Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sorta political: "flawed America"?

When I was in middle school I knew a girl who came from a Jewish family. I put it that way because she didn't think of herself as Jewish and neither did her parents. She knew that was her heritage but her parents had made it clear that was a largely contingent and unimportant thing.

She'd been told about the Second World War and the concentration camps but hadn't thought about it much. Then, one day in Grade 8, she began reading a magazine article that recounted the experience of war time Jews and it really hit her for the first time. For the first time in her life she thought about it as something that happened to people like her. The thought hit her hard. She had nightmares about it. And she began to think of herself in a completely different way.

I've seen the same thing happen to other people since. It happens a lot with the Irish here in North America. I was close friends with a family of people of Ukrainian descent in university and saw one member of the family, get really swept up by the discovery of what the Soviets had done to her ancestors.

I was thinking about that reading Ta Nehisi Coates post "A Flawed America in Context" this morning. In it, you really should read the whole thing, he quotes a long account of Europe at the end of the Thirty Years War, a time when people were so hungry they ate the raw flesh off corpses. The lesson he draws from that is this: "the history of white racism and its attendent victims is horrifying, but it should be seen in scale".

That's a good enough point. But it's also important to remember the effects that come from thinking of historical crimes as crimes against yourself. To this day, for example, the British and people of British descent not only deny the incredibly brutal oppression of Catholicism that took place there but actually brag about their history of "religious tolerance". Sometimes the temptation to take it personally can be very strong.

The question that should occur to us, however, is, would the story be any different if the shoe had been on the other foot. Suppose a more technologically and militarily advanced Africa had begun importing Europeans to work in plantation farming. Is there any reason to believe the history would have been different?

Brutality such as Coates cites during the Thirty Years War also happened in Africa and among aboriginals in North America before the arrival of Europeans.

If anything, it seems to me that the correct lesson to take is that brutal oppression of peoples by peoples is the norm in human history. The thing that needs explaining because it is exceptional is why some people amazingly decided that this was wrong and began fighting to change their own societies to stop being oppressive. Why did that ever happen and why did it happen in the places and times where it did happen.

The other lesson is that this sort of liberty and respect for human freedom is always and everywhere only possible when backed up with military force. The liberty of classical Greece was only possible because the Greeks were better at fighting Persians than the Persians were at fighting Greeks. The emancipation of the slaves in America happened because the North was more powerful than the South. The military might of the United States is a necessary condition for the peace and prosperity I enjoy today here in Canada. The same is true of European prosperity—it depends absolutely on the USA.

All of which makes it seem a little silly, if you ask me, to be writing of a "flawed" America. What is this supposed to mean? As opposed to other countries that are "unflawed"?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sorta political: Liberal racism and other issues

Ann Althouse has a good catch on a Slate/Washington Post article that desperately tries to explain away North Dakota having a very low teen pregnancy rate despite having only one Planned parenthood office and little sex education. It's pretty funny to see the wacky and unlikely "evidence" cited but the real sting is in the tail. The article quotes a learned professor who obviously didn't think things through before opening her mouth:
“North Dakota is just off-the-charts, demographically,” says June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author of Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. The state may prove that white, middle-class teens will probably do OK in the absence of comprehensive sex ed and well-funded reproductive health centers, as “they’ll learn from their families, their peers, their doctors, and the internet.”
It's the unspoken corollary assumptions that go with that thought that come off as, well, racist is a good word here.

That said, there is another way to think about it. Suppose that, rather than focusing on unspoken negative assumptions about non-white cultures at work here, we focused instead on the unspoken positive assumptions about the white, middle class culture of a place like North Dakota.

Notice the that Professor Carbone identifies the very things that help North Dakota teens succeed (empasis added):
... white, middle-class teens will probably do OK in the absence of comprehensive sex ed and well-funded reproductive health centers, as “they’ll learn from their families, their peers, their doctors, and the internet.
In other words, it helps to have a strong family and to obey your parents, it helps live in a culture where virtues such as prudence predominate and it helps to be literate. The good professor is also implicitly admitting not only that these things work but that they are more effective than "comprehensive sex ed and well-funded reproductive health centers".

The liberal culture doesn't just fail to recognize the things that work, it often actively seeks to undermine them. And the biggest victims of these liberal efforts to undermine family, virtue and literacy are black, Hispanic and aboriginal Americans. That's not a coincidence.

As I've said before, I'm descended from famine-fleeing Irish Catholics. The branch of the family I descend from achieved amazing socio-economic success by emulating the morals and culture of white middle-class protestants they ended up living next to when they arrived in the Northeast. Professors and journalists spend a lot of time slagging the white, middle class in places like North Dakota but the truth is that if you want to succeed in life, you couldn't do better in your search for role models.

Lust and pride

The other day I was involved in a discussion of Catholic morality and someone pulled out a list of vices they said were typical of men and women. They said this list came from "the Vatican". Well, not exactly. It's the work of Monsignor Wojciech Giertych. He claims to have used a statistical analysis of what people say in the confessional to reach his conclusions.

In any case, I know you are dying to see the list:

The first problem, as a woman in the discussion group pointed out, is that avarice (aka "greed") is so far down both lists. Does anyone believe that? I don't and there we have the key to what is really going in here. This list is really a list of what men and women are most likely to feel guilty about.

Another woman, choosing her words very carefully said, "I can see how this is the list is what you'd get if you asked people but ..." And she stopped there. And it's not hard to figure out why she stopped. To continue would have been to admit something about her own experience that young women, particularly young Catholic women, typically don't admit about themselves. Not out loud anyway. However, she put her finger on the other thing wrong with the list: that it just happens to conform exactly with the most common stereotypes our culture promotes about men and women.

People feel guilty about exactly the things that the culture tells them they should feel guilty about. Thus lust is at the top of the men's list. And thus pride but also, and more tellingly, envy and anger are what women tend to feel most guilty about. And all that proves is that we are susceptible to suggestion.

That, however, suggests a very good moral use for the list. If you wanted to make a better examination of your conscience, and you should, you'd use this list as a key to being more honest in your self examination. If you are a man, you are probably too self-critical when it comes to lust, gluttony and sloth and not nearly self-critical enough when it comes to anger, pride, envy and avarice. If you are a woman, then you are probably too self-critical when it comes to pride, envy and anger and not nearly self-critical enough when it comes to lust, gluttony, avarice, and sloth.

Oh yeah, the title of this post. Another woman in the group (the women were much sharper than the men during this discussion)  suggested that if men and women have complementary virtues, they might just as likely have complementary vices. In that regard, look at men's lust and women's pride. For men are not terribly self-conscious in their lust. They would be a lot more successful about satisfying it if they put more effort into their appearance and manners, for example. And women's pride is interesting. What would you say women are most likely to be proud of? Or, to come at it from another angle, if they are ashamed (shame is a kind of pride), what would you say they would most likely want to change about themselves to remove that shame?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

White Jazz, pt 2

You probably don't care about the Austin High School Gang but bear with me because their story is revealing. They were a bunch of guys who went to, you guessed it, Austin High School in Chicago. They decided they wanted to be in a band together and then, after, get this, hearing a jazz record at the soda shop, that they wanted to be a jazz band.

The amazing thing about them is just how ordinary their story is. They met at high school. There aren't any soda shops anymore. Today they would have hung out at the food court at the local mall and one of them would have brought the music that inspired them on their iPhone. But the primary thing about them is their sheer ordinariness.

They had a couple of things going for them. All but one of the gang had some musical training. That was more common back then than it is now. They also lived in Chicago which, if you wanted to be near real jazz in the 1920s, was the very best place in the whole world to be.

But otherwise everything about this jazz craze that caught them is like so many other teen boy crazes. In the 1980s, you used to see guys carry a sheet of plywood down to the park so they could practice break dancing moves, in the 1990s, it was skateboards that they practiced incessantly, later it was snowboards, BMX bikes, various extreme sports and so forth.

Kids don't do music as much as they used to but you only have to go back to the late 1970s to find a time when thousands of them started punk bands. Punk is much easier to play than 1920s jazz, of course. This is because punk was a very limited and simplistic kind of music with no room for development, which goes a long way to explaining why punk died so quickly; even a musically illiterate culture like ours is going to tire of music as simplistic as punk pretty quickly.

1920s Chicago jazz, later known as Dixieland or trad jazz, lasted for decades. There is still a trad jazz movement out there today, although it is pretty small, but the original movement lasted almost five decades, which is a lot longer than any do-it-yourself music trend in the 20th century.

It's instructive to compare the attitudes of the white versus black jazz musicians and enthusiasts. Until very recently (think Wynton Marsalis) black jazz musicians cared a whole lot more about the future of jazz than its past. But whites get excited about jazz heritage, they care about its roots. For blacks, jazz has tended to be a validation of their own authenticity. That is to say, it has been a way to show themselves and whites just how deep and rich black culture is. For whites is was more of an escape. They love the authenticity of jazz but it is precisely the possibility of dressing-up and playing a different role than the one life hands them that is the appeal.

And this early jazz had all the elements that appeal to boys and young men. It was small-group music. It didn't need a lot of arranging. It allowed for a sense of adventure and discovery. And it came with more secret lore than  Harry Potter novel.

It also had the advantage of not being completely dominated by an established group who had started doing this stuff a decade ago and who were motivated to keep the kids out. 

Most important of all, it was good. You listen to this stuff casually today and it feels comfortable and easy like nostalgia of a golden era when life was easy. The truth is the exact opposite. It was a music born of hard times and it was based on deep and rich tradition that allowed infinitely more possibilities than rock and roll, the blues, soul or hip hop could ever do.

And that is why, even today when hardly anyone listens to jazz, its culture casts such a long shadow. That is why concepts of cool hold sway over journalists who graduated from university in the 1980s and 1990s, all of whom are so painfully uncool they squeak. It's also why a younger generation of high school kids and even university graduates would gravitate to hip. With "cool" so completely owned by an elite, hipster offered freedom.

And the "cool"people got insecure and decided to murder hipster while it was still a puppy. And they succeeded. For now. Their grip on the cultural controls won't last forever though. And when it goes, look out.

Monday, February 25, 2013

White Jazz, pt. 1

There is a video on YouTube somewhere of Leon Redbone  talking to a crowd at a show somewhere. He appears to be drunk in the video but he may or mat not be. I don't know. Anyway, he holds up a picture and tells us the picture is of Nick Larocca. And he says that this is the man who invented jazz.

He's probably being ironic. To say such a thing and mean it would get you branded racist in less time than it takes to say, "Hold that tiger". And yet there is a sense in which the claim is not completely crazy and everyone who studies the history of jazz has probably been tempted to think what Redbone teases us by saying.

The name "Nick Larocca" may not mean anything to you. Larocca was the cornet player with the Original Dixieland Jazz band. The ODJB unquestionably made the first jazz record. After that it gets complicated.

No one believes that Larocca invented jazz. I don't think anyone who looks at the history of jazz in an even half-serious manner thinks that anyone invented jazz. But here's the thing: no one thought of it as "jazz" before the ODJB. The word "jazz" seems to come from white culture and it seems to be first applied to music in Chicago or San Francisco by white audiences. And these audiences didn't mean a genre of music. They meant a way of playing music.

Jazz meant to do something with spirit and hustle. It's highly unlikely the audiences who first used the word had any special musical knowledge. They liked that the music was energetic and fast paced. The first world war was just over and there was a new spirit of rebellion in the air and the music fit in with the spirit of rebellion.

Larocca didn't invent jazz—nobody did—but he saw the opportunity to connect the music to a lifestyle and he made money doing it. There was a lawsuit about who wrote an ODJB hit called "Livery Stable Blues". It's of no legal interest. What is interesting is that when Larocca appeared in court to testify, he wore a green jacket with a striped purple shirt underneath. This was in 1917!

He did, in a sense, what lots of other whites have done ever since. And the odd thing about it, is that only whites could have done it because they weren't burdened down with the problem of being authentic. Or, to put it another way, they did it without the burden of being authentically themselves.

Because one of the odd things about early white jazz bands is that they fell over themselves trying to be very authentic about music they had no authentic connection with themselves. The band was called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band for a reason. Even before they were famous, people went to see these shows because they claimed to presenting something authentic from somewhere else.

It was a role to put on and it was a role that came from another place, another culture. And white people love that stuff. Still do. Think of world music. We love any kind of authenticity going so long as it isn't our own.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

In other words, "Yes" part 2

There have been various debunkings of the story that inspired my post of yesterday and I tend to agree with them in substance but not in tone. As I said in my original post, the one element of the story I doubt is that this report inspired Benedict to resign. But it is more important to note what isn't being debunked, what is, in fact, being taken for granted. Note, for example, David Gibson of Religion News Service:
The other thing is that Benedict would receive the Captain Louis Renault Award (see below) if he were to declare himself “shocked” that gay men inhabit the priesthood and hierarchy, and of course the Vatican itself.
The link Gibson provides above takes you to a video of Claude Rains delivering the much over-loved line about being shocked there is gambling going on. As seems to always be the case with people who quote the line, he doesn't think it all the way through.

Here is the problem: there is gambling going on and gambling is illegal. Yes, Renaud is implicated but so is Rick and that means that Rick can't say anything about it. Those of us watching Casablanca  at home can afford to sneer at Captain Renaud precisely because we aren't involved. In effect, Gibson thinks he is defending the pope but he is, in fact, putting him in the worse position of implying that he has tolerated worse behaviour from cardinals that what the Catechism condemns for ordinary people in the pews.

It is one thing for a pope to believe that all are sinners, as indeed all are, and so to be pretty certain that some cardinals slip from time to time.  It would be another thing altogether if Benedict knew that a group of cardinals in the Vatican itself were sexually active with the same certainty that Captain Renaud knows that there is gambling going on at Rick's; particularly if we remember that Captain Renaud knows there is gambling because he has been gambling himself. No, I am not implying anything about Benedict; David Gibson is the one doing that.

To get back to the Vatican. If this report really only shows what Benedict has always known, that is a problem. I'm sure the Pope has always known that lots of Catholics, including a few clergy, not only disobey Catholic sexual teaching but choose to simply disregard it. "Disregard" literally means to not look at. That is to say, they are doing exactly what Captain Renaud and Rick did. But he does not and can not do so in a way that makes him a party to the deception as both Captain Renaud and Rick do in Casablanca and as David Gibson implies. If he does, as some of his defenders seem to think, then the rest of us can start treating Catholic interpretation of the sixth commandment as no longer binding just as the Index of prohibited books is no longer binding. (For those who don't know, the Catholic Church interprets any sex with any person who is not your spouse at any time of your life, including before you met your spouse, as adultery.)

I doubt Benedict resigned because of this report but it would be nonsense to pretend that the report is anodyne. There has to be something in it that is disturbing and that suggests that some action needs to be taken. (That is why it has been leaked in time for all the members of the conclave that will meet to choose the next pope to know of its existence.)

By the way, before leaving the subject, it is important to realize just how easily the sort of conspiracy that the report is reputed to identify could spring up. Imagine that a closeted gay man walks into some place where gays cruise for sex—a public park, a bathhouse, a public washroom—and he sees another closeted gay man he knows from his work. They are instantly in a conspiracy. Both have implicitly agreed not to expose the other so as to avoid being exposed themselves.

Conspiracy doesn't need a rich diet. It can live on that alone. Now, both men could meet and agree that they will stop doing what they have been doing. More likely, though, they continue to do what they have been doing only now they depend on one another to keep the secret. And that ups the ante—for now they are not merely conspiring to keep a secret but also conspiring to help one another continue to live their secret sex lives. And so it goes ...

Friday, February 22, 2013

In other words, "Yes"

Note: an update has been added
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said: "Neither the cardinals' commission nor I will make comments to confirm or deny the things that are said about this matter. Let each one assume his or her own responsibilities. We shall not be following up on the observations that are made about this."

He added that interpretations of the report were creating "a tension that is the opposite of what the pope and the church want" in the approach to the conclave of cardinals that will elect Benedict's successor.
What report you ask? It's a rumoured report that there is group of sexually active gay Cardinals in Rome who meet in various secret places and who may be being blackmailed by outside figures. The report is also rumoured to suggest that this group of gay Cardinals have also been involved in various intrigues to undermine the Pope. Finally, the news story suggests that Benedict's resignation was spurred by this. That last is the only part of the story I have doubts about.

If it's not true that there is a clique of gay Cardinals running around Vatican City having sex in various locations, then you simply deny it. In fact, you might deny it if it were true but you thought you could keep it under wraps. Anything else is an admission that it's true and Father Federico Lombardi pointedly did not do deny it. We don't have all the details but there is unquestionably something true about this report.

That said, I also doubt there is anything very unusual about it. If I told you about something like this only I set it in the Renaissance, you'd have no trouble believing it. Stuff like this happens all the time; we just don't like to think it happens in our time. Otherwise, we'd have to do like the prophet and repent for being no better than our ancestors.

In the early days of the twentieth century, Ronald Firbank wrote dark comedies about gay Cardinals. Lots of people were shocked that he'd write about such a thing but no one wasted their breath claiming such a thing was impossible.


A little light culture: Who is driving the sexual coarseness of our time?

I want you to do a thought experiment. This is an old historian's trick (taught to me by an old historian). Imagine you are a Martian anthropologist. That is, imagine you don't know anything about western culture except what you can observe.

Okay, now imagine that you are coming to visit western culture (meaning western Europe and North America as opposed to, say, Montana). You know that Martians last studied the sexual culture of the west in the early 1960s. You've been told there has been a sexual revolution and that there has been considerable coarsening of the sexual mores in the west in the aftermath of this revolution. That's all you know. Now walk around and look for evidence of this. What do you see?

I put it to you that the preponderance of the evidence you see of any sexual coarsening of our culture is going to be in the behaviour—dress, language and attitudes—of women. And it's not a subtle thing. It's not as if our Martian anthropologist is going to sit down in her office at the end of the day to type up her report and think that maybe the women are a little cruder than the men. No, she's going go report that the crudity of the sexual mores of women is stunning, staggering, simply amazing compared to what used to be the case.

Don't believe me? Walk around and look a while.

But the truth is that you probably don't believe me. For no era in history has been so hopelessly in thrall of bizarre superstitions as our era is in the cult of the moral superiority of women. And we go to extraordinary lengths to maintain this fantasy. We see a 19 year old girl wearing her already skin-tight leggings pulled up so the centre seam forces apart and clearly outlines her labia and we think, "How horrible that men and the fashion industry have somehow conspired to make her to do this."

Don't, on the other hand, go all misogynist to compensate. That is, don't tell yourself that the woman in leggings is horrible in some typically womanly way. Yes, what she is doing is typical of women, especially young women, but it isn't horrible. It's normal!

That said, picking your nose is also normal but we still discourage it at the dinner table.

But suppose we believed that children were naturally pure and never would pick their nose. If we did then, every time we saw it happen, we'd blame not the child but some outside influence. Where else would the child have gotten this impulse after all? It must be adult men and capitalism. If we really believed this, there would be no reason to explain to a child why they shouldn't do this. When people do things they have no natural inclination to do it has to be because someone or something else is inspiring them. In fact, we couldn't give them any reasons for not doing this because we wouldn't have any reasons for them not to do it for the simple reason that we don't believe that they want to do it.

And this is exactly what has happened with slutty dress and manners in women. We've watched it spring up and move down to progressively younger women with our mouths agape because we simply can't believe this is happening. We've stood by in wonder as the girls' mothers have not only not discouraged this but helped them do it. And at every step, we've tried to figure out what outside force is making them do this. The poor girls driven by evil boys and their poor bewildered mothers not knowing how to respond.

And there you can also see the solution. Or rather, you can see that there isn't a solution. Dressing and acting in a sexually provocative manner is what young women do. It's what they always do. You can't stop them. The best you can do is channel it in particular directions.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

An action packed day

I had all sorts of stuff on the go including a voice lesson so didn't get around to posting today. Tomorrow. JAC

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sorta political: What has Obama actually, you know, done?

I was writing a while ago of instances in which an adversary system creates a bizarre situation in which both sides have an interest in pushing the same lie. I think the election of Barrack Obama has created one of these. His supporters on the left have a powerful interest in portraying the guy as likely to do a lot and his detractors on the right as well. Both are doing so to keep up or stir up their base.

But if there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear about Obama it is that he isn't much good at getting things done. Whether you like his policy ideas or not, he hasn't had any success implementing them. He didn't shut Guantanamo. He didn't change foreign policy or economic policy in any significant ways. If anything, he has merely made the [failed and failing] Bush doctrine more permanent.

And before you say, "What about Obamacare?" remember that he left it up to Congress to create and pass the legislation. He wasn't even an effective advocate for it.

And it looks increasingly like he isn't going to deliver on gun control either. 

The one area he has "achievements" in is in electoral strategy.  And given the sycophantic press, it's hard to credit him too much even there.

Really, Obama is a caretaker president like Eisenhower. He is presiding during a period in opposing party, which had dominated until recently, has run out of gas but in which there is no political support for what his side wants to do.

Which makes me wonder if we are living through another decade like the 1950s. A decade on which nothing much happens on the surface while huge shifts were beginning to take place deep in the foundations of our society.

Tumblr cool

To complement yesterday's post on what Tumblr tells us about common associations with the word "hipster", let's look at what Tumblr tells us about "cool".

The top three Tumblr blogs on cool are this one, this one, and this one. Looking at all three of them, my first reaction is to think of Sesame Street: One of these things is not like the others.

The first two are heavy on nostalgia and heavy on black and white photographs. The hipster blogs I highlighted yesterday had some nostalgic items, mostly fashion inspired by the late 1960s and early 1970s but nothing like the relentlessly nostalgic attitude that seems to go with the word "cool". And they flash back mostly to the post war period, running from 1945 to the early 1960s.

They are also very male in outlook. That is also the one thing they clearly do share with the third blog in the group above. It is packed with male stuff: motorbikes, guns, ammunition and partially undressed women with big breasts.

That said there are certain commonalities. The male outlook for example. The pictures of women on the first two tend to be just as contemptuously objectifying as the third. The first two features photos that are artsy, which is to say deliberately non-pornographic, but you don't get a good feel about women from looking at them. The third, if you look long enough, also has the same nostalgic elements as the first two, just not as prominently.

What strikes me about these blogs is how much I share in common with them. When writing about neo-noir, I have highlighted the conscious sense of nostalgia these movies evoke, the femme fatale character who highlights male weaknesses. Well, same thing in all three of these blogs. I can understand how these guys got where they are.

At the same time,  I do have to wonder if the angry attack on hipsters isn't, at least partially, a misogynist thing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hipster reality check: Tumblr

Tumblr is interesting in that it represents such a masive copyright violation. Why is that interesting? It's interesting because Tumblr makes it so ridiculously easy to take and use images. You simply reblog an image you find from someone else who stole it in the first place and who is, in any case, anonymous. You can start a blog on Tumblr and instantly have cost free access to millions of images. If you start a blog on a subject, say being a "hipster", then you can pull images that you think go with your concept to your hearts content.

At the same time, Tumblr also measures response. If no one else agrees with you about which images go with your concept or if no one else thinks your concept is interesting, then no one visist your blog and it doesn't register. So if we visit the top blogs on hipsters on Tumblr we get a good read of what most people think hipsters are like. It won't be perfect because Tumblr doesn't give us a representative sample of the public. On the other hand, it will give us a far more representative example than reading people from New York who think they are cool will.

In any case, we're interested in people who care and most people asked what they think of hipsters will say, "What's a hipster?" Tumblr, on the other hand, will give us a good sample of what people who care quite a bit think. Tumblr is a giant sifter that organizes images according to their cultural resonance.

And looking at the most popular hipster sites on Tumblr, say this one, or this one, or this one, or this one (warning all these sites have lots and lots of pictures), after reading what New York cultural critics have to say about hipsters is quite a jolt. New York cultural critics, for example, say that a lot of hipsters wear trucker caps and chain wallets. Well, people who think they are hipsters don't.

So let's come up with a new term. Let's call the people that New York cultural critics hate "New York Hipsters" and everyone else simply "hipster". Everyone hates New York Hipsters, so who cares about them. Besides, they only live in New York, an increasingly unimportant and rather provincial place. (One weird exception, if anyone matches the image of the hated New York Hipsters, it is Lena Dunham and yet the New York culture critics love her.)

Anyway, if we trust Tumblr, the most common emblem of hipsterdom is cut off denim shorts. Short shorts because hipsters are girls, teenage girls.

And she is a rather familiar type. She likes clothes a lot but doesn't have huge amounts of money to spend on them. She likes bright, sunny colours. She is aware of the fact that she is a fetish object for millions and is surprisingly comfortable with that but she isn't going to cater to your tastes so you can forget about these sites if your interest is pornographic.

She likes puppies and flowers and cute stuff generally. She likes her best girlfriends a lot and likes to take pictures of herself with them. She does not like posting pictures of her face or of her breasts. She does like to show lots of skin, and no great surprise because, being sixteen, she has beautiful skin, but she will show her legs, her back and her stomach.

She is emotionally vulnerable and she wants you to know that she is. Her blog is full of cute and inspirational sayings and they all tell you that she can be hurt. In fact, she flaunts this emotional vulnerability at you the way most men and boys wish she'd flaunt her breasts.

The flip side of her emotional vulnerability is her recklessness. She is reckless with precisely the things that make her vulnerable. She flaunts that emotional vulnerability. And she links it very closely to sex. She posts a lot of shots of herself in shorts or a skirt that are clearly meant to make you think about that rather special part of her that is underneath.

And that last is important because she does not think like a man with a thing for teen p____. She links that part of her body with her emotional vulnerability more than with sexual response. She doesn't think of it as the place where most of her sexual arousal buttons are but rather as where her vulnerabilities are most intense.

And that is very, very far from New York Hipster.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Some words to ponder

The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholic Christianity (also Orthodox Christianity, and some forms of Protestantism) cannot be reconciled with the expressive individualism that is the hallmark of late modern civilization. 
The one common element of most of the writing about Pope Benedict since he announced his abdication has been that the writer has projected their thoughts on to the situation. That is also true of Rod Dreher above. I doubt Benedict XVI worried about this more than ten minutes in his entire life but Dreher thinks about it a whole lot.

 He is not alone in this I'm sure. But is he right?

Of course not. He's trying to hedge his bets a bit by saying "expressive individualism" instead of simply saying individualism. This is hardly an individualist age after all. But "expressive individualism" hardly saves him either. You are, after all, only allowed to express your "individualism" in approved ways, which is another way of saying it isn't individualism.

Friday, February 15, 2013


"Hip" and "cool" are words first. They have histories.

What they don't tend to have are clear meanings. Both tend to end up being used to praise qualities that the speaker admires but those qualities can, and do, change from generation to generation. In the case "cool" it is possible to find people using the word in a non-ironic fashion to mean something that is the exact opposite of what it used to mean. Beginning in the 1980s, kids started saying "cool" to mean something that was very up-to-date, very in right now, which is to say, they said "cool" when they meant "hot".

No one knows for sure where they came from originally. An awful lot of brain cells have been wasted in fruitless attempts to trace the word "hip" and the concept of "cool" back to African roots. Most of this work has not only been a failure but is, quite frankly, embarrassingly shoddy and naive. It tells us more about the bizarre (and deeply racist) desire of college-educated whites to connect with a black culture they believe to be more authentic than their own than anything about these words.

If you look at usage patterns, both words show up being used by whites first and then get picked up by black jazz musicians. "Hip" makes the move in the 1930s and "cool" comes across in the 1940s. We can be pretty certain about this because a number of hep talk dictionaries were written at the beginning of the 1940s (the most famous being Cab Calloway's) and none of these feature the word "cool".

The introduction of the word "cool" into jazz slang is pretty much the work of one man, Lester Young. And the interesting thing about his use of the word was that he didn't just get the word from whites, he used to describe a style of playing music he saw in white musicians he admired. Most of all, he used the word to describe the playing style of Frankie Trumbauer AKA "Tram". You can hear it in this video. Tram's solo begins at .08 and goes until 1.04.

I'm not sure how much explaining that needs. It's a little like explaining "green". You point at something green and say, "This is green". Well, "That's cool".

So what we have are two words and related concepts that come from white America and go into the black jazz culture and, without changing their fundamental meaning, come back out through that filter in a way that was deeply congenial to whites.

That's where I'll be going the next few days with this. For now, I'd like to drop a hint about timing. Both words and the associated attitudes are drawn back into white culture because they offer attractive personas to adopt for rebels but during very different kinds of rebellion. Hip and hipness really start to matter in the late 1930s as the world is headed back into world war for the second time and after years of economic depression. Cool, on the other hand, really takes off in the early 1950s, a period when war is over and the economy (on this side of the Atlantic anyway) is booming. That matters a whole lot.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

All those poor women who can't find a mature man to marry

Emotivism is an ethical philosophy that says that all moral judgments are nothing more than saying, I approve of this. Thus, our ethical arguments are really nothing more than saying, I think this is good and think you should too.

One of the consequences of emotivism is that, if you believe it (and many millions of people do), then all distinction between moral argument and moral manipulation disapear.

Okay, I've said this before but it's one of those points worth repeating. Also worth repeating is how this transfers into advice to women about finding a marriage partner. Over and over again, women are advised to manipulate men into marriage. For example, Ryan Duffy (H/T Instapundit) has written a piece called: Training Men to be Better: Rewards and Punishments. It's about how to get a man to marry you!

He opens with what he calls "behaviorism".
Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class has been exposed to the theory of behaviorism. In a nutshell, behaviorists believe that the reason human beings feel, think, and behave the way they do is a result of rewards and punishments. If a seven year old child gets ice cream when she gets an A on a test, she will keep wanting to try and get an A. If an adult in a romantic relationship gets scolded every time he leaves the toilet seat up, he will eventually stop doing it.  It’s a very basic principle, but is also one that dominated the field of psychology for decades.
Actually, behaviourism has been a dead letter in the field of psychology for decades. That perhaps doesn't matter as Duff clearly has no clue what the word means. In any case. forget that and notice how casually manipulative his attitude here is. You push the stimulus you want to get the result you want; the needs, desires and beliefs of the person you are manipulating aren't even on the radar screen.

By the way, this sort of simplistic behavioural programming doesn't work. If your kid isn't very good at getting As, the only consequence of feeding her ice cream will be childhood obesity. And if you scold your man for leaving the toilet seat up, he might reform but he might also leave you for a younger, hotter woman. The software (what a person knows and wants) is just as important as the hardware (inputs and outputs).

Okay, back to Duffy. Here is the problem as he, and others, diagnose it. He begins by pointing out that while men are just as enthusiastic about long term relationships as women are, they have an even stronger preference for what he calls "short-term relationships". Given this set up, he tells us the following sad story of perverse incentives that has gotten us where we are today:
But over time as women have become more sexually liberated and standards of waiting until marriage for sex having basically gone by the way side for both genders, an unfortunate consequence has resulted: women have been feeding the beast of men’s desire for short-term relationships. Being able to spend most of the day playing video games and getting drunk while also still reaping the reward of short-term relationships is hard for men to turn down.
Note the language here. I particularly like,  "while also still reaping the reward of short-term relationships". What he mans by that is that you can be an immature jerk and still get lots of sex. But the key transition is between both sexes being "sexually liberated" and the consequence of this being "women have been feeding the beast of men’s desire for short-term relationships".  That's interesting because the very next paragraph begins with the claim that "women have been the unfortunate victims of this cultural phenomenon". And the question I want to ask is, are women to blame for this or are they the victims?

Or to put it another way, if women really don't want"short-term relationships" why do they enter into them? Duffy's implied answer is that they do it for the sex. Think that through though. If women who go through serial monogamy between the ages of 19 and 27 don't really value those short term relationships much, if all they were doing was getting the sexual adventures that new sexual freedoms entitle them to, then they were just using those guys weren't they?

Duffy doesn't dwell on that because he wants to move on to his proposed solution. Before we get to that, however, we should note that his language here is contradictory. When women pursue the freedoms available to them that is just fine. When men do likewise, that is bad.

There are unspoken assumptions at work in Duffy's argument. One of them is that the real point of relationships is to produce children. The other is that women deserve to get a supportive, long-term partner to help them raise their children.

That's not crazy although it is incomplete. Another reason for long term relationships is to live with someone who loves and supports you in various ways and you can love and support them in various ways. What is crazy is the manipulative language used at every turn.
But should we also look to women to play a role in this process? In his book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, Steve Harvey talks about men like animals and the importance of rewards and punishments. Harvey actively acknowledges his suggestions might not work so well with feminists, but makes suggestions likely waiting ninety days before having sex with men to ensure he is truly in it for the right reasons.
This is the same tired old games that always get proposed. And notice the problem. What he proposes is a social solution. It will only work if most other people buy into it and that means changing the whole culture.

If most people don't buy in, the results are predictable. Twenty-one year old Rachel has no desire to get married just now. She plans to think about it later, so she isn't going to wait any ninety days. Twenty-seven year old Carrie now wants marriage, so she is being more selective. Thirty year old Joe meets them both this month. Tell me why it's his fault if he chooses Rachel?

In any case, "chooses" is probably too strong a word for what he does. He meets and likes both women. Perhaps he even prefers Carrie in some ways but Rachel offers him sex now, so he has sex with her. That doesn't get him a long term relationship of any sort but he is happy because he got to have sex with a hot twenty-one year old and a thirty year old man who isn't rich or famous knows he isn't going to have many more such opportunities. Rachel only wanted sex in the first place so she has nothing to complain about. That said, if she changes her mind because of her experiences with Joe and decides she wants to marry him, her chances of convincing him are probably better than Duffy allows for, she is twenty-one after all. (This may seem unlikely but it happens with some regularity and I've seen a lot more happy married Rachels than Carries in my life.) You can see how Carrie will be demoralized because the life she wanted and hoped for is no longer available to her.

But the temptation, when Carrie comes complaining, is to say, "So what?" Life has always been tough and it has actually been tougher at most other times in history. Why should the rest of us care that a bunch of women coming to the end of their prime reproductive years are having a hard time finding husbands? And why does this justify women being manipulative towards men?

The solution to the problem, by the way, should be obvious. If women really want to get married and have children as a life goal then they have to get about it much sooner and in a much more single-minded fashion. If they are your desires, then it's up to you to make them happen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hip and cool as virtues

Timidity — bravery — recklessness

Whenever people talked about virtues in the past they used three words. One word meant that you had not enough of the quality in question, a second meant just the right amount and the third meant you had too much. Virtue meant having a good balance.

Now we tend to talk about virtues in purely binary terms. You are either chaste or you are not. As a consequence, chastity (which actually means being controlled and disciplined about sex and how many people you have it with) has, for most people, come to mean not having sex at all. Bravery has come to mean complete disregard of danger. Prudence has come to mean being, well, it has come to mean being a "prude".

We've tended to do that for two reasons. The first was modernism. Modernists saw morality as a matter of law. First you used your reasoning to figure out what the moral law was then you obeyed it.

And that is where the second part came in. That second part is pietism and puritanism. Pietism, which was a huge influence on Kant, emphasized a kind of extreme vigour in the living of life. It ignored the realities of human nature and said everyone should strive to live up to an extreme level of performance in everything. Puritanism did likewise. Once you had rationally determined what the law is, then it was your duty to follow the law. And it was your duty to obey the law even if, odd as this may sound, even if it was completely contrary to what the beings it was applied to tend to be like. If silence was a virtue then dogs were to never bark even though barking is something dogs tend to like doing.

This set up a sort of odd competition between the various Christian religions of the time. The praise of restraint transmogrified into an insistence on complete abstinence. The most damning effect of this was on sexual morality. There had always been people (Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine for example) who pushed the notion that virginity was the ideal we should all aspire to, but the thing hit ridiculous depths with the beginning of modernism.

And if we are honest, we can still see traces of it today. Even the defenders of sexual "freedoms" are heavily influenced by it as they tend to instinctively go to the opposite extreme recommending not that people should feel free to enjoy controlled sex lives but rather pushing promiscuity and sexual recklessness on everyone. The mirror image of any vice is just another vice.

Okay, but what has all this to do with being "hip" or "cool"? Well, the problem is that binary thing. We tend to think of people as being either hip or unhip or cool or uncool. And that is odd because we tend to admire not the hippest person or the coolest person but the one who shows balance and restraint. I'm no fan of Jay Z, for example, but if you compare him with other rappers, it's pretty obvious that the near universal admiration thrown at the guy is a reflection of his balanced life. He is edgy but not a criminal. he has credibility as a lover but he is married, he is a rebel but a successful businessman and so forth.

If we are going to get to the point where we can talk about hipsters in anything resembling a sane fashion, we have to think of it the way the ancients thought of virtues.

And it is a virtue by the way. You may sneer at me for taking a minor virtue so seriously, and go right ahead with my blessing, but it is a virtue.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Moral privacy and Catholicism

With the Pope resigning and speculation about his successor rife, a lot of talk about sexuality and Catholicism is floating about.

And that ties to the issue of moral privacy in an interesting way, in a sexual way because sex is often a matter of moral privacy for practical reasons.

One of our more naive assumptions is that an adversarial system, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, will always expose lies. We assume that both sides have an interest in exposing the lies of their opponents; even if I have a tendency to exaggerate my own claims, you can count on my opponent to cut me down to size.

But that only works most of the time. Sometimes both sides of an adversarial system have a share interest in maintaining the same lie. For example, we had a government here in Canada some thirty years ago now that promised to cut the size of the public sector. The government, once elected, duly made (false) claims about jobs cut. But the opposition didn't expose these lies because they knew that their most vocal supporters wanted to hate the government for making "deep, unconscionable cuts". The opposition, in fact, argued that the government was actually making even deeper cuts than the ones it was only lying about making in the first place.

A similar phenomenon obtains when it comes to debates about sexual morality and the teachings of the Catholic church.

Liberal Catholics have long argued that traditional Catholic sexual teaching needs to change because you can no longer expect people to follow Catholic sexual teachings in the modern world and that, therefore, traditional teachings are driving people out. They argue that allowing some slack, allowing for a region of moral privacy where people can allow their consciences to over-ride the teachings of the church, will put more bums on pews every Sunday.

Conservative Catholics counter not by denying that things are, in their terms, "getting worse" but by arguing that the situation is even more extreme than liberals believe. They argue that not just the church but the entire world is at risk because of changing moral standards regarding sexuality.

The lie that both sides endorse is that things have changed significantly from what they used to be. For the most part they haven't. There never was a time when large numbers of Christians did not privately practice a sexual morality of their own devising. Never. (Paul complains about it when writing to the Corinthians written within a couple of decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.)

As Philip Larkin slyly observes, oral sex was not invented sometime in 1963. And the same is true of all sorts of other ways of privately circumventing the public consequences of private sexual activity. Feminists would argue, and argue correctly, that the available methods or circumvention were heavily loaded in men's favour and that they were especially heavily loaded against any woman who wanted to have social status. It's also true that literacy played a factor—the more literate you were, the more likely you were to disregard Catholic sexual teaching. (Casanova was a devout Catholic all his life!) To pretend that people suddenly started disregarding Catholic sexual teachings in the last few decades is pure nonsense.

Large numbers of Catholics have always ignored Catholic sexual teachings. You can take that as cause for shame or you can take it as proof that there is something unreasonable about these teachings as you will. What you cannot do is claim that we live in a time of crisis where we must act one way or another or else the walls will fall in on us. It's always been this way.

Moral privacy

Sartre talks in one place of a man in an empty hotel corridor who gets down and peeks through a keyhole. He does so because he knows that an attractive woman is in this hotel room and he has the good luck to see her getting undressed. They could do that once upon a time—you can't see anything through a modern keyhole.

Sartre's point is that so long as the person is utterly unaware of themselves they feel no shame. All this not-so-hypothetical guy is aware of is what he is looking at. But then he hears a sound and looks up to realize that another man is in the hallway and has seen what he is doing. Now he is ashamed. Until that moment, he had no awareness of himself as a subject of moral assessment.

(It never seems to have occurred to Sartre to wonder what the woman might be thinking and feeling but you can do similar things with her. You can imagine, for example, her being aware that someone is watching her and secretly enjoying it because she thinks of him as an anonymous stranger. He doesn't have any existence outside his role of fulfilling her fantasy. That would all change the second she became aware of him as some specific guy she knew. Then the purely private sexual thrill would get replaced by social shame.)

Notice the assumptions that are work here. Sartre, without saying it, is assuming that everyone knows what he is talking about from personal experience. And we do, don't we? You can't peek through keyholes anymore but you can find pictures of naked people or people having sex easily enough. And so long as it's just you and your computer in some private space, no one is evaluating you. Especially not you yourself.

If there is any thought that dominates modern morality, it is the notion that doing that is not just something we have all done but it is something we have an absolute right to do.We insist that there be a moral sphere where we are free to choose as we want because it is private. Or is it a sphere where we are free from morality period? Is it a sphere where I can do things without having to think about their moral status.

Ironically, we sometimes think of this moral privacy as a place where I can just be myself even though the self I tend to be in that place is someone I would be embarrassed to have you find out about. Million dollar question: When are we lying? In public or in private?

We're hypocrites about it, of course. Let the sex habits of some celebrity become public and everyone mocks.

Actually, never mind sex, let it become known that a former president likes painting but does so as a private activity that he only shares with a  few close friends and everyone else peers shamelessly and some will mock and hate him for not being good enough at it.

There is a funny tension between our desire to have a private sphere where no one judges us and our willingness to constantly invade the moral spheres of others. Back to the million dollar question: Don't automatically condemn the hypocrisy as the real problem. That is, don't assume that the same morality we apply in public must be applied in private.

Nowhere is the tension weirder than when it comes to style. Some people are flamboyant. They damn well mean to be a dandy, or a prep, or formal, or just like everyone else and they work at it and they damn well don't care who hates them for being what they are.

But most people aren't like that. Most people want to pursue a style the way like a keyhole peeper in an empty hallway. They want to constantly evaluate the style choices of others but never be subject to moral criticism themselves.

So which side of that divide do successful hipster chicks land on? Well, it depends who you think of doesn't it? Think of some person who irritates or threatens you and you will see them in the second category. But think of that girl back in high school who seemed to refuse to play the game and dressed with a sense of conscious playing at style and you couldn't help admire her even though you never had the courage to talk to her or to be her friend. And maybe you later wished you had.

How we evaluate a style is less a function of its success than whether we really believe the person adopting it can pull it off.

[Bonus question: When you think of God, how do you imagine him? He can see everything. When he looks at you does he see cause for shame or cause to love you? Are you a nasty, dirty piece of work who must be brutally shamed into being a better person? Or are you like a child who has failings but whom God loves and wants the best for? It's a lot easier to believe that God exists than it is to believe he loves you as a good father would.]

Monday, February 11, 2013

Prayer day

Given this morning's awful news I will be praying rather than posting today.

It is mildly comforting, however, to know that the writers and editors at the New York Times are still stupid:
When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient;”
As opposed to all those other popes who believed ...


Friday, February 8, 2013

"The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States"

Artie Shaw said that. The other thing you have to understand is that sometime in the early 1960s "being cool" came to be a more admired virtue than "being hip". The shift had been coming since the war but it was only in the 1960s that cool triumphed over hip everywhere.

That may seem puzzling at first as we sometimes use the words as if they meant the same vague but good property. But ask yourself this, would it be cool to say "I'm hip"? Or, would you describe a cool person as hip? The answer is, only if you were sure your listener would grasp the irony you intended.

I could say a whole lot more, and probably will beginning next week. For now, though, a couple of reminders.

This is what cool sounds like:

This is what hip sounds like (in a suitably uncool video):

Final thought, has hip come back? Well, not yet but when I see articles using eliminationist rhetoric such as "Why the hipster must die: A modest proposal to save New York cool", it's pretty obvious that the purveyors of cool are starting to get nervous.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Is Beyonce a feminist?"

That's the question they are troubling themselves with over at The Atlantic.

Not actually answering you understand. Think of the ways you might answer such a question
  1. Yes she is.
  2. No she isn't.
  3. Not enough evidence to say.
What is The Atlantic's actual answer:

Eight moments that seem to suggest she is

Oooh. Not eight moments that prove she is, not eight moments that suggest she is but eight moments that seem to suggest that she is. That doesn't exactly exude confidence does it?

And then the first "moment" is the Superbowl halftime show.
The foregrounding of female musicians was incredible as a symbol of resistance against an industry where male musicians are still the norm. At the paean to male achievement that is the Super Bowl, it was impossible to see the performance and not feel Beyoncé had somehow won the whole thing.
It's just a bizarre coincidence that the "foregrounded" female musicians were all really hot and skimpily dressed? that what they did was scripted down to the last second and based more on spectacle than actual skill? that Beyoncé's actually delivery wasn't very good?

(Added: Here is a rude question for you. How is the "foregrounding of female musicians"  different from the way a restaurant foregrounds hot waitresses while hiring people who can actually cook to work in the kitchen?)

Here is another argument from the piece:
In a matter-of-fact manner, the song [Independent Women Pt1] states the benefits of being a woman who isn’t beholden to a male breadwinner—a theme that repeats itself throughout Beyoncé’s work.
A couple things to note here:
  1. It's one thing for a huge star with massive revenue-generating capabilities to insist on financial independence "from her man"  but for most women and men being part of a couple who support one another in various ways is actually the ticket to a level of financial security they could never achieve on their own. For most women, and most men, Beyoncé is an incredibly bad role model here. (BTW: Note the odd liberal notion that it's wonderful to have as many people as possible dependent on the state but awful that anyone might be dependent on someone whom they actually know and love.)
  2. Beyoncé earns her money as a sex symbol who performs in scanty costumes. She isn't a good enough singer or dancer to have made it any other way.
Here is a rather bizarre claim:
Another on the list of feminist-Beyoncé controversies is her song that proclaims that girls run the world. Though she herself acknowledges in her GQ article and other places that this isn’t our reality, art has its own impact, and releasing a song that carries this message, with the intention of having it played on every dance floor around the world, is a ballsy political step.
Because dancers pay close attention to the words? Notice again Beyoncé's careful selection of venue's where no one is going to be paying attention to express her views. That is the exact opposite of "ballsy". It's either on the dance floor or in a GQ article where the text is there just to fill in the space around the revealing photographs of her. Beyoncé isn't stupid. She knows full well that no one would pay any attention to a single word that comes out of her mouth if she didn't look the way she does.

Finally, there is the claim that Beyoncé accepts the feminist label. Well, sorta, kinda maybe. Her exact words were the following: “I think I am a feminist, in a way.”

Actually, I think she gets this part right. Beyoncé grasps the essential thing about feminism and that is that the only feminist worth being is an individualist feminist. Hard-core individualist that she is (and it's a lot easier to find moments that suggest that than that suggest feminism), she embraces "equality" not on behalf of the sisterhood but for herself and the women she knows personally:
“It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it’s because I grew up in a singing group with other women, and that was so helpful to me,” she told the magazine. “It kept me out of so much trouble and out of bad relationships. My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”
 That said, I wouldn't count the "out of trouble" and "out of bad relationships" as solid just yet. When Whitney Houston (who was much more talented than Beyoncé) was the same age as Beyoncé is now, she was at the height of her career and was touted as a great role model for women, especially black women, just Beyoncé is now. The sad truth is that celebrities, feminist or not, are rarely good role models for anyone. No prudent person, and prudence is essential if you want to live the good life, would want to be a celebrity.


Miriam was the first hipster chick I ever met. I met her way back in the 1970s in the year I was either fourteen or fifteen.

The obvious question is, How do I know she was really a hipster? I'll come back to that.

I was out sailing with my father when I met her. We went way up the reach 'cause it was blowing hard and it felt good to go tearing along. At one point we were both soaked to the skin, tired and hungry and maybe twelve to fifteen miles from home. And my father looked over towards the shore and said, "That's X's summer place."

It was a rocky shore and we pulled head to wind way out. I remember jumping out and standing in about four feet of water to hold the forestay while my father dropped the main, raised the centreboard and shipped the rudder so we could carry the dinghy up onto the grass (it was an International 14 for those who care about such things). Because the waves were running two to three feet, my head would be under water and my feet briefly off the ground at the peaks. It all felt good because it was an adventure and I was handling it well.

X was, and still is, a criminology professor (emeritus now). He is no longer married to Miriam. She was young, mid twenties. She may have been a former student. She was home alone. I remember she was wearing a long dress with a cardigan over the top and bare footed. I remember watching her walk about and realizing (because I was studying her with care) that she was wearing nothing at all underneath. This was a jolt because the dress and cardigan was like something someone's grandmother would have worn in the 1950s and to wear it bare-footed (among other things) was a playfully subversive thing to do.

Even as young as I was, I realized that Miriam was playing at life. She had no serious responsibilities and she wasn't in any hurry to assume them. The life she spoke of was like like student life only with no classes alternating with summering here up the reach. We changed into terrycloth robes X had for guests and she made us hot chocolate while our clothes dried. And she served us brownies.

And then we sailed back to the yacht club, put the boat away and drove home. At some point along the way, I noticed that my eyes felt funny. We were also both laughing very hard at one another's remarks. I remember giggling quietly to myself when it hit me that we were both stoned and it was the brownies that had done it. I had never been before. I think my father had the same revelation but, being father and son we couldn't talk about it.

There were also things about Miriam that we both were thinking but that fathers and sons don't typically discuss. Of what we could discuss I remember thinking that, normally, Miriam was a type that my father would have made some critical remark about. Not a cruel or disparaging remark but a remark designed to make it clear that you wouldn't want to make the life choices she had made. He didn't because she was a successful hipster. She pulled that vintage look off so well and with such ease that you could only approve of her.

And what was her life like? She was ambitious. That is the important thing to know. She wanted a career and she eventually got one, and quite a successful one in, of all things, intelligence. I found her on the net a while ago giving a talk at a UN conference about counter-terrorism. And you could see that driving ambition in the things she talked about back then.

But she cared not at all for what might be called the realities of the marketplace. This really struck me because I, only two generations off the farm on one side and descended from victims of the great famine on the other, was already being urged to think of a university degree in terms of where the jobs were likely to be and not in terms of what I wanted to do. Miriam was all about what she wanted to be.

She'd finished her degree and then had traveled to Europe and stayed there as long as she could make the money hold out. I don't know this but I suspect that nice young men she met on her travels helped her along the way. And I suspect that she got to be rather good at playing at being the various types required to satisfy varieties of great-romantic-adventure-while -traveling-in-Europe they wanted.

When she got home, she gravitated back to the college neighbourhood because she could continue to live the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed there. She'd come home with the faintest trace of an accent. It suggested that it was the last remnant of an accent she was slowly losing and I kept waiting for her to tell us she was born somewhere else (she wasn't). That, along with her vintage look, played just enough of the harmony notes for every man to supply the melody to accompany his Eliza Doolittle fantasy, particularly Professor X.

She didn't push her sexuality in any overt way. No cleavage or thighs were visible, her clothes were not tight and she had minimal, if any, make up on. Her hair was not styled. One of the effects of this, of course, was to make it clear that she didn't need to do these things. The other effect was effortless grace.

Underline that last: if there is one virtue that hipsters admire it is effortless grace. Someone who can gracefully recover from a gaffe is more admired than the person who is so studied so as never to commit a gaffe in the first place.

Final point: she wasn't rich. For there have always been kids who had years of leisure because they were rich and went to Oxford or some such place and they weren't hipsters. Hipsters have to get a job someday, they just don't have to do it just now. The flip side of that is that they are painfully aware of the social status that goes with jobs. They want a job with the right amount, which is to say quite a bit, of social status or one with none. Better to be a barista than a dental hygenist because you can brush of barista with a good ironic posture but a dental hygenist is what you are.

To come back to the question from the top: How do I know she was really a hipster? If you prefer, you can call her a proto-hipster. Either way, I'd argue she had all the defining characteristics. The other thing, and this is all crucially important, is that she was a successful hipster. Hipster is always and everywhere a pose and you can succeed or fail at pulling it off. And most people will fail. Even now that hipsters are far more common than they were back in Miriam's day, there are far more failed hipsters than successful ones. The temptation to sneer at hipsters is understandable and it comes easy but meet a successful hipster and you will be impressed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Let's talk about teenyboppers

It was in the 1950s when marketers first discovered "youth" as a specific market that teenyboppers appeared. Like "hipster" the word comes from the jazz world. "Boppers" originally meant people who were really into bebop. "Teenybopper" was applied to girls between roughly 11 and 17 years of age who liked to gather in private with one or two friends and listen to pop music. Years aren't very helpful here though: it's more helpful to think of the term as meaning girls in the years ranging from the onset of puberty until they become sexually active. Some start and finish earlier or later than others (and there will be considerable anticipation of the moment as well as a natural desire to prolong it too).

It's a time where a girl completely rethinks who and what she is. Up until this moment, her sexuality was defined in terms of outward trappings. She had all the necessary parts to be a girl to be sure but they weren't functional. And now they are. And that's just the beginning of it; there is a whole hell-of-a-lot-else that has changed too.

And you could write up a list of the characteristics of this new culture. Let's go to a really obvious and not particularly good source to begin: Wikipedia:
  • the subculture is exclusive to young girls
  • it is a "retreat and preparation", allowing girls to relate to their peers and "practice in the secrecy of girl culture the rituals of courtship away from the eye of male ridicule"
  • serving as a retreat to avoid being labeled sexually
  • it also allows young girls to participate in semi-masturbatory rituals
  • it allows its members to define themselves apart from younger and older girls
I've cherry picked those. There are others that are just stupid or driven by heavy-handed ideology. There are some I'd tweak a bit but I think the set I've picked here is pretty close to right. Now all we have to do is move by analogy from that to hipster for hipsters are a similar phenomena. It's a girl-driven subculture and it has been made possible by a linear expansion of "youth". Teenyboppers sprang up when girls stopped being married off or sent into service but instead went to high school thereby creating a stage of human life where they were neither children nor adults. That delay of adulthood has now been prolonged for another seven to ten years by increased access to university and internships.

What strikes me as most right about it is that there is no "Storyville" and no "Buddy Bolden" in the story. That is to say, there is no supposedly authentic but actually largely mythical place or person at the source of the hipster subculture. And that shouldn't surprise us because it could not be any other way. Any cultural phenomenon has to be sown in fertile soil so our definition has to be in general cultural terms. It might have sprung up only in a specific place at a specific time, of course, but that is relatively unimportant. What is important is the subculture that spread and was easily adopted and not the "authentic" source for it it; that source is like Wittgenstein's beetle in a box, it doesn't matter whether it exists or not because it wouldn't help explain anything if it did.

The thing about being a hipster is that millions of people got it without needing an explanation. They saw the role, understood it and decided it was for them. Most importantly, when they took it up, they knew how to do it without anyone having to explain it to them.

Anyway, I promised actual content today and here it is. Every one of these based on the teenybopper definitions above:

1. It is a subculture defined by and for girls
There are, of course, hipster guys, but they are curiously nonsexual beings. They might, of course, be living out wild sex lives behind closed doors (although I rather doubt it) but publicly they lack all confidence to project any sort of sexual identity. Hipster girls, on the other hand, all project something sexual. They are often clearly lacking in confidence or painfully uncertain about their sexual identity but we can see this because they are out there. If hipster life is a recital, the girls are up on stage actually performing and the boys are hiding in the wings desperately hoping no one will notice them.
2. It's a retreat allowing hipster girls to practice being adult women away from scrutiny.
Instead of hiding in their bedrooms with their friends and their favourite pop songs like teenyboppers, hipsters use various ironic stances to hide in plain sight. The irony says, these clothes and the roles that you might normally assign to them—bohemian, rebel, trucker girl, sex bomb—are just a put on. Beneath the irony, though, these roles are picked because she wants to try something like them out. (Notice, by the way, that Hipster roles are always pulled out of an historical closet. The pre-existing identity that can be ironically adopted is the whole point.)
3. It serves as a retreat to avoid being labelled sexually.
As I've said before, these girls are supposed to be very experienced and "savvy" about sex but can't help but feel terribly inexperienced (sex and Christianity are  two human activities that anyone doing them honesty will always feel like a beginner). As a consequence, they feel like they have to improvise all the time because they somehow missed the meeting where everyone else got a script. They are terrified they are going to say or do something that will allow others to forever cast them in a part they don't want before they can even figure out what the parts are.
4. It also allows young girls to participate in semi-masturbatory rituals
Nothing to add here except that the whole point of the semi-masturbatory exercise is to visualize different kinds of sexual status that might be available to her. Unlike boys, just getting sex is not hard to imagine. Getting it under terms she can live with is.
5. It allows its members to define themselves apart from younger and older women
This is a key ingredient, a necessary condition. Hipster girls want to differentiate themselves from others in an era where every identity is a market choice. The Suzanne of the famous Leonard Cohen song wore "rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters" but if you want her look today you go to a boutique that specializes in that look. Hipster girls can't opt out of the market. They have only two choices, a) pick an historical hip look like gypsy girl. flapper or trucker girl or b) become so good at the fashion game that they can play at it ironically.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Those inauthentic hipsters that everyone who really matters hold in disdain

Notice the casual flattery aimed at you the reader. You are not one of these awful people. No! The writer, Christian Lorentzen, is kindly including you in the in group that he too, of course, is a charter member of.

That is what the people who hate hipsters have in common. They see themselves as an exclusive elite but not an economic exclusive elite. They hate the idea that some people should have special status by virtue of wealth  or political power. But they very much want to be elite themselves.

And they are in the elite. Make no mistake about that. Lorentzen writes for the London Review of Books and for a New York publication called N+1. N+1 comes up over and over again if you Google "hipster". They seemed to have had a bit of an obsession about hipsters a few years ago. I know, as opposed to me who seems to have an obsession about them right now. But the N+1 obsession was interesting in that they were obsessed with explaining hipsters away. They were sufficiently self aware to recognize that there was something odd about their wanting to do this (they seem to be painfully self aware about everything) but they couldn't stop themselves.

However elite this group may be, they argue in universal terms. Any member of a proper elite would simply dismiss those they felt not worthy, in this case hipsters, as "not our kind". But this new elite can't do that. Their political views are anti-elitist while their personal desire is very much to be elite. So they need an elite that is open to anyone who deserves to be in it. Yeah, that's it, our elite is different from all those artificial elites of the past because our elite is made up of people who ... well, who what. 

They can't say that it is a matter of merit, that their elite is a matter of merit. They are sophisticated enough to know that that never happens. Every elite tends to be at least a matter of contingency as merit. The only option that seems open to them is the hoary old whore of authenticity. And that is what we see in the bit I cited at the opening: hipster must die so "cool" can be reborn. What is cool you ask? Well, if you have to ask ... then you might just expose Lorentzen for the fraud he is.

The only way to save the mythology them is the Liberty Valance ploy. That is to pretend to be unmasking the myth while actually reaffirming it.

Which brings me to Mark Greif, the founder of N+1 and charter member of the elite:
Greif attended the Commonwealth School in Boston. In 1992, he attended a Telluride Association Summer Program. He received a BA in History and Literature from Harvard in 1997, after which he received a Marshall Scholarship, which he used to study British Literature and 19th and 20th century American Literature at Oxford through 1999. He holds a PhD in American studies from Yale.
That's Wikipedia and I cite it here only to make it clear that isn't your typical middle class hipster's biography.

Greif's smarter than Lorentzen though, and he grasps that pointing at some supposed genuinely authentic group as justification for attacking hipsters isn't going to wash. Greif's argument is that being a hipster is all about claiming taste as the justification for superior social status. And he makes some very solid points about how this move always fails but there is a huge problem: everyone says they hate hipsters, how can they be an elite. 

At every turn Grief forgets that he went to the Commonwealth School. He started out lucky and got luckier. He is a classic example of privilege and power pretending to unmask privilege and power elsewhere. 

Over and over again, he comes very close to stating what should be obvious: that the hipsters that "everyone" hates are not an elite but that they are pretty ordinary kids who aspire to a higher taste than what life has offered them.

But they aren't going to walk into a comfortable existence where they get paid to play taste games the way a privileged liberal arts professor and founder of a literary magazine like Mark Grief does. With middlebrow culture more or less destroyed, neither are they likely to find a path to higher culture. So all they can do is endlessly shift from one subculture to another.

Which, when you think about it, sounds an awful lot like what people like Mark Greif do these days.

Yeah, I don't know how much more time I want to spend on the spectacle of the snake of New York cool eating its own tail either.

I guess the point here is that in figuring out what hipster chick style is, we can pretty much ignore the cultural Brahmins. And I promise, starting tomorrow, I'll put some actual flesh on the hipster bones. And very nice flesh it is!

Monday, February 4, 2013

The cool guy who debunked the myth of Liberty Hipster

This is where I bore you by talking about historiography.

No, not really but I do want to talk about mythology and how it is often precisely when we think we are debunking myths that we are actually erecting them.

So bear with me (or don't, it's a big Internet if you don't want to) for a moment while I talk about the curious case of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That's a movie, in case you don't know, and it's a western that shamelessly indulges every cliché of the western genre in a way that ought to have driven people from the theatres in disgust.

It didn't though. It succeeded by pretending to demythologize while it was, in fact, pushing the same lame old mythology.

Here is the story in rough. Jimmy Stewart, playing an aging senator and his wife, go to the funeral of an obscure rancher played by John Wayne. Why? So we can get a whole lot of flashbacks. The flashbacks tell us that Stewart's character once moved to this frontier town and set up shop as a lawyer. This gets him to fall in love with a lovely woman who is attracted to him because he can teach her how to read. It also put him in conflict with the outlaw Liberty Valance* who was working in concert with the ranchmen to defy the advance of civilization and keep the frontier open so that the way of life the ranchers loved would continue unchanged.

You need to stop right away and see that this is the classic western myth only with the lawyer standing in for the pig farmer. Now what happens next in the classic myth? Well, two things. There is a woman who loves the pig farmer, in this case, the lawyer, and there are two outlaws, one who also loves her, and, by loving her comes to love the civilized new west which is the only kind of west where women like her can thrive, and another who works for the ranchers to kill all the pig farmers/lawyers. At some point, the first outlaw sees that his kind has to disappear for that civilization to be possible. But the other outlaw (Liberty Valence!) stands in the way of happiness for the woman and her pig farmer and so a  showdown happens between the outlaw who can see the future and the one who cannot. The pro-civilization outlaw wins and then, realizing there is no place for him in the new civilized west, he rides off into the sunset leaving the pig farmer to enjoy the civilization and, not incidentally, the woman.

It's important to the myth that the big show down is not an act of justice. When Shane guns down Jack Wilson, he does so by provoking a duel that is just an excuse for cold blooded murder. That is why the good outlaw realizes there is no place for him in the civilization that he, in the myth anyway, makes possible. The myth tells us that civilization is wonderful but it takes a big, authentic man who is himself not part of civilization to get it going and he does this in a not terribly civilized way.

So what happens in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Well, initially, we think Jimmy Stewart's character is the one who shot Liberty Valance. He is a guy who forced into a duel with the dangerous outlaw, a duel that he wins , much to his own and everyone else's surprise. As the movie goes along, we learn that this isn't true. We learn at the end of the movie that John Wayne's character was standing by and saved the life of Jimmy Stewart's character by gunning down an unsuspecting Valance before he could kill Stewart's character**. So the myth is restored.

But the movie pretends otherwise through a complicated double shuffle. It pretends to lift the veil to show you the secret only to show you a hoary myth underneath.

But ask yourself a question: How many of the myths of the wild west center around mild-mannered and meek lawyers who gun down mighty gunfighters? Because, if we take the movie at it's word, that is the "myth" it is debunking. And this in order to restore the "authentic truth" that John Wayne killed the bad guy!

There are a couple of things I think worth taking from this. The central notion behind this myth is that our culture depends on the heroic self-sacrificing of some outlaw-type. The role of others is to honour his sacrifice by maintaining the culture he made possible.

This is particularly interesting when we think of hipness because a racial twist gets thrown in then. The mythological version of any kind of hipness will attribute it's origins to brave, authentic blacks and make whites to be, at best, respectful posers who can never really do the thing quite right or, at worst, evil thieves who profit at the expense of the unrecognized creators of hipness. And there will be no approach to hipness wherein whites can be authentic or guilt free.

A similar problem applies to contemporary hipsters. The mythmakers aren't going to let them get away with it.  For the mythmaker, the real story is always about some more authentic type the hipster has stolen their stuff from.

The second aspect of the wild-west mythology is how it plays against male sexuality. There are two types here: outlaw and husband. And it is one of the odd quirks of the genre that the woman unfailingly chooses the reliable husband character over the outlaw with the big gun, which, as you may have noticed, is not what she unfailingly does in real life. But even if there is only one guy in the story, he has mixed feelings about things. Sometimes he looks at the woman he loves and thinks ... well, let's just say he thinks like a gun-slinging outlaw and less like a reliable husband.

And, if he is honest, he'll admit that he is unlikely to have ever fallen in love in the first place if the outlaw aspect weren't there. That's a pretty banal observation but here is the question: How would this mythology have changed if women had had more input? It's not that men don't recognize about the attraction the outlaw type has for women—if anything, we obsess about it. As I've said before, there is lovely moment in dramatic irony at the end of Shane when the innocent little boy wanting Shane to stay yells, "And Mama wants you too." What's missing from the story is an outlaw type for the woman herself to play at being the way any boy can play at being a gunslinger.

I'm sure you've guessed where that is going and it will continue to go there ...

* Whose name literally means a curtain or veil hiding liberty from us by the way.

**By the way, it's an odd quirk of the western myth that Stewart's character would have to follow the rules of an illegal and immoral gunfight to be morally justified.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A little light culture: I don't want to go to New York City, it ain't the place to be no more

I'm going to start with an outrageous claim: a necessary but not sufficient quality for a woman or girl to be a hipster chick is that she be comfortable in her own skin and is admired by others for this. That is what divides the successful hipster from the many wannabes. You can tell because the subject makes so many others uncomfortable and defensive.

Case in point, Julia Plevin writing in the Huffington Post:

I know I am not a hipster. I have spent the spring in San Francisco and the summer in Manhattan, two hipster hotspots. I shop at American Apparel, have an Apple computer, avoid Starbucks and other corporate conglomerate coffee, smoothie, and frozen yogurt places, and consider myself "unique," but I assure you I'm not a hipster. I don't think I know any hipsters, I don't even understand hipsters. Are they angry at the world? Are they cynical toward modern society? Are they artistic and blasé? Are they smart or plain lazy? To me, that all seems like a waste of time.

Regardless, the definition of "hipster" remains opaque to anyone outside this self-proclaiming, highly-selective circle. 
She forgot to add that, "Besides, those grapes are probably sour."

Paradoxically, while she knows that she doesn't make the cut, Plevin wishes hipsterdom was more elite. It grieves her soul to know that young girls who don't even live in New York City feel entitled to adopt the look.
But the look has gone mainstream -- tweens all over America, from the suburbs to cities, from public schools to prep schools are trying hard to be hipsters. Oh dear, can anything be done to stop them before it's too late?
I mean, we can't allow that some twelve year old in Kansas might be able to pull off a style that a bicoastal young adult who writes for the Huffington Post tried to do and failed at can we? If she can, then the style must, de facto have something deeply wrong with it.

To navel-gazers in New York and San Francisco it may seem obvious that everyone else in the world is imitating them but the equation has always run the other way around. These places have always depended on a constant influx of people bringing style with them. There is no style in music, theatre or fashion associated with New York that didn't originate elsewhere first. New York became important because it was the hub for these ideas in that it had to come there to get broadcast all over the world through the powerful media that was headquartered in New York.

And the reason New York is so over now is that the Internet has made it obsolete. Hipster style has a history in New York but it isn't a terribly important history. It didn't come to town and gel and then get broadcast to the rest of the world by the approved leaders in the media and fashion industries. No, it traveled by the Tumblr Express and went viral on YouTube while New Yorkers were still in bed.

Don't believe me? Look at this paragraph from an unintentionally revealing Time article on hipsters from 2009!
Though the subculture is met with derision in wider society, hipsters have been able to eke out enclaves across the country, chief among them the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Williamsburg. But now even that is threatened. The hip have been hit with a double whammy of economic reality (more are struggling to pay rent as parental support dries up) and population changes (the carefully gentrified neighborhood is gradually being infiltrated by squatters inhabiting Williamsburg's stalled building projects).
Hey, that's the premise for Girls three years before the show was launched. How did that happen? It happened because New York got bypassed. Here's the big secret, hipsters elsewhere didn't need enclaves. It fit right into the suburbs and high schools of most American towns and it's been sitting comfortably there for decades now. (When I arrived at high school in a Quebec milltown in 1972 there were already hipsters in residence.) Instead, it's New York city that is desperately struggling to find its own home-grown history of hipsters so that it can pretend to be relevant again.