Thursday, September 30, 2010

What is self interest?

This is picking up from something in the comments from yesterday. There will be one more later today explaining why I was picking on Woody Allen.

A guy I'd known since high school went to to the same college as me. After his hometown honey dumped him in first year Doug got a new girlfriend. Sara was a staggering beautiful redhead with a taste for all sorts of things Doug's hometown girlfriend had denied him. She was also really intelligent, played piano and sang and was a brilliant conversationalist and socially successful. She was a keeper.

As often happens when your friends fall in love, I ended up having to deal with the new values she brought into his life. That was particularly relevant because Sara was a devoted follower of Ayn Rand.

Randians, for those not familiar with the philosophy, believe that everything we do is out of self interest.

I remember a conversation I had with Sara about some volunteer work I was doing helping teach basic literacy skills to adults. I made the mistake of saying that if feels good to be charitable. She pounced on that: "See it's all really about selfishness. You wouldn't have done it if it didn't feel good."

She wasn't crazy. I would not have done it if it didn't feel good. I don't think many of us would make charitable gestures if it didn't feel good. And yet it isn't true to say that we do these things purely out of self interest. If the good feeling that came from giving was the only reason that would be so but it isn't.

And we might ask where that good feeling comes from. If you really believed that charitable gestures were really just an act of self interest—if you really, really believed that—would you still get that good feeling?

Because it is the sense that we are doing something right and good that makes us feel good. It is the sense that that is making us a certain kind of person that we are working towards.

Of course, we can argue that that too is just self interest but only at the price of making words meaningless.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Back when I was in high school in the late 1970s there was an incident in my town that got a lot of media attention.

A guy was driving downtown and stopped at his bank to get some money. There were no bank machines then. He parked his Corvette out front and left it running with the four ways going. His girlfriend was in the car.

When he came out the car was gone. He called the police.

Arrests were made a little while later and the girlfriend was alright. She was a little too alright to be honest and that is what got the media attention. You see, a guy had jumped in the car to take it for a joy ride without noticing the girl. When he noticed her he started to talk to her and convinced her to join him. They hung out for a few days. During that time, at least as she told the police, she never once asked his name.

They did, however, drive to Montreal and partied a fair bit staying in hotels.

The local paper wrote it up and it got picked up by the wire services. The wire version was a short version of the story, about the same length as my version above only it included names of those involved. It wasn't really news in my home town. Dozens of cars get stolen every year there and none of those incidents make the papers. It was definitely not news anywhere else but it got picked up by papers all over the world.

Johnny Carson mentioned the story including the name of the victim during his weekly monologue.

The journalistic justification for such stories is that they are "human interest". What that really means though is that it's supposed to be funny. I thought it was funny at the time.

I didn't know any of the people involved. Friends of mine claimed to know them but I think they were lying. But I knew a lot about the town and even though I didn't know the guy I should have been able to imagine his life in more charitable terms than I did.

As I've said before it was a mill town. That guy worked must have hard and long to save up to buy that Corvette. It wasn't a wise investment but guys in my town liked Corvettes because they saw them as status symbols. Only working class guys saw them that way back in the 1970s. Everyone else saw them as asshole cars; meaning that was what we assumed about the driver just as most people today see a hopped up Honda and automatically assume the owner is young and male and a jerk.

And that was why it was all so funny. The guy had the wrong values so the fact that he was publicly humiliated was some sort of justice. We knew nothing about him except that he owned a Corvette but that was enough.

A couple of years ago someone E-mailed a similar story. It was about a guy who had been held up as he was getting into his BMW. The thieves took the car. According to the story, which I hope was an urban myth, they also cut his finger off because the BMW had a fingerprint-activated lock. The person who E-mailed me the story thought it was hilarious.

Think about that a while. And notice that these sorts of stories are only funny when they happen to guys.

What is it about a man owning wanting the "wrong" kind of status that somehow makes them deserve to have horrible things happen to them? Where do we get this notion of justice?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

He is a young man isn't he?

 Blogging Rob Roy chapters 24 and 25
Young Frank Osbaldistone is beginning, although not very quickly, to appreciate the gravity of the situation his father is and, beginning in chapter 23, he begins to get some notion of the situation that he himself is in.

As difficult a situation as that might be, however, his new appreciation is not enough to stop him from acting like an idiot.

That might seem like a crazy way to write a novel on Sir Walter's part but it was much done at the time. Fielding's Tom Jones remains an idiot for most of his work. Radcliffe's heroes seem to take forever to figure out things  that are long obvious to her readers.

In that regard, I might return to the issue of the secret identity of Robert Campbell, cattle dealer (or, more likely thief). I trust it is obvious from the prison scene that we are supposed to have figured out who he is by now and that Scott's intention is that we are to get some pleasure from seeing how long it takes young Frank to figure it out?

Of course, we have the singular advantage of knowing that it says "Rob Roy" on the cover and that the guy is going to show up sometime.

But back to the issue of character development. Sir Walter writes the way they teach people to write in creative writing classes. His hero has flaws that stand in the way of his goals and we see them played out. Some basic change in his character is required for him to succeed.

Again, the contrast with Austen is worth noting here. None of her heroines changes profoundly because none of them have to. They come already equipped with the virtues they need to succeed and at most only need to develop what is already there a little further.  Some make mistakes that they need to recognize and compensate for to succeed to be sure but they remain the same otherwise.

Scott writes in another tradition and we are to look to see Frank change.

The other thing that strikes me in these two chapters is that there are moments that are rather proto-Dickens. Andrew Fairservice, for example. And then there is this lovely paragraph giving us a wonderful sense of local colour:
Repeated knocking at Mrs. Flyter's gate awakened in due order, first, one or two stray dogs, who began to bark with all their might ; next, two or three night-capped heads, which were thrust out of the neighbouring windows to reprehend me for disturbing the solemnity of the Sunday night by that untimely noise. While I trembled lest the thunders of tneir wrath might dissolve in showers like that of Xantippe, Mrs. Flyter herself awoke, and began, in a tone of objurgation not unbecoming the philosophical spouse of Socrates, to scold one or two loiterers in her kitchen for not hastening to the door to prevent a repetition of my noisy summons.
Anyway, things are getting a bit better thanks to Bailie Jarvie, who, recognizing that Frank is too obsessed with romantic notions sends him off to the university where he runs into Rashleigh and promptly starts a duel. The judges give him the edge but he ends up injured and only an intervention from Rob Roy himself prevents anything more serious happening.

Frank realizes, or he is tole at least, that he is vulnerable here in Glasgow and that is where we end today's instalment.

Until next time.

Enlightened self interest

Update: I see that I didn't express myself clearly. I'm not objecting to delayed gratification and self-denial. I think that both are very important and a parent who fails to instill the importance of both in their child is guilty of abuse. But it is also important that these things be done for the right reasons. This post is about how enlightened self interest is not a good reason.

I was raised by good liberals, not just my parents but the extended family, who believed very strongly that individuals and nations should always act in enlightened self interest. When I was a kid we were taught that it is never the case that anyone or any nation should ever do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. When I was teenager, I tended to rebel over moral issues. Over and over again, I would advance the view that some particular act was, in my view anyway, so obviously good and true that it just had to be admired and a huge argument would break out.

The funny thing, looking at it now in retrospect, is how much more strenuous the family's moral choices were than mine. My life was, and is, full of pleasures that I do not need anything more to justify than that is good and true. Their lives are full of complicated arguments for doing or not doing these things.

For us as children, the most notable aspect of morality was the reasons they would give us for denying ourselves. And I have to stress that it is the reasons that matter here. Almost any system of morality will require us to deny ourselves something but the reasons for doing so will vary.
  1. One reason for self denial often advanced in the name of enlightened self interest when we were children was deferred gratification. We should hold off on many of the things that we want most because greater satisfaction for ourselves and others will come from delayed gratification.
  2. One reason for self denial often advanced in the name of enlightened self interest when we were children was that we should compromise even when we had very strong reasons to believe we were right and the other person wrong. In my family's view, the person who compromises is always better than the person who stands firm because compromise is more likely to produce a mutually beneficial results in the short term.
I'm certain I don't need to draw a picture to explain the problem here.

I began to realize as I got older that there was a deeper problem closely related to the above. That is what about the case where you can get away with something without affecting someone else. I don't mean extreme situations that hardly ever happen. I mean those very ordinary cases that happen to all of us where something that will never be noticed can be stolen, or the young woman beside us on the bus who is so intent on the explicit text message she is sending her boyfriend that she has forgotten the guy in the seat behind her (this actually happened to me last week) or the rival employee's computer that is unattended with a file open that can be read? There will be no reason to enlighten your self interest in such a case. In moments of privacy, there is no difference between self-interest and enlightened self interest.

Whether or not we are really correct in assuming that there will be no impact is almost beside the point. The real problem is what is there to keep us honest in such a case? And the answer is nothing at all. And there is a powerful instinct in good liberal circles to protect our own privacy jealously; because that is the only sphere where we can really do what we want. Everywhere else we are like Gulliver in the hands of the Lilliputans.

You can see this most clearly in someone like Woody Allen. He is capable of all sorts of moral talk that he uses to try and control the lives of those around him but in the privacy of his own mind he can always talk himself into doing whatever he wants to do. There is a family member, someone I have known my entire life, who is lately very much like Woody Allen in that respect.

I love my family but I have come to see that I differ radically with them here. It's not a matter where we can manœuver our way around it by not talking about sex, religion or politics, it is the belief that defines them because they have lived according to this principle all their lives. Because they have acted on this basis all their lives the belief runs right to the core of their being.

For the two people who regularly read it

The Rob Roy blog will be up later today.

(Yes, exactly two people, not counting myself, read it according to the stats.)

The fifties

Mike Potemra has a post up about a new book about the collapse of fifties Catholicism that is worth a read. I'm not sure I agree with any of the viewpoints—both those he puts forward and those he argues with—expressed in the post. I think what Potemra and liberal Catholics generally miss (and Potemra is a liberal Catholic even though he writes for National Review) is that 1950s Catholicism never went away. Check in with the people who are actually in the pews of Catholic churches on any given Sunday and you will be stunned at how little has changed.

The fifties are an odd era. Despite the best efforts of elites, most people look on the 1950s as a golden era. To pick a favourite example around here, Mad Men is tracking a cultural tragedy in the decline from the style and confidence of its opening in late 1959 to the falling man of the opening credits. Even critics who welcome the 1960s cannot pretend that something magnificent was not lost here.

The sheer volume of art  celebrating the 1950s hammers this home. You may say, "I wouldn't want to go back to that," but,  be honest, you wouldn't want to go back to the Golden Days of Athens, Pax Romana, Charlemagne, The Venetian Republic, Elizabethan England, the era of the Sun King, Victorian England or late 19th century Paris either. No one wants to go back in history even to its greatest eras.

But the shocking, jolting thing about the 20th century, now that it's over, is the realization that the 1950s (a decade so great it ran into the first half of the 1960s) was the cultural highpoint of the century. Woodstock, the SDS, LBJ and the Great Society, OTOH, seem little less important with every passing year; we increasingly see them not just as failures but silly inconsequential things, as fads.

This is a particularly touchy subject for North American Catholics that can be summed up in two words: Fulton Sheen. Love him or hate him, no one can seriously pretend that any other Catholic of the last fifty years has his power.

But, and this is the tricky question, why did the greatness collapse?

Well, part of the answer is that it didn't. The 1950s did not come crashing down suddenly in 1960, 1962 or even 1968. I remember watching Happy Days with my sisters in the early 1970s and liking the show because it was more like the life we were actually living than the world described on the news. The 1950s was more alive to us than the then present because the 1950s had never died in the suburbs. All the same values and beliefs of the Eisenhower era were the values and beliefs of the middle class suburb were I lived.

The other part is that what did collapse was 1950s liberalism. A good friend of mine is fond of saying that it is odd that liberals profess to hate the 1950s so much because the 1950s was the high point of liberalism in America. To spend as much time hating on the 1950s as current liberals do is a little like a classical music fan claiming to hate the classical music of Vienna.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Maximalizing the defintion

One thing I think is worth noting here is that some Catholic thinkers' prohibitions of lying involve what I call maximalizing the definition. That is to say we are told that an activity is wrong and context and purpose are irrelevant.

The article on Catholic Culture about the history of the most recent Catechism tells us about an interesting alternative definition of lying that was apparently considered  and then abandoned. The first definition below is the one that actually appears in 2483 in the Catechism and it maximalizes the definition. The second is the one that briefly appeared in a first edition and then was dropped.
  • To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.
  • To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.
As Jeff Mirus, who wrote the piece over at Catholic Culture, notes, the effect of this would have been to deal with the issue much as the church deals with the commandment against killing. No special exceptions are required there because killing means the unlawful taking of innocent life.

Mirus does not speculate about why the drafters of the Catechism held back from this and neither will I but I think there is something worth noting.

If we look at the commandment against killing the word used in the original Hebrew means something stronger than murder but less than our English verb "to kill". The specifications the catechism makes about what counts as killing are actually a matter of bringing the church's definition closer into line with what the Decalogue says.  For example, capital punishment is lawful in many jurisdictions and is not a matter of taking innocent life. That doesn't mean it's a slam dunk to say capital punishment is okay, and there are all sorts of other Catholic arguments that speak against it but it is not in violation of the decalogue. Abortion, on the other hand, is also lawful in many jurisdictions but it is the taking of innocent life so it is in violation of the decalogue.

Something very different is happening with lying. There is quite simply no commandment forbidding lying. The Decalogue forbids bearing false witness, which has a legal connotation. Our Catechism definition of lying considerably expands on that and expands it to the maximum possible connotation. Read literally, it says all untruths spoken to deceive are sins. It, as I say, maximalizes the definition.

Imagine you have a friend over and she drops one of your favourite figurines that you inherited from a much-loved relative. She feels really bad about it but you think, "Nothing is going to bring the thing back, even if she finds the very same figurine on E-Bay it won't be the one Aunt Anne left me so I will tell her a fib so that she won't feel bad". On the catechism definition that puts you in league with Satan the father of lies. (And note, this is not some extreme case that never arises in real life.)

It is worth noting that the Catholic church does the same with adultery. The definition of adultery as used in the Bible is to have sex with one person while married to another or to have sex with someone you know to be married to someone else. According to the Catholic church it is adultery to have sex with someone when you are not married because that will be adultery against the person you might eventually marry (even if you never actually marry at all).

It's easy to understand how the church gets into this position. It's a legalistic attitude that attempts to define morality entirely in terms of rules. This, combined with a bureaucratic command and control mentality, leads to the creation of rules meant to leave as little decision making as possibly up to individual Catholics.  It is that maximalizing instinct that, in my opinion, causes the catechetical failure that Pope John Paul II noted had happened with Humanae Vitae and with many other aspects of Catholic moral teaching.

A final thought, there is a tradition of moral thought in the Catholic church that would help overcome these problems and it is called casuistry. Casuistry is a dirty word these days thanks to unfair attacks by critics such as Pascal but it's actually a quite sensible approach to moral catechism. It is the only approach that will work in my opinion.

Metaphysical definitions of lying

Before moving on, there is a metaphysical understanding of lying that can be drawn from the Catechism (and elsewhere) and some commenters on the Elizabeth Scalia thread did indeed draw it. Let's have a look at this remark from someone who signed themselves "Bender":
In what other circumstances is it, not merely OK, but obligatory, to do what we think is a little evil (or not wrong at all, even though centuries of moral theology says it is an objective evil) to advance what we believe to be the greater good?
 If you look at the bit I have emphasized you'll see the issue. If something is an objective evil it raises the bar quite a bit about what circumstances it is acceptable to lie. For no matter how good your reasons for not telling the truth, you will be doing some evil.

On the basis of this argument, you might lie to save someone's life but you should still go to confession the next day to get absolution for telling the lie.

Suppose an armed gunman came in and said he was looking for Cecilia and you knew the woman sitting on the park bench was in fact Cecilia but told the gunman, "I don't know Cecilia but that is my friend Nancy." On the metaphysical definition you might be able to justify the lie but it would still be an evil. So you would go to the confessional, get down on your knees and say, yesterday I told a lie.

What should we do about such an argument?

That's easy. Ignore it. You couldn't possibly reason with a person who believes such a thing.

It's not that they are irrational. Go read the rest of Bender's argument and you will see that it is quite rational and there are even some good lessons to draw from it. But the notion that something might be an objective evil is not one of them. This isn't an argument but a move to shut down argument and it deserves to be ignored.


I was exposed to two flagrant cases of it yesterday. The real thing tends to drain your energy rather than anger you. The most common use of the word, failing to live up to the standards you profess, is not hypocrisy. More on that later.

The first example was a man who led a meeting I attended yesterday. He was speaking about being a lay volunteer in the Catholic church. He began by stressing the importance of humility, of emptying yourself to let the Holy Spirit take over, and then he spoke about himself and his achievements for one and half hours.

The second case was a man I have known for decades and has, for his entire life up until now, proclaimed a certain set of values. And then abandoned them all in less than a year and a half.

Both cases were depressing and i came home unable to work up any enthusiasm for anything for a long time afterward.

But it got me thinking (again) about hypocrisy. Because Jesus told us that the Pharisees were hypocrites and that they said one thing and did another, we have tended to think of a hypocrite as someone whose actions are at odds with their professed beliefs. But that is only s symptom. The real source of hypocrisy is not believing in anything at all.

That was what was is so depressing about the two cases I mention above. Neither man is aware of himself as a hypocrite because neither is acting against beliefs that actually mean anything to them. Our classic notion of a hypocrite—Mr. Burns running for office on The Simpsons—knows he is lying and consequently makes some effort to hide it. Real hypocrites have no notion. There is no point in even trying to explain it to them.

The word hypocrite derives from the Greek word for actor. We recognize the hypocrite because he says one thing but behaves differently but there is a difference between a hypocrite and an impostor. An impostor is merely something other than what he says he is but strip away the fake role and there is a real role the person genuinely believes in. A real hypocrite is just an actor; there is nothing but the fake role.

(And yes, I do think that is what the Gospel of Matthew is accusing certain Jewish authorities of his time of doing. Matthew, whoever he was, looked at the Pharisees after the destruction of the temple and concluded that these people were just trying to keep a system of religious practice alive even though its very core, the temple, had been destroyed. What Matthew wants us to conclude is that the practices were no longer tied to any real beliefs but are just people acting as if they still had beliefs. No one has to agree with him, although I do, but that is his point.)

A Catholic defintion of lying

There are two statements in the Catechism defining what it is to lie.
2482 A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: 'You are of your father the devil ... there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies." [Ellipsis is in the original.]

2483 Lying is the most direct offence against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man's relation to truth and to his neighbour, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

There is a surface contradiction worth noting here. 2482 ties lying to what logicians call statements. Presumably it includes written as well as spoken statements although only speaking is mentioned here. This ties lying to strict issues of truth in a logical sense.

Somewhere along the line it must have occurred to the moral theologians behind the catechism that that would not do. So 2483 tells us that lying can mean either speaking or acting against the truth.

My first thought is that this outlaws a while lot of games. Bluffing at poker, for example, would be right out as it is very much a case of speaking and acting to deceive others. So would halfbacks faking left when they mean to go right as that is clearly a case of acting so as to lead someone into error. Gambling is okay according to 2413 so long as we don't cheat or deprive others of what they really need by doing so. But you can't play these games at all according to 2482 and 2483.

Now I know some people will say, your just playing games yourself here but I'm not. There are a  lot of human activities where deceiving someone is quite acceptable (defense attorneys in a court of law are not obliged to call attention to possible errors in the testimony of their witnesses) and this definition is far too broad.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I forgot to say ...

... that I think Don Draper's experience as a deserter may leave him in a position to exploit the upcoming resistance to the Vietnam war.

I know, it's a crazy idea and I don't know that I like it much myself but it's just an inkling I get.

Matt Weiner and company have really boxed themselves in otherwise, however, and I don't see how he comes out on top except that I'm certain he will.

Where does Mad men go now?

Last night was episode 10 and the three previous years have had 13 episodes each. So we have three more to wrap it up.

Anyone who has been watching the last three years will know that there is a formula. The last few episodes are always set against a major political event. In season one it was the Nixon-Kennedy election. Season 2 was the Cuban missile crisis. Season 3 was the Kennedy assassination.

So what is it going to be this year?

We have some calendar hints to help us. This season's first show was Thanksgiving and the second was Christmas. Last night the big hint was the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium which took place on August 15. So we have moved along at the rate of one episode a month. That means we wind up either in October or November.

Wikipedia has a page of events from 1965 if you want to check it out.

Whatever it is, I think it's probably Vietnam related as Weiner has always telegraphed the big event before.  I'm looking at the first public burning of a draft card on October 15 or, probably more likely, the first protests beginning with self immolation of Roger Laporte and then the November 27 protests.

Do you want to know a secret?

The virtues of mad men
Hands and knees

Well, wasn't that fun. And the walls came tumbling down.

The only thing we know for certain is that Beatles must charge a lot more for the use of their tunes than the Rolling Stones do. Nothing else I can think of can explain the decision to use an instrumental version of "Do you want to know a secret" rather than the original single. It must have been beyond the budget.

Beyond that, who knows?

Personally, I'd rather not know secrets. I'd rather they just lay there unattended and that has been my personal bias all along. If you have a dark secret, you can count on me not to push it into the open. I don't think it ever does much good to force things out. That effects how I see the show of course.

Consider my servant Job
The oddest coincidence for me was to read today's readings before watching the episode. It was the start of Job today. You know how it starts. God's angels are hanging around with him and an unwelcome guest shows up. God turns to the unwelcome guest and says, "So what have you been up to Satan?" Satan says he has been roaming the earth. God says, "Well I hope you've noticed my good servant Job who is an all around first class guy." Satan sneers back, "That's only because he has it so good." And God says, "Okay, I'll take that bet, go ahead and do your worst and let's see how he deals with it."

And then three messengers come to Job and tell him that he has lost this that and the other thing and now he has nothing left and that brings him to his hands and knees.

And that is pretty much what happens this episode. Various people come to Don and Roger and tell them that the sky is about to fall in.

By the way, note again what no one else seems to notice, there is a remarkable tie between these two characters. It's like they were two sides of the same personality.

Pete and Betty grow up kinda, sorta
Pete and Betty, because they both know the truth, get pulled in to the lie and both end up having to lie for Don. That is a typical Weiner touch and it is handled with all the power and subtlety we should be able to expect from him.

First Betty lies to the government investigators doing the security clearance on Don. That part is easy. The tough part is when she lies to Henry. And she does. She tells him she doesn't want any secrets but she then promptly doesn't tell him her secret.

And Pete does the same thing with Trudy.

Everyone gets pulled into the web of lies, of course, but it is telling that neither Betty nor Pete can tell the one person they should be telling.

The web tightens
I end up in the tax office quite often because the Serpentine One and I run a business together. It's often a highly entertaining moment because I end up overhearing people who think they can talk their way out of anything trying to talk their way out of their tax debts. I don't mean to hear. It's that they make sure I do because they use embarrassment as one of their techniques. They think that by creating a publicly humiliating scene, they can get the tax officer to give in.

But the government never gives in. The courts might, as Faye helpfully suggests, but the government will not. And so Don is in trouble. He has to stop the security clearance. But that means losing a big contract. Normally, they might be able to swallow this but Roger also has a crisis in that Lucky Strike just got unlucky (the double meaning of that brand name in the context of the show never hit me before).

Anyway, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots. Pete's $4 million deal that has to be flushed away to save Don might have saved the company even after the loss of Lucky Strike but both of them together well ... there is no avoiding it now, very bad things are about to happen.

And Lane will be away.

And there are only three more episodes left this season.

Blowing my own horn
Okay, bragging time. Every other commentator I read worried about whether Roger was good for Joan. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one to worry about this:
And we do have to wonder what Joan will do if she conceives as a consequence of this encounter. We know she is no longer on the pill.
That's me on the previous episode.  Well, now we know, she decides to keep the baby. Roger misses it. When Joan tells him, "We avoided a tragedy," he misses the point entirely. I wonder if that isn't the real story. That's the real life decision that applies here for most of us. When a woman gets pregnant by someone who she really shouldn't have—whether it's her teenage boyfriend or, if she is older and married, by a man who is not her husband—the decision to have the child sets a bomb ticking. It may never explode. And we all know such situations. These things happen all the time. Desertion from active duty by assuming another man's identity, that doesn't happen so much.

By the way, do notice how no character on a popular television story or movie can have an abortion? It's okay if they have had abortions in the past but if they get pregnant while we are watching they have to carry that child to term. With a baby, though, you at least of that new soul to focus on. It becomes everything. What does Don have? he has a whole lot of nothing.

Odds and ends
I haven't said anything about Lane Pryce because I find the whole thing unbelievable.

In a sense, it is very believable. Lane is more open on race than his American colleagues. It is also true that the Playboy Club was more open on race issues. And Don's night out with Lane would explain his exploring this aspect of American life.

But this show never handles race issues credibly. Weiner should just suck it up and accept that he is dealing with a  lily white world and stop trying. All the critics will pretend to like this new subplot just as they pretended to like other politically correct moments but it won't work dramatically and it will end up looking like just another token gesture later abandoned. (UPDATE from a few shows later: Yup, just as I predicted, the woman disappeared to the same land where Murphy Brown's baby ended up.)

I don't think it is an accident that the show ends with Don staring at Megan. Mark my words, that woman has a secret and I think it is her sexual orientation. (UPDATE: well, win some and lose some, I was wrong, wrong, wrong here.)

Finally, let me generously share a growing suspicion. There is book called The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff. I'd bet dollars to donuts that Matt Weiner has read it and that it played a role in the creation of Don Draper.

Season 4 blogging begins here.

The post on the next episode will be here.

For anyone crazy enough to go even further :

Season three blogging begins here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.

Truth and lying, again

I had some time to explore the Sissela Bok arguments about lying. Hers is a neat argument but I didn't find it convincing. [Update: There is a nice, concise presentation of Bok's views here that I wish I had read instead of going to the source.]

Here's a  really short (and necessarily over-simplified) version of her argument:
  1. Why is it wrong to lie? It seems obvious that it must be but why?
  2. Many lies cause little or no harm and some lies can even do good.
  3. But what if everyone did it?
  4. Well, if everyone did it then trust would break down and nothing would work.
  5. Therefore it requires that large numbers of people tell the truth in order for human interaction to work.
  6. The minority who insist on lying are, therefore, free riders. 
  7. Free riders here being an economic concept to designate those who rely on everybody else to be honest while they cheat. (Think of the person who never refills the ice tray confident that since the rest of the family all do their share it won't matter.)
  8. To be a free rider is to exploit the rest of society and therefore wrong. 
Many of these arguments should sound familiar. The first move (#1) is the standard enlightenment move of declaring that all moral principles must be rationally justified. We should first note that the moral principle here (lying is wrong) is not random but a pre-existing moral law based on a pre-existing moral argument which is here being abandonned.

We then get the harm principle (#2). This narrows down our options because the only moral reason available to us is real or potential harm to others. All other options such as that it might be better to tell the truth because it builds character are closed from the beginning.

What if everyone did it (#3) is John Stuart Mill's argument. It takes moral concern away from the individual and makes it a societal question. This further shuts the door on the notion that there might be any reasons of personal moral growth involved.

Worse though is that Bok's answer (#4) is just wrong. Everyone does lie and yet language and meaning is no problem at all. Carpentry is only possible because wood is relatively stable and language is only possible because most people tell the truth most of the time but lying is built right into the foundation of our language. There would be no use for the word "lie" if we always told the truth nor would there be any use for related expressions such as "I swear to tell the truth." The very existence of this sort of option in our language tells us that lying is always an option.

It does take the existence of large numbers of people (#5) who tell the truth in order for the system to work but this is too simple. Truth telling and lying are learned skills and they have to be learned in different contexts.

Let me give you an example of this. Imagine you have never been in business and now you are going into business. You've never signed a contract or made a verbal agreement. All you are bringing to this new activity is the distinction between lying and telling the truth you learned in grade school. Could you do it? Not without learning a whole lot more. There are standards for what counts as truth telling and lying in business.

There are different standards again for what counts as truth telling in court of law.

Bok's argument is not so much wrong as entirely inadequate.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ingrid Betancourt

I don't always catch what is coming up on the blog list as it updates automatically. Anyway, I missed Ann Althouse's comment on Ingrid Betancourt until it came up in the comments. The article that inspired it is here and if you read nothing else this Sunday ....

Like Althouse, I was struck by Betancourt's stand for dignity in refusing to accept her captors requirement that they be known by numbers not names:
"I had a problem," she says. "I had this belief that I couldn’t just accept to be treated as an object. It was a problem of dignity." She says her fellow hostages saw her behavior as arrogance or troublemaking. "But it wasn’t that. It was just that I couldn’t accept that they would call us by number, because I thought it would make it easier for them to kill us if they had to kill an object, a number."
And the way it relates to her choices to live in a certain way now that she is free but Alhouse cuts the quote short before something really important comes up, God:
Betancourt says she made some immediate decisions about her new life: First, she would wear perfume every day; second, she would never deny herself the opportunity to eat cake.
"I promised to have ice cream in my diet, and I promised to change my priorities," she says.  In the jungle, one of the few books Betancourt had access to was the Bible, and she read it over and over again.  One passage stuck out:  "It says that when you cross the valley of tears, and you arrive to the oasis, the reward of God is not success, it’s not money, it’s not admiration or fame, it’s not power. His reward is rest. So that’s what I want for me now."
 I think Althouse means for us to notice the perfume and she is right to do so. Betancourt doesn't mean to be free as a human being, she means to be free as a woman. That's a good thing to highlight. But the God stuff is more important and I bet Betancourt sees them as connected: "Man and woman he created them."

Not unrelated, some day I should explain why I admire Marie Antoinette.

Character should count but ....

Blogging Rob Roy chapters 21-23

The bulk of these three chapters is made up of a mysterious encounter leading to people sneaking into a prison to visit someone who is being unjustly held. This is a classic romantic scene and it became a classic romantic scene largely because of the genius of people like Ann Radcliffe and Sir Walter Scott. This is great stuff and the thing to do is to make your imagination do some work. Just read it and allow Sir Walter to please you with this stuff. It's what he does best and nothing I could say here could improve on the experience of reading it yourself.

What I want to focus on instead is something that Sir Walter doesn't do so well and that is his attempts to provide us some glimpse of the inner workings of Frank's mind as he tries to explain, years after the fact, why he chose as he did. That is why he chose not to trust Mr. McVittie who had been recommended to him. (Scott, by the way, reminds us that this is Frank recalling his motivations years later by inserting an anachronism into the account and then having a footnote where his "editor" points out this anachronism.)

John Buchan is a deservedly forgotten writer who was once very popular. Think of him as the Ken Follett of his day. I mention him here because he was a huge admirer of Sir Walter Scott. If we look at Buchan's writing we can see the kinds of weakness that Sir Walter shows here at the beginning of chapter 21 blown up large so it is clearly distinguishable. Like Scott, Buchan was not good at presenting convincing portrayals of the way characters motivations connected with their actions.

At the risk of over-simplfying, I think they both got something exactly backwards. Scott's characters (and Buchan's) tend to have very complex motivations coupled with very direct, straightforward behaviours. In my edition, Frank takes two whole pages to explain the reasons he has for wanting to believe the mysterious stranger who spoke to him in the church and to distrust Mr, MacVittie. Two whole pages.

But, and this is rather stunning if you think about it, when push comes to shove he makes his decision based entirely on his not liking what he sees in McVittie's face. Buchan does this even more. His characters tend to have very complex motivations and yet when the crucial moment arrives, the hero will look at some guy and decide he is trustworthy because he meets his gaze steadily and has a firm handshake.

This, of course, is a characteristic of a lot of modern fiction. We get pages and pages of the internal life of a character as they think about what they should do and then boom, they may as well flip a coin. But modern fiction wants to make the point that our motivations do not give us reason enough to act one way or another. Modern fiction stresses the meaninglessness of modern life (or at least what modern authors think is the meaninglessness of modern life. Scott thinks life is meaningful and it is therefore a huge failure that he cannot tie reasons and action together more convincingly.

Here a contrast with Jane Austen is helpful. Austen's characters have rather simple motivations. They tend to be jealous, angry, insecure or in love and that is all there is to say. It takes Emma most of the book that bears her name to figure out that she loves Mr. Knightly but her love is not a set of complex emotions. It is quite simply love and Austen doesn't spend any time trying to spell it out. The same thing happens at the end of Mansfield Park. When it is time for Fanny and Edmund to fall in love, Austen effectively says, look there aren't than many pages in the book left and you all know how this works anyway so I'm not going to waste my time spelling it all out.

There is a significant agreement between Austen and the moderns here. She does not—contrary to what is often claimed of her—believe that our inner lives explain our outward actions. Scott thinks they do and keeps trying to connect (as EM Forster will also attempt with even less success). But she also agrees with Scott in believing that life is meaningful. What she does think is that character counts. It is the character of the people in her novels that determines whether they will succeed or fail. That Emma realizes she is in love with Knightly is less important than her realizing she has been a fool.

It is on the other end of the scale where Austen introduces complexity. Her characters' motivations are simple what is complex is the way they act. Having a motivation is never enough to guarantee success in attaining it. Darcy is in love with Elizabeth from fairly early on but contradictions in his very complex character seem to get in the way. Character is not visible in their inner lives but in their outer actions. The famous moment of self-revelation is not the turning point but the moment where the person in the novel comes to understand what the plot has already demonstrated.

Emma has virtues (because possessing or not possessing virtues is what character is) that would ensure her success at life even if Knightly had not also loved her (although I find it very hard to see how any man could not love Emma). Those virtues are not sufficient at the beginning of the novel but she has grown by the end. (Mansfield Park is a whole other story that I won't get into here.)

But what of Frank? It's pretty obvious he is now in love with Diana but what of his character. Will it develop such as justify his having a happy of unhappy ending we know must be coming?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

It was one of those days

When I just didn't turn the Internet on all day. I read Proust, took a nap and had dinner with friends.

Anyway, there'll be posting tomorrow and I'll read comments that sprang up in my absence too. Many thanks to everyone who came by even if I didn't.

The first reading at mass today was Ecclesiastes and a real gem. Nothing I could say about the following could possibly be as meaningful as just letting you read it for yourselves:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come
And the years approach of which you will say,
I have no pleasure in them;
Before the sun is darkened,
and the light, and the moon, and the stars,
while the clouds return after the rain;
When the guardians of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
And the grinders are idle because they are few,
and they who look through the windows grow blind;
When the doors to the street are shut,
and the sound of the mill is low;
When one waits for the chirp of a bird,
but all the daughters of song are suppressed;
And one fears heights,
and perils in the street;
When the almond tree blooms,
and the locust grows sluggish
and the caper berry is without effect,
Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets;
Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Even saints have off days

The SRT* alluded to in the previous post cites a bunch of authoritative quotes to back his views up at the bottom of his post. Here is one of them:
"The chastity of widows and virgins is above the chastity of marriage."
Saint Augustine
How to put this gently. How about NO! WRONG! ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Chastity is one of those either or issues. You are or you aren't. There is no way of being more or less chaste.

By the way, as I've said before, there is nothing about virginity that guarantees chastity. You can be utterly untouched by anyone else or yourself and still be unchaste.

*Self-righteous twerp.

How not to apologize

I see that the good work by others has gotten the SRT to apologize for his foolish statements about women's fashion. Not that anyone who has to listen to me but I have to say, though, that this is not good enough:
There was an atypically negative reaction from a sizable minority of our readers to an item in our previous message regarding female fashion (along with positive feedback). We are truly grateful to those of you who took the time to send in criticisms--they help us more than you can possibly know. There is no doubt that your author failed as a writer because a good number of you clearly mistook his tone or meaning on an issue that is very personal, and for his part in failing to communicate and edify effectively, he sincerely apologizes. If your feelings were hurt, please, find it in your heart to forgive.
This is a long-winded example of the classic non-apology. He isn't apologizing for what he said, he is saying he finds it unfortunate that others were upset. He thinks that he only failed in not expressing himself more carefully and does not accept that what he said was stupid, wrong and, far worse, passed itself off as Catholic when it is just one man's opinion.

In the unlikely event he comes by here, here is a suggestion for how to do it right.
Dear reader, when I wrote the post that caused so many of you to correctly complain, I was way out of line. It was a stupid, condescending post lacking proper respect for women. I am particularly sorry for the bit I site below which was so stupid as to be Neanderthal:
Do not misunderstand us: we have no problem with men delegating clothing purchases to their wives; we only object to men who abandon the responsibility they have to guide and influence the moral, psychological, and practical implications of clothing that is purchased. Men should set the highest standard for their wives and daughters in this respect.
Quite obviously men have no authority whatsoever to guide their wives in what clothes the wear (although they are free to present their opinions and to listen to their wives opinions on the matter). If any proof were necessary that men do not have such authority I have provided it by making these ludicrous comments in the first place. Again, please accept my apologies.
Dear CatholiCity, please feel free to use the above with my blessing.

You're welcome.

Friday is Venus Day

If you like to see self-righteous smug twerps put in their place, let me give you some links.

First of all read the self-righteous twerp. Scroll down to the section called "Regarding not wearing pants" but, warning, swallow your coffee before reading this.

Now see him put in his place. Read this then this and then this.


Glen Reynolds making a point that should be carved in every bureaucrat's forehead (with added emphasis by me):
The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Girly Action

This is an addendum to my earlier comments about understanding others intimate experiences. There is a hilarious video below of the Rolling Stones lipsynching and miming there way through a recording of Satisfaction. Watch it but listen to the lyrics carefully and ask yourself, is Mick describing a male experience or a female one? Whoops, doesn't make sense. It is obviously meant to be male but I mean is it convincingly male? Did men in 1965 worry how white their shirts could be? The ads at the time about white shirts were aimed at women not men. I think that whatever the surface meaning, the song really comes off more convincing as a description of a woman's experience. I think that is why only the Rolling Stones could have had a hit with this in 1965. A male singer whose sexuality was less ambiguous than Mick's would have come off sounding like a loser.

PS: The Serpentine one just leaned over and said, "Do they ever look wholesome". And they do, Mick looks preppy.

PPS: Why is it hilarious? Watch the bits where the camera cuts to Charlie and compare how soft he is playing with the actual drum sound. By the way, I love that the person who posted this on You Tube labels it as rare as it is just the band lypsynching the single. There must be hundreds of similar videos floating around. It's about as rare as salt in the ocean.

Thor's Day Special

This is sort of a response to some of yesterday's comments but not really.

The point that was made in the comments was that the problem with Catholic priests commenting about sexual fantasies is that they don't know what they are talking about. Well, maybe they don't and maybe they do. Every Catholic priest was once a teenage boy ...

In any case, I think people can meaningfully think about experiences they have never had. I think that, for example, a fabulously wealthy movie star can do a convincing portrayal of someone working for minimum wage at a fried chicken restaurant in small town Mississippi. And I think a middle class high school kid from Finland really can sing and play the blues and I think a woman can understand male experience and vice versa.

It takes hard work and imagination but it can be done.

The problem with Monsignor Pope's observations about sexual fantasy is not that he couldn't have understood an experience he presumably doesn't have anymore but that he did not succeed in understanding it. And that may not be entirely his fault.

The truth is that it takes a lot of courage to understand ourselves well enough to really connect with others (and connect with ourselves). It's much to deal with any one of a number of preset identities and thrust them upon the people who make us a little uncomfortable. That, oddly enough, is what I think Monsignor Pope's did when he wrote about sexual fantasies. He began with the moral conclusion and then imagined the kind of inner experience that would support that conclusion. He didn't begin with the often puzzling if not downright weird ways we actually react.

Who knows why we fantasize? I don't. It isn't just about sex. Every culture in the world has a strong element of fiction and fantasy. How to make believe is one of the first things we teach children.

There is also a long line of moralists going back through time who have attacked our tendency to make believe. Monsignor Pope's argument descends from Plato through Saint Augustine through the modern anti-porn movement.

Augustine got more heated up about tragedy than porn. It bothered him, as it should bother us a little, that we can watch a tragic story on stage or the screen or listen to a sad song and cry about it while people right next to us suffer and we do nothing about it. The world is full of people who need love while we entertain ourselves with fantasies about love. There is a truth on Monsignor Pope's side of this: there are husbands and wives who sit feeling lonely and neglected while their spouse shows more interest in a fantasy than in them.

But it does not follow that the relation between fantasy love and real-life neglect is causal; it is not necessarily the case that these people neglect their spouses because they have fantasies. In some cases maybe they do but it much more likely that fantasy will increase someone's level of arousal and make them more likely to please their spouse.

The option that Monsignor Pope did not consider is this: what if fantasy can helps us to give ourselves more freely and completely to others? Or, and this is the point I am building towards, what if fantasy helps women to give themselves more freely and completely to the men they love? Because I think there is a difference between men and women here.

Think of a non-sexual example. Francine loves skiing and she is sitting at her desk working and she closes her eyes a moment to daydream about skiing. Does anyone seriously think even for a second that this moment of fantasizing makes her less likely to go skiing this weekend?

Okay, critics may say, but what about the content of the fantasy. If Francine lives in an eastern town with a small ski hill and she fantasizes about going to Vail, won't that make her more likely to be dissatisfied with what she has? I don't think so. I think the woman who is already dissatisfied with her local ski hill may well be more likely to fantasize about Vail but I don't think fantasizing about Vail will make the woman who enjoys skiing on her local hill less satisfied with it.

The thing is that women who know how to be satisfied tend to get satisfaction and women who don't know how to get satisfaction don't get it. Fantasizing about sex is one of the things women do to make their bodies respond. Think of it this way, if you want to smile you can just pull up the corners of your lips but if you want to be really smile you need to think of some happy thought first.

The thing about fantasy, however, is that it is fantasy. It doesn't have to be real and it follows its own rules and those rules are different from real life. What women fantasize about does not have to be anything like what they'd really want. In fact, there is no reason why the two should connect. It's fantasy after all.

Okay, but what about men? This is supposed to be the Manly Thor's Day post and here I am talking about women and their fantasies all the time. Well, here is where I will concede some ground to Monsignor Pope, it is different for men. I can't speak for all men but I tend not to fantasize during sex.

Not for any terribly profound moral reason. I don't have and never have had much trouble making my own body respond. For me the difference between good sex and great sex is the woman's reaction.  When she is really aroused and excited things are better. Much, much better. If fantasy is going to get her there, then I want her to fantasize.

I'm going to get there anyway whether I fantasize or not and I'd rather she dressed up and flirted with me to warm me up because that is much more satisfying than my sitting around daydreaming about what she might do. That requires some considerable effort and role playing on her part. That is she has to get into her role for the occasion.

Why can't she just be herself? Well she is being herself but herself is a number of diverse roles that she can adopt for different occasions. And it isn't always easy for a woman to move from one to another.

Fantasizing will help her do this for exactly the same reason that visualizing success helps athletes achieve success. I want her to think about the kind of fantasy that will get her aroused and then behave in a away that parallels but does not correspond exactly to that fantasy. And, I'll be honest, I want her to do it for me.  I see her willingness to sit down and fantasize this way—helped by whatever else helps her, dressing up, wine, music or even some self-stimulation—to get herself warmed up for love as a generous act to me. Because it is.

And that is difficult for her.

The challenge for me as a man  is creating and sustaining an atmosphere where she will feel comfortable enough to fantasize about what she wants to fantasize about because it arouses her and opening the door to let me in on that experience. It is all the more difficult because her needs vary and often vary to the point of completely contradicting one another. But I can deal with it if I am willing to be a man about it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Follow up on the "simple truth"

Yesterday I made some comments about a posting by Elizabeth Scalia over at First Things.

I got involved in some discussion over at the site itself.

I'm not entirely happy with my comments there. It's not that I think I was wrong in what I said, I just think I could have said it better. Reading the commentary again, I think the commenter who signs himself "King" had the best argument and I recommend going over there to read him. There is also a final comment about the catechism that provides the following link and I recommend visiting that link as well.

Beyond that I have to say that something really shocked me about the discussion. I was stunned at the degree to which Elizabeth Scalia and some of the people who supported her side of the discussion have embraced Enlightenment deontology. This suggests that some "traditionalist" Catholics don't understand the Catholic moral tradition at all. They hold a view that just isn't Catholic and they don't seem to have any notion of the real richness and depth of Catholic thinking on morality.

I was also surprised that these same people have no notion that they have capitulated lock, stock and barrel to the Enlightenment in holding the positions they do. As one of the more astute commenters (in a post signed "AML") pointed out, even Aquinas, who is probably the most legalistic of the Scholastics, does not go as far as they do.

Catechetically speaking, something has gone deeply wrong.

What's wrong with sexual fantasies?

If you ask me, nothing.

But others (including a lot of Catholic others) aren't on board. In response to the Elizabeth Scalia post I wrote about yesterday, Msgr. Charles Pope also defended the politician who said some stuff in younger days that now seems a little embarrassing. Having just spent some time on Pope's blog, I can tell you that there is some real gold there.

But I have my doubts about this:
It is generally not a good idea to indulge in a lot of fantasy. When this is done the real world can seem less appealing, even disappointing. Sexual fantasizing involves imaging the perfect and ideal sexual encounter. The other person is perfect, wholly willing and when pleasure has been achieved they vanish. This is not real. In the real setting people are not perfect, do not share in identical preferences and pleasures. Real people have moods, imperfections and inadequacies as well as good qualities. Further, a spouse does not vanish after sexual intercourse. They remain there with needs, struggles, ups and downs. Real sex is with a person and happens in relationship. (Clearly this relationship should be marriage). Masturbation side-steps all this and imagines something quite unreal. To indulge this is unhealthy and can lead to unrealistic expectations.
There are three factual claims in that paragraph.
  1. It is generally not a good idea (he later says it's "unhealthy") to indulge in a lot of fantasy.
  2. When this is done the real world can seem less appealing, even disappointing.
  3. Sexual fantasizing involves imaging the perfect and ideal sexual encounter.
I'm sure the good Monsignor really believes what he is saying here. And to give him his due, he says it is not a good idea to engage in "a lot" of fantasy and not that all fantasy is wrong and that is a more sensible point than many Christian moralists who want to declare all fantasy the equivalent of adultery.

He does not, however, define what he means by "a lot" and he does not advance any evidence at all for any of his three claims.  And we might wonder, is there any evidence?

And note that these claims are essentially psychological not moral. I don't have any evidence either. I have an anecdote.

Years ago a girlfriend of mine told me about her favourite fantasy. She described it as a "never fail".

The fascinating thing was that it was connected with reality. Alison had been driving home from Western University with some friends and she had to stop to use a bathroom along the way. Her friends pulled up in front of a bar and she went in. It was sometime between two and three in the afternoon. Her need was such that she asked the waitress where the bathroom was and went straight there without paying too much attention to her surroundings.

She did notice that the waitress looked at her rather oddly and that the very few patrons—there were maybe three fat, bearded guys playing pool—stopped everything to watch her. What did shock her was that the place didn't have a women's washroom and the waitress showed her to the washroom she used which was behind the bar and was also used to store buckets, mops and other cleaning products.

When Alison came out, she stood a moment and watched the guys playing pool. The little area where the pool table was was formed by three walls that were paneled with cheap paneling like you used to see in basement recrooms. Around the walls were taped a number of centrefolds from porn magazines and all of these had what might best be described as "commentary" written on them. The comments were not gentle or sensitive.

The guys kept playing pool but she could tell they were checking her out and they were saying things to one another in low voices. She'd lived in dorm so she was used to crude sexist comments. She was also used to guys checking her out and saying things about her in low voices and smiling so that didn't throw her. But as she looked at the guys something about them did unnerve her a bit. She got more and more nervous the more she grasped who they were.

They were wearing jeans and leather vests and they had those truckers wallets that have the chain that runs from the wallet to the belt. It was a detail about the leather vests that was most upsetting. She told me that it was one of those cases where you know something for a few moments before you really know it. I like to think she swallowed hard when she realized she was in a biker bar but she couldn't remember anything like that. What she did remember was that she had to will herself to walk and not run towards the door.

She did run after the door closed behind her and when she got to the car her friends teased her about how pale she looked. She waited until after they were out of the parking lot before telling them it was a biker bar.

They laughed all the way back to Ottawa.

The real part of the story ends there.

She later constructed a series of fantasies about it. Although this was her "never fail" option she told me she was very careful about using it because she didn't want the fantasy to lose its power and she figured it would from overuse.

No doubt you want to know details? So did I. (Warning, there will be a test at the end.) It is kind of boring in the abstract. She liked playing with and stretching out the various mis-manœuvers that would result in her getting trapped. The longer the better. Eventually she would end up on the pool table.

The guys were always faceless. In the long slow tease before she'd end up on the pool table, she would always be scared to look in their faces and once she was on the table the light hanging over it would be in her eyes such that she could only see them from the chest down. She could hear them though and they would make comments much like what she'd seen written on the centrefolds taped to the wall.

For the rest you'll just have to use your imagination. Fantasies if this type are fairly common so you should be able to do it.

But now the questions.
  1. Does anything about that fantasy sound like wish fulfillment? 
  2. I appreciated that you don't actually know Alison like I do but do you think that when she and other women—research tells us that hers is one of the most common types of female sexual fantasies—  fantasize along these lines they are "imagining the perfect and ideal sexual encounter"?
  3. Do you think as when she walked around campus a Western after having this fantasy that she found that real world "seem less appealing, even disappointing" compared to biker bars?

Geat moments in feminism

Every once in a while there is someone brave enough to take an idea and take it to it's logical conclusion.

Jill Johnson dies at 81.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Just like being there

Blogging Rob Roy chapters 19 and 20

Chapter 19 features a couple of clever literary device. The first is a bit of inflation and reduction at poor Andrew Fairservice's expense. We ended the previous chapter with a dramatic trip through the hills at night with poor Frank only able to follow by watching the sparks struck up by the shoes on the horse Andrew is riding. A horse that is stolen and whose theft Andrew justifies with a  kind of rough and ready morality. A morality that he further thinks will be backed up by a friendly Scottish judiciary.

It doesn't quite work out as Andrew hopes and he is brought to earth with a great crash.

Now this isn't just a story about a guy who stole a horse and didn't get away with it. Sir Walter wants to disabuse his readers of their fanciful views of Scotland. he leads them into Scotland the way Andrew leads Frank, with great romance and sense of entering a world where different rules apply. And then he pulls that rug out from under both Andrew and his readers at the same time.

And note how he subtly does the same in describing the highlanders in town. It's a nice bit of historical anthropology in which he reminds us that they were not the giant heroes of much poetry and film but rather small, undernourished people scraping by  on land that could barely support them.

 The Minster Church
 Okay, now that I have that out of the way, let's get onto the second device and Sir Walter Scott at his best. Last post I wrote about what Austen could do and Scott could not. Well, the rest of Chapter 19 and Chapter 20 area good example of what Scott could do and Austen could not.

It starts, as I said above, with a neat literary device. Andrew is leading Frank to the church and Frank pauses to consider the view. The trick here—and it is such a simple trick that it seems a little silly to point it out—is that the narrative breaks for a digression just as Frank breaks to admire.

He goes on at some about the things he sees and it never bothers us that none of this is germane or necessary to the plot. Instead we slide into this account of what it was like to see and go to a service at the Cathedral in Glasgow with great joy. It is sometimes said that Austen writes the sort of dialogue that is very easy to film. Well, Scott writes the sort of atmosphere that would be a positive joy to film. This entire account of the church and its interior is very cinematic and so powerful that I can’t do it justice. Just read it yourself.

But even as this description is going on, Sir Walter is shaping our understanding. He says it is,
“… the Minster, or Cathedral Church of Glasgow.”
 What is happening here, of course, is that Scott is subtly reminding us that the heritage of this church is Catholic. It’s beauty, everything that made it desirable to preserve the building as it was, was a consequence of its being Catholic. He underlines the point by bringing in Andrew to tie himself in knots trying to explain that it was wonderful that the place was preserved but still say that this has nothing to do with “Paperie”.

And then he takes us inside, not to the main church but to the crypt where the service takes place. And oh the atmosphere. You can picture it and wish you were there.

But, at the same time Scott is dropping some powerful hints about Presbyterianism between the lines. He starts off by telling us how wonderful the harmony of the voices singing with true devotion is. That is, when heard from a distance. The closer we get, the more disenchanted Scott seems with Calvinism. There are reminders that piety was enforced by law such that those failing to live up some standards could be arrested. But Scott goes on to suggest, very convincingly, that even the pious differed quite a bit below the surface and his description of the attitudes of attendees is brilliant and convincing. Take this passage, which I produce in full below into any church today and you can find all the attitudes he describes. (By the way, a special treat follows it.)
Among the attentive group which I now saw, might be distinguished various expressions similar to those of the audience in the famous cartoon of Paul preaching at Athens. Here sat a zealous and intelligent Calvinist, with brow bent just as much as to indicate profound attention; lips slightly compressed; eyes fixed on the minister, with an expression of decent pride, as if sharing the triumph of his argument; the forefinger of the right hand touching successively those of the left, as the preacher, from argument to argument, ascended towards his conclusion. Another, with fiercer and sterner look, intimated at once his contempt of all who doubted the creed of his pastor, and his joy at the appropriate punishment denounced against them. A third, perhaps belonging to a different congregation, and present only by accident or curiosity, had the appearance of internally impeaching some link of the reasoning; and you might plainly read, in the slight motion of his head, his doubts as to the soundness of the preacher’s argument. The greater part listened with a calm satisfied countenance, expressive of a conscious merit in being present, and in listening to such an ingenious discourse, although, perhaps, unable entirely to comprehend it. The women in general belonged to this last division of the audience; the old, however, seeming more grimly intent upon the abstract doctrines laid before them; while the younger females permitted their eyes occasionally to make a modest circuit around the congregation; and some of them, Tresham (if my vanity did not greatly deceive me), contrived to distinguish your friend and servant, as a handsome young stranger, and an Englishman. As to the rest of the congregation, the stupid gaped, yawned, or slept, till awakened by the application of their more zealous neighbours’ heels to their shins; and the idle indicated their inattention by the wandering of their eyes, but dared give no more decided token of weariness.
It is often said of modern writers that it is a mistake to respond to them by going to the places they describe. To respond to Proust by going to Combray and eating Madeleines is to secure the disdain of intellectuals everywhere. But with Scott it is not so. He takes you there in the imagination so you will want to go there for real. Most of his readers would never get the chance but he wanted them to want to do it.

Anyway, read the text below and then click on"Read more".
The contents of these sad records of mortality, the vain sorrows which they preserve, the stern lesson which they teach of the nothingness of humanity, the extent of ground which they so closely cover, and their uniform and melancholy tenor, reminded me of the roll of the prophet, which was “written within and without, and there was written therein lamentations and mourning and woe.”

The Cathedral itself corresponds in impressive majesty with these accompaniments.

Where the truth lies

I know I said I was finished with the "666" issue but, as often happens, someone asked a clever question in the comments:

Do you really believe this is a fluke and not intentional on Weiner's part, especially with all the other Christian references this season? And with "Where the Truth Lies" in the subtitle?
On second thought, no, I don't think it is just a fluke, although that is the word I used.

It can't be a fluke because Mad Men is not actually filmed in the Time-Life Building.The office is a set somewhere and the window in the reception area is a actually a blue or green screen. This creates a blank spot that the requisite backdrops are later dropped into. So Weiner and company chose everything deliberately. I'm sure they studied photographs of the neighbourhood in 1965 to determine what might have been in the background and they picked that perspective with the "666".

I suspect they also know the history of the Time-Life Building in film and knew that a scene from Rosemary's Baby was filmed there. I do not have the patience to sit all the way through Rosemary's Baby to find out but I assume that Polanski has the "666" appear somewhere in the background.

What I am much more hesitant to sign on to is that this "666" is terribly straightforward in its implication. It might be but Weiner likes false clues as much as he likes real ones. He isn't about planting something that looks like a sign or portent only to ignore it later.

I guess the big question is does Weiner intend to attack advertising in this series? Are we to think what some critics clearly do think that Don Draper is the moral equivalent of Tony Soprano and that advertising is the morale equivalent of organized crime?

If he does, then he is a liar hypocrite of the first order given the use the show makes of product placement. More to the point, I think he means to be more ambiguous and even-handed than that. I'll admit I believe that because I want to believe it.

Where the truth lies. Can the truth lie. Where could the truth lie.

"Simple" truth telling not so simple [updated]

There is a retort attributed to various people that goes like this, "Only a very intelligent person could convince themselves of something that stupid." It makes a good point. There are some beliefs that really ought to collapse under the weight of their stupidity that very smart people will sometimes work very hard to prop up.

I should say, before I begin, that I have paid some price for defending Elizabeth Scalia (AKA "The Anchoress") in the past. One of my siblings refused to speak to me for several weeks after I defended one of Scalia's positions. But this time I think she has engaged in a lot of intellectual effort to prop up something that should not be propped up. And that something is the notion that it is a sin to tell a lie. That bearing false witness and lying are the same thing.

Worse than the defence, however, are the reasons she gives for the position. You can read the whole thing here but the issue that concerns me is Scalia's praise of a young woman who said she would not lie if Nazis asked her if she were hiding a Jew in the attic. And Scalia cites approvingly the example of a  child [corrected from an earlier version] who did tell "the truth" in such a situation.
No less then the Jew-hiding heroine Corrie ten Boom might disagree. In her book The Hiding Place, ten Boom recounts an episode where Nazis sought her nephew, Peter, who had been hidden in a root cellar, a rug and table hastily placed over the trapdoor. When soldiers demanded to know Peter’s whereabouts, his young cousin Cocky replied, “Why, he is under the table.”

The soldiers peered under the table while the family suppressed nervous chuckles. Humiliated, the Nazis threatened the family, then left. As others chastised Cocky for putting Peter—and the whole family—at such risk, her mother defended her, saying, “God honors truth-telling with perfect protection!”
There are so many problems here that it's hard to know where to begin.  We might start by imagining if the Nazis had asked what was in the pitcher on the table and young Cocky had replied, "Wine" leaving out that the wine in question was also laced with arsenic? If you believe that all lies are the equivalent of bearing false witness then young Cocky lied because she didn't tell the whole truth.

That is our first clue that Scalia has gone deeply wrong here. Her answer is clever and fatuous. It is casuistry in the bad sense of the word.

But there is an even deeper problem and that is that Scalia has got herself on exactly the wrong side of the issue. She is not on the Catholic side of the question but the Enlightenment side. Here is how she defends simple truth telling.
Simplistic, right? Some might say “fundamentalist” and “anti-intellectual” to boot. But the story bolsters O’Donnell’s position; it suggests that power resides in a complete abandonment and surrender to the will of God and his laws, a faithful reliance that says, “If God is truth, he will be found only within truth, and not in a lie.”
 Here is the problem. The kind of truth telling she advocates is not the product of childlike simplicity. No class of grade 2s would make the mistake she advocates as childlike. The person who did make this mistake was Immanuel Kant. Kant wasn't just clever, he was one of the smartest people to ever live. Let em assure you, no matter how smart we might think we are being, we are not as smart as Kant was.

Kant, I hope you grasp, did not make a simple mistake. Kant was defending an idea with incredible tenacity when he arrived at his stupid position. That idea was deontolgy, which means the belief that morality consists in identifying and following rules. Kant took rules and tried to make them do everything. He believed that there was a set of straightforward rules that could be applied to every situation.

As a consequence, he was like the mad scientist who pushes a rational idea to the point that it becomes a nightmare. He concluded that if lying was wrong and therefore if a maniac with a knife shows up at your door asking to know if Bill is there and Bill is there because he asked you if he could hide in your attic, you should say, "yes, he is hiding in my attic."

Bearing false witness means you should tell legitimate authorities the truth in a court of law. The idea was obviously meant for broader application. I should, for example, tell the truth if Trudy's mother asks me if I saw Trudy, who is under age, drinking at the bar last Saturday. There is no reason in the world, however, why I should tell Lisa who hates Trudy and would love to use this information to hurt her this.

The Nazis were not legitimate authourities.

Jesus does indeed tells us to be like children in our faith just as he tells us to be innocent like doves. He also tells us to be wise like snakes.

Consider the answer Jesus gives to the chief priests and the scribes in chapter 20 of Luke who wanted him to know "by what authority are you doing these things?" Jesus does not answer their question but tricks them.

Monday, September 20, 2010


See final updates below.

There is apparently some talk about the prominent 666 on the building across the street going on in Mad Men discussion groups. There are apparently other references too.

First, is it true. I mean, is there actually a 666 across the street? Yes there is. Here is a screen shot from last night's episode:

I don't think there is any room for dispute there.

But that got me wondering, was it there in earlier episodes too? Since I just watched "The Rejected" recently, I knew there was a shot from the right angle in it, so I checked and:

Hey, there it is.

Is it meant as an Antichrist reference? It's possible. Given my earlier wacky speculations about Christian references maybe it is and Don's is a false rebirth? I hope not and that may be skewing my judgment. I like Don and don't see him as evil—although lots of people disagree with me. See here, for example, where Don is described as "a bastard and a drunk".

But if it is such a  suggestion, it has to apply to the whole season. And who is it supposed to be a reference to?

PS: I checked on street view and it doesn't look like anything at that location on either 6th avenue or 50th street should have the number "666" so maybe they have planted it.

Looking this up in Wikipedia, I see that there was a scene for Rosemary's Baby filmed in the lobby of the Time-Life Building. Maybe it's all an in joke reference to that previous use of the building.

Final update: BobinCt nails it in the comments. It's the Tishman Building built in 1957 and famous for its prominent "666" on the side. Wikipedia entry here. So much ado about nothing, the 666 is just a fluke.

Another "Final" update: This is one of the most popular posts I've ever written. It gets 20-40 visits a week every week many months after I wrote it. So a teaser for anyone who desperately wants to keep the 666 alive. Mad Men is not actually shot in the Time-Life building but  in a studio with blue screens for windows. The exterior shots are later dropped in. And the Time-Life building has four sides. So Matt Weiner must have decided that of all the various background views he could have had, this is the one he wanted to have. So, cue spooky music, if you really want to believe this is an intentional Antichrist reference, you can. 

I don't.

Yet another final update: I amuse myself.

My wackiest theories yet

I like to go back and look over older episodes every once in a while. Anyway, I noticed something about the titles of three episodes this season:
  • Christmas Comes but Once a Year
  • The Good News
  • The Rejected
Interesting no? I mean the Christian references here. Christmas followed by the good news followed by the rejected. Was all that meant to hint at the coming resurrection of Don? I think yes.{Update: Yup, I was vindicated on this.]

The previous seasons, especially the first, were big on old testament parallels. I had assumed we would just move on there but maybe Weiner has picked up on a new testament reference this year. Note how many times Don says "Jesus".

On the subject of weird reference, rewatching "The Rejected", I caught something I missed before. When Harry gets the phone call at the restaurant he makes a comment about "those goniffs over at CBS". Pete, not surprisingly, says, "those what?" Why oh why is Harry dropping Yiddish terms into conversation like that?

Is Harry Jewish?

That would be a much better explanation for the old-fashioned furniture in his office than anything else I've seen. It's the stuff he inherited that he can't use in the home but can't bring himself to toss. I think it also would explain his Anti-Jewish comments in The Suitcase; he is working too hard at passing.

Meanwhile, watching Megan that episode, I'm wondering if my tentative remarks about her being a lesbian weren't too skittish. I'm thinking she is. The thing that really has me suspicious is her refusal of Peggy's offer to join her and Joyce and the gang for drinks. Megan says, "I can't," I thought, "can't". [Update: But wrong on this.] [2015/02/26 Update of the update: I took Megan and Don's affair and wedding as proof she was heterosexual. Given the subsequent separation and some of Megan's other actions, I regard the question as open again.]

The point being that there would be much more at risk for Megan if she is. She'd be at some risk of coming out in from of Peggy a risk a closeted lesbian with a job she wanted to keep would be very hesitant to take.

Sometimes ...

The virtues of mad men
The Beautiful Girls
I thought it was mostly a beautiful and moving episode, like a Fellini movie.

The key line I thought was when Dr. Faye leaned down and told Sally, "Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do." She might have added it's companion which is like unto it, "Sometimes we have to not do the things we want to do." "We" meaning women in this case.

I thought it was a beautiful and moving episode about the plight of women and just as much about the plight of women now as back then. Everywhere they are faced with the tension between opening one door (or, as Roger would put it, opening a dress) only at the cost of closing others.

I kept thinking of Jean Paul Lemieux paintings. This one:

And this one:

That last one is called "La Mort par un clair matin" or "Death on a clear morning"

 It's hard to know where to start. I loved how Roger after trying to restart his affair with Joan for so long inadvertently succeeds by being kind.

That may not seem like much but I think it's something we boys never get over. We spend so long pursuing women and think of them only the as ones denying us that it never occurs to us that in denying us they are denying themselves too. Denying themselves for all sorts of reasons good and bad. (And we do have to wonder what Joan will do if she conceives as a consequence of this encounter. We know she is no longer on the pill.)

There is Miss Blankenship who ends up dying as "she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for." The last thing Miss Blankenship says to Peggy is, "It's a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are." But we also know that remark is literal as well as figurative because Ida Blankenship had a surprising past as "the queen of perversions" and a relationship with Roger that  was resented by Bert who, I think we are entitled to presume, was genuinely in love with her as we see further evidence this week. (And who do you think was whom—as in top or bottom—in the relationship with Roger?)

There are the lovely interactions with Megan. First there is the moment where she asks Joyce if she is there to see Peggy. Did you catch that? There was ever so brief a hint of jealousy in Megan's voice. Not to say that Megan desires Joyce (although maybe she does in which case the tragedy would be that Joyce can't see it because Megan is too beautiful). It's just that brief desire to step out of the confines and, as a wonderful Mary Gaitskill story has it, really connect with another woman. Then there is the way Sally reacts to Megan. The little girl is naturally more attracted to the most beautiful woman in the office in way that she isn't attracted to, picking a not so random example, Dr. Faye.

And there is the whole Dr. Faye interaction. I didn't see any outside references at all so we can't guess how much time has passed since the last episode but Don and Faye have obviously had time to fall in love. And they have had enough time for Faye to feel all sorts of troubling tensions about how she might or might not fit into Don's life.

But I think it is more the road not taken that haunts her. Anyone who has worked with children knows that it is very easy to connect with children if given the chance and very difficult if you don't have that chance. Spend a little time in their company and you figure out their world and how to communicate with them. But drift away from that world and you lose the touch. Faye knows that she could do it if she wanted but she didn't want and now she is still stuck with a feeling of inadequacy.

(To get the opposite side of the story, read Jane Austen or hang around with day care workers. Austen does a lovely job of showing what being constantly in the company of children does to our brains and conversation. Every young woman has watched her friends' lives narrow and infantilize  when they start spending all their time with children and has wondered if they want to do that. And every childless woman has felt the tug of the choice not made.)

The left and feminism
One of the nicest touches here is the way Peggy's leftist friend Abe shows himself to be absolutely clueless about the plight of women in the mid 1960s. For many people this will seem wrong but it's historically accurate. The 1960s left was stupid about women, effectively telling women that their contribution to the revolution was to provide comfort to the brothers. And it was this insensitivity that caused feminism to part ways with the rest of the left in the early 1970s.

It's something that has never changed as witness the way way women on the left were expected to swallow their principles and defend Bill Clinton or some of the vicious anti-woman attacks made by Obama supporters against Hilary Clinton. A woman who lived in the apartment upstairs from the Serpentine One and I back in the 1990s quit the Canadian Liberal Party because she got tired of being ghettoized in women's issues. Anytime she tried to talk about something else, she wasn't taken seriously.

The point here is not that the other political philosophies are any more friendly to women but that everywhere women are faced with these dichotomies even, or perhaps, most particularly, in situations where they are offered what passes for greater freedom.

But what is a woman to do if she can trust neither political allies or her lovers?

This shot at the end was the moment most like Fellini:

I'm drawing a blank on the music unfortunately. Usually I can peg it but not this week but it also sounded Felliniesque.

Anyway, fans of Kierkegaard may remember that he has a wonderful little parable of the clown from the circus who is sent to warn the people of a nearby town that there is an approaching fire that threatens them and their town. The problem is that no one will take him seriously because he is wearing a clown suit and the town is burned.

Way back in 1969, the then Joseph Ratzinger noted that the seeming solution to the problem—that the man should just take off the clown suit—isn't available to us. That's the big lie of modernism. That we can simply take off our clown suits and be "as we really are". No amount of liberation can ever get us out of our clown suits.

That was the point of every Fellini movie: we can't take off our clown suits. Anyone who has seen Amarcord will note the strong resemblance between Joan and the Gradisca.

Few people feel very sorry for beautiful girls but they too are clowns and they cannot take off their clown suits. No matter how they try they remain beautiful girls. Until they stop being beautiful girls like Miss Blankenship did. There is a moment and then the door closes.

Season 4 blogging begins here.

The post on the next episode will be here when there is a next post.

For anyone crazy enough to go even further :

Season three blogging begins here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.