Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sorta Political: Occupy anarchsim revisted

A year ago now, I did a post explaining how the Occupy Wall Street movement was essentially anarchist in spirit. I said that one of the markers of this would be their belief that a giant crisis in society could only bring good:
Why do they think this would be a good thing? Well, think of what happens when systems fail. A few years ago we had giant ice storm up here that closed roads, shut power off (sometimes for days) and generally brought everything to a stop. In the aftermath, people helped one another. They shared food and comfort, they formed little groups to help dig out the little old ladies, they made sure that anyone who needed to get to the hospital did. Anarchists imagine that widespread social collapse will produce the same sort of cooperation on a much larger scale. 
Well, told you so, look how they have responded to tropical storm Sandy (courtesy of Twitchy):

Now the folks at Twitchy think that the occupiers are celebrating the destruction but it's important to see that that is not the case. They are celebrating something that most of us would also celebrate—the way people tend to pull together in a  crisis like this and help one another out.

The difference is, though, that they think that is real community. They think everything else, the way we live when the power isn't out, is a perverted distortion of community. A guy I knew in college once inspired his girlfriend to dump him by saying that FROSH week was the only part of college he really liked and that he wished it could be like that all the time. He owned a Shark class sailboat, worked in a bar and dreamed of combining his love of sailing and drugs to make a living running dope across Lake Ontario. The Occupy people think a lot like that, they are essentially college party boys.

In the past, anarchism has always descended into acts of terror such as the Wall Street bombing. It's hard to imagine the Frat-boy anarchism of the Occupy movement descending into such a thing but I wouldn't discount the possibility.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Another image: What is Lena Dunham selling?

I don't know if anyone else found it odd that no one else found it odd that only weeks after Hanna Rosin's book suggesting that men were struggling, washed up, basically over, we had a whole lot of hand wringing over a study that men supposedly still get paid more than women do for equal work. Rosin is going to hate us for being feeble and the authors of the study on income inequality want to hate us for using our seemingly unvanquished power to rig the game in our favour.

You see things like that and the temptation is to quote Fitzgerald:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
But notice the next, rarely quoted line from Fitzgerald:
One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
And this is the opposite of the feminist enterprise these days which seems determined to maintain hopelessness so that women will forever need help from feminists and the government.

Which brings me to Lena Dunham. Yes, I know, everyone else has had a shot at this. But I want to call your attention not to the larger political issues but to some odd contradictions within the video and within everything Dunham does. Look at this image and think of the words she says at this moment in her infamous video:

She starts off,
"It should be a guy with beautiful..."
And then there is a pause as she tries to think of what to say next. She fails but then suddenly starts anew with,
"Someone who really cares about and understands women."
That's bad enough to be from a Harlequin Romance novel. The whole thing is constructed to convey uncertainty and even helplessness.

This is contradictory on so many levels it's just weird. Just a couple of examples here:
  1. Dunham is  famous (well in some circles anyway) as the creator of a show that portrays girls like her as very experienced sexually and yet the ad encourages young women to think of themselves as hesitant virgins. You may say, "It's tongue in cheek," but it isn't tongue in cheek about sex. You'd have to be insecure about yourself sexually for this ad to speak to you.
  2. The ad is supposedly feminist in tone and yet treats women as tender little flowers who need a male hero to lead and protect them.
And why can't she meet our eyes? Over and over again in the video, she says something meant to be forceful and then immediately looks away. People typically look down and away like that when they are uncertain about how you'll respond to what they are saying. For example, when they are lying or when they think you're going to reject what they are about to ask or propose.

Remember, the viewer is the virgin that Lena is pandering Obama to and yet she is acting as if she is the victim!

If you went to college, you know the Lena Dunham type. Good looking, upper middle class, always had it good and yet deeply insecure. She is deeply inconsistent in her moral reactions: you will see her put up with disrespectful and even debasing treatment from her lover only to turn around and rip into her best girlfriend for what should have been an easily overlooked trifle. She is both passive and aggressive. She doesn't think of herself as a liar because the person she lies to most often is herself but her every expression suggests shy dupicity:

The tattoos are a big problem. One you could write off as a momentary indiscretion, a bad judgment she could grow out of, but she has almost a full shoulder of them showing and I believe there are more when she takes off her shirt. She is a train wreck waiting to happen.

Joe Frazier told an interesting story about when Ali worked his famous rope-a-dope strategy on him. It was late in the fight and Frazier was way ahead on points but had worn himself out scoring them. He landed one punch fairly squarely on Ali and Ali said, "Is that all of you got Joe?"

Frazier, telling the story, said, "And I thought, well yes, that is all I've got."

A woman like Dunham has used all her strength scoring points against an opponent entirely of her own imagining. When Dunham finishes talking, no matter what she is talking about, Ali's question hangs in the air: "Is that all you've got Lena?" Only there is no one there to ask it.

It hardly needs to be asked though. Look at her face, she knows that is all she has. Twenty-six years old, pretty, born into a life of privilege and this is all she has got.

And that is what she is selling. You wanna buy?

Monday, October 29, 2012

My day with Proust

It's Monday, so back to the novel and our question today is "Did Proust believe in love?"

I've mentioned before the brilliant way Proust uses his own experience as a little boy craving his mother's kiss to write about Swann's craving as an adult man for Odette's attention. It was a large part of Proust's object to show that a person need not have lived an experience to write about it and that, therefore, Saint-Beuve's contention that we need to study the artist's autobiography to understand the art was misleading.

A while ago, a cousin of mine read something critical I had written of Woody Allen and said, "You can't criticize him because you have no idea what it feels like to be him and to experience what he has experienced". That's nonsense of course but it's a common form of nonsense. It's solipsistic. And Proust, like his contemporary Wittgenstein, saw that solipsism is a huge problem for modern moral psychology. Thus his insistence that, contrary to Saint-Beuve, we can put ourselves in the place of others and share their experience of the world even if we know nothing of their lives. And the fact that we cannot do this with the same certainty that we do mathematical calculations does not mean that we cannot do it all.

But, we might stop and ask ourselves questions. For example, is the feeling that a child has for its mother love? Well, stupid question, of course it is. Then again, we might say, "Well, that depends on what you mean by love." No woman, for example, wants the man she loves to crave her in that terribly one-sided way that a boy child feels love for his mother. That sort of love might be flattering for a while but it would very quickly become tiresome to always be the mother figure, which is a large part of why Odette tires of and begins cheating on Swann. Any man who offers a woman the sort of clinging, needy love that Marcel has for his mother and Swann has for Odette is going to be cheated on and damn well deserves to be.

And here the temptation to grant Saint-Beuve his revenge and go all auto-biographical on Proust is very strong. The temptation is to say that, in an era when homosexuality was so suppressed, Proust never had the opportunity to learn what love based on mutual giving was. Without this crucial experience, we might continue, he was unable to write convincingly about any of his characters being in love and, especially, he was unable to give Marcel, his narrator, such an experience.

[Note: as far as possible, "Marcel" means the narrator of and character in the novel and "Proust" means the author.]

And we must give full weight to the evidence here. Really convincing portraits of mutually giving love are, at the very least, rare in Proust. It's not that such a thing is absent. We might well argue that such a relationship must exist between by Marcel's parents but, to so, we would have to argue that it is there by implication. Proust spends literally hundreds of pages describing an odd narcissistic kind of love that is spurred by jealousy; that is to say, a love where the intensity of the love is a product of feelings that are inside the lover. This is not a love that grows through mutual efforts as two people go through a courtship ritual. Quite the contrary, Proust denigrates habit and writes as if habitual love and willed love are only illusions.

Cruising by

The large division of À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs* called "Place-Names: The Place" begins with some absolutely brilliant observations about social distinctions and interactions at a seaside "Grand Hotel". Also running through it, as if preparing us for the theme that will dominate in the final movement, Proust has his narrator see beautiful young women (and, with less emphasis, some boys). But he sees them only in passing: from the train, from a carriage and on a bridge he walks by on his way to see an historic church. He never has a chance to connect with these girls.

Along the way, our narrator makes some telling observations not about love but about the psychology of love. And these observations are quite frankly solipsistic. The only reactions from the girls that interests him are those reactions that would confirm his impact on them. And, as we will see later this week, the impact he seeks is bluntly sexual. I'm going to cite him at some length here, interrupting to make comments as I go along.
1. These glimpses, and the loss of every girl glimpsed, aggravated the state of agitation in which I spent my days; and I wished for the wisdom of the philosophers who counsel the curbing of desires (assuming they mean one's desire for another person, as that is the only mode of desiring which can lead to anxiety, focusing as it does on a world beyond our ken but within our awareness—to assume they mean desire for wealth would be too absurd).
 Note that on one level this simply is not true. As I write this, we are one week from an American presidential election. There are lots of people who desire an outcome and that desire is causing them lots of anxiety. That said, we can still see Marcel's point but we can see this if and only if the thing we are talking about is a desire to possess another sexually. Okay, moving on:
2. At the same time I was inclined to find something lacking in this wisdom, sensing well enough that these glimpsed encounters made for greater beauty in a world which sows such flowers, rare though common along every country roadside, a new spice being added to life by the untried treasures of each day, by every outing with its unkept promises, my enjoyment of which had hitherto been prevented only by contingent circumstances which might not always be present.
Okay, note the expression "unkept promises" which has a delightful ambiguity here. Who is promising and not keeping? Is that the "flowering girls" he sees are not available to him or is it that he, by moving so quickly from each glimpsed wonder top the later one who replaces her. Well, keep that thought in mind and read the next sentence:
3. Of course, it may be that, in looking forward to a freer day when I meet similar girls along different roads, I had already begun to adulterate the exclusive desire to share one's life with an individual woman whom one has seen as pretty; and the mere act of entertaining the possibility artificially fostering it was an implicit acknowledgment that it was an illusion.
Okay, lots of parsing needed here. At first glance we can see Proust's intention easily enough. Although Marcel is in the North, he thinks like a southerner and he shares the belief held by Dante and the troubadours that love that is sought after is not real. The superior love is the one that is not sought and that reflects something greater than the person who pursues it.

The joys of translation

Fair enough, but we are also losing something here.

First, note that the similar sound and root shared by "adulterate" and "adultery" does not exist in French. Our translator has put it here in the hope of capturing something Proust does in French in a  different way more suitable to the inherent poetry of the English language. And it sort of works with the notion of "unkept promises" in the previous sentence.

But none of that is in the original! There it is in another word "croître", translated here by the humble English word "to sow", where the wonderful ambiguity lurks.

If we go back to the second sentence, we can already see the thing going astray. Consider the clause:
"... sensing well enough that these glimpsed encounters made for greater beauty in a world which sows such flowers ..."
The French reads:
"... car je me disais que ces rencontres me fassaient trouver encore plus beau un monde qui fait ainsi croître sur toutes toutes les routes campagnardes des fleurs ..."
Here is fairly literal rendering of that:
"... for I told myself that these encounters made me find more beautiful a world that so made to grow on every country road these flowers ..."
Notice how much more active the intelligence of young Marcel is here in the French than it is in the first translation. He tells himself that he is finding the world more beautiful. The English translation I am reading makes a completely different sense with its "sensing well enough" and "made for a greater beauty". These are passive expressions that describe something happening to young Marcel and not something that he is doing.

And the world around Marcel is also different in the original. The word "croître" shares both the sound and the and the root of the French word for faith. It doesn't mean "faith" but we will feel that. What "croître" does mean is to grow but it also means to develop slowly towards an end. These girls are flowering, meaning they are coming to the most magnificent phase of a natural development.

If we go on to sentence three, the word Proust uses is not the French of "adulterate" but he uses "fausser" which means to distort or pervert. Now, if we combine that with the more active role that Marcel is playing in the way his thoughts are shaping his world, we can see that something more intentional is happening here.


So, does Proust believe in love? We can't say just yet.

* Literally, that translates as "in the shadow of young girls in flower" and recent versions have been published under that title. This "accurate" translation, however, loses all the poetry of the French. C.K. Scott Montcrieff's "Within A Budding Grove", on the other hand, has lots of poetry but, unfortunately, the wrong poetry. The point that the French conveys and the English does not is that the girls in question are sexually powerful. Think, "they are in flower but you are not". Young Marcel is still at that age where boys are behind girls and clumsily struggling to gain sexual maturity.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A little light culture: A statistical analysis of Silvio Berlusconi's lovers

The Telegraph has as a slide show of the women in Berlusconi's life. Deep thinker that I am, I made a detailed study and can report the following statistics.

Brunettes: 19
Blondes who are obviously dying their hair: 6
Blondes who are probably dying their hair but with restraint and taste: 1
Blondes who may well actually be blonde: 1
Red heads, obviously dyed: 1

Women with breasts that might be real : 12
Women with breasts that are most probably not real: 16

Women I wouldn't be ashamed to be seen with: 2

Other interesting details.
  • One of the women was formerly a dental hygienist and has huge breasts, a very rare thing for reasons dental hygienists probably hate discussing. (It is possible that her breasts might have gained size suddenly after she left what might have been a promising career in dental hygiene.)
  • One of the women spent Mr. Berlusconi's money buying twenty-five pairs of shoes in just one week, suggesting that prudence and sound financial management are not qualities these women have.
  • Most of the women were not attractive. Two look like they have sophistication and taste (one brunette and one tastefully dyed blonde in case you are wondering). Maybe five others looked like they could be "high class" call girls, if you like that sort of look (I don't). But the majority are, sorry to be so vulgar, total skanks. I would have thought a man with power and large amounts of money could have done better. Sad to think he threw away his freedom, career and status for this.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Design alteration

I installed a new operating system today and it displayed the blog in a darker, more red background. I don't like that and want the blog to be pink so I've shifted the shade a bit in that direction. Please let me know if this makes it painful to your eyes.

The Man Repeller

Time has a list of the 25 best blogs of 2012. It's mostly awful. A big part of the problem is that they won't repeat blogs they have listed in previous years. An even bigger part is that journalists seem to be shallow people. One of the blogs they picked, for example, consists of photographs of celebrities. No, I'm not making that up.

There is, however, one real gem in the collection called The Man Repeller. I love this site. Lots of quirky humour and irony at work here. Put it this, way if a humourless dweeb had created the same site, they would have called it, "How to stop dressing like a whore and develop some self respect at last". Luckily, it was created by someone with insight and humour and a gift for not taking herself too seriously. Fantastic stuff all the way through and highly recommended.

UPDATE: It's very "New York" and "fashion" in tone and you have to like that sort of thing to like  The Man Repeller.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sorta Political: The Savile row

The story of Jimmy Saville, the BBC television personality who sexually exploited and abused teenage girls for decades, is beginning to break on this side of the ocean. It's a fascinating story.

The core story is sordid. Savile was a disgusting creep who was given a position where he would be not only in contact with but admired by millions of hormone-crazed teenage girls. Things that are entirely predictable then happened. Nobody knows the full details but my guess is that Savile's first victims, when he was still young, were compliant. As time went on, however, he became accustomed to and even began to feel entitled to sex with teenagers and he pushed, prodded and eventually started forcing himself on girls.

If you have read the story in the British newspapers, you will notice that I have interjected two elements that no one else is reporting. 1) They say he abused teenage girls. while I say he exploited and abused. 2) I am also suggesting, based on nothing but my knowledge of human nature, that the thing probably started with compliant victims, which raises the obvious question, "What in the world is a compliant victim?"

Begin Fermata
Years ago there was a movie called The Fabulous Baker Boys about two lounge pianists. There is a conversation between the two of them recalling some of the shows they played and they remember playing some rich girl's sixteenth birthday. One brother spouts about how irritating it was to have to provide for this spoiled girl who got whatever she wanted and the other brother says something like "She wanted it, she got it!" And his tone makes it clear he is not talking about music.

Here is the thing, this movie was a total chick flick. When I saw it in the theatre, I was one of only a few guys in a room with several hundred women. When that line was delivered and the implications grasped, those women all giggled with delight.

Let's think about that a while. What we are talking about here is the sexual exploitation of a teenage girl pure and simple; well, the exploitation was pure and simple, the girl was just simple. Why was it apparently not just okay but delightful for a theatre full of women to contemplate the idea of a grown man sexually exploiting her?

It was more than acceptable because what they envisioned was not any actual events but what was a sexual fantasy for many of them. No one wanted to think about the gritty realities that go with a teenage girl having sex with an adult male.

A woman I know once told me how she, at fifteen years of age, lost her virginity to a man in his late thirties. She saw the thing as a great exploit on her part. She was traveling west on a train so she could visit family and it began when she went to him and started talking and then convinced him to buy and share some alcohol with her. They had sex in his upper berth. She told me about telling him that she was just fifteen and a virgin with particular glee.  As long as she was thinking only about herself, the story was a delight to her.

But one day when I asked her what she thought of the guy, she visibly shuddered. She described him in hateful terms. The second she started thinking about him as a real person, as more than a prop in her story, she was horrified to remember what a disgusting creep he was.

Let's go back to our movie for a moment. The Baker brothers are played by Jeff and Beau Bridges. Jeff was fantastically good looking man in his day. Beau, contrary to his name, was not. Jeff played the brother who nailed the sixteen year old. That part is important. The audience of women would not have been delighted at the thought of ordinary-looking guy nailing a teenage girl because he couldn't be their fantasy.
A number of researchers have found that it is difficult to talk about rape in a non-erotic fashion. No matter how much you try and emphasize the degradation of another human being, there will be some women and men in your audience who will hear not the horror that is rape because the sexual fantasy that is playing in their heads makes it impossible to see what is really happening.
End Fermata

Considered from the perspective of an adult, it doesn't matter if a teenage girl craves sexual attention or even actual sex because she cannot really understand the decisions she is making. Statutory rape is called rape because real consent is deemed impossible. My friend who had sex on the train was raped even though she cheerfully acknowledged that she made it happen more than the guy did. It was his moral and legal duty, when she told him her age, to stop the thing from happening. And she knew that was the case even though she didn't regret her own actions. (She probably should regret them but that's another argument.)

And even when it isn't legally rape—say when a twenty five year old woman or man has sex with a seventeen-year-old—it is still a morally reprehensible act.

When we look at cases such a s Jimmy Savile, and it takes only a little knowledge of the world of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll to know that there must have been thousands of predators just like him at work, the most important questions are not about him but about us and our culture. There are troubling questions about the BBC, where many people seem to have known of but no one acted to stop the abuse. There are also troubling questions about the legal authorities and why they were not able or willing to bring charges against him. But the most important questions are about the larger culture. What did we do and think and say to make this possible? What did we not do that, had we done it, might have made it less possible?

A big part of the problem is that we willingly live in denial of the down side of consensual sex. We pretend that so long as two people consent to it, nothing bad can come of it. This is nonsense and we know it is but it is just too much fun to pretend we don't. It's too inconvenient to imagine what we might have to deny ourselves if we faced this honestly.

Jimmy Savile started doing what he did when he was young and attractive and lots of people went along with it. It was only when he became physically ugly that the moral repulsiveness became clear but, by then, it was too late for the people who had helped him along to act without bringing shame on themselves. That, funnily enough, pretty much sums up the history of "youth" culture and not just the sordid story of Jimmy Savile.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Women and men are different from one another part 9 million

Time has a piece up called "Why sex doesn't gross you out when you're aroused". Here are the intro paragraphs. First paragraph one:
If you think about it, sex is actually sort of disgusting, what with all the sweat, saliva, fluids and smells. So much so that a group of researchers from the Netherlands got to thinking, How do people enjoy sex at all?
 Notice the word that I have emphasized: "people". Now notice that by the second paragraph it becomes clear that neither the author nor the scientists who did the study meant people in general. They meant a rather specific group of people.
According to their small new study, people — at least women — may be able to get over the “ick” factor associated with sex by getting turned on. Sexual arousal overrides the natural disgust response, the researchers found, and allows women to willingly engage in behaviors that they might normally find repugnant.
This article and study are about women. Because nobody really wonders why men get over the possible icky aspects of sex do they? And it is odd that we don't wonder because we know that some men are repulsed by sex. And yet you don't worry even for a second that most men might find it troubling do you?

Virtually every nine year old boy is a little put off by girls and yet we all assume that they'll be just fine by their thirteenth birthday. And, no matter how correct and generous you try to be about these things, if I told you about an adult male whose marriage had failed because he found women's bodies repulsive, you'd be tempted to laugh at him.

Told a similar tale about a woman, we'd sympathize. We'd hope, for her sake, that she could get over this, but we wouldn't find it terribly shocking.

And this for perfectly good reasons. She consents to more than the man does. She gets penetrated, he doesn't. She might get pregnant. She is left more emotionally vulnerable by the experience.  Her orgasm releases all sorts of oxytocin, making her fall in love with him. His orgasm releases hormones that make him feel content and comfortable.

A while ago, I got to talk with a police officer who did high level drug cases. At one point he was talking about how drug dealers need to corrupt bankers to launder money and that a favourite trick is to send a member of the opposite sex to seduce the target. But he said that there was a fascinating difference between the way drug dealers blackmail women versus men.

To blackmail the female banker, they would show her a video that they had secretly taken of her obviously enjoying sex with another man, a video in which she said appreciative and suggestive things to a man not her husband, a video in which she enthusiastically performed sex acts and in which she had an orgasm. The woman always instantly caves when shown such a thing. She fears, and with good reason, that her marriage will be ruined because her husband will never get over it.

But a similar approach does not work as reliably on a male banker. Shown such a video, he might just take his chances and ask his wife for forgiveness. That is no problem for the drug dealers because they have another approach. As the officer said to me, it all comes down to three words: "I love you". That's what they use. They play the man a tape of him telling the woman he is having an affair with that he loves her. And the man instantly caves. He fears and with good reason, that his marriage will be ruined because his wife will never get over it.

A woman surrenders herself sexually in ways a man does not and cannot do. That is why it is harder for her to do in the first place and why it is so incredibly important that she do so and continue to do so in marriage.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blessed John Paul II

Our archdiocese has been given permission to celebrate a memorial feast in honour of the late pope today and I will be away for a good chunk of this day doing that.

This day is a humbling one for me. When JP II became pope I didn't not think he would amount to much and said so at the least provocation. It's hard to imagine how I could have been more wrong.

And it's not just that I was wrong about him; I was also wrong about myself. I never anticipated that my understanding of the Catholic Church and the world would change so radically as it did. The pope was right about most things and I was wrong about most things.

Many liberal Catholics I know now profess to have loved JP II. This is nonsense. They disdained and sometimes hated the man. They said far worse things about him than they now do about Benedict XVI. Now that JP II is safely dead, there is a lot of revisionism going on. Liberals remember the warm glow they had for him in his final years. They forget the seething anger they felt in the early days when he started leading the church in a direction they were not comfortable with.

I do not forget. I was very unhappy when JP II did not move things in the more liberal direction I hoped for all those decades ago. Now I thank God and his pope that I did not get what I wanted.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A little light culture: The root of all wisdom

There was a review of a recent biography of Leonard Cohen up at the New York Times. I am fan of Cohen and his music for reasons that are good, bad and purely contingent. I listen to him, and to pop music in general, a lot less often than I used to but I still read about the guy when he pops up.

If prudence matters, and it does, then you will approach Leonard Cohen with misgivings. But his greatest failing by far, is as a lover. After introducing him as an "artful dodger" and telling us the news that Cohen had a sexual affair with Joni Mitchell (neither a small nor an exclusive club), novelist Amy Holmes, who writes the review, tells us this about Cohen:
Women play a huge role in Cohen’s life — his need for female affection, along with his difficulty in remaining involved, is the stuff of legend.
His "need for" love. That is telling.  They play a huge roll in his life but what kind of roll did he play in theirs? She goes on to quote him:
“I had wonderful love, but I did not give back wonderful love,” he said. “I was unable to reply to their love. Because I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation, I couldn’t touch the thing that was offered me, and it was offered me everywhere.”
That is quite a confession. And yet both Holmes and Cohen seem to skim right over it. It's easy to say horrible things about yourself. And it's easy to blithely admit these things as way of justifying your continued failure. The person who says, "I always fail at X," is telling you that he means to fail again.

And Holmes doesn't seem interested in the wreckage Cohen left behind him.

We all resist love now. You can see it in Cohen's "fictional sense of separation". He said that right around the time the Lemon Girl and I got married and there is no evidence that he has managed to get over this sense of separation, however fictional it might be, in the years since. We think heartbreak and failure are character building but Evelyn Waugh was absolutely right when he wrote,
To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.
Leonard Cohen doesn't have much time left but I hope and pray he manages it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Neo-noir: Impulse

Impulse is one lousy film but it is one of a very few films to try presenting a woman's sex drive getting her into trouble as we find men doing in neo noir. For that reason it's worth a bit of study even though it's painful to try and watch.

It's Hollywood at its worst. Steal the concept from a previously successful film and reset it. Thus, Blue Crush was Flashdance on surfboards. The concept behind Impulse was "Let's do something like Fatal Attraction only reverse the sexes of the two principals."

If you didn't see Fatal Attraction, you're not missing much, but here is the gist of it. A man married to a very sexy woman bizarrely has a one-night stand with another, less attractive but wilder, woman who turns out to be an obsessed stalker who nearly ruins his entire life.

Here is the essential point though: the troubles and the drama for Michael Douglas's character in Fatal Attraction all take place after he cheats. That calls for an interesting moral response from the audience. We have remain sympathetic to him even though he cheats on his wife. The film would fail utterly if we saw him as largely deserving his fate. It's not just that we sympathize; we want him to get away with it.

This isn't an unusual or difficult thing to bring off in a movie. There are dozens of films in which our sympathy is with men who are married to a loving and caring woman and cheat on her and yet retain our sympathy. We will feel that what he has done is wrong but we don't want him to get caught. If he does get caught we will root for him as he attempts to regain his wife's love. But how many films can you think of in which a woman cheats on her faithful and loving husband and yet the audience's sympathy remains with her?

Keep that in mind as I tell you about the set up for Impulse:
  • A woman loves her husband deeply but feels something is missing from their sex life.
  • She becomes aware that something is missing not because she wants sex but because she wants a baby and their efforts to get pregnant are hampered by his lack of interest in sex.
  • She suggests that they try a little role playing in which they each assume romantic sounding names.
  • He initially fails to respond and then tries clumsily to do so.
Got that? So here is what happens next. She goes on a business trip and while she is sitting in the hotel bar she sees her husband walk in dressed as if in character to role play. She walks up to him and tells him she wants him. They go up to her room and have wild fantasy sex. And then, as he leaves, she tells him where and when her next business trip is.

Things are looking good right? What possibly could go wrong?

Well, it turns out that the man in the bar was not her husband but his absolute doppelganger  and that he will also turn out to be an obsessed stalker. This is, of course, utterly implausible. It couldn't happen. Even if he were physically identical, husbands and wives have so many shared secrets that she would unfailingly spot that he wasn't her husband in minutes if not seconds.

But why do it that way? Why not just have her simply cheat on her husband and come to regret it? Well, we can see the answer to that if we imagine, hypothetically, that a wife could be fooled in this way. If that could and did happen, then she wouldn't really have cheated. A woman in such a a position has simply made a mistake. She thought she was having sex with her husband.

The point being that we simply do not treat men and women the same when making moral judgments. A man who has an affair is in the wrong can still a be sympathetic character. A woman who does the same will not win our sympathy. It shouldn't be that way but it is.

And that tells you a lot about why there has not been a truly great neo noir with a woman in the lead role. The public simply isn't ready for such a thing yet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The culture in Proust cont'd

A bit of a discussion has broken out in the comments of my earlier post using the different cultures of France and the USA as means of making a political point. I have no objection to people doing that but, as I pointed out in the other post, that was not my what I was doing nor is it anything I would want to do myself.*

I should also say that I would be very wary of using the most admirable aspects of French culture to make a political point. France is on its fifth republic. In case that isn't clear, France has experienced total constitutional collapse four times during the period that the USA has managed to function with just one. And the USA not only maintained its constitutional union, it fought a civil war to maintain that constitution at its darkest hour.

It's also important to grasp just how different France is from the USA (or Canada) in that France has a highly centralized form of government. The most successful, and stable western nations are all federations with a division of powers between their federal governments and their consituent states or provinces. France is not like that.

The French system is really weird to us. To understand it, imagine that there was a new revolution in the US and that the new revolutionary government abolished all the states and then divided the country up into a series of administrative districts with absolutely no regard to historical divisions and development; replacing the states with arbitrary lines drawn on the map. And the divisions in France are entirely administrative units of the federal government. Every aspect of what they do is controlled from Paris.

Third, France's admirable commonplace culture is something that sprang up independent of, and sometimes in defiance of, it's politics. People often quote de Gaulle's quip that it is difficult to govern a nation with 246 kinds of cheese but it is important to recognize that the sentiment behind that is a desire to reduce the number of cheeses by government regulation. This sentiment is hardly unique to de Gaulle, hundreds of thousands of petty bureaucrats one has never heard of in every country are constantly plotting to destroy our cultural liberty for our own good.

Finally, there is an old quip that extremism is always coming to America but somehow manages to land in Europe instead. The USA with it's greater freedoms (and it still has much greater freedoms despite the efforts of some locals to remove them) always seems like a seething pot where extremism can thrive but that seething pot also limits it by allowing for free and open debate.

There is currently a huge debate in the USA between the red and the blue. In many ways, it is a repeat of a debate they have had before. The red side is similar in both spirit and content to the fathers of the revolution and the blue side is similar in both spirit and content to the views held by the Tories who opposed independence from England. Of the many things Obama was mistaken about, he was most wrong when he said there is no red America and blue America. There is. And some sort of resolution between the two sides will have to be worked out. It is entirely possible that that resolution will consist of a clearcut victory of one side over the other. That is scary. Particularly if you are on the blue side as blue America is very much in decline right now.

But scary or not, death is not the worst of evils: Live free or die.

Speaking as a Canadian, if I was forced to choose between the two countries, I'd pick France as a country to visit and perhaps even to live as an exile but the USA as my place of citizenship.

* This sentence has been edited in attampt to be clearer. It originally read, " I have no objection to people doing that but, as I pointed out in the other post, that was not my point." 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More on STDs and promiscuity

I suggested a while ago, to some push back, that antibiotic-resistant STDs were going to shake up our sexual mores a bit. Here (h/t Instapundit) is more evidence:
Using nationally comprehensive vital statistics, this study found evidence that the era of modern sexuality originated in the mid to late 1950s. Measures of risky non-traditional sexual behavior began to rise during this period. These trends appeared to coincide with the collapse of the syphilis epidemic. Syphilis incidence reached an all-time low in 1957 and syphilis deaths fell rapidly during the 1940s and early 1950s. Regression analysis demonstrated that most measures of sexual behavior significantly increased immediately following the collapse of syphilis and most measures were significantly associated with the syphilis death rate. Together, the findings supported the notion that the discovery of penicillin decreased the cost of syphilis and thereby played an important role in shaping modern sexuality.

Sorta Political: the media party

The premier of Ontario has resigned only one year after winning re-election. He is not a terribly bad leader by Canadian standards but , let's be honest, when someone resigns one year into a four-year mandate it's not because things are going well.

He is not uniquely or unusually bad and and many of the problems on his watch predate his coming to power. They are also big, big problems. For the benefit of non-Canadians, Ontario has long been the economic powerhouse of Canada and it's now in serious decline. And the worst is yet to come. Dalton McGuinty might have been an okay premier had been elected at some other time but he just wasn't up to the challenge. And now he is gone.

But the really fascinating thing is the media response. Guy resigns suddenly and unexpectedly from a position where he has been embroiled in scandal. This is not a good news story. So how does the press respond? By asking him if he has plans to run for an even higher office:
When asked specifically if he was interested in the federal Liberal leadership race, Mr. McGuinty said he "has no plans whatsoever." However, he did not specifically rule out entering the race, insisting only that he has no plans beyond serving as premier until a new leader is in place.

Mr. McGuinty was pressed repeatedly on the federal leadership race but only smiled and said he has "no plans."
You'd think he'd been a great roaring success. And he wasn't. He leaves behind him a number of huge steaming piles that will take years if not a generation to clean up. The province is heavily in debt and the  structural debt looming in the future will be crushing. It's economy is in decline and the government has massive debts because of social services it cannot afford to deliver. Public education is a disaster and McGuinty made it worse and discouraged any efforts to make more alternatives to public schooling available to parents.

The media, faced with the failure of its darling, has simply refused to report on his failures. As if it wasn't real as if they didn't report it.

It's hard to figure out why the Canadian media are so enamoured of the Liberal party but they are and have been for decades now. It's not a left versus right thing. The media are unquestionably left of centre but that doesn't seem to drive this love story. It's primarily cultural. The media look at the Liberals and see "people like us".

And they are going down. People like them I mean.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Maybe it's much too early in the year ...

The culture in Proust

When people read Proust in English, or when English-speaking people read him in French, one of the reasons they do so is an admiration for some quality they see in French culture. It because of a sense, as the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik once put it, that France produced the greatest common place culture ever.

This is probably less true today but if you went to France sometime in the last five decades you could see something most countries don't have today: a culture that runs deep. Everything—from the food people ate and the clothes they wore to the politics and history they argued about—drew from a shared culture that everyone participated in in a deep way.

A friend of mine and I saw a fascinating example of this in the late 1980s when we too some visitors from France to a restaurant in Chinatown. He took them there to give them an experience they couldn't have at home. He told them, what is quite true, that you simply cannot find the kinds of restaurant you can find in a North American Chinatown anywhere in Paris. And they loved the idea. They were looking forward to a new experience.

But the second they picked up the menus, they unconsciously set about transforming the meal into a French meal. They ordered not spring rolls but hors d'œuvres and they insisted on discussing and picking a wine that went with the main course. They were not disappointed but pitying when they learned that the restaurant had no cheese course to offer and stunned when they learned that coffee was unavailable said, with a tone of charity, "Oh well, we can have coffee elsewhere".

My friend was offended but I loved it. They weren't imperialistic about it. They didn't see themselves as imposing any judgments on anyone. They simply had this whole rich culture to draw on so they drew on it.

And the thing is they weren't cultured types. They were computer geeks here to talk about microchips. Think of it this way, you wouldn't be surprised if you met a computer geek from Cupertino who could was deeply interested in New Orleans cuisine but you'd treat him as unusual just as you would treat a computer geek who was deeply interested in new Orleans jazz. If, however, you found yourself treating a group of computer geeks at a conference who were a only together because they all happened to come from the United States, you'd be more than a little shock if they all shared the same deep interest and knowledge of a particular cuisine.

That is what France has that most other countries don't. And even other countries that have it, say Ireland, for example, don't have the depth and richness that France has.

That is a big part of the reason people from outside France read Proust. You get a detailed look at French culture at two levels. You get to see the aristocracy who were living their last gasp and you get a detailed look of the rising middle class who were seeking something like what the aristocracy had but also managing to create something new in the process.

You see this last in two women—Mme Verdurin and Odette de Crecy. The first is a member of the upper middle class, possessed of as much wealth but not the status of the aristocracy, who maintains a salon. Odette, on the other hand, is a courtesan who aspires to join the same social class as her lovers. And both largely succeed in their ambitions. (One of the biggest mistakes you can make in reading Proust is to disdain or hate particular characters, you must love them all to get this work.)

In order to show us their lives and their rise correctly, Proust must, and does, give us a highly detailed picture of their culture. As I've said before, it's a huge mistake to read Proust for his psychology. It has its moments to be sure, but, to paraphrase what Rossini said about Wagner, Proust's explorations of psychology does have some wonderful moments but it also has some terrible half hours. No, it is the outside account, the la belle epoque as you will find it nowhere else, that is the primary reason for reading this.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cocktail #1: The White Lady

I was in the liquor store today and noticed that they'd stocked a whole bunch of Lillet and wondered why for a moment. Then it hit me, there is a new Bond film coming, which means that every poseur in creation will be buying Lillet and making that God-awful cocktail Bond drinks. An antidote was needed and here it is (the first of a series).

According to some sources anyway, this was Somerset Maugham's favourite cocktail. So let us read some Maugham to get in the mood.
One of the many inconveniences of real life is that it seldom gives you a complete story. Some incident has excited your interest, the people who are concerned in it are in the devil's own muddle, and you wonder what on earth will happen next. Well, generally nothing happens. The inevitable catastrophe you foresaw wasn't inevitable after all, and high tragedy, without any regard to artistic decency, dwindles into drawing-room comedy. Now, growing old has many disadvantages, but it has this compensation (among, let us admit, not a few others), that sometimes it gives you the opportunity of seeing what was the outcome of certain events you had witnessed long ago. You had given up the hope of ever knowing what was the end of the story, and then, when you least expected it, it is handed to you on a platter.
Love that stuff. It's from a story called "The Romantic Young Lady". Maugham wrote great short stories and some novels that are good enough if you are willing to put the efforts into them. As a result, he is not read much anymore.

As you can see in the above, every line, every word in Maugham is doing real work. There are no sections where you can just coast along. That's good in a short story but less so in a longer work. Drinking a White Lady is sort of like that. There is a certain thrill that comes from saying, "I'll have another white lady please," but this is a cocktail for those who want just one before dinner.

How to make it? Well, there are four ingredients:
Lemon juice
Egg White 
I've decorated mine with a nasturtium.

I'm not saying anything about proportions because it's best not to know if you want to learn how to make cocktails right. Roughly speaking, more gin than anything else, no more than half as much Cointreau as gin and less of each ingredient as you go down the list. Experiment and figure out what tastes best. Learn to trust your own taste and, most important, educate your sentiments such that you change the recipe as you learn more about the art of living.

Put all ingredients, except the flower, in a cocktail shaker and shake it hard until the outside of the shaker is cold enough that it hurts to hold it. The whole point of shaking is to chill the drink not mix it. That's why you have to shake hard.

A couple of caveats.
  1. The final result should be tart. How tart is up to you but on no account should this cocktail taste sweet. If you look the oldest recipes, they made them really tart—it was a drink to make you pucker up.
  2. Dried egg whites don't work. It's the real thing or nothing. You can substitute a small dollop of cream. Not so much that you can taste cream but more so that it changes the colour and texture of the drink. However, the cream will tend to separate so you will have to swirl it around occasionally as you drink it.

A little light culture: Jenny McCarthy's hot dog

Did you hear about this? Ms. McCarthy has a book out and in it she says she and two friends made a trip for spring break with hardly any money and that, along the way, she did the "worst thing" she ever did for $20. She pointedly did not specify what that worst thing was in the book however.

Okay, let's pause a moment here. Anyone care to take a wild guess what a teenage girl might have done for gas money that she later describes as the worst thing she ever did? Are you thinking maybe she held her breath until she turned blue? That she deliberately stepped on the sidewalk cracks? That she ate a spider on a dare?

Me neither.

Next step, do you think that maybe a woman with a long-established reputation as a shameless exhibitionist maybe left the question unanswered in her book precisely because she wanted to be asked to explain further on television?

When she was (inevitably) asked she said, "I ate a truck stop hot dog," for the twenty bucks.

Now, here is the real stretcher: the guy who asked her, some dweeb named "Billy Bush", then goes through an elaborate act of pretending he doesn't get the allusion. And then he looks shocked, like he didn't see this, if you'll pardon the expression, coming.

I mention all this because I want to make it clear that the whole thing was a set up. Everyone already knew that McCarthy had committed some act of prostitution. And everyone knew that she was just being coy in not revealing the final detail until she was on television. And everyone knew she'd wet her panties in gleeful anticipation of the moment when she got to tell the whole world that she'd once sold herself for twenty bucks to fill the gas tank of the car she and her friends were driving. (Probably literally wet her panties as she is an exhibitionist.)

All of which means that our host Billy Bush had already thought about, and probably practiced, his reaction and response. So what did he say to her?
I just want you to know something – you’re worth more than $20.
Yup folks, that is today's pop culture. Confronted with the revelation that the young starlet once committed an act of prostitution, Billy Bush plumbed the moral depths and told her she didn't charge enough.

The thing is she probably charged just the right amount. In terms of pure monetary value, a blowjob is worth the price of filling a gas tank.  Just a few years later, she posed nude for Playboy for $20k. Is this later development in her story morally different because her price went up? She could. of course, have charged much more for the blowjob too on the grounds that she was "Jenny McCarthy" but she wasn't that yet, just plain old Jenny McCarthy. (The other thing is that some of us prefer not to think of such things in terms of monetary value but of love—as a loving gesture one person does for another.)

I doubt very much that Jenny McCarthy needed that twenty bucks that badly. I suspect that she needed the validation more. She needed to know she was attractive enough and daring enough to pull this off. As the price of mutually satisfying some want, she and her truck-driving accomplice both got exactly what they wanted.

And now every truck driver who purchased oral sex for twenty bucks some time in the late 80s, early 90s is getting a secret thrill at the thought that maybe it was Jenny McCarthy who serviced him at the service station. And the thrill is for free and it is with "Jenny McCarthy" now and not some anonymous teenager. But still no love. And I don't think the truck driver in question could get a repeat performance now. If he has, as it were, rock solid proof that it was him, he could probably sell his story to some journalist and use that money to buy the services of a whole lot of budding Jennys. But I suspect that "recreating the moment" while thinking "it really was her" is probably thrilling enough for a lot of guys, most of whom never paid for anyone's hot-dog-consumption services at a truck stop or anywhere else.

I also doubt very much that what Ms. McCarthy did is terribly rare. I don't mean the trivial fact that prostitution is common. I mean rather that I suspect that just about every girl does something sexual that she thinks of as "the worst thing" she ever did only she doesn't feel any shame at all about it. It won't be prostitution in most cases. But it is something that she likes to think of as the sort of thing she never guessed she was capable of. 

The overall context matters a whole lot here. If McCarthy was a hooker promoting a book about her years of  hard life and drug use and how she finally broke free that anecdote would have a whole other sense. It matters a whole lot that she got away with it. Most girls do something wild only once, or twice, or three times, or four at the max because most girls know that the odds will eventually catch up to you. Most girls also know that it stops being wild and thrilling if you do it too much and too much comes a lot faster than you would guess.

That said, most girls would brag about it if the circumstances were right and she could trust the person she tells it to react the the way she hopes. She even wants the same reaction McCarthy got (only from a much more exclusive audience)—that we pretend we're so shocked when we're obviously thrilled.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On being manipulative

A friend sent me a link this morning to an article about "managing your social media personality". She didn't really send it to me so much as she sent it to everyone who is linked to her through LinkedIn.

The gist of the article was that you shouldn't use social media solely to promote your business interests. That you should also let your personal interests show through so that people get a sense of the whole you.

And you should do this because ... wait for it ... then your efforts to promote your business interests will be more effective!

I don't mention this because I think it's especially or obscenely manipulative, although that is clearly what it is. No, it's that it is so casually manipulative. It seems to have never occurred to the woman who wrote the article that this is manipulation. She seems utterly unaware of any moral dimension beyond the effectiveness of what she promotes.

There is nothing wrong with being manipulative. The other day I went to the bank and the woman I dealt with made friendly chatter and based on what I told her while we chatted she casually mentioned a service the bank offered that might be of use to me. That is manipulation and it is, as far as I'm concerned, perfectly fine.

Kissing and hugging someone so they will get aroused is manipulation too and a darn good thing. If married couples only had sex when they were both spontaneously in the mood at the same time all marriages would be doomed. Wives and husbands have a duty to manipulate one another into having sex.

Maybe you'd prefer some other word that didn't seem so harsh as "manipulate"? But harshness is our friend here because it forces us to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing. Getting someone enthused about something is serious business and you can hurt them. Having to recognize that you are being manipulative when you do these things—when you dress, and talk and act in certain ways—is to recognize that you are doing this to them.

The danger is when we are casually manipulative. When we don't think of any higher needs.

One of the most important books in my life is, as I have mentioned before, After Virtue. One of the points that MacIntyre makes is that if moral argument is entirely about personal preferences then all moral argument is simply moral manipulation. That is the problem with broadening your social media personality to include more than business. We need truth. Not "the truth" because no one can be sure of having that.

We are always trying to change outcomes. We are always trying to manipulate others to do some things and not do others. Even when we decide to consciously step aside so someone else make up their own mind, we do so because we think they should be making up their own mind; we are manipulating them into thinking for themselves. This can be done for the most selfish of reasons. I can encourage Trish to learn how to use the database because I think it will help her in her career but I can also do it so she will be grateful to me and have sex with me. I can even do it because I just don't like Trish and I'm fed up with having to talk to her every time she needs help. Both these reasons can be good reasons. Seduction has its purposes and being seduced can be very good for someone. It's also perfectly justifiable to make efforts to reduce occasions that cause you pain. But these are only good reasons if I honestly consider that I am doing something to Trish in both circumstances so that I confront the moral dimension of what I am doing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The devil you know

Yesterday, I argued that Woody Allen was being nihilistic when he said:
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it's all over much too soon.
In the comments, Billy Carmichael contested this:
The joke says, 'Life really isn't all that bad, so lighten up a bit. You really love it and you know you do, you silly Malvolio, you.' I don't know where she gets being thankful for the bad from, but the joke certainly turns one away from the absurd obsession of bad and reminds one that we all love life and hope it never ends. This is not nihilism. 
In a sense I agree. I think Billy is quite right to insist that is the morally healthy reaction to the joke. But ... well, first, let's go back to the source.  There are probably a whole lot of people who have never seen Annie Hall, which is where it comes from. Here is the opening scene where it appears;

As you can see, the quoted line is not the joke but Woody's explanation of it. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is Alvy Singer's explanation for Allen is in character here.

Or is he in character? He talks like he isn't in character. He just appears with no set up, no context, so we naturally assume that this is Woody himself taking a few minutes to set the thing up for us. Even when he says, "Annie and I broke up," it could be real.

And the movie ends with Alvy directing a play which he clearly set up so he can have in "fiction" what he couldn't have in "real" life. Or is it the other way around? We're deliberately being teased with the notion that this could be real.

At the same time, we're deliberately being set up not to take it seriously. For example, after setting up this bleak nihilistic worldview, Allen then puts it into the mouth of a child so we can all laugh at it and we don't have to think, "Does he really means this?"

Imagine this, Phillip and Theresa are married. They lived together before the wedding but Theresa insisted that they live apart for the last week, "So it really will be different when we get married." And she goes up to her family cottage to increase the separation.

Years later, Phillip is at the lake himself and talking with Theresa's lifelong friend and ex-boyfriend Patrick and Patrick inadvertently reveals that he was also up at the lake that week. Phillip, trying to hide his nervousness, asks him if he saw Theresa that week. Patrick looks him right in the face and says, "Yeah, we had a wild, farewell fling that week." He then waits a moment for effect, and bursts out laughing as if it were all a joke.

Think of Baudelaire's quip that the devil's greatest trick was to convince us that he didn't exist.

We can take the joke about the two ladies in the Catskills any number of ways. Me, I would be inclined to take it the way Billy Carmichael does. But I don't think Woody does. When he says, "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it's all over much too soon," he damn well means it. That's the way he understood it. As Mia Farrow learned the hard way, you should worry a whole lot if Woody ever spent a week alone at the lake with a young and beautiful woman who means a lot to you.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sorta political: On believing nothing

It was Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend and an old friend shared this quote yesterday:
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it's all over much too soon.
Woody Allen               
Which is pretty bland and not very funny, which is, come to think of it, a pretty good description of Woody Allen himself these days. What really threw me was that she immediately went on to say that she likes the quote because it reminds her that she should be thankful for "both the good and the bad".

Really? Is she grateful for AIDS? Hitler? Cancer?

Then I pointed out to her that there was no way the words of that quote could be construed so as to make them mean what she thought they meant. There is not a hint of gratitude in that lame joke. She said she knew that but she didn't care, it was the way it made her feel. I went on to say that Woody Allen's larger point is that life is morally meaningless. And he isn't fooling around about this. He made two movies that went so far as to say that even murder has no moral significance beyond the initial shock it causes.

She'd stopped paying attention long before I finished. She didn't care, she had her quote that made her feel thankful for the good and the bad. And I thought of Corrie ten Boom in the concentration camp being thankful for the lice that infested the place because it meant the guards inspected the place less often allowing the prisoners to read the Bible they had hidden more often. Not because I can even begin to imagine what that is like but because Corrie ten Boom at least used words and sentences that actually meant something to express her gratitude.

I've often mocked the religion of SIMU (Shit I Made Up) but this isn't even that. It's a religion with no content at all not even stuff that was made up. I suspect my friend read or heard somewhere that it's good for you to be grateful and so she has pulled a random quote that she likes and associated it with gratitude "for both the good and the bad".

It's a sort of wimpy nihilism and I've written about this before.
In real life, though, being a martyr for nihilism is a grim and depressing choice so we find ways to make the second choice look morally admirable. You sit in the audience and watch the nihilistic movie and then you go to a party where you and a bunch of your friends collectively pretend to be edgy and transgressive and a whole lot of other words that mean a little less every time you think about them. The nagging doubt that you are just being dilettantes is always there but you are still alive and you can even have quite a bit of fun.
But what about the politics of such people? According to Pew, they make up one fifth of Americans. They probably make up more than that, truth be told, as there are lots of people who go to church regularly or semi-regularly whose beliefs are about as fuzzy.

I suspect that virtually all of these people think of themselves as liberals. Not because liberalism is nihilistic or deeply flawed but because it's what the cool kids believe and therefore is the place where people with no real beliefs of their own are most likely to land. Ask them to explain what liberalism is, however, and they won't have a clue what to say beyond arguing that it is what people with common sense and decency believe.

Monday, October 8, 2012


I'll start with a juxtaposition:
  1. Camille Paglia is at it again. She has a piece up in the Wall Street Journal called, "How Capitalism Can Save Art". The gist of it, and it's far from crazy, is that industrial design has produced far more of great worth than the art world the last few decades. You may or may not like Paglia's specific examples and taste, I certainly don't, but I still think her basic argument is irrefutable. The art world is decadent, corrupt and moribund.
  2.  In an oddly related vein, we have a piece wondering why hipsters love obsolete technology. And they do. But they're right to do so. They can't bring themselves to love the latest products of industrial design but they love the old stuff. And, again, they are right to do so. Someone could, and they'd also be right, construct an argument explaining this in terms of motive. Two decades from now, when it too is obsolete, hipsters will celebrate the iPhone. They can only love this stuff once it has a history; they can only love it once they can associate it with lives and loves, battles won and lost ...
But here is my question, what about romanticism. The official art world hates neo-romanticism and the latest technology doesn't sit comfortably with it. And yet, the art that most people love is romanticism. And there is a huge market for fantasy fiction that tries very hard to make new technology fit into romantic tales.

So the question I have is this: Is it time to embrace romanticism again?

Serious writers will rush in now and point out how vulgar and unsophisticated current romanticism is with its princesses, rural revival fantasies, hopelessly exaggerated emotional upheavals and much else. And all that is true but you do have to wonder if that isn't in large part because serious artists refuse to try their hand at it.

I think a big part of why I like Proust and Waugh's Brideshead Revisisted so much is that they are both late romantics. I feel the same way about Mahler.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A little light culture: Casual feminism

Casual feminism is the most common kind of feminism but the type that receives the least critical attention. And it's not hard to see why when you look at it. Consider for example, Samantha Escobar who writes about leg shaving over at the YourTango site.

The article is ostensibly about a survey of readers habits. The survey itself is of dubious value but that doesn't matter as I am most interested in Escobar's treatment of it. The first thing we see of that treatment is that she falls over herself trying to make the article say the opposite of what the survey says. Here is the introductory paragraph:
Recently, I've been thinking about how the changing seasons affect my beauty habits. A few examples: I wax my bikini line during bathing suit season, I don't exfoliate as much in the winter and I wear a gel moisturizer instead of a cream one in the summer to avoid oiliness. But one that I've noticed myself and many others tend to do is shaving less during the colder seasons, when we can cover up our stubble (or forest) with long pants or tights.
You have to read well into the piece before you find out what readers actually said and, given all the build up, it's a bit jarring to read that "88 percent of respondents said they remove hair from their legs year-round". Oh well, so much for that theory. But why spend so much time dwelling on it if you know it's false? It's perfectly acceptable to say, we expected X but learned Y but Escobar simply drowns the results she didn't expect with exposition of what she did expect.

An unkind person might wonder if Samantha Escobar believes what she thinks is more important than actually reporting.

Okay, so we know that readers of YourTango—a group overwhelmingly dominated by young women—mostly shave. And that isn't terribly surprising is it? It's exactly what you would have guessed. Who is to blame for this? Well, we know who Escobar wants to blame:
But seasons aren't the only factor that played a role in shaving routines. Many respondents also said their shaving habits depend on their relationship status.
 Notice, first of all, that Escobar will not let her pet theory that women don't shave in the winter go even though the survey says they do. Reality doesn't play a big role in her beliefs. Okay, but what of her claim that "many respondents" do it for their boyfriends?
In fact, 12 percent stated they typically only remove leg hair for special occasions and another 10 percent said that they would likely never shave if it wasn't for their significant other. Forty percent of respondents, however, informed us that a significant other played no part in their shaving routine; they simply did it because they wanted to — while 36 percent said they did shave, but their significant other wouldn't mind either way (lucky).
Uh, only 10 percent said that they shave because of their boyfriends wishes and the conclusion is that "many" say "relationship status" plays a role? I don't think so. Here is a lesson in journalism and interpreting statistics for Escobar; how that paragraph should have been written. Before I begin, note that Escobar is confident that the groups do not overlap. She says "an other 10 percent". The percentages in her example add up to 98 percent, the missing two percent being result of rounding.
The  largest group of women said that their boyfriend's opinion has no influence on their decision to shave their legs. Fully 76 percent said they would shave anyway. Forty percent said they do it because they want to and 36 percent said they shave anyway even though their significant other "wouldn't mind either way". Twelve percent said they shave only for special occasions and only ten percent said they wouldn't shave at all if it wasn't for their significant other.
In fact, Escobar's own attitudes give the game away. She doesn't like doing it at all but she does when it might show. She says she waxes her bikini line in the summer meaning, when she is on the beach and a whole lot of people will see her she doesn't like the idea of her pubic hair sticking out around the side of her bathing suit. What she cares most about is what complete strangers might think of her and not what her boyfriend might think.

Here is a little not so idle speculation. Suppose Escobar was invited to a girls-only weekend at an isolated cottage with a very private beach such that she knew the only people who were going to see her in her bikini were other women. Do you think she'd wax her bikini line before going? I don't know her but I'd be willing to bet it's an absolute certainty that she would.

What's operating here is our old friend shame and, as The Last Psychiatrist would add, it's semi-regular companion narcissism. Escobar cares little about the desires and feelings of some "boyfriend", that is she cares little about any other person at all except insofar as that might affect her social status. She treats pleasing another human being—one whom, in theory anyway, she is supposed to be in love with—as a burden and inconvenience but willing does what it takes to complete strangers from thinking her gross or laughable. You couldn't get a clearer example of narcissism than that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Here's some fun

In what appears to be a slap in the face for gender equality, the report found the divorce rate among couples who shared housework equally was around 50 per cent higher than among those where the woman did most of the work. 
It's only a "study" so it probably means nothing at all but why let that stand in the way of fun?

 I've often wondered how keen women really are to share the housework. I know they say they are but my experience has been that there is always some aspect of housework, usually an unpleasant one, that women will cling to. And, as with a lot of feminist aspirations there is a lot of passive aggressive stuff at work where women say they want these things and then work to undermine efforts to make it happen.

And then there is this suggestion from one of the study's authors:
  • “Maybe it’s sometimes seen as a good thing to have very clear roles with lots of clarity ... where one person is not stepping on the other’s toes,” he suggested. 
Ya think?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sorta Political: "The new superbug that is going to ruin blowjobs forever"

That headline appeared at one of those sites aimed at young women. You know the ones, twenty-five salacious articles about sex, twenty-three of which are designed to inspire young women to be more promiscuous and the remaining two are designed to scare them into thinking they will be raped, beaten or infected by their partner. This one fit into the latter category.

The new superbug is an antibiotic resistant form of gonorrhea that has sprung up. This is not a surprise, medical authorities have known for about a decade now that such a thing was inevitable given antibiotic abuse and other factors. And it is worth remembering that this disease will cause incredible suffering, particularly in the third world, by which I mean that the risk of, "ruining blowjobs forever" is perhaps a little trivial by comparison.

And it won't so much ruin blowjobs as it will ruin a rather odd kind of recreational sex in which young single women service young single men so that they can both get some kinds of thrills without much physical or emotional  risk. With an incurable form of gonorrhea about to make the scene things won't ever be the same again.

And here, courtesy of the Center for Disease Control, is why:
Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of getting or giving gonorrhea. The most certain way to avoid gonorrhea is to not have sex or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
"Reducing the risk" sounds like a good deal when the worst you might have to face is a few weeks on antibiotics but how far do you need to reduce the risk before you feel comfortable with the thought of "incurable"? As it stands, I'd bet good money that most young women probably aren't currently insisting on condoms and this for a simple reason, they hate the things. In a sense it really will ruin things for them.

Recreational sex with multiple partners hasn't turned out to be such a great idea has it? And it's not just disease. The emotional damage it has caused is just as real.

But, as I say, this has been inevitable for some time now. It's odd that it took the Center for Disease Control to suggest the one solution—" to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected"—that our cultural leaders have so desperately tried to pretend doesn't exist these last few decades.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Gena the hooker cont'd

If that song and/or video makes moral sense to you, something has gone deeply wrong with your character.

I had a post up last week about girls who advertize for sugar daddies and how deluded they are. The really interesting thing here isn't that some young girls get sucked into what is just prostitution so easily. What fascinates me is how much self-delusion involved.

Here is another example of what I mean. There is an article in a publication called Psychological Science in the Public Interest about online dating. Social scientists have studied the services offered and found they don't work. You can listen to a podcast about the article here.)

In discussing reasons that online daters don't have a high success rate, the researchers suggest that the chemistry of the online interaction isn't right, that the algorithms that the computers use to match people up aren't as good as was thought and that there are key bit of information that aren't being evaluated. No one, however, wants to say the key thing out loud.

Because if there is one thing that everyone who uses online dating has in common it is that they have not been able to make a relationship work any other way. No one picks online dating as their first choice to finding a partner. It's the thing you go to when the normal ways of doing this haven't worked out for you.

Sinatra once did an album called Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. I mention this because, he'd originally planned to call it Sinatra Sings for Losers at Love. It's not hard to figure out why he changed the title. No one wants to be thought of as a loser.

More importantly, the people who most fear being thought losers at love are ... well, they are losers at love. And, sorry to hurt anyone's feelings, that is what people who use online dating are. They think they tried the usual stuff and it didn't work but it was them that didn't work.

Okay, "loser" is a harsh word. Put it that way and, well, "Are you telling me there is something wrong with me?" No I'm not. Life is.

You could try changing. Work on your appearance a bit, your social skills, your moral character. Maybe your expectations are out of whack with your actual status.

But no one wants to face that so we don't start thinking about our appearance, our attitudes and our expectations. We blame circumstances instead. "It's so hard meeting people these days." No it isn't! You walk by hundreds of people every day. You work with people. You live next door to people.

I'm sorry to have to put it this way, but most of us meet people we could easily fall in love with without trying. I'm married and most decidedly not looking for someone and yet I meet women and start talking to them casually and bang, something clicks. It's at that point that I make some excuse to casually bring up that I am married.

Which brings me back to Gena. Why does she, and why do the other women (girls really) using these find-a-sugar-daddy services need to advertise in the first place? If she as really as hot as she says she is, likely sugar daddies would pursue her. All she'd have to do is smile at the man making eyes at her at Starbucks and then start a conversation. Any stupid comment about the weather would do.

Gena's primary problem is that she isn't nearly as hot or desirable as she thinks she is.

Let's try coming at it another way. Why does she want this relationship? It's not because the sex is going to be so good. Is it for the gifts? The answer to that is that it's not for the gifts themselves but for what they symbolize. They are her market value. If an older man is willing to spend the cash on dinners, shows, nice clothes and stuff, then she must be really desirable. She must be worth it.

She's not getting this from boys her age. They just want sex. They don't want a relationship. Hell, they don't even want to ask her for a date on the way to getting it.

Or maybe she has a boyfriend but she thinks he only tells her she is hot because he is in love with her. She needs attention from other boys to validate her sense of self worth.

Whatever it is that she needs, she isn't getting it. And she thinks the the problem is all these barriers. It's not her. Never think that.