back to the tried and true? No matter what they do, they don't know how to get there so they cheated last night.

You have to wonder sometimes whether anyone in the entertainment business has ever seen a successful marriage. Confronted about Betty, Matt Weiner said that he thought lots of people had mothers like her and that the hatred people rained on her was undeserved. But mothers weren't like that at all. They were home. You went home and your mother was there.

Sometimes she'd make you eat beans and beans were awful especially the ones that came in a can. But that was the price you paid for comfort and lots of people who grew up that era remember those beans fondly. There was also canned spaghetti which was, if anything worse than canned beans and it was always so much better when she made real spaghetti.

I know, I know, this is where everyone's feminist brain kicks in and says that it was all horrible and the mothers were all unhappy because they couldn't be at work and ... and ... and ... and. But even if things changed for the better in some ways (and for the worse in others) the fact is that world existed and mothers and fathers and kids managed to be happy in it.

I thought the most telling moment in the show last night was Don and Megan's big fight. They yell at one another, they chased one another around the apartment and then they fall in a heap. And Don tries to make up, says it was just a fight and Megan responds,
Every time we fight it just diminishes this a little bit.
And then Don confesses how scared he was of losing Megan and suddenly we are okay again. But look at that line of Megan's. People in successful marriages fight all the time. They sometimes get overheated and say and do stupid things. But then they work it out, come to some sort of resolution and move on together. The writers at Mad Men have no idea how to portray that. Perhaps they have never seen that.

But that statement of Megan's is the sort of thing that someone who doesn't know how to make it work would say. 

What hurts most is how close this show comes to getting it right. The truth was right there on the I-95. You see, back then families drove on the big interstates and other highways and it was scary and fun. You left the suburbs and drove for hours and then got somewhere just as safe at the other end. Ordinary people didn't take planes back then. You drove.

Anyway, in the middle, you saw glimpses of life. You'd pull into Hojos and you'd see other travelers and, like the waitress says, you'd see husbands fighting with wives, you'd see lonely salesmen, you'd see life's rich pageant. And you'd think about things you saw on the news.
There's a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad.
Did you catch the boat on the trailer in the parking lot at Hojos? It's were Don goes when the waitress tells him Megan went out there with some guys. And Don finds her sunglasses on the ground. That was the best bit of writing in the show. The bit that had no words was the best writing in the show.

I think we're meant to think of Ted Bundy when we saw that boat. That was one of his tricks. He would unhitch a trailer and ask a passing girl to help him.  And then he chloroformed her and pushed her into his Volkswagen. I know, it's all out of time but it's what you worried about on the road. Even though it's out of time, that boat on the trailer plants the idea in our heads.

It felt like things were going a bit crazy at that point in the 1960s what with the riots, and the strange new things that people were doing and the crimes you'd see on the news. That stuff didn't actually happen in your life. It happened somewhere else but the thought that it was compassing you about was always there and you felt closest to it on the road. And your mother worried about it more than you. Anytime one of the kids was out of sight, she would panic.

And then you'd go back home.

I think that was the background message. The Heinz guy keeps asking for the sentimental memory and then he hates it when it's offered to him. That's the way the writers see this period. They think see a time when things had to change but they don't want to think too hard about why things changes.

And maybe the real fear is that if they did think about it, they might discover that things didn't have to change. For most people they didn't change. Wikipedia says:
Happy Days is an American television sitcom that originally aired from January 15, 1974, to September 24, 1984, on ABC. Created by Garry Marshall, the series presents an idealized vision of life in mid-1950s to mid-1960s America.
But it wasn't idealized for a lot of us. Happy Days was an immensely popular show because it closely resembled the lives we actually lived.

That's the wall shows like this keep running up against. The majority of people still want that world that the news and entertainment industry keeps trying to tell us is gone forever.

Friday, April 20, 2012

How white people don't think about race by a white person

Girls sure is creating a lot of excitement for a show that hardly anyone watches. In case you hadn't heard—and you probably haven't—there is a controversy about the lack of black people on the show. I only learned about it because I read Ta-Nehisi Coates and I'll cheerfully admit that one of the reasons I read him is so I don't have to pay attention to the people who think and write about race all the time. Coates is a good filter for me and he writes well.

Anyway, there is a rather familiar line of complaint out there:
I pulled out my phone and texted my friend Willa.

"So Girls is like indie SATC," I wrote. "Yeah" she replied. "And everyone on the show is white," I responded. "Yea,” she typed back. “Lots of White."
The key word to note here is "indie".  There was a lot of grousing about the lack of black characters in Star Wars too but that felt different. I mean, "This is the indie scene! It's supposed to be different and it's so effing white." And yet, it's true, one thing that really marks the indie scene is its whiteness.

It's unconscious whiteness. That will be little comfort to many who will promptly, and correctly, reply that most racism is unconscious. I don't think that is what is going on here. The overwhelming whiteness of the indie scene is, ironically, the consequence of a set of perverse incentives that came with attempts to not be racist.

Back in the 1980s, I met some people who pushed a very successful campaign to get the Canadian government of the day to take action on literacy issues. I remember one of them saying, "The easy part is getting people to see there is a problem. Where most advocacy groups go wrong is with the proposed solution. The public expects to be given the problem then the solution and after they invest in the proposed solution they expect the problem to go away."

After that he added that you really only get one shot at a solution per generation. If the proposed solution doesn't work, that's all you get. And that is the first thing to get about how white people think about racism. Once they've made a certain set of moves, they expect the problem to go away. "Hey, a black man got elected president, we can stop worrying about this."

The other part of it is that white people expect that the solution will involve the disappearance of race. And they expect that quite literally.

It's sometimes said, with considerable justice, that a white person's ideal black artist is Bob Marley. And you can see why in the song "War". The song is inspired and heavily based on a speech that was given by Haile Selassie. The "solution" to racism that post-boomer whites bought into is better  set out in that speech and song than anywhere else. Here is the key bit of the speech with some added emphasis:
That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained ...
That is the solution to racism that white people embrace; it's a desire not just to live in a post-racism society but a desire to live in a post-racial society.

There would be black actors in a series like Girls if they could be there the way Denzel Washington played Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. His skin colour has nothing to do with his identity. Except that is all nonsense. In a truly post-racial society, Denzel Washington would have been cast as one of the two romantic leads—Claudio or Benedick.

The ironic result of several decades battling against racism is that identity is more firmly connected with skin colour than it was in the era of Minstrel shows. But the solution that Bob Marley promoted—that a person's skin colour would mean no more than the colour of their eyes—is still the ideal for white people.

Think of how having a black actor play one of the girls on Girls would change the way way we'd all think about the part. Suppose there is a plot line involving drug or alcohol abuse. You couldn't really have the black girl be the one to have those problems could you? But she has to have some problems to struggle against so what would they be? It would very rapidly get boring if her character was always about race. And what music would she listen to? It would be great to have a young black character who was a huge Taylor Swift fan but that would not be allowed. Where would she have grown up? If she is too comfortably upper middle class, some will complain that this is the Huxtables all over again. If she is poor, another whole minefield comes with that.

The irony is that if you want the post-racial social environment on TV, the characters all have to be white. We are so hyper aware of race that any time a black character appears on screen, "race issues" and "race identity" comes with them. And that is why indie culture is so white.

Light culture: Stuff you probably could have guessed

I love studies that confirm things any relatively intelligent person could have guessed. We see a lot of these nowadays because of a sort of false objectivity—which is to say a deliberate effort to ignore things we suspect to be the case in order to pretend things are "equal" in ways they really aren't.

Case in point:
People with tattoos drink more than their tattoo-less peers, a new study from France suggests.
Wow. You never would guessed would you?

The methodology looks solid:
The researchers asked nearly 3,000 young men and women as they were exiting bars on a Saturday night if they would take a breathalyzer test. Of those who agreed to take it, the researchers found that people with tattoos had consumed more alcohol than those without tattoos, the researchers said.
Why did they go to all the trouble though? So they could reach this conclusion:
 The researchers suggest educators, parents and physicians consider tattoos and piercings as potential "markers" of drinking, using them to begin a conversation about alcohol consumption and other risky behaviors. 
But again, you knew that already. Getting a tattoo is an act that shows poor risk assessment skills and people with poor risk assessment skills are, sorry to put it so bluntly, losers. Okay, maybe you made the one mistake and learned your lesson but it's still a mistake. In this day and age, however, we all have to pretend we don't know things we do know in the name of fairness.  Things like this:
Previous studies have shown that tattooed individuals are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, theft, violence and alcohol consumption, compared to people without tattoos.
I'll go out on a limb here a and suggest that people with tattoos are probably also more like to struggle at school, to have car accidents, to be arrested, to be divorced and to earn low incomes.

But you wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Coming to terms with Joyce

I'm going to be eggheady today.

And why do the thing by half measures. Let's start with Gottlob Frege (Pronounced roughly like a question and answer, Q: "Got lob?" A: "Fray gay!") In 1894, Frege wrote one of the most devastating reviews ever of a book by a now mostly (and deservedly) forgotten philosopher named Edmund Husserl. But while neither Husserl nor his book are of much import anymore, what does matter is a "disease in thought" that Frege diagnosed in Husserl.

The disease is roughly this: A belief that you can analyze consciousness in order to discover, correct or reconstruct logic and understanding. The problem, as Frege noted, is that you begin your analysis already equipped with a logical strategy and, to no great surprise, it always turns out that "consciousness" is structured pretty much the same way the logical strategy we employ to analyze it is. If you are concerned with religion, you will find an inner temple, if you are concerned with sex, you'll find your inner porn theatre, if you are concerned with logic, you will discover an inner computer and so forth.

So we can see right from the beginning that Stephen Daedalus's project:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
is doomed from the get-go. There is no reality of experience nor is there any smithy of the soul outside of the one that Stephen projects into it. All Joyce was ever going to find was the assumptions he started with. Which is why his fiction gets progressively more incoherent the further he gets from Dublin. So long as Joyce has to run up against real Dubliners and the actual logic of their social life all goes well. Once he gets into some library on the continent with his maps and schedules, it all gets kinda crazy.

But oh, how that man could write. No one in their right mind would read all the way through Finnegan's Wake but you can crack that book open anywhere and be sure that you will find a stretch of beautiful writing somewhere on the page you land on.

So it seems to me that the question is this: If the project Joyce (or at least Stephen Daedalus) thought he was engaged in was doomed, what did he actually achieve? Because that good stuff is very good even if the project he was pursuing was impossible. And not just him but a whole lot of other twentieth century modernists.

Take the opening of A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. It is a brilliant opening and hugely influential.
Once upon a time and a  very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens boy named baby tuckoo ....
You want to read that story. You still want to read it after the next paragraph when you learn that this is a really a story about that story that young Stephen's father told him rather than the thing itself but you are a bit disappointed because the story of the moocow and baby tuckoo sounded like it was going to be good stuff. Maybe it only feels this way because the story itself tells us that once upon a time was a "very good time" and we like that. Telling your readers that there is good stuff ahead hooks them in.

From there we bounce to other childhood memories such as wetting the bed and then we leap with a bang into boarding school where young Stephen has a rough time. How rough? It's hard to say. The story tells us it was really rough but the suspicion begins to kick in pretty early that Stephen is a bit of a pussy boy so we either pull back or jump right in depending how susceptible we are to the pussy-boy world view.

But are we seeing young Stephen's consciousness here? Does this way of telling the story get us into his mind? Or are we seeing a way of telling a story?

Everyone gets bullied at school. There are no exceptions. But there is a huge difference between the kid who is still telling the story of how they were bullied and how devastating it was years later and the person who has moved on to tell other stories. This is "a" portrayal of the artist as a young man as done by someone who is no longer a young man. On that view, the fragmented account of early childhood is not the way kids actually experience life but rather the disjointed bits pulled from the memory of an older man trying to reconstruct something long lost. And this reconstruction will necessarily take the form of the assumptions he brings to it. This is not the boy but a creation of the boy and that creation has a structure and logic from the adult writer projected into it.

Here is another even better opening sentence from Joyce:
Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.
That is in medias res with a vengeance. And what res are we in the middle of? You really want to know. You know something about Lily and her social class and we know that we are reading her thoughts because she uses language "incorrectly". Only not really because even though it is logically incoherent to say she was literally run off her feet, we still know what she means.

If we keep reading this story (The Dead), we see something else fascinating. The story features a writer named Gabriel Conroy who has verbal encounters with three women and he comes off a poor second in all three encounters. And it is a very courageous thing that Joyce tells it that way. In that portrait, the writer or artist is not the hero. (In this respect, Dubliners and Portrait work as a binary pair.)

Here is Lily again:
"Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming."
and
"Is it snowing again, Mr Conroy?"
and
"I'm done schooling this year and more."
and
"The men that is now is all palaver and what they can get out of you."
In each and every case, Lily's language is "wrong" but ever so right. In the second example above, to pick just one, she uses the word "again" to mean "still". The Irish I grew up with in Saint John, New Brunswick spoke that way. We'd say, "it's wonderful cold this morning" meaning "It's very cold". Or we'd say "Hello for Jimmy Coghlan" meaning "Hurray for Jimmy Coghlan".

And it's not just a way of speaking, it's a way of telling.

That, it seems to me, is Joyce's great strength. He had a wonderful way of telling. Even when what he was telling was incoherent or, at the very least, more trouble than it was worth to follow, it was wonderfully told.

In any case, I'm rereading Portrait and will blog my way along. This is my way of saying right up front that my goal is not to find Stephen or Joyce's purpose in telling the story but something else that I think better than that.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Womanly Wednesday: What are they ashamed of? and What are they not ashamed of?

There is a great Tom Wolfe cartoon ago that contrasts generational attitudes. One frame showed an old man on a tennis court in the 1950s who was saying, "As long as they don't think I'm poor" and another frame showed an old man in the 1960s on a tennis court saying "As long as they don't think I'm old".

It's always useful to ask ourselves what the elite of any generation are and are not ashamed of.

In that regard, we might ask what the trendoid TV series Girls tells us about the elite of our time? And they are elites. The lead character's parents were able to pay their daughter the equivalent of a full-time salary to live in New York. This after they sent her to university! There are lots of non-elite kids out there who go to university and then can't get jobs but they live at home and work in the service industry*. This is a major expense and it is made clear that the only sacrifice her parents are making to do this is forgoing luxuries.

So this show may be more "realistic" than, say, Friends, in that the spoiled elites behave like real spoiled elites but they remain spoiled elites. Very little we see here is going to apply to most people's lives.

But it is interesting to see what the show tells us about the way the current elite think. For the show is not only about these spoiled rich girls born with all the privileges advantages modern life has to offer, it was created by one of them. Of course, there is some inflation for comic effect here but we can safely assume that Lena Dunham believes she is exaggerating real traits.

And, if we look at it that way, the staggering thing about the show is that its characters are deeply ashamed of their lack of status. The three lead characters all have fantasy career goals (writer and "voice of my generation", artist/educator, and environmental lawyer). These are the sorts of jobs that heroines of romance novels have. Perhaps they will make it into these fields ultimately—in TV land anything is possible. But for now, they have not and they act in ways that show their shame at not making it.

And you get the feeling that the creators feel this shame too because they cannot treat the alternatives seriously. In the first episode, a male friend suggests that Hannah, whose parents will no longer support her, might get a job in the service industry. This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion but the show undercuts it by having the boy who made the suggestion launch into a paean to McDonalds that dimishes everything he says. Anyone who didn't feel a charter-bound sense of entitlement to be part of the elite would just look for a job in the service industry and maybe even at McDonalds.

But that is inconceivable for the Girls. The recurring theme of the show is that these girls all saw Sex and the City and really believed it. They are, as Hannah puts it, "Busy trying to become who I am." Too busy to even learn Photoshop.

Now, I can relate. I was part of a group that read The Preppy Handbook and took it as  a serious guide to life instead of a parody. (Ironically, it turned out to be a pretty good guide to life in some ways.) People do that sort of thing when they are young. But go ahead and learn Photoshop girls!

On the flip side, it's staggering to see how little shame the characters display at their own complete lack of moral character. This comes out most tellingly in the scene where Hannah goes to see her "boyfriend" and is sexually submissive for him. I put "boyfriend" in scare quotes because he simply uses her and has no emotional attachment to her. So she isn't in this for the love and support. But she clearly gets no sexual pleasure from being submissive. So why is she doing it?

We get a bit of a hint when the two of them are sitting on the couch talking after sex and he comments on her large tattoos and asks her why she got them. And she says,
 I gained a bunch of weight very quickly and I felt really out of control with my own body and it was like this riot grrrl idea 'Like I'm taking control of my own shape'.
Notice that the possibility that she might gain control over her body by gaining control over her body isn't even a possibility. No, she does something stupid and irresponsible and is utterly unashamed of it. As the scene plays out, our sympathy is with the girl and not with the boy. He is clearly presented as an uncaring boor instead of what he really is which is a guy who is putting up with a total fruit loop in order to get sex (which is pathetic enough but ....).

Before leaving to go to the dinner party she will be three hours late for, she tells him that being with him really made her feel better. Does she really mean it or is she just so pathetic that she can't face what a complete failure she is as woman, a human being and a moral being, that she pretends to be happy just like she pretends to have a job? It doesn't seem to matter.



* That, by the way, would make an interesting story.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sorta Political: Who gets whacked

I had something else in mind for this morning and will return to it this afternoon but Walter Russell Mead has a really good post up this morning that I wanted to call attention to and make one additional comment.

You really need to read his post to do it justice so I won't even try to cover it all here. In summary though, Mead has long been arguing that what he calls the Blue social model is crumbling. That is the model that parties that essentially saw themselves as brokers dispensing political largesse pushed. These parties justified what they were doing in the grounds that the growing wealth of the industrial west was unevenly distributed and that social peace could be maintained by having governments step in and make things fairer.

Government being government, these brokerage parties were and are riddled with corruption. That said, they did do enough of what they said they would do to keep the people happy and they stayed in power a long time from the 1930s on. The most successful example of such a party in the entire world was Canada's Liberal Party. Today, the Canada's Liberals are in disarray and their future uncertain. It's not even clear they have a future. As Mead says, the social model that these parties pushed is crumbling.

And yet a lot of people cling more and more desperately to that model the more it fails. The parties fail because they can no longer deliver what they promise but a large segment of the public wants the social model they have known all their lives more than ever. Mead, I think, gives us a good explanation of why that is:
The biggest flaw in that picture is, perversely, its one optimistic belief: the assumption that white collar jobs and incomes will continue to grow. This optimism is key to the Democratic Party’s idea of how to keep the country running. If the upper middle class is going to continue to prosper and grow, then the option of keeping the blue model on life support by a new wave of redistributionist policies makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.
More bluntly: The poor may be getting poorer but the upper middle class are getting richer so we can at least tax the upper middle class more and more to support the poor. Now there is a lot to be said about this. Most obviously, it can't possibly work; like heroin addicts, liberals are so focused on the next hit of the drug that makes them feel good that they are no longer capable of being rational. They only focus on how good the high will be and forget all the destruction that always comes with it.

But Mead adds, and he is right, that the other problem is that even the high cannot be depended on after a while.  Eventually the drug stops working and the same will happen here: the upper middle class white collar sector is going to stop growing.
Increasingly, it looks to me as if large chunks of the upper middle class are about to get whacked. Many of the learned professions are going to see their incomes cut and the private sector is going to seek much greater productivity improvements by replacing expensive US-based executives with cheaper foreign ones — and even cheaper computer technology. Lawyers, accountants, business managers and executives, university professors and administrators, architects, designers, upper level civil servants, NGO managers: this means you.
What he doesn't say, and what needs to be said, is that women are going to bear the brunt of this. All of the gains for women we hear so much about lately are in some of these fields: especially the law, management, academia, the public service and the so-called NGO sector. There are thousands upon thousands of women in these fields who are going to get hit and hit hard.

If you combine that with what is happening in education, I think the next fifteen to twenty years are going to be brutally hard on women. It's going to be a rough ride.

Monday, April 16, 2012

More "Girls"

The show is online now so you can watch it and I did.

Verdict: the show is pretty good the girls themselves are not. They are three complete losers you wouldn't want to touch with a pole of any length should you have one handy. They are narcissistic, selfish, stupid, clearly lousy at sex and failures.

And one relatively sane girl whom you would think would be able to find better friends than this.

And yet the guys and girls at Slate think it's realistic and worth discussing. Apparently, they deserve one another.

Of the various Slate reviewers, only Julia Turner comes close to the truth:
I think the big question—is whether America at large will relate to this portrayal of a New York microcosm that's less glamorous than the one SATC (or even Friends) put forth.
Another way to think about is that America at large has bought New York when they were given highly unrealistic portrayals of it. What idiot would think we'd be interested in this nonsense.

"frank" and yet not really

Girls is a  new show that  is either
a) What it's really like being a young woman starting out on life these days.
OR
b) Yet another navel-gazing show wherein the elite mistake their own narrow world view for "realism".
The right answer? To be honest, I couldn't be bothered to watch myself but here's a hint from a write up at Slate:
Girls is getting a lot of attention for being so frank about sex; it’s also frank about money. The pilot is mostly about how Hannah, the Dunham character, can no longer afford to live in New York; her year-long internship has not turned into a paying job and her parents don’t want to support her anymore.
And the writer goes on to say,
This is typical of the show’s realism, which is key to its quality.
For all I know this may be a very realistic portrayal of young girls who try to make it in New York City just as a show about female jockeys might be realistic. But most women aren't jockeys and most women don't live in New York City. And working at an internship  is she? The cultural references here are incredibly narrow.


Mad Men: Signal 30

"Things feel so random all of a sudden. And time feels like it's speeding up."
To be honest, I couldn't tell you whether it was a good show or not. There was some great acting and some beautiful language but it didn't add up to anything to me. It also had a lot of the worst of the show's bad habits in it. It reminded me of "The Wee Small Hours" from Season 3. Season 3 was the worst Season up until this one. We forget that now because the last three episodes of that year were brilliant but everything up until then was crap. And the writers knew it and they gave it away in by slipping a couple of meta statements into the mouths of characters; by having the characters express the writer's own frustrations about the dead end they were in. The most telling of these was when Suzanne Farrell responded to Don's declaration that he couldn't stop thinking of her by saying,
"Because I'm new and different. Or maybe it's because I'm exactly the same."
Which pretty much spelled out the problems the show was having that year.  And they did it again this episode with young Jenny Gunther delivering the quote above. They are great at creating intriguing little moments but they don't add to anything so everything new ends up being exactly the same tricks again.

They are also falling back too much on history. Whenever this show really tries to connect the characters lives with the history happening around them, it falters. The big limitation here is that Bugs Bunny can't actually discover America because, as he tells Columbus, it would be to much trouble to rewrite all the history books. SCDP can't get the Jaguar account because that is too significant an historical event and we could no longer pretend not to know what we do know.

All we can hope for now is that the writers have a huge shake up like the end of Season 3 in mind again. Otherwise, this show is a dead shark. Only that too would be a problem because how many times can you do major shake ups before that too gets to be like Don having just another affair.

The problem exists on two levels. At the big picture level, what can you say about this part of the 1960s. These years do feel so random. The whole appeal of the show rests on giving us entry into a lost world of glamour. And if there was one thing that the late 1960s and early 1970s did not have it was glamour.

And the actual history requires too big a sweep to work on show that specializes in miniatures. It's only if you telescope the thing out that it seems to make sense. But then you have to ask yourself which sense you want it to make. Ken's fantasy fiction, for example. For some people that is the story of the 1960s. It's all about a bunch of guys laying the foundation for what would eventually become the geek triumph in the 1990s.

But no one at any time in the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s would have thought that. And that is a problem because the story the show is telling is in 1966.

And Charles Whitman is also only significant in the larger scope of things. It is only because we are all too familiar with that sort of random violence now that it seems to fit into a story. Read the response from the time and what really throws people about Whitman is that it was so unlike anything they had experienced. Funnily enough, the exact details of his case are less well known now. It was only a few years after this that Joan Didion would retail a line about "living in a  senseless killing neighborhood".

And you can't go anywhere with sex and drugs and rock and roll and all that crap 'cause that is all soooo boring!  And even if you don't agree with me, think about the people who watch this show: Do you think anyone who got hooked on Mad Men wants to here that stupid boring crap about Woodstock and peace, love and understanding one more time? That 1960s had no style at all and this show is all about style. When it works that is—whenever it abandons style it fails.

But the parallel between Whitman and Pete Campbell is much easier to understand in the short run. You can see a similar set of parallels in his life. And he owns a gun. He has frustrations and no  friends. Except Don that is. I'll get back to that. You can see him exploding and throwing it all away. Except we know he won't. And, because we know that, the parallel that the writers spent so much time establishing adds up to nothing.

It seems to me like someone has to go now. At the very least, Lane Pryce has to go. The show would lose all credibility if it tried to pretend that the bad blood between he and Pete Campbell could allow them to work in the same office together. And there was plenty of old-fashioned foreshadowing on the front. Lane telling Joan that she could do his job, for example. And Pete telling Don that he has nothing. I'd get rid of Pete myself for the rather humdrum reason that I don't warm to low level sociopaths. But I think the producers of the show plan on keeping him because they believe (incorrectly) that they have invested a whole lot in his character; it was him and not Lane who was in the elevator with Don at the end.

Or, you could get rid of both of them. Neither Pete nor Lane are, and never have been, interesting characters.

Is Kenny going to? The revelation about the pact between he and Peggy was fascinating. I used to have a pact like that with a woman I worked with. We even had a  cod. We agreed that we'd tell the other right in the middle of a meeting by looking across at the other and say, "It's time." Even Peggy could go at this point. I don't think she will but what has Peggy contributed lately?

And then there is Don. What a bore the new Don is. He shines when he is being a father figure to Pete and in the rare moments the show lets he and Roger do their old magic but his own character has nothing to offer anymore.

The story needs shaking up. The writers are trapped and they need to shake out of it. You could see them desperately falling back on Don, Joan and Roger to make it interesting but that little bit of interest was just them getting back into the old stuff again and the world is changing. That's the thing you can't hide. Everyone knows the optimism of the early 1960s gave way to  something else by the 1970s and the show has to deal with that and, as of right now, it doesn't seem like the creative team putting the stories together have a clue how to do that.

Here is a troubling thought: What, if anything, do the people who make this show know about the era we are entering? They, for example, hate the suburbs and can't imagine anyone having a happy life there? They also don't get marriage. And yet that is what life was really about in that time. Most people were married and most lived in suburbs. And lived happy meaningful lives.

There is a real danger now of this becoming a show not about the 1960s but about the frustrations of entertainment industry creative types trying to make a show about a world they don't understand. One of the laugh lines last night was Bert Cooper talking about Nixon. Just a joke right? Except he calls the future correctly. Nixon did come back.



Think about that a while.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Another image: what are they selling?

I can't resist a great title and a blog called "Canada's Excellent Future" has a beauty today:
The Veil and the Bra
It's a story about Islam. The facts are as follows. A Thompson Rivers University fine arts student named Sooraya Graham took a picture of a Muslim woman holding a bra. An employee of the gallery where the photo was to be displayed took it down, presumably because they thought it would cause offense. Outrage followed and the photo is now going back up. "The Saudi Education Centre" in Kamloops has gotten involved, more on that later.

Let's have a look at the photo (I assume, by the way, that this constitutes fair use as the photo is in the news and the copy here is not high enough quality for reproduction. If you own the rights and disagree, please let me know.)



The first thing to note is that it's a great photo. Sooraya Graham is an artist and I hope she keeps doing work like this. The second thing to note is that it is an erotic photo and it's meant to be erotic. I can see the photographer denying this—or even that it wasn't her intention to be erotic—but anyone with even a modicum understanding of visual language should be able to see this. An artist's actual intention is relatively unimportant in considering any work of art.

It would be a very different image if the woman were holding the bra up at eye level or if she had turned it around so she was looking at it from the front. The way she is holding it invites us to think about her breasts. She is holding it such that it is placed right where she would wear it the same way a little boy might walk alongside a parade and imagine he is marching in it. It suggests that the woman herself is imagining her breasts in that bra.

The veil makes it more erotic. Hey, you can see her abaya through the filigree of her bra!  I think of the Japanese saying that the moon partially obscured is more enticing than it is in full view. There are layers upon layers of enticement here.

All of which makes the artists response in the related news story puzzling.
"I was pretty shocked and I kind of felt my personal space as an artist and a Canadian had been invaded," said Graham.
A puzzling but also a perfectly reasonable response if we think about it. It's a photo of female intimacy. It invites us to consider her intimately. It's odd to turn around and complain about privacy invaded. And yet it's not. We not only take it for granted that a woman might expose and retain her intimacy this way, we strongly encourage women to do this in our culture. And they most emphatically do not encourage women to do this in some Muslim cultures.

Perhaps the real question is, who really understands what veils are about? If we peel back a few ... well if we peel back a few veils we might explore this. To get at this, let's look at the response of Saudi Education Centre:
"The artist didn't approach the artwork let's say in a very professional way that can state and can clarify the information and clarify the idea behind the picture," said centre president Trad Bahabri.

Bahabri said he thinks text explaining the photo's meaning is needed.

"I'm pretty sure many people misinterpret and many people misunderstand it. I can guarantee that," he said.
"Misunderstand" is an interesting word in this context. Someone else, equally offended, might say, with equal sincerity, that the problem is that the photograph is all too easy to understand. Putting a label or a text on it wouldn't help anyone to understand the photograph. We might claim that what the text would really do would do would be to tell people what they are supposed to think. Or, more realistically, the text would tell people what they are allowed to publicly declare about the photo.

And here we have a familiar dividing line between free societies like Canada and repressive regimes like they have in Saudi Arabia. A point that becomes clear if we consider the photographer's response for that response is just as carefully veiled as the woman in the photograph.
Graham counters it's up to the viewer to interpret the meaning, but says she had hoped the photo would show the public that women who wear the niqab are the same as everyone else.
If we wanted to be difficult, we might ask how exactly did you mean to show they are the same.  We already know that a woman in a niqab is a woman, that she has breasts, that she is an erotic being, that she has secrets and that she wears underwear. We don't need a photograph to show us this.

No, what the photograph does is to invite us to think about this woman's breasts and not in any general way but to imagine what they would look like in that erotic piece of lingerie. And, as our imagination would undoubtedly fail to do her breasts justice, we might dream of actually seeing her pull her abaya over her head (which would be an extraordinary privilege).

The thing is, each and every level of veiling adds to the eroticism. The bra itself is a kind of veil. And Sooraya Graham's comments are also a sort of veil. When she says she hoped the photo would show us that thew women who wear these veils are the same as everyone else she was very deliberately veiling her meaning. I would argue that what really bothers Trad Bahabri of the Saudi Education Centre is that this veiling is allowed. The paradox here is that oppressive societies that oblige women to wear veils don't really want women to veil themselves. Veiling is pregnant with meaning and the point of the sort of oppression we see in militant Islam is to deny a woman the right to mean anything.

If there is a lesson for the west here it is that the niqab (the veil) and the abaya  (the full-body covering garment) are just drenched in erotic potential. Imagine sitting in a room waiting as a woman comes in dressed in these garments and serves you mint tea and baklava. All you can see are her eyes. And she can deny or make you wait for even that.

Think of how intimate eyes are. It's a special privilege to look into someone's eyes. When she looked up at you. you would feel that ... somewhere. And is she smiling? You can't be sure. Everything is a tease.

I'd go on but I'd soon be writing porn.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Well worth reading

There is a really interesting essay about Susan Sontag up at Tablet (not the awful Catholic publication but the good Jewish one). It charts how Sontag started off on one tack—the one most people associate with her—and then came to see that she was wrong. Not for aesthetic reasons but for moral ones. Teaser paragraph:
It was an unmistakable recantation, then, when Sontag published the essay “Fascinating Fascism,” which is collected in her 1980 volume Under the Sign of Saturn. For in this celebrated piece, she writes thoughtfully and indignantly about the rehabilitation of Riefenstahl. She exposes the way Riefenstahl rewrote her C.V. to minimize her profound Nazi ties and links her late-life photographic portraits of African tribesmen to her earlier fascist glorification of the body and violent struggle. But most of all, Sontag decries the way Western intellectuals and connoisseurs have been complicit in this rehabilitation.
Emphasis added. 

Odd as this may seem, fans of Mad Men should read this for Sontag's barbarism in Against Interpretation in 1966 is a prime example of precisely what went wrong with the larger culture between 1966 and 1979. An awful lot of boomer propaganda is devoted to pretending that that horrible failure was really a victory andit will be interesting to see if Matt Weiner has the courage to take a stand against it or whether the show will become typical boomer crap.

So far, the signs are not encouraging.