Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sexual polarity

I picked up a new pair of glasses this week. For those of you who don't wear glasses, putting on glasses with an updated prescription is an amazing experience. You suddenly see things with a crisp, clear focus you didn't realize had been missing. By accident, it happened that the first thing I saw when I put mine on was the swelling top of a young woman's breasts.

She had come into the shop as I was putting my new glasses on for the first time and I had not noticed her because I was looking at the glasses as I put them on. Glasses are expensive and you wear them every day. For me anyway, putting a new pair of glasses for the first time is a very tense experience for I always fear I've made a bad choice that I will now have to live with for a few years. I put them on and my focus shifted to what I was looking at—an attractive young woman in a little black dress with a square-cut neckline that was chosen, and well-chosen, to highlight her very nice B-cup breasts. I looked for only a second but I was looking directly at her breasts. When I realized what I had done, looked up at her face a little guiltily. And she gave me a warm appreciative smile.

Things like that don't happen to me every single day but they happen regularly enough that I tend to think that those feminists who write about "the male gaze" as if it were some sort of oppression are deluded. I am quite certain that they are genuinely offended by it. I don't think they are deluded about their very real discomfort at the male gaze. That's real. What they are deluded about is their sense that they share this experience with other women.

Feminists recognize that other women actively seek the male gaze. Some initially tried to explain this away by saying that these women have been conditioned into accepting male dominated society. That position has become impossible to maintain, however, because more and more women have sought to  obtain the male gaze as they gained freedom and they have done so in more and more overt ways.

What is happening here is an increased sexual polarity—meaning women are consciously striving to be good at being a woman—and this is surprising. It is surprising in the same way that Donald Trump's election victory was surprising. All the people who like to think of themselves as smart were quite certain the opposite would happen. I will cheerfully admit that I never could have predicted this. If you had a time machine and you took photos of the way many women dress today back to my university in the early 1980s and showed them to men and women and said this was how women would dress in the future, people would laugh in your face for being so stupid and sexist as to think anyone would believe such a thing.

It's worthy of note that we have not seen any reciprocation on the part of men. Yes, there are some men who work very hard at being good at being a man but for every man like that there are a half dozen pathetic wimps. It's just not a cultural movement. I suspect that most women would gratefully accept it if more men tried harder to be good at being a man and I suspect that those men who do strive to be more manly are much happier than the pathetic wimps but it isn't happening.

It isn't about approval

You might think, and some feminists do think, that the women who strive to be better at being a woman are desperately seeking male approval. It doesn't work that way because it couldn't.

Here's the problem with seeking the male gaze—it's not a kind of power. When you have power, you get to decide how to apply it. If I have a huge amount of money, I get to spend it on what I want. A woman has no such choice. When she presents herself as a woman, as a sexual being, everyone benefits from what she is putting out. She can't direct it at only the man or woman from whom she seeks approval. (In any case, you don't get approval by dressing to attract the gaze of others, you get approval by dressing as a sidekick. Look at how the heroine's best friend is dressed in a romantic comedy: everything she does will say, "Don't look at me"; that is how pathetic, approval seeking women dress.)

Can you identify the sidekick in this photo?

If you watch women when they make the effort, you will notice that it rarely has much to do with seeking approval of men they actually know. Women will often tone it down when dealing with men whose approval means the most to them. Dressing very sexually for a man you seek a relationship doesn't send the message that you want his approval, it sends the message that you want sex. Indeed, it is one of the quirks of the modern world that women will sometimes dress up more for the woman boss. My wife occasionally does work in an office where the senior management positions are held primarily by women and she puts noticeably more effort into presenting herself as good at being woman when she does so. Almost every man I know has had similar experiences and more than a few woman have admitted to me that they do this.

And no matter how much effort a woman puts into self presentation, she cannot expect approval. The world is full of nasty people and there will always be men and other women who will attempt to cut her down in various ways. These people are in the minority but there are enough of them that every woman will encounter them. Contrary to what you might guess, the more attractive a woman is, the more of this attempted cutting down she gets. It takes much more courage to be Taylor Swift than it does to be an ordinary woman making the best of what she's got. That said, every woman faces some nasty attempts to cut her down every month of her life. The women who makes these efforts don't do so to get approval but rather in spite of the fact that others will try and cut her down. It's a rebellious, defiant act not conformity to strive to be good at being a woman.

So why so many women do it? I think the reason so many women do this is because they get a charge from being looked at.

Feminist critics of "the male gaze" complain that art portrays men looking at women and women looking at how they are being looked at. I don't think they are wrong about what is happening. That is exactly what happens in these paintings, photographs and movies. But it's also what happens in real life. Go to a public place and watch men and women looking at women and the way women react. Not all but a lot of women will respond just as they are portrayed in art—they watch themselves being watched.

I think what is going on here is analogous to what happens with extroverts. Both extroverts and introverts socialize for the simple reason that it's a necessary condition of existence. The difference is that extroverts get charged by the experience and introverts get drained by it.  So too with the male gaze (and the other-female gaze). All women have to deal with it every time they walk out the door but some women get a charge from it and others get drained.

Contrary to what you might guess, a lot of feminist women clearly get charged rather than drained by the male gaze and you can clearly see this when you interact with them. Feminists are not motivated by self interest. Most feminists are genuinely concerned about other women and those who thrive from the male and female gaze are well aware that other women suffer and they are motivated by genuine concern for those other women. And good on them.

Here's the problem though, the male and female gaze is not going away. And the efforts of women who seek the male and female gaze is intensifying as women gain more power in our culture. Some people will suffer because of this.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

More on the effects of approval seeking

 I got some well-argued pushback in the comments to my post "The insidious effects of approval seeking." I can't do the argument against my claim full justice here so please read the original comment thread for more context. For the time being, I will focus on this remark:
If we recognise that we have inadvertently caused suffering, then it is possible to offer a sincere and unreserved apology without engaging in approval-seeking.
When is it reasonable to apologize for having inadvertently caused suffering.

Apologies should be sincere. If someone keeps attacking me and I want them to stop I can reasonably take steps to make them stop. If, for example, my sister starts huge fights every time I visit her I might stop visiting. That will stop the fighting but may also cause her pain. Do I apologize for that? I might, especially if I later decide my response inflicted more suffering than was warranted. Maybe I will think that, because I love my sister, I should endure her ongoing rudeness for the sake of family unity. Then again, maybe not. I may decide that her behaviour is simply unacceptable and that I'm justified ion no longer seeing her. It's a complex decision. The important thing is that it is a decision we can make and I should feel free to make according to my best judgment, right or wrong, and not according to her feelings.

Something odd happens when we conclude that we should not make such decisions because someone might get hurt. There is a difference between A) apologizing for making a decision that caused pain because we later decide that decision was unwarranted and B) apologizing for making a decision simply because that decision caused pain and no other reason. If Sharon elects not to get married and that causes her mother severe pain because she had placed a lot of hope in her daughter getting married and having grandchildren it does not necessarily follow that she should apologize. If she later decides that her mother was right and that it was only rebelliousness that led her to take this stand she now regrets then she should apologize. She should not apologize simply because her mother is hurt. To do so would be to submit to a tyranny of feelings where little fascist bullies could stop anything they didn't like by simply failing to learn how to manage their feelings. (And something like that is happening on some university campuses now.)

It seems to me that we might apologize for inadvertently causing suffering when two conditions are met: 1. I could and reasonably should have anticipated that my actions would cause others pain and 2. my actions were not justified. There might also be cases where I am going to do something that I believe justified that I know or should know will cause others pain and where I could reasonably help them prepare for this so as to lessen their pain. But merely apologizing because others are upset seems wrong to me.

A further thought. My interlocutor also said,
That's excluding the nervous tic ersatz apologies I issue when I catch someone's gaze in the street or have to engage in any negotiation of personal space.
Sometimes it's useful to use apologetic language out of decency and respect or others. Someone might say, "I'm terribly sorry but I'm going to have to ask you to move," in order to smooth over a potentially tense situation. The person who is saying this is sort of apologizing but not really as signified by the words "I'm going to have to," meaning "you're moving whether it causes you distress or not". We also say, I'm sorry it has to be this way." That's related to other kinds of apologies the way a soother is related to a mother's breast; it calms and comforts without providing any real substance.

That said, there is something odd but important about what my interlocutor perceptively describes as "nervous tic ersatz apologies". I must admit I am guilty of these. These may sometimes smooth things over but more often it strikes me as unnecessary. By issuing such apologies we train ourselves to walk on eggshells worrying about other peoples' feelings rather than expecting those people to grow up and learn to control their feelings.

Final thought: It is impossible to live without making some decisions that will cause others pain.

First love

Warning: this is pure self-indulgence.

In the fall of 1978, I met my first real girlfriend. No, I will not define what "real" means in this context. I was nineteen years old.

This was a big song for her:

It's from a horrible movie. The  character singing the song is supposed to feel uncertain when she performs this and Jessica Harper plays her part well. Ironically, that makes for a less than inspiring performance when considered in isolation. It's more impressive when you have only the audio.

Ellen was wearing a white lab coat doing Chemistry demonstrations at an open house for high school students visiting the CEGEP when I first saw her. I'd met her once before when a friend had brought her, still a high school student herself at the time, to the end of year pub the previous year. I only vaguely remembered that. It didn't last, of course. It couldn't have. I was torn apart when it ended. My but it was all wonderful though.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Real hermeneutics of suspicion

The phrase "hermeneutics of suspicion" was coined by Paul Ricœur in an attempt to yoke together three schools of thought: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. To paraphrase Sesame Street, all of these things are not like the others. Why yoke them together then? It was a desperate attempt to save modernism. These three are taken to be the foundation of modernism.

Not always exactly these three. Before World War 2  Wagner was often included in the place now occupied by Nietzsche but Wagner was a nasty bit of work who simply cannot be redeemed no matter how beautiful his music. Sometimes Darwin is proposed as a replacement for Nietzsche but that would be a bit problematic as Darwin tends to undercut both Marx and Freud in ways that liberals and progressives fear so they're stuck with Nietzsche.

That, however, leaves a huge problem in that none of these schools of thought has much in common. You can tell a plausible but not actually verifiable story that they helped change the world. But, as I think I've said before, to what did they change it as they don't share common goals? ARe they causes or just symptoms? Ricœur's attempted answer is that they all shared a hermeneutics of suspicion, that is they all argued that the language we use conceals a far less flattering account of ourselves than what we like to believe. A deep study of this language (usually referred to as a "text" or "discourse") will reveal inconsistencies. That, however, is not enough. To understand what is really going on we need to bravely face that what really drives human beings is one of the following: 1) brutal economics, 2) the pursuit of sex and power, or 3) a slave morality that entails the submission of all that is noble and good in humanity by weak sheeple driven by resentment.

I'll tell you where there is a real hermeneutics of suspicion though—in popular culture. Just yesterday I saw a story claiming that dogs and cats have a large carbon footprint and immediately thought, "This is a lie." Millions of us no longer trust the experts. We don't believe the press, we don't believe the bureaucrats, we don't believe the professors, we don't believe environmentalists and we don't believe activists and do-gooders of any kind.

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Coming from a background where bullies were people who threatened and sometimes used real physical violence against others I have a low opinion of those who talk about speech as a form of bullying and nothing but contempt for those who claim we can unconsciously hurt others through words alone. I've just read a great blog post that clarifies matters brilliantly.
In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class
Read the whole thing.

It also got me thinking about the other side of the equation. To me anti-bullying is stopping bullies, with violence if necessary. It requires identifying aggressors rather than victims. It does not require a lot of posturing and loud declarations that we need to have important conversations. It requires us to recognize that bullies use their power and prestige to gain leverage to gain power over others. If you want to identify the bullies in a school setting start by looking at the teachers' favourites; every teachers' favourite is not a bully but most bullies are teachers favourites. And it requires observation and confrontation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The insidious effects of approval seeking

I was listening to a podcast on the Art of Manliness in which Brett McKay interviewed another favourite of mine, Jordan Harbinger of the Art of Charm.  The whole podcast is worth a listen but I was particularly struck with an issue that came up starting around 45:44.

The discussion is going to go to a really interesting observation about setting boundaries but it begins with giving generously. Jordan* has been pushing the notion of always be giving generously". What he means by that is that when you're networking you should simply give without establishing a covert contract whereby you expect a return for what you give. I'm pretty sure he gets this from Robert Glover's No More Mr. Nice Guy although he has done some development. Bret agrees with this but wonders about setting boundaries. He raises the issue of what he calls give-a-mouse-a-cookie syndrome.
"If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for glass of milk. If you give him a glass a milk, he's going to ask for a napkin."
Jordan takes that and uses it to zero in on something really important: the challenge of saying "no". He says it's about setting boundaries and not about saying no. We feel guilty about setting a boundary because we worry that other people are going to have a temper tantrum when they don't get what they want. Again, we're back to a principle originally set by Robert Glover: don't seek approval.

Think of what Jordan has said here. I've set a boundary. Is it a fair boundary? The honest answer to that is, "I think so but I also know I've set boundaries before that I realized were unworkable or unfair but seemed fair to me at the time." Certainty, in this context, is an emotion and not an epistemological statement. I need to be open to other people's arguments that my boundaries are unjust. What I don't need to be open to is other people's feelings about my boundaries.

This is even more complicated because we typically don't lay out our boundaries to people at the start of a relationship. Some people do but it ain't good reckoning. For example, a woman I knew in university used to break the flow of conversation with men as soon as it started to get flirtatious to run down a list of what she wouldn't do sexually. The effect of this was that normal men, the ones who would have treated her in the respectful way she thought, would quietly back away and the type of creeps she was hoping to avoid were the only ones who stuck around. Normal, healthy people rely on existing social conventions to get us by. At the same time, we should have boundaries that we don't normally tell others about but should spell out to ourselves. So what happens when it's time to enforce one of these boundaries and someone responds by having a temper tantrum?

If I am all about getting approval from others what is going to happen is that I'm going to cave completely. And I won't cave because they have advanced a convincing argument that my boundary is unwarranted but because I need their approval.

This is also important when people seek apologies or when you seek forgiveness. If I think that the measure of whether I've responded adequately is the other person's emotional state I'm not seeking to apologize and make redress so much as I am seeking their approval. And that (another insight of Robert Glover's) that is to give away my power. What I should be doing is deciding what is right and doing it. What I am actually doing is giving another person the power to decide what is enough.

* I listen to these guys so often I feel like I'm on a first-name basis even though I don't know them.

Monday, July 24, 2017

It's a white thing: individualism

The target of this exercise—I mean of the podcast Seeing White but not just it—becomes clear in the episode called "Chenjerai's Challenge". The challenge comes from Chenjerai Kumanyika and it is simply this, as a white person trying to figure out what it means to talk about shite goodness, when was white ever good?

He kind of gives the game away after that by saying, "When was America ever great?" So it's just a partisan cheap shot. It's cheap because it equates "good" or "great" with "perfect". As I've noted before, this is a popular argument with five-year-old children. It shouldn't be acceptable from anyone over the age of seven.

That part isn't interesting. What is interesting is what is underneath it all. We've been told that race distinctions are artificial. That's not as profound as the people behind the show thing because all categories—animal, plant and mineral, for example—are artificial. And the people behind the podcast while pretending to want to discredit race categories, are very determined to keep using them.

Indeed, as we see above, the point seems to be to want to paint one race category, whiteness, as always and uniquely evil. Whiteness is artificial. On the other hand, you and me, as white people have something to answer for. How does that work?

Kumanyika says that he felt this need to think of his graduation from college as a victory for black people. And then he says that, even though he tries not to, he sees every crime committed by a black person as something he is a part of.

Okay, I get that. As a guy with a thoroughly French sounding name living in Canada, I sometimes feel like I am being called upon to explain Quebecois separatism. I have a sister and an uncle who go to extremes condemning all forms of Quebecois nationalism in an attempt to make it clear that none of this has anything to do with them. When I went to graduate school, a great aunt who had never spoken to me before contacted me ti congratulate me for being the first person in my family to do so. No one on the Irish side of the family did that or felt that.

And then our host John Biewen spells it out. This is "how whiteness works in a white-dominated society, that one of our privileges, one of our benefits, as members  of the white club is that we get to see ourselves, and to be seen, as individuals." Again, I get that.

But that also raises a question for me: Why not aspire to create a society where everyone gets to experience that?

For the purposes of the people behind the podcast, the answer is that they want to use whiteness  as a category to blame you for what happened and to make you pay. When I say "pay" I mean that literally as the issue is reparations and I say "you" and not "you and me" because, as a white Canadian, I'm not a target. That's weird, if you think about it, because if there is no such thing as white goodness, why not make every white person pay.

In any case, the reason Kumanyika doesn't want white people to be able to think of themselves as individuals is because that would give them the right "to release yourself as an individual from that." "That" here meaning culpability for the historical wrongs against blacks in America.

I'll stop here because this has to stop somewhere. Suffice to say, the podcast fails because it doesn't really want to succeed. The whole thing is an exercise in virtue signalling. As I've said before, I don't think virtue signalling is evil. It's a way we have of showing others that we're in their group. This podcast is a way of showing people you are one of them or, if you are not one of them but aspire to be, of learning how to be one of them.

That's ironic, don't you think?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What white women expect

The New York Times published a series of articles called “Was that racist?” For consumers of the mainstream media most of it was a familiar shaming exercise in which white people are encouraged to believe that we are unconsciously being racist all the time. In the middle of that usual nonsense, however, there was one genuinely interesting bit.
There are many times in a day when a person is walking toward me and in my path. In these situations, we both generally make minor adjustments upon our approach. Sometimes, and especially with pedestrians who are black, as I am, there’s eye contact or even a nod. Almost always, we shift our bodyweight or otherwise detour to make the pass easier for the other. Walking courteously doesn’t take much, just soupçons of spatial awareness, foresight and empathy. In seven years of living and walking here, I’ve found that most people walk courteously — but that white women, at least when I’m in their path, do not.
The writer, Greg Howard, goes on to say that everyday day white women force him to move out of their way and that at least twice a week they force him right off the sidewalk.

Let me start by saying that I am sure this is true. I am absolutely certain he is accurately reporting what happens to him. Where it begins to go crazy is when he tries to explain it.
Do they refuse to acknowledge me because they’ve been taught that they should fear black men, and that any acknowledgment of black men can invite danger?
What?  These women successfully dominate a man who is physically stronger than them and he imagines it's fear that drives them?

Here's what I think is happening. Howard, who is a New York Times reporter is being ignored and, therefore, forced to get out of these women's way because he is successful. It's not only not racism, it's an example of how little race enters into these women's interactions and, conversely, of how Greg Howard tends to see everything through a racial lens.

What Howard does not seem to know is that white women, especially young and attractive white women, are normally deferred to by white men. Everyday, white men defer to white women by, among other things, getting out of their way on the sidewalk. The white men and women themselves probably aren't even aware that this goes on. They just do it instinctively. Is this a good thing? That's a long discussion. I don't know. What I do know is this, it is part of the unconscious  assessment women make of the men they meet on the street and it affects there subsequent behaviour.

When a white woman sees Greg Howard coming on the sidewalk (and she always sees him even if she seems preoccupied with friends or her phone) she quickly makes an assessment of him. It's a predictive assessment. That is to say, her brain scans for unusual signs and everything else becomes background. She's not doing anything unusual, we all do the same thing. Walk into your house and you will not notice all the stuff that's there everyday. Your brain has predicted all that stuff will be there and it sends a signal to relax to your body when the prediction is correct. If there is something in the room that your brain didn't predict, like a dog when you don't own a dog, and your brain will quickly put you on high alert. To return to Greg Howard of the New York Times, as a woman walks down a sidewalk in downtown New York, her brain will quickly scan men to see if they fit into familiar types. Greg Howard does, successful, college-educated professional man is the category. No threat, therefore she just keeps walking in a  straight line expecting that he will get out of her way the way all the other successful, college-educated professional men do.

Now the interesting thing from a race angle is that Greg Howard is being subjected to pressure to accept the norms of white people here. I'm sure that he knows this on some level, which is why he rankles at being treated this way.  The white successful, college-educated professional men who share the same sidewalks are used to be treated as invisible by white women. They are no more unhappy about this than I am the New York Times didn't personally contact me to respond to Greg Howard's writings. Howard coud just go along with this but he's elected not to.

The plain fact is that there will be a dominant culture. Currently, white culture dominates. Black people have had a gigantic influence on entertainment culture but the base of the culture remains white. What Howard is signalling here is that he no longer is willing to accept that. And he's not alone. The media are largely on his side of that debate/struggle. Either side might win.

A final question, why the focus on white women? White women are getting a lot of criticism lately. There is no reason why this shouldn't happen. Just about every group will have it's day of unwelcome attention someday. But why Now?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Who is afraid of sex dolls?

Ann Althouse does a nice job of exposing a fraud. Tabi Jackson Gee writing in the London Telegraph wants us all to be very concerned about sex dolls.
How would you feel about your ex boyfriend getting a robot that looked exactly like you, just in order to beat it up every night?
Is she worried about dolls or does she just like stereotyping men?  Anyway, Althouse counters with this:
How would you feel about your ex boyfriend getting a robot that looked exactly like you, just in order to shower it with all the love and conversation you never seemed to want?
And that is the real issue.  Some women look at sex dolls, or prostitution, or strip clubs, or porn, and see a threat to their power. They want a world where women can use sex to obtain power over men.

That's kind of funny because that is also what Victorians wanted.

But here's the thing, no sex doll would stand up in competition to a real woman who wants to be loving and giving for two seconds. If you believe that relationships on marriage should be based on loving and giving, you have nothing to worry about. If you don't believe that, you're a moron.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"You're important to me"

Have you had the experience of someone telling you that you're important to them but somehow they never manage to find time to be with you? Or the only times they ever invite you to see them are events to which they have invited several people and they hardly get any time to see you during the dinner or whatever it is? I've gotten a lot of it and it's only in the last few years that I've stopped going along with it.

I think we, or at least I, tend to go along with such things for two reasons. The first is that nobody wants to be a loser and seeing people you've come to think of as family or friends drift away makes us feel like losers. Life moves on and it feels like it's moving on without us when people who once were a huge presence in our life no longer have time for us. The whiny, needy little child inside us clings to whatever tiny morsels of attachment and recognition are offered us. The second reason is that the professions these people make to care for us are sincere. The people who say these things to us really mean them when they say them. They fully believe that they intend to get together with us and reconnect when they say they do. 

As I often say,  when our friends tell us lies they aren't necessarily lying to us. They could be lying to themselves. Indeed, the person who lied this way most often to me was my mother. I doubt she'd have been able to admit to herself how little I meant to her—I'm certain she felt a strong emotion that she was convinced was love for me but the plain fact is that she never had time for me. The only times my mother ever arranged for the two of us to be alone together was when she wanted to influence me to do something or stop doing something. But, and this is the important part, she was utterly unaware of this. Her feelings told her that she cared a whole lot about me, about my siblings and about my father. Her actions, however, rarely lived up to those feelings.

Of course, I've also done this to other people. More often, however, I've been on the other side of the equation. Robert Glover has argued that we tend to seek out relationships like those we had in childhood or, worse, that we tend to transform what should be successful relationships into the unsatisfactory ones we are familiar with. Looking back, I can see that I did that.

But how do we get out of that trap? I don't want to sound more authoritative than I am here as I am still figuring a lot of this out. The first thing is to train ourselves to get to the point where we can be honest about how our relationships actually work without getting angry about it. Psychologists often say, "Name don't blame." I don't think that's quite right because I think it's necessary that we blame. I think one of the reasons that some of us shortchange ourselves is that we're afraid to blame. When people tell us that we're important to them but are never available to us except when they have some ulterior motive we need to be honest enough to blame them, see my above remarks about how a fear of being a loser leading us to accept treatment from others that we should not accept. The issue is not whom we we blame but how we express that blame. The key is to express that blame in a meaningful and useful emotion and not as impotent rage. Then, and only then, will we be able to act in a more positive manner.

The opposite of impotent rage in this case would be cold-heartedness. We might, for example, experiment with withdrawing ourselves in the hope that the other person will reach out to close the gap. I don't know what would be worse, that such a strategy would fail or that it would succeed. Either way, we'd be training ourselves to be monsters. 

On the other hand, there is no point in investing a lot in such a relationship. We should be polite and civil because that is how we should behave to everyone who is not actually attacking or threatening us. We can nod politely and warmly agree that it would be great to get together sometime. We should even suggest an opportunity to do so. It's important to make it clear what we want. If I want to get together with an old friend and talk, just the two of us, I should make an overture. If the overture is never taken up and no counter offers are made, we need to have the courage to accept that we are not actually important to this person and adjust our attitudes appropriately.

I think the real test of that is when that later, inadequate invitation comes in. I had to deal with this recently with a  friend of mine from university days. When we ran across one another, he would great me enthusiastically and we talk about how we ought to get together. I suggested something and he agreed but then stood me up. He apologized and promised to set up another opportunity. A month later I was included in a group email inviting me to a book launch party for a mutual acquaintance of ours. I didn't go. The temptation to go just one more time and maybe we could arrange an actual encounter was still there. It always will be. But I just let it go.

I think what motivates people to tell us that we're important to them when they actually care very little for us is narcissism. It's not the monstrous sort of narcissism we read people ranting about on the Internet. Google "narcissism" and you'll get a whole bunch of hits where someone will rave that their mother or former boyfriend or girlfriend was a narcissist and how they've lived miserable lives as a consequence. But the truth is that very few people suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or anything vaguely like it. Most people who tell someone they are important to them and then neglect them are simply projecting. They feel a strong emotion towards you because they need to feel special and they want you to see them as important. You are important to them because you validate their feeling of being special. To borrow from Robert Glover again, what my mother gave came from a place of emptiness inside her and always had strings attached. That's unfortunate but it's ultimately sad and pitiable rather than monstrous. To pretend that it was monstrous would be to be a whiny little victim (see those Internet hits I mention above) rather than to accept that the only person who needs to do anything about this is me.

Monday, July 17, 2017

I was wrong

I've long believed, and often said, that it is very rare for both parties to a failed relationship to be at fault. I now know that is wrong. I now think it's very rare to find a case where only one person is at fault.

Why was I fooled? Part of the reason was that I leaned heavily on the fact that certain facts about what someone has done are indisputable. We learn that, "X had an affair." Well, it's all her fault then!

My point here is not that people who have affairs do so because the relationship is going badly. That happens sometimes but other times people have affairs because their just selfish little shits. My point is that when the other person in a relationship unilaterally does things that are really crappy those facts can easily be manipulated into telling a very one-sided story. This story usually starts with an easy lie we tell ourselves (I did this once upon a time). It goes like this: "My biggest mistake was trusting you." That's what whiny little victims say.

To believe that you have to believe that there was some really big betrayal or a series of betrayals that came out of nowhere and caught you completely off guard. That seems possible or, rather, the first part and the last part seem possible. I can believe there was a huge betrayal or betrayals and I can believe these caught me completely off guard. What is a bit more of s stretch is the second part, that these "betrayals" came out of nowhere. To put it bluntly, "betrayal" is just "warning sign" writ very large.

Why did I not see this before?
  •  For a long time I was a whiny little victim about bad treatment I'd received from women in my life, most notably from my mother.
  • Every time I got into a relationship, or even just a good friendship, with a woman I told myself that I was incredibly fortunate. I spent too much time worrying that she might reject me and not nearly enough time asking if she was a safe bet.
  • I knew that while everyone has faults, you can only control yourself, so I focused on working harder on myself when things got difficult. That sounds sane but is actually insane. I was a fixer. I had come to believe that a bad relationship can be fixed by one party unilaterally deciding to work harder at it. 
  • I didn't ask the hard question. One reasonable safety check to apply to a relationship not only at the beginning but all along is to ask yourself whether the other person really wants you. That is a different question from do they really want to be in a relationship. Most people (desperately) want to be in a relationship. But do they want you just as you are?

Friday, July 14, 2017

It's a white thing: Elizabeth Key

If the story of John Punch shows a bizarre tendency to shoehorn facts into places they don't fit, the way the Seeing White podcast interprets the story of Elizabeth Key shows something like willing blindness. A blindness not to answers but to questions.

We're told she was the one who got away. She is introduced through a series of quotes from historian Ibram Kendi.
Elizabeth Key was the daughter of white legislator in Virginia and an unnamed African woman, so she was biracial.
Okay, right away questions should be suggesting themselves. Questions such as, "What was the relationship between Elizabeth Key's biological parents?" "Were they lovers?" "Exploiter and exploited?" "Rapist and victim?" And "How do we know this white legislator was her father?" According to several online sources that may or may not be good, we know because he was forced to admit it in court.
Before his death, her father, her white father, basically asked her slaveowner to free her when she became fifteen. He did not do that. Eventually, she wed an indentured servant who also happened to have some law training in England. They sued for her freedom on the basis that her father was free but also because by then in the mid 1600s, she had become Christian and in English common law, the paternity or status of a  child derived from the father and it was also against English Common Law to enslave a Christian.
In 1655, colonial court ruled in her favour.

This also raises some questions. To be fair to Kendi, he didn't edit the show so he may have filled in some of the gaps the quotes above leave. That caveat aside, the line, "Eventually, she wed an indentured servant who also happened to have some law training in England," makes it sound like her choice to sue was an unlikely thing that just happened because she wed this man with legal training. But if there had already been a civil case whereby her father, Thomas Key, that suggests that this sort of case was not unheard of.

There is another detail that is skipped over rather lightly here where there is more to the story. Once he was forced to acknowledge paternity, Thomas Key arranged for Elizabeth to baptized in the Church of England. That's a slightly different story than, "by then ... she had become Christian".

Once he was forced to acknowledge paternity, Thomas Key made a few moves to try to ensure that Elizabeth would be free. He did not, however, welcome her into his house as his daughter. That's weird. He initially doesn't want to acknowledge paternity but he shows some traces of paternal concern. How did he feel about her? And how did he feel about Elizabeth's biological mother? We're told that Thomas Key was married but that his wife lived across the river. That doesn't suggest a happy sex life. So he looked elsewhere and he turned to a black woman. Why? Because she wasn't in a position to refuse him? Because he didn't think he had to worry about getting her pregnant? Whatever the answer to these questions—and I have neither the expertise nor the resources to answer them—it suggests something about the attitude whites of the time had towards blacks.

In response to this, the lawmakers in Virginia change the law so that status is derived from the mother. That's a reversal of the common law tradition that goes all the way back to prehistorical times. That seems pretty drastic. And then they pass a law that makes relations between black men and white women illegal. Why not leave the existing common law status coming from the father in place and simply outlaw all sex between whites and blacks? Well, we know the answer to that: because the white men wanted to be able to sexually exploit black women and white men were making the laws. But isn't that the real story. As I discussed in a previous post, the people behind the podcast are intent on shoehorning these facts into a Marxist mold. We can now see that not only do the facts not fit that explanation, there is another explanation that seems to be a far easier fit.

An offensive analogy

Okay, you've been warned: the following analogy is offensive. I'm doing this because the situation we are contemplating here is offensive and an offensive analogy is a good way of drawing out how it might have worked.

I've had pets that I love. I cared deeply about these animals and did my best to take care of them. But they remained animals to me. That seems to be something like what white Europeans of the 17th century thought about black Africans. Before there was chattel slavery, before there were anti miscegenation laws, before plantation farming, there seems to have already been an attitude towards people who could be defined as other. We see it in what the Japanese did to Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Filipinos and Indochinese people. And it explains what Germans did to Jews during the second world war.

People already made a distinction between white and black before chattel slavery. The people behind the podcast think that is impossible because there is no science behind the distinction and there are hard cases where the distinction is hard to make. That, unfortunately, does not make the problem go away. To see why, consider an old logical problem the Stoics posed. If I spill a few grains of salt on a table, you will have no trouble saying that is not a heap of salt. If I keep adding salt one grain at a time, however, we will reach a point where you will agree that it is a heap. But where is the dividing line between "some spilled salt" and "a heap of salt"? As the Stoics realized, there is no way to draw that line. It would be ridiculous to say that one additional grain made it a heap. And yet, there is a point where we can agree that something is a heap of salt. Categories don't need to be rooted in science or have clear boundaries to exist and, sadly, race is such a category.

Categories are distinctions we make—distinctions that are not in the world but created by human beings—for a purpose. That purpose can change. I can make a distinction between the path and the snowbanks I pile on either side and a child can come along and make a slide out of the same snowbank. We can distinguish between people on skin colour and someone else can come along and decide one group is superior to the other. We need to remind ourselves that some people think blondes are stupider than brunettes.

This is what I think we can conclude. As human beings, we easily slide into generalizations about others. Most of the time, this tendency goes nowhere spectacularly harmful. Under some conditions, however, it will, not "can" but "will". I can't prove that. It's what I believe.

How do you solve that? One way would be to try to treat people to distinguish between races and yet treat them as equal. For a long time this was derided. Another solution would be to act as if the difference between "white" and "black" was exactly like the difference between "blue-eyed" and "brown-eyed" is in our culture. And if we followed that through, we'd soon breed race out of existence. The genes that produce lighter skin or darker skin would still be there just as the genes that produce different colour eyes are still there but you'd reach a point where almost every family would have both. Why does no one promote that as a solution?


One recurring explanation that is given for slavery is economics. Indeed, that is explanation given by the Seeing White podcast. People needed labour and so the enslaved others. The distinction between "white" and "black" was a consequence of the need to justify why some people were enslaved and others were not. Power is driven by economics and after power is achieved, racist justifications follow. Again, that's pretty straight Marxism: economics is what actually drives power structures but a bogus ideology is derived to justify the power structures while masking their real cause.

But is slavery efficient? It's easy to see why, for example, the Ancient Athenians, once possessed of slaves, had slaves work in the silver mines. Their mines were awful and dangerous places to work. And the Athenians got to be rich out of the process. But were they richer than they would have been if everyone working in the mine had been getting paid?

Perhaps it was for certain kinds of work such as sugar and cotton farming. Massachusetts was the first state to legalize slavery and yet there never was chattel slavery there. Perhaps some kinds of labour are more viable economically speaking than others?

And what role did the industrial revolution play in this? Lets remind ourselves of when and where the slave trade was most intense.

That's an estimate of the number of slaves transported to different places between 1501 and 1875. Source You'll notice that most activity is outside the United States until the 18th century. The reason that changes is the industrial revolution and cotton.

But that still leaves questions. Why was slavery used in cotton farming? The obvious answer to that would seem to be economic but it may not be as obvious as it first seems.Growing and harvesting cotton made certainly slavery feasible but it doesn't follow from that that it was the most efficient economic choice. It may have been a grim economic choice or it may have been an even grimmer racial choice. Slavery may have been the most efficient economic choice or it may have simply been made feasible by the conditions of cotton farming.

We can be fairly certain that it was not the most efficient economic choice by the end. The secessionists argued that Cotton was King on economic grounds but the war called their bluff and they lost. If the south initially chose slavery on economic grounds, it had stopped being a sound economic choice long before abolition.

I can't answer my own questions decisively. And I don't think anyone else could either. That's important because you'd need far clearer answers to these questions to reach the Marxist conclusions the people behind the Seeing White podcast have reached.

One more post on this next week.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Being strong

At a wedding reception about five years ago I found myself seated next to the clergyperson who had presided at the wedding. She was an exceptionally beautiful woman who, as sometimes happens, had remained not just exceptionally beautiful and also highly attractive sexually well into her fifties. She was much-beloved of the women of her parish. She was also relatively rich. She was rich by marriage, the clergy are rarely well paid.

Something about her rubbed me the wrong way. Not in any profound way. I had a good time. But there was an undercurrent of something there—a feeling that I didn't bother to analyze so it never rose to the level of an emotion. If I had thought about it, I might have detected envy in myself. Or, to be less humble, perhaps she gave off a certain smugness. I didn't, though, so I can only guess at what it was now.

At some point in the conversation she was discussing how people responded to her as a clergy person and I said the reactions she got might be a function of her being a sexy clergy person. She didn't like that. I don't know what response I expected. I suspect the truth is that I didn't particularly care. What she actually said was, "I wish my sexuality didn't have to enter into it."

I had read pieces where women expressed that thought before and perhaps heard speeches or media interviews where it was said but I had never heard a woman say it in casual conversation like that. Sometimes, you need to hear something in a context like that to be able to evaluate it properly. For the first time, I realized what an utterly delusional notion it was to think that sexuality wouldn't "enter into it". Sexuality always comes into it. When two heterosexual men or two heterosexual women get into a car together, sexuality comes into it. It's part of being human and it could no more not come into it than breathing. We are sexual beings right to our core.

I saw her again at a funeral this May. She was a smaller, quieter and much humbler woman. And the reason wasn't hard to determine. She no longer had that intense sexual attractiveness that made her the centre of interest everywhere she went. I don't know if she'd figured that out. She must have felt it whether she bothered to understand what was happening. I didn't bring it up for compassionate reasons.

She did not remember our last conversation. She did not realize who I was even though it was my father's funeral we were attending. I stood and talked to her as no one else was paying her any attention. She'd become mildly bitter over the ensuing years. Again, it was not hard to figure out why. Her sexuality, the thing that she had claimed not to want to "enter into it", no longer did and people took her a whole lot less seriously as a result.

Yes, life is cruel. At the same time, it's often a joke when men lose their vitality so I have a hard time working up a lot of sympathy. And this change was coming. Any fifteen-year-old girl can tell you about what effect aging has on women and what the different decades of a woman's life mean in terms of sexual attraction. Every once in a while an aging feminist will bemoan the fact that she no longer gets much sexual interest and the Internet will promptly find quotes from the same woman thirty years ago bemoaning the fact that she couldn't go anywhere without attracting sexual interest.

Everyone gets older and loses the special attraction that goes with youth. The question I have is, why did feminists think it was going to help the cause of women to denigrate sexual attraction?

I'll leave that thought there and jump to something else.

When I was in high school I seriously wondered if I might be trapped in a play where everyone else had a script but me such that I had to improvise while they always knew what was coming. It wasn't entirely crazy. A lot of my friends had older siblings or parents who actually took an interest in their lives beyond worrying that their children might mess up and reflect poorly on them as parents. These older siblings and/or parents took the time to let them know what changes were coming in life and how to prepare for them. I had neither and I was left to figure out things for myself. Then again, some others were no better off than me and some others were worse off.

As I grew up, though, I discovered that many others thought I was the one in the strong position. Over the years people, including my parents, came to me whinging that I was strong and others were weak and, therefore, I should make special allowances for them. That's not crazy: self-confidence should lead to compassion. Alas, the people doing the complaining had contributed less than zero to any sense of self-confidence I might have had and, indeed, I had little in those days.

The temptation is to say that it's all perception and we all walk around fearing that everyone else is more assured and comfortable in their skin than we are. But it isn't that way. A lot of time in life we appear strong to others for reasons we don't bother to analyze. We don't bother because we think it is unearned. And to some extent it is. It's a tragedy, however, to have not made something of it when we had it.

I had to bluff my way through a lot of things as I grew up because there was no one there to support me. I was often lonely and I could be bitter about it now except that I turned out to be strong, stronger than most people I know.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Smooth songs of summer 2017 edition

Bill Danoff was in on the creation of three beautifully crafted pop songs—absolutely perfect little gems that couldn't be improved on. On the one hand, that's a lot fewer than George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney or the Gibb brothers. On the other hand, it's more than a lot of much more respected pop stars ever managed.

The three songs in question are "Take Me Home, Country Roads". "Boulder to Birmingham" and this huge hit from 1976.

Starland Vocal Band is an odd name. Okay, odd band names aren't exactly rare but I do wonder how they came up with this one. "Starland" gives off a Dorothy Stratten vibe. And "vocal"? Bands with vocals aren't rare. That said, the vocal harmonies on this recording are one heck of a lot harder to duplicate than they are to enjoy.

It wasn't just a huge hit. In 1976, the song penetrated the popular consciousness in a way that very few songs do. It did so because it caused sexual scandal. That's bound to puzzle anyone under the age of fifty. In preparing this, I scanned the Wikipedia page on the subject and was surprised to find that the lyrics are treated as "somewhat controversial" even today. That is followed by a somewhat perplexed quote from Danoff, "I didn't want to write an all-out sex song ... I just wanted to write something that was fun and hinted at sex." And that's pretty much all there is to the song. Why did it cause such excitement?

in his memoir The Best Times, John Dos Passos relays a story about how Don Alfonso of Spain woke up one morning to see a plane piloted by Ramon Franco flying over the palace. No bombs were dropped but Don Alfonso suddenly realized that it was all over for the Bourbons, burned a pile of state papers in his office and told his wife he was fleeing to France, which he promptly did, leaving her to follow with the children a few days later. And, as Dos Passos wraps up the story, "The people of Madrid woke up the next morning to find themselves, to their great surprise, a republic." Perhaps that story is a little too perfect but I think we can say that this song had exactly that effect on those who thought the sexual revolution could be reversed.

As I've said before, the people who first wrote about the sexual revolution described it as something that had already happened by 1960. It might be better to describe it as a  fait accompli, that is to say as something that was too late to stop. No matter what you've been told to the contrary, your grandparents probably didn't wait for marriage. And by 1960 (if not by 1945), most sex was carried out in pursuit of pleasure without pregnancy. That was the fait accompli part. It was as if the whole world woke up one day to discover that a widespread rebellion against the sexual establishment had been launched and most of the country was in the hands of the rebels and there was widespread grassroots support for them. The establishment, however, still controlled the capital, the newspapers, the television stations and the airports. People were hesitant to speak in support of the rebels because the coup still looked reversible.

The thing that would have felt like a stake being driven into the hearts of those in the sexual Ancien Regime was the sense that, to use a current expression, afternoon sex had been normalized. People had had sex in the afternoon before. Married people had done it when they found themselves alone in the house and cheating spouses had done it to avoid being detected. No doubt, teenagers did it also to avoid getting caught. But these were all cases of settling for the afternoon because the nighttime wasn't available. Sex was, as Saint Paul described it, a deed of the nighttime. It was something that even people who had social sanction to do did not just secretly but shamefully. By, to use an anachronistic expression by 1976 standards, normalizing afternoon sex, Afternoon Delight made the last holdouts realize the battle was over.

People like my mother, a strict Catholic, still thought of sex as a chivalrous domain in 1976. She could see that certain scoundrels might have sex with someone's wife in a suburban home while her husband was at work and the children were at school. She could also see that a married man in the city might meet his lover at a downtown hotel for a nooner. For all I know, she may have taken part in such activities herself. But she saw such sex as something that should be and could be controlled, like weeds in the garden, it could never be eliminated but it could be minimized. She thought she could further count on the shame of afternoon sex limiting it to certain hard cases. That a mild-mannered pop song about afternoon sex could hit number one and hold it for two solid weeks, put paid to that notion. It was over.

To understand why, you need to know that everything my mother, and women like her, tried to control about her children's behaviour was based on the assumption that the danger lay chiefly at night. If a boy took her one of her daughters out, he was expected to bring her home early. My mother saw the overwhelming danger as something that happened after dinner, after the movie or after dancing. She thought a couple heading out in the afternoon represented no threat. That they might not go to lunch or an afternoon movie or for a walk in the park but straight over to his house when his parents were out or his friends house and have sofa on the sofa in the family room wasn't even imaginable. When it suddenly was, the game was over. I was 17 years old the year this was a hit. My mother still tried to control what I did or didn't do. She barely even tried for my three younger siblings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What is this image selling?

Everything seems to be retro these days. Decades barely end before I start seeing dance clubs advertising a night of music dedicated to them. This one jumped out at me, however, because of the set of decades proposed. The 1920, 1950s and 1980s go together pretty well. They were all conservative decades and they were all prosperous decades. All three are despised by people withy progressive politics.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Is the white girl moment over?

Back in the 1980s one of the women's magazines, I can't remember which one, got roasted for saying that breasts were "in". The obvious rejoinder: When are breasts ever not in? ... and yet ... there are cultures, mostly in Africa, where women's breasts are not highly valued.That said, white girls have hardly suffered from lack of attention over the years.

Some have argued that there are genetic reasons for this. That men will prefer lighter skinned partners for genetic reasons. Maybe.

Whatever the case, being desired and being taken seriously-as any teen-aged girl can tell you—are clear different things.* There was a moment that started about twenty-one years ago when white girls made a pitch to be taken seriously without ceasing to be terribly girly in a very white way. I say about twenty-one years ago because that was when this pop song became a major hit. It's a very white-girl song and that fact was underlined by having one black member in the group.

Notice how much more womanly and sexual the black woman first known as Sexy Spice and then as Scary Spice is than the terribly girly white girls with her. It's not just that she has amazing breasts it's that she puts them right in your face. This is all third generation feminism but she's going for a direct sexual vibe while all the others are going for girly. She's a Samantha Jones in a crowd of Charlotte Yorks.

That comparison is anachronistic as Sex and the City comes two years after this single was a hit. But it works because it was very much in the air. This was the moment when second wave feminism was challenged by something new. Katie Rophie's The Morning After had been published just two years earlier.

There never was a theoretical foundation for third wave feminism. I say that with such bluntness because it wasn't an academic movement. You can trace second wave feminism back to some very serious academic writing. The third wave was characterized more by a whole lot of white girls who didn't so much criticize feminism as break free from it. Whatever it might have lacked in theoretical foundation, the movement was a real cultural moment and you could see it everywhere you looked.

In that sense, the video is perfect. This is rebellion but exactly what they are rebelling against is not at all clear. The upper class as portrayed in the video had long ceased to exist by 1996. These girls revel in the role of rebels but they don't want to threaten anyone.

But they were threatening to feminists. At first, the second wave feminists thought they could simply drown these girls the way people used to get rid of unwanted kittens. It didn't work. They ended up coming off grim and humourless compared to these new girls. Next, second wave feminists tried the old trick of rushing to the head of the crowd and pretending to be leaders with laughable nonsense such as the Riot Grrrls. That didn't work either.

Sex and the City itself was an attempt to respond. Carrie Bradshaw is set off against three foils—women who are her friends but are all a little too too much in one aspect or another. On the one hand, Carrie is opposed to two third wave women, the too girly Charlotte and the too slutty Samantha. On the other hand, she clearly isn't the dour Miranda either.

It didn't work though. SATC was a huge success among women but anyone who was paying attention when men were in the room quickly noticed that not only that we vastly preferred Charlotte but that we actively disliked Carrie and Miranda. And no one is going to marry Samantha. I know, that's not supposed to matter anymore but reality really is the thing that won't go away when you ignore it.

The suicide pact

The rest of the left decided feminism wasn't helping the cause anymore. If the white girls of the third wave had proven anything it was that the influence of second wave feminists on, you know, actual women was far less than they had imagined it to be. Feminists could browbeat women into tugging their forelocks like good little peasants but they couldn't get them to actually live differently.

After a series of increasingly pathetic attempts to gain any real traction, progressive feminists decided to try a suicide pact called intersectionality. The notion behind it was that all oppressed groups were interconnected. You might reasonably wonder how that could possibly be (it can't) but you'd be apt to miss the menace it holds. For intersectionality can be weaponized. If all oppressed groups are interconnected, then anything peculiar to one cause is illegitimate. Thus we have the staggering spectacle of feminism disembowelling itself to accommodate trans women. And you have the increasingly aggressive attacks on "white feminism".

I don't see how feminism itself can possibly survive this, which is why I call it a suicide pact. I don't think the people behind intersectionality particularly care. They never saw feminism as anything but a short term goal in a larger game whose real goal is dismantling free market economies and liberal democracy.

They feel confident enough now that they have been attacking white girls for a while now. The increasingly savage attacks on Coachella, Adele, Taylor Swift and "white feminism" are evidence of this. But will it work? After all, attacks on white men got us President Donald Trump.

My suspicion is that white girls will respond not by getting behind a person as they will get behind a way of living. The universities will be interesting to watch. Currently, university is seen as an end in itself. Sometime soon, I think women, who now make up the majority of university students, are going to start asking themselves some hard questions about how this fits into their larger lives. They are going to start thinking of it as a short-term goal in a larger game. When that happens, look out.

* “A subject and a sovereign are clear different things.” —King Charles I words to the crowd from the scaffold immediately before he was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's a white thing: the fatal flaw

In fact there was an idea, and the idea was Marxist ...
Joan Didion was discussing the women's movement when she wrote those words but it is a sad truth that when progressives join the struggle for the rights of particular groups they often do so for Marxist reasons. Not Marxism in the sense of bringing about communism. It's Marxist in the way the history of the oppression in question is analyzed. No reasonable person is going to argue that racism hasn't been a horrific thing in the history of the USA or that there remains work to be done in decreasing it today. What the creators of this podcast want to do is to get you thinking of the problem in Marxist terms.

John Biewen prepares us for this right at the start of the episode by claiming Americans don't care much about their history. He no sooner makes this claim that he starts to shuffle away from it. And little wonder: the obvious question, "Compared to who?", would devastate his claim. But, the double-shuffle achieves its end and now we're off to do an historical analysis.

That historical analysis, tellingly, begins by brushing off a whole lot of history. We brush right by the already established case of chattel slavery in the Caribbean and the 1619 landing of 20 slaves at Jamestown on board a Dutch ship to move to the much-discussed case of John Punch. And it should be much discussed. It’s one of those stories that makes us nauseous to read it is so horrible. But what should we conclude about “whiteness” from this story?

Here's what we're supposed to conclude.
As we’ll see, the innovations that built slavery American style are inseparable from the construction of whiteness as know it today.
That’s the big claim the podcast makes. Don’t think, the claim goes, that emancipation solved anything, that civil rights laws solved anything, so long as “whiteness” exists there can be no justice. These were steps forward but the job isn't complete until we deal with whiteness.

Meanwhile, let's turn back to John Punch.

John Punch an indentured servant ran away in the company of two other indentured servants. All three were caught and brought to court. What happens next is awful
Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and have thirty stripes apiece. One called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is expired by their said indentures in recompense of his loss sustained by their absence, and after that service to their said master is expired, to serve the colony for three whole years apiece. And that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.
Now, it might seem obvious to you what is awful and why it's awful. It certainly seemed obvious to me: the court assigned a man to perpetual servitude, aka slavery, because of the colour of his skin. This is a true story about racism and oppression that surpasses anything Kafka could have imagined for horror. The podcast sees it as something else.

Biewen tells us that "whether the Judge consciously intended this or not, his decision was a gift to rich landowners”. Notice that qualification; "the consciously intended this or not”, is an admission that there is no evidence that he intended any such thing. There is no evidence that this is anything but a racist decision by a racist judge in a racist colony. Keeping that in mind, let’s have a look the quote from Suzanne Plihcik, Associate Director of the Racial Equity Institute, that  immediately follows this telling admission.
The story of race, folks, is the story of labor. They needed a consistent, reliable labor force. And they could not have a consistent, reliable labor force if that labor force was banding together and challenging the authority of the colony.
The institution and maintenance of slavery based on race, we're told, was really a move in a larger class struggle. We're told! We're not given anything that looks like evidence for this. The claim is that slavery was a brilliant divide-and-conquer strategy that gave poor-but-free whites a reason to identify with rich slaveowners and not with the people the producers of the podcast want us to think of as their natural allies. The result is a multi-class coalition that supports the economic status quo. That’s a big part of what “whiteness” means.

That argument should remind you of something else. Think of the common progressive complaint that poor whites keep voting against their interests. Another way of understanding that is that poor whites keep voting for their interests as they understand them and not as progressives would define their interests for them. Poor whites insist on seeing themselves as having a shared with others in supporting and maintaining an America they think of as having been great and that can continue to be great or be made great again. For progressives this a problem and the name of the problem is whiteness.

Now you can understand the progressive strategy that this podcast promotes. Whatever might be said about race and racism, “whiteness” is a multi-class coalition that maintains the economic order. The argument is that the real goal of analyzing “whiteness" is to maintain political and economic power. Getting rid of whiteness, really means not getting rid of racism but overthrowing the existing political and economic order.

It follows from this that the more intractable racism is, the better.  The goal is to cast racism as an indigestible problem, that is to say, to make it impossible to achieve any progress without substantially changing the political and economic structure of the country. From this episode on, what started as an interesting podcast slowly becomes more and more tedious.

There is, I think, one more interesting point to be made. I said above that the tendency of people both poor and not poor to support the status quo is a big part of what whiteness is for progressives. There is another huge component, however, and this other aspect is where the real problem is. I'll get to that next week.

The singer and the song

But it's a song. As Bob Dylan said in his Nobel Prize speech, "songs are unlike literature." "They're meant to be sung, not read." They're "alive in the land of the living." And "God Bless the USA" is a big sing-along song that comes alive when people — free people — choose to stand up and sing, not because Greenwood dictates that "it's time" they stand up and sing, but because they feel inspired by something about the melody and the key words — flag, freedom, proud, love, USA. No one's parsing the words.
Ann Althouse makes that point at the end of a careful parsing of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA".

I should begin by saying that I can't listen to the Lee Greenwood song. Not because I am offended but because I don't like it. Applying the Eddie Condon standard: it goes in like broken glass and not like honey. I take Althouse's point to be that people sing it in good faith meaning to be patriotic without worrying too much about what the songwriter meant in writing it. I think that's right. When Bruce Springsteen toured in 1984-1985 millions of fans enthusiastically shouted along as he sand "Born in the USA" and many, probably most, meant those words as simple, uncomplicated patriotism as they sang them even though Springsteen meant no such thing.

The same, contra Dylan, is true of literature. Probably more so than a song. Springsteen's defiant, anthem-like delivery of words of Born in the USA encourage what he likely sees as a misinterpretation. By contrast, you'd have to work pretty hard hear patriotism in the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen". You could do it though.

In some ways, a novel is more susceptible to such distortions for the "singer" is the reader. A song comes with an interpretation. That said, songs are reinterpreted by listeners and other singers much more easily than novels can be reinterpreted by readers. The season for this is context. A novel has a lot more of it than a song does.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Is narcissism driven by a need to feel special?

I've been reading Craig Malkin's Rethinking Narcissism and very much enjoying it so far. I'm only at the beginning of the book but it seems to me like it will be a an antidote to a perhaps too extreme account of narcissism that I've embraced. I bring the book up now because Malkin unhesitatingly diagnoses Draper as a narcissist. 

Malkin resists those who see narcissism as a binary quality. That's a good way to think as very few classification systems are binary. In addition, he seems to think of narcissism terms of a single quality: the need to feel special. Therefore, he sees people who have too much need to feel special at the high end of the narcissism spectrum and people who are too self-effacing at the low end.

Then he applies this standard to Don Draper whom he sees as a 9 on a scale of 10.
Think of Don Draper of the T.V. series Mad Men, hopping from affair to affair, desperately seeking excitement and attention; he can't stop even after he sees the damage his lies and infidelity have inflicted on his family.
Is that right? If it is, why does Don twice marry women he doesn't love?

If we go back to the beginning we find a man subject to impostor syndrome. In the Season 1, Don is man who thinks he is nothing and lives in morbid fear that he is about to be found out. There is something self-abasing about his affairs. A half-joking proposal he makes to Midge Daniels in the pilot reveals this. He lists reasons why she would be the perfect wife and they are not crazy reasons. The problem is that Midge is unavailable—she doesn't want to be married. At the opposite end of the extreme is Betty—the woman he did marry—who is a bad match, seemingly everything he doesn't want in a woman except for one thing that I'll come back to.

To stick with Don, however, he hardly seeks attention. He fears it and flees it. When Roger takes Don and Betty out for dinner at Toot Shor's she is elated. Betty has no trouble feeling special. Don is not. He doesn't know what it means. He doesn't feel like Roger trusts him.

At the dinner, he resists every invitation to talk about himself.

I can easily grant that something has gone wrong with Don Draper. What I have a hard time granting is that the thing that has gone wrong is an addiction to feeling special.

I have met people in my life who have an unfailing ability to see themselves as special. No matter how crushing the circumstances, they see themselves as the star of the drama and everyone else as a supporting player. Malkin provides a very good example of this:
Think of Bernie Madoff, who swindled hundreds of millions of dollars from his clients and who, when caught, scoffed at the "incompetence" of the investigators for not asking the right questions. Even faced with life in prison, he still managed to feel superior.
We might add Donald Trump,  Barrack Obama or Winston Churchill to that last. Like 'em or hate 'em, there are people who achieve amazing things because they never lose their sense of superiority. You probably need to be like that to be a politician today and, this is Malkin's point, you need to feel like that to achieve things.

Most of us, however, can only feel that way occasionally and precariously. I'm like that. Likewise Don Draper—for example, when he writes the letter about quitting tobacco without consulting anyone. But neither I nor Don Draper can sustain that sense of specialness in the face of adversity. If anything, Don needs to be goaded into thinking of himself as a star at the beginning of Season 4. And it's telling that, also towards the end of Season 4, Bert Cooper says of Don, "We've created a monster." (Emphasis added.) Finally, when Don goes to Disneyland he abruptly snaps back to type and seeks meaning not in himself but in a woman who gives him a sense of approval that he mistakes for belonging.

Which brings me back to Betty. It makes much more sense to think of Don marrying Betty because she helped him feel like he was no longer an outsider and not because she made him feel special. That's consistent with the larger context of his life than narcissism as Malkin presents it.

I could go on at some length here about Don's complicated relationship with women beginning with his having been raised by a woman who didn't want him. We could go on about both his biological and adoptive mothers having been prostitutes, readily able to give sex for money, unable to give love for anything. I could but I won't because I don't think I need to. Don Draper is a guy who never felt special, a guy was always told that he wasn't. He seeks meaning in life not in being special but in being part of something larger that will play the part of the family he never had. Someone who unfailing pursued specialness would have had no trouble actually marrying someone like Midge in the first place. Only someone desperately seeking approval would marry a woman like Betty.

Some questions 

Is narcissism chiefly a matter of being addicted to feeling special? Well, it could be. But would a person driven by a need to feel special behave in the dark ways that we associate with narcissism? We need to remember that the word comes from a rather odd Latin legend that we know mostly through Ovid's retelling of the story.

And what of the Last Psychiatrist's alternative view that narcissism is characterized by, among other things, an ability to feel only shame, an inability to feel guilt? I think Malkin would be willing to include that in a list of symptoms of narcissism but would see it as an outcome of the more basic addiction to feeling special. 

Why do I think the Last Psychiatrist's view needs to be tempered? It's that way he handles victims of infidelity. He starts off making the legitimate point that to be cheating on will often produce a narcissistic injury. That is to say, it will so disrupt your sense of who you are that you will react in narcissistic ways even without being a narcissist. That seems right to me. I was deeply in love with a woman who cheated on me. It was a narcissistic injury and my reaction is a deeply troubling thing for me even three decades later. But the Last Psychiatrist writes about these things in ways that completely absolve the woman of any guilt. And that, in a guy who insists that the ability to feel guilt rather than just shame is important, strikes me as odd.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Trumpian anarchism

One common observation about Donald Trump is that he is very lucky in that, no matter how outrageous or ill-considered his words or actions, his opponents save him by over-reacting. This is unquestionably true. There are people who defended a play in which a Trump-look-alike was stabbed to death and then turned around were outraged at video from a wrestling event in which Trump body slams a guy who has had a CNN logo superimposed on his face.

With enemies like that who needs friends.

It got me thinking about anarchists. Many anarchists believed that, because the state was illegitimate in their eyes, attacks on the state would only highlight the problems with the state because leaders would over-react. That theory didn't work out for anarchists but it is working for Trump. Why?

Part of the answer is that the state is legitimate. Many states are badly run all the time and even the best are badly run some of the time but the state is necessary. But it's the other end that interests me. In Trump's case, he is succeeding because the current elite—the academic world, the media and the political class— are utter frauds.

Nowhere, I'm sorry to say, has this been more evident than with the writing of Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg's fixation with Trump is at least as embarrassing as that of First Things for Lena Dunham. It's not that Goldberg isn't right. There is much about Trump that is cringe-inducing—he is a crass, vulgar man. And these things would be worth worrying about if there was anything even remotely resembling evidence that the elite arrayed against Trump were willing or capable of behaving in good faith. They aren't. We saw what they did to past Republicans, conservatives and libertarians willing to behave in good faith—they pulled out all stops to destroy them.

CNN is not publishing "HanA**holeSolo's" name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. 
CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
CNN proves my point.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The text goes on to say that governments are formed to protect these rights and that is absolutely correct. But that can only happen in a culture where people are willing to seize these rights for themselves in the first place.

"Turning points" are a bit of a myth. They only make sense when set into a much larger context. Nothing really changed at that moment. What really happened was that a long-term development came into closer focus. Even at that, you may not feel them as turning points at the moment but only in retelling.You can even retell events that never actually happened and have them become major turning points in your life.

That said, there are two moments I associate with a special clarity about the direction and purpose of my life. The first, often alluded to here in the past, was when I came out of the hot summer heat to watch a matinee showing of Body Heat. The other was when I put a new CD I had purchased for ironic reasons on and was swept away by what I heard.

The moment where everything snapped into focus, when the ironic quotation marks came off my love for this music is when Bobby Hackett's trumpet comes in at 0.51 or so.

What you don't know, couldn't know, is that both those moments accompanied big independence experiences. Moments when I broke away from what others expected me and became myself.

Monday, July 3, 2017


I talk a lot about narcissism, let's just look at some.

A soul mate is a mirror! Think about that for a moment. Imagine your best friend telling you they really love you and then explaining what they love about you in those terms—not as a person who has a separate existence of your own but to reflect them. Every single quality that meme tells you to look for in a soul mate is about what they can do for you.

Forget about Elizabeth Gilbert for a moment and think instead about the person who created that meme. For that quote comes from a larger context and it may seem less damning in context. Or it could be worse. I don't know. All I know is that the person who selected this bit read this intense self-centredness and it struck them as beautiful and inspiring. And thousands of others reacted that same way and shared it. A whole lot of people look at that utterly selfish, manipulative sentiment and nothing at all about it troubles them. I think that is scary. How about you?

It's a white thing: starting points 1

I've listened to ten episodes of Seeing White now and I'm sorry to report that what promise the podcast had quickly drains away. At the same time, I'm not surprised that this happened. I think what is at work here is a disease in thought. That is to say, we see certain pathological patterns of thinking that unfailingly trap us when we try to think our way out of our race problems.

The first of these is what I would term racialism. That is the unshakeable tendency to see life in racial terms. John Biewen starts the show with a quote from D.L. Hughley.
Obama is what we would like to be Trump and his supporters what we are.
That's from June 9, 2016". I mention that because Hughley liked his quip enough to use it at least once more. On the Wednesday after Trump was elected, Hughley appeared on MSNBC and said this:
Obama was what we aspire to be, Trump and his supporters are who we are.
The only significant change is the tense of the first clause.

We could say a lot about that but I want to focus on Biewen's reaction.
I bristled at Hughley's we. I know it's we the people and all that. "Donald Trump and his supporters is what we are." I wasn't sure I wanted to be implicated in that "we". ... As for that "we", it seems fair to say that D.L. Hughley, who is black, is talking about a nation, for all its growing diversity, a nation still dominated by people who look not like him but like me. Seventy percent of voters were white in 2016 and fifty-eight percent of white voters chose Trump.
There's a lot in that quote. I want to focus on just some of them. First, Biewen thinks in ideological terms and he also thinks in racial terms. And he sees those two things as connected. Sometimes, as above, he explicitly and directly connects progressive ideology and race. As if the answer to, "Why did America reject the Obama agenda after seeming to support it through two presidential terms?" could only be, "Because America is too white."

For Biewen, what stands in the way of the kind of progress he'd like to see is "whiteness". And that creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for Biewen is white. He isn't just "white", he's Anglo-Saxon white and that is the whitest kind of whiteness.

What's going on here?

Is this just Huck Finn trying to free himself from the bonds of "'sivilization" by adopting Jim as a spiritual father; that is to say, is John Biewen just the latest in a long, long line of white liberals to see a kind of freedom in escaping whiteness?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dominion Day 2017

It's sometimes argued that one of the sad legacies of colonialism is a bunch of national borders that were drawn for the convenience of colonial powers and not the people who have to live in these freakish countries. Iraq, for example, is a country that has no historical heritage of existing as it does and whose borders yoke together a number of peoples who have every reason to hate one another. And I can see that. If that is true, however, it immediately raises a question: why does Canada work as well as it does? For it is a country that has no historical heritage of existing as it does and whose borders yoke together a number of peoples who have every reason to hate one another.

Despite that, we Canadians have it very good and we have had it very good for a long time. This is a stable, sensible country founded on the values of peace, order, and good government. In addition, it is founded on a very British understanding of personal liberty that, while it was not spelled out in the constitution, was guaranteed by literally thousands of laws and precedents and the larger political culture that Canada inherited from Britain. This may strike you as boring but, trust me, in politics boring is good. Confederation was founded on the solid English notion that government should be phlegmatic and we've done very well out of that.

Canada did not start to exist in 1867. What happened that day was that a government was created for the country. It wasn't even the first government for the country. That's important for what is celebrated is an event, not a thing. "Canada Day" is vague and meaningless. There already had been people calling themselves "Canadiens" and "Canadians" for a long, long time. What happened in 1867 is that this people got dominion over their country by having a government formed for them. And that's important: Reagan was absolutely right when he said that the point is to be a country that has a government and not a government that has a country.

The embarrassing thing is that this government was not established with the consent of the people. Historians largely agree that if there had been a referendum on the constitution proposed in the British North America Act it would have been soundly defeated. It worked because it was founded on solid, British principles for balancing liberty and order. Principles that the Brits themselves didn't always uphold with any great consistency and principles that modern progressives would do away with if given the opportunity. That is what works.

All of which brings us back to the question I raised at the beginning: Why does Canada work so well? This is not a troubling question in the sense that we don't know how to answer it. It's a troubling question because the only answers that make sense are cultural ones. The only answers that make sense require us to believe that some cultures are just better than others. Canada's success says that you can even have a successful multicultural country but that you can't mix just any set of cultures and expect to succeed. The cultures you see in this shield, for example, can be made to work with one another with a lot of hard work.

Other cultures, see Iraq, may never work no matter how hard you try. That, as I imply above, is, or should be fairly obvious on empirical grounds. We, however, live in an era that desperately does not want to reach that conclusion.