Sunday, October 31, 2010

Roses in the snow

A Frankfurt Palmengarten nipped in the bud. A gorgeous and reliable rose. The "Frankfurt Palmengarten" was developed at the "Palmengarten Frankfurt".

No matter how tough you might think you are, Rugosas are tougher.

And explorer rose. These were developed for colder climates. Here in Zone 4 they give me beautiful flowers from April to October and even into November every year. The price we pay is a very subtle fruity scent.

Some non-rose pictures

The last raspberries of 2010. I think we'll leave these where they are so some animal visitor can get them later.


Feeders. If you want birds to spend winter on your property, given them a nice clump of cedars like this to hide in. A lot of supposed bird-friendly plants are recommended for their food value but food is pointless if you don't provide shelter. This is a place out of the weather and where the sharp-shinned hawks can't see them. (Although I must admit I love seeing a sharp-shinned hawk make a kill.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Oh, what a miracle. First snow of the year tonight. It rained all afternoon and then rain became sleet and now sleet has become snow.

I love snow.

I went out with the dogs and got a couple of pictures of the snow in my garden. This is soooo beautiful. Only God could have made a world like this.

There were kids playing outside and their father mentioned to me that just an hour ago all they wanted to talk about was Halloween and now they have completely forgotten about it because of the wonderful snow.

Note to Eliot Girl and all other Eliot fans, the roses are filling up with snow. Late roses filled with early snow. Just in time snow. Oh how I love the first snow snow.
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.
It's what late October is do actually but, poor Eliot, he wasn't sturdy enough to stand up to real climate (that's why he went to England you know, for the climate). Of course, he immediately goes on to dismiss all this stuff here as, "A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion". I don't know, it wears pretty well if you ask me.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Some follow ups ...

... on my earlier post about our adventures among nudists in the south of France:

1. I do have to say that my exposure to the nudist life did not impress me. The girl seemed normal enough but I couldn't say the same of her parents. Those studies that have been done back this up: nudists are actually considerably more likely to have weird hang ups about their bodies than non-nudists.

2. Something you might not guess if you haven't been is that the nudists you do find on French beaches are mostly German tourists and the locals don't like them at all. Even topless beaches are increasingly unpopular in France and the vast majority of the people you find on beaches where topless sunbathing is permitted do not take advantage of it.

3. Real freedom must include the freedom to pay for the consequences of your actions. One of the odd contradictions about the current pornification of teenage girl dress and culture girls is that critics want to blame what is happening on everything but the girls themselves. All sorts of factors may be affecting what teenage girls and young women are doing when they choose to dress and act as they do but the primary factor is the girls themselves. They are flashing it around because they love the attention this gets them.

 4. I very strongly believe in the virtues of modesty and sexual self restraint.  My advice to the young women I see walking past my house on campus would be that they dress much more modestly than they do. No daughter of mine would walk out the door the way I see some girls dressed.  But I think it's very important to do the right thing for the right reasons. Acting as if teenage girls and young women are tender little innocents who don't understand what they are doing is condescending and demeaning.

Somewhat related to my earlier post

Ann Althouse links to this photo of an extraordinarily beautiful young woman and writes "An argument against wearing makeup."

I don't think she means to be ironic either.

I buy it to a point. The Serpentine One wears no makeup so I am a fan.

But ...

I'm not sure this photo proves much. Would a photograph of a beautiful young woman with perfect firm breasts be an argument against wearing a bra? For a lot of women I think the argument in favour of make up and bras is that these things are equalizers. When I was a boy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most girls and young women did not wear make up or bras and the differences between women were extremely obvious.

Also, I'm not entirely certain she doesn't dye her hair. Her natural colour is red but I think it's getting help.

Friday is Venus Day

Stop worrying about girls and young women
At our recent anniversary celebrations, an old anecdote about an experience we had on our honeymoon came up.

I won't tell the whole story here. The short form goes as follows. We were on a nude beach in the south of France. There was a family of German nudists there. The parents had, being committed to nudism, taught their children that being naked in public is good and natural. But they had a thirteen or fourteen year old daughter who had recently discovered that men really liked seeing her naked and she was getting a rather large charge out of her power to provoke reactions from them. She spent a lot of time walking nearby such men so she could bask in their attention and her parents spent a lot of time discouraging this. The hypocrisy of the parents' reaction gave us quite a giggle.

Over the years, the story has given quite a few other people a giggle too. But when it came up on our most recent anniversary, one woman hearing the story got all solemn and said, "I worry about that poor girl."

I love this woman and the Serpentine One and I have been friends with her for a long, long time now but that strikes me as nonsense.

Here is the thing. William Blake and the rest of the Romantics were just wrong: Children are not innocent. That goes triple for teenagers especially teenage girls. They get it, they really do. When 15-year old Sara, Megan and Theresa all put on double-push-up bras, low-cut tank tops and skimpy, skin-tight shorts that outline their labia for all the world to see it is not because they don't understand the consequences of what are doing. They are doing because they do understand the consequences and, though they might get to hurt by the experience, they are not hothouse flowers but girls and girls are tough.

Nor is it the case that they are somehow being pressured into doing this by evil men somewhere. They are doing it because they like doing it.

Now I can see why others might not like what they are doing and there are, in my opinion, very good social reasons for public modesty but let's not pretend we are doing this to protect the poor little flowers because they aren't poor little flowers.

A final thought: We also should be honest about our motives here. More than a few men who worry about young girls strike me as being more motivated by sour grapes because girls didn't dress this way and didn't seem nearly so keen to perform oral sex when they were teenagers. And when women in their thirties, forties and fifties are suddenly keen for women in their teens and twenties to be more modest, we should ask what role pure self interest is playing.

There are good reasons for more public modesty but there are also lots of disingenuous arguments for it.

Update: I've posted some further thoughts and clarifications.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Waugh Day

I can't believe I almost missed this. Today would have been Evelyn Waugh's 107th birthday.

I know this is a minority opinion, but I believe that Brideshead Revisted is the greatest novel of the twentieth century.
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned wisdom than his.
I will be celebrating with rib eye steak with a creamy sauce, broccoli, baked potatoes and some bloody Burgundy.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Hef and sexual objectification
Roger Ebert has written a long piece defending Hugh Hefner. It's worth a read, click on over and check it out.

I don't know that I agree entirely. In any case, I have no intention of dealing with it point by point. But there was one issue that leapt out at me:
Nobody taught me to regard women as sex objects. I always did. Most men do. And truth to tell, most women regard men as sex objects.
Like a broken record now, the people who want to condemn porn come back to this point about objectification over and over again. But Ebert is absolutely correct here. Learning to objectify women sexually is like learning how to like the taste of sugar or the touch of soft, warm skin. No one has to teach us to do this because we all do it naturally.

A further point made by Christina Nehring in her book A Vindication of Love is that it is normal and good that we objectify one another during sex. In fact, as she notes, most of us sometimes want to be thought of as objects, that is what we want when we want people to think us desirable.

And Nehring, perhaps because she is a woman, gets to the real problem which is not porn. Here it is from a male perspective. I get up in the morning and go to buy coffee and, as I walk down my driveway, two hot girls from the local university go by. I look at them and I objectify them. To be honest, they're helping but I meet them more than halfway. I think of them all day and at three o'clock in the afternoon, I switch Firefox to private browsing and Goggle "college girl" and click on images. Now I'm really objectifying. Okay, but I'm also in love with a real woman: I don't think of the woman I love and cherish like that too do I? Surely I don't objectify her.

Well, if Ebert is right, and he is, I do. We all do. And while it may be true that most women sometimes objectify men, I suspect the real issue is that women are more amenable to being objectified than we and they let on. That, as Katherine Hepburn does to Jimmy Stewart in the final scenes of Philadelphia Story, there are some moods where she will shock us by asking "Why ever not?"

And that is the real problem isn't it? This objectification doesn't seem to fit with our ideas about love. A man expects a woman to behave herself naturally.

I grew up in a tough mill town and there were several porn theatres just a few blocks from my house. I saw a few porn films in my teen years and that a lot of that early porn tended to always follow the same plot. A woman would be bored with her current lover or even just curious and she'd set out on an adventure in which she'd have sex with a variety of partners: one would typically be black, another would be an anonymous encounter where names weren't even exchanged, one would be dominant, one would be another woman .... And it always ended with her, now fully satisfied, and in bed with some guy she loved (often the guy she'd started with).

The reason for this plot line was, if you'll pardon my being a little explicit, to satisfy the customers. In the days of porn before people watched it at home, a bunch of guys would be in a theatre, none of them sitting very close to anyone else. Every once in a while one of the guys would get up and leave and that was because the woman had just played the scene he'd come for, whoops, I mean the scene that matched his preset desire. Yeah, I know, it's gross. If the floor was sticky you didn't think that someone had spilled their soft drink if you know what I mean.

Now you know why home video revolutionized the medium.

But here is the thing, remember that last scene, the one where the woman is united in blissful sex with the guy she really loves? It was boring. Really, really boring. And unfair if you think about it. She gets her hard core thrills with a bunch of strangers and then she comes home and has gentle, soft-focus "lovemaking"with the guy who really matters to her. Even porn maintains this double standard: enjoying a woman is one thing and love is something else.

There is something that tells us that it may be okay to go out and sow some oats but then you're supposed to come home and settled own. We might think it an important developmental stage to have some fun or we might think it just tolerable or we might think it a serious sin requiring serious penance but that objectification stuff has nothing to do with love.

A weird jump
 Hold on 'cause I'm going to take a really weird leap now.

In the early 1980s, I was in a Thai restaurant and unwillingly eavesdropping on the couple at the next table. The woman at the table said she was really tired because she had been working so hard lately. The man made sympathetic sounds and supportive comments.

Sounds like a pretty normal conversation right? But it wasn't because she then went on to explain why she was so tired. She told him that every night, after falling a sleep, she traveled to another plane of existence where she met other people like herself. There, she and they worked all night long to build a new world. This new world was necessary because we were so determinedly destroying the present world that all humanity would have to be transported to this new place. They were working against the clock because no one knew when time would run out for the earth but it could be any time now.

I caught the guys eye at one point and he looked a little ashamed. Whether it was at the conversation or about what he was doing I don't know. After they had left, I thought, "It's amazing the crap men will pretend to agree with just to get laid."

And it is amazing.

But, looking back through the lens of twenty-five years life experience since then it seems to me that the real exploitation ran the other way. This woman wasn't crazy. She may have talked herself into sort of believing some of what she was saying but her talk wasn't the talk of a delusional person. I think she knew full well that by holding out the prospect of her putting out she could string this guy along. She knew that he would play along with her self-aggrandizing fantasy life in return for a chance at sex.

Hers is an extreme example but you can step into any coffee-shop in the land and catch a conversation in which someone with sexually power strings along some poor victim. A lot of women never even come across with the sex. They have the power and they use it.

It's rarer to see the game work the other way but it can happen. There was a guy named Adrian who went to school with me who did it. He came from a family of superb athletes—both his parents were elite cross country skiers—and he had blonde hair, blue eyes and a body to live for. He used to sit at parties with a guitar and girls who desperately wanted to have sex with him would endure hours of Adrian talking about what he called "my music" in order to do so.

Typically, he'd have more than one pursuing him in cut-throat competition. I remember sitting with my then girlfriend across the room one party and making some mocking comment about what was going on with Adrian and realizing from her offended response, that, if I hadn't been there, she would have been right in their with them.

The thing is Adrian could barely play that guitar. He had to ask other people to tune it for him. He was trying to learn, or at least he said he was. He had a notion every bit as crazy as the woman building a new world. He thought he already had the music in him and learning how to play guitar was just a technical detail like someone deciding they wanted to go to Cleveland and all they had to do was buy a ticket. And so he talked about his music and he used the girls who were willing to listen to him to make the fantasy seem a little more real.

The man in the restaurant and the girls at the party were both objectifying someone else sexually but the real exploitation was going the other way. Sexual objectification is an exploitation game where you can turn the tables at any time. The trout can aggressively pursue the fly, thinking of it with no more compassion than we think of when eating a potato chip. But the trout can also be enticed to attack a carefully presented decorative bit of feather and gaudily coloured thread with a hook in it.

Let Lady Gaga explain it to you:

Now I get even weirder
Okay, this is where I take all this somewhere eudaemonistic.

I think the lesson here is that what can redeem us is if we see what we are doing as fitting into some larger end. For me that means this:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
There is nothing you can do to stop looking at women with lust. You're genetically programmed to do it. There is nothing you can do to stop wanting to see her naked, to stop wanting to get her so hot that she does things she doesn't normally do and so forth. And there is nothing you can do to change the fundamentally aggressive, predatory nature of sex; as I've said before, sex may start loving and tender and it should definitely end that way but no man or woman is thinking about peace, love and understanding in the 90 seconds immediately before coming and anyone who tells you different is a liar.

The thing you do have control over is the larger context. What life plan do all these individual acts fit into? Is this going somewhere real or are you too just bluffin' with your muffin or whatever it is you have?

That won't sit very well with some, Hef wouldn't like it for sure, but I think that if you really want to avoid exploiting others, you need to fit into God's plan.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The politics of the family farm

I'm three generations off the farm.

That's a pretty abstract statement so I'll put some flesh on it's bones for you.

My father and his cousins celebrated every Thanksgiving on the farm sharing a Turkey that his grandfather slaughtered and his grandmother cooked. Every Easter it was a lamb. In the summer he worked on the farm and every fall he and and his cousins would be reunited again for the harvest.

I can show you that farm in Saint Marie de Beauce. My family had already been farming it for almost a century the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. (I can also show you the gravestone with the names of seven of the seventeen children in my grandfather's family written on it. I can also show you the road that various family members used to walk down to Massachusetts and get factory jobs to avoid starvation when times got tough. And when I was a little boy, one of my great aunts from my grandmother's side of the family showed me the finger she cut off chopping tobacco when she was just eight years old. It wasn't as romantic as it can sound.)

The Serpentine One is even closer to the farm and if it were not for an untimely series of deaths in her family, she probably would have had experiences very much like my father's.

The thing is that there is nothing unusual about this. The age of what used to be my family's farm is unusual, very few families can make that claim, but otherwise that story was most people's story up to the 1950s.

And that had a powerful effect on the way people my age and older saw the farm. And we voted for farm policies that still hang over us now. If it were not for government subsidies, the family farm would have pretty much disappeared by the end of 1960s. That may seem brutal but the vast majority of factory jobs disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s with far less fanfare.

There is a parallel story to tell there. My mother's family came to North America to escape the potato famine. They worked in the city. The city of Boston. They worked in factories and then later in the service industry. Bruce Springsteen wrote a lot of nostalgic music about it but nowadays most people accept that the world had to change. No one with that background drives by the site where factories are or used to be and says, "Those were the good old days."

People do do that about the family farm. Fewer of them do so every day. In a family discussion just yesterday, my youngest sister talked about the world I describe here as, these are her exact words, "a past that never existed."

And, for her, it never did exist. Her culture is suburbs all the way down. She can watch That Seventies Show and for her that is "The way things used to be". This stuff I'm talking about today is as fictional to her as Mary Poppins. When older men in the family talk about the Second World War she rolls her eyes and laughs because she thinks they are lying, that they are just telling a bunch of tall tales. When my Uncle Bill died and the 101st Airborne, with whom he served during the Second World War, provided him with honours at his funeral, I tried to explain to her that 101st wasn't ordinary and that it was really something that our Uncle had served with them but I could see that she just didn't get it.

And this is far from unique to her. You can also see it if you read the commentary about episodes of Mad Men at a site like Slate. The people writing about the show there talk about how much they hated the flashbacks to the farm and all the talk about various wars because that stuff had no resonance with them just as it has no resonance with my youngest sister. And my youngest sister has a daughter at university! Just imagine just how far the family farm is from her.

But that past was very tangible and very beloved to people my age and older and the farm subsidies that my generation consistently voted for are as real as real can be. And they are so firmly entrenched that it is going to be very difficult politically to remove them. They might be gone in my lifetime but it's still too early to say. They maintain a farm industry today that really is a fiction. By that I mean, they maintain a farm industry that makes no economic sense. It's not the only such economic fantasy that people my age and older have kept alive and it's not even the most expensive (that dubious honour goes to public service pensions) but it is one of the more expensive ones.

I know, I know, you can go see family farms and these people are not wealthy. Typically, they are just holding on by the skin of their teeth. But most of them would have gone out of business generations ago if it were not for subsidies. And a lot of these subsidies today go to huge corporations that have nothing to do with the family farm in any case.

These subsidies cost a huge number of jobs. Every penny the government takes in taxes to support the farm economy takes money away from an economically viable job somewhere else. And these subsidies often make food more expensive. Here in Canada, we pay more for milk and bread because of government management programs in milk and wheat sales.

In Europe it is much, much worse.

I know it looks tragic to see these family farms disappearing and if you live in a small town or city you can talk to people whose entire lives were thrown into turmoil by the decline in the farm industry. There is also an awful lot of propaganda cranked out condemning Agribusiness and that reinforces the illusions. But it is an industry that should have changed decades ago. Agribusiness has its faults to be sure, just like any other industry, but, for the most part, it gives us food that tastes better, is safer to eat and is much less expensive than what the family farm could provide.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Shuck and jive indeed

If you read the blog roll down the left side you may have noticed that a new blog has shown up in the list. It's called Exploring Our Matrix and it is the blog of James McGrath who is a biblical scholar at Butler University. I respect McGrath or he wouldn't be in the roll but I should admit that I also pity the man.

Back in the mid sixties, Tom Wolfe did a cartoon of an Episcopalian Priest playing the banjo at a "hootenanny" in order to get in with the young people. McGrath is the current day version of that. In a desperate attempt to make biblical studies relevant he teaches about the theology of Battlestar Galatica or of Lost. His blog title is a reference to the cheesy, warmed over Platonism of the recent movie about taking the blue pill.

That, folks, is what approximately $15 k a year buys you in the way of advanced education.

But I pity poor McGrath. I really do. What else are the purveyors of contemporary liberal theology going to do? They bet everything on a grand generalization about economics and morality but life, tragically, has let them down. They are like the people who still persisted in believing in lumineferous aether. Little by little, their undertsanding of the Bible has been undermined to the point that there is nothing left for them to stand on. Keen to believe that the future still belongs to them, the keep modifying their claims to try and make the old arguments work.

The hermeneutics of making sh*t up
Case in point is a sermon about the parable from Matthew 20: 1-16 by one John Shuck that McGratrh praises. You'll want to sit down to read this one because otherwise it will make you dizzy. According to Shuck, the real point of the parable is to make us critical of the landowner. We are supposed to see him as a person who is ostentatiously demonstrating his power over others.

Yes, I know, the obvious problem is that the opening line is
For the kingdom of heaven is like a a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
It says the kingdom "is like" and Shuck's conclusion forces us to read it as really meaning that the kingdom "is not like". The very first commenter calls him on that and Shuck writes a response in the comments at his blog. The thing is that he never answers the objection. He says we might read it otherwise and never gives us any reason why we ought to other than that is where he wants to end up. He is assuming the thing he wants to prove in order to prove it.

In any case, Shuck gives away his own game when he writes elsewhere in his post:
I suggest that parables in general including this one are not allegories. They are open-ended invitations to view the world differently than previously we have viewed it.
Well, it's wonderful that he suggests but a suggestion is not an argument. More problematic than that is the phrase an "open ended invitation to view the world differently". Perhaps Shuck hasn't thought this through but 'open-ended" means open-ended; it means we can go on quite literally forever suggesting meanings. If such a thing is possible, then language has no meaning. The very possibility of shared language rests on the fact that somewhere explaining comes to an end.

A truly open-ended invitation to see the world differently would include the option of viewing babies as food or as soccer balls.

Again, the opening line of the parable says that this is an allegory. If Shuck doesn't want to read it as an allegory he needs arguments for that and they have to be better arguments than, "Well it could mean something completely opposite". Yes, and the sentence "Everyone has a right to free speech" might also be read to indicate that there is no such right.

I'm not joking with that example. Read with a sneer the same way you might say, "I believe you and I believe in the tooth fairy too!" Any sentence can, and it is sometimes the case that they do, mean something other than the literal meaning. But the expression "the literal meaning" means something because most of the time the meaning is the literal meaning. If we are not to take the literal meaning there have to be very good reasons for doing so and  Shuck provides none.

Anti-market theology
The real problem for Shuck, as becomes obvious when you read further is the free market. He wants to use Jesus as a club to beat up on trade. Here is what Shuck tells us is the real context of the parable:
In early first century Palestine, as Herod built his mini-empire he had to fund his projects. You don’t fund massive projects by dealing with individual people and their puny little vines. You bring in agribusiness. You find whatever means you need to drive those inefficient people off their land and give it to large landowners who can then turn a profit.
There was agribusiness in first century Palestine? Think of how little respect you have to have for the actual meanings of words to toss of an assertion like this. Land did tend to end up in the hands of a just a few people in the ancient world but not because they had modern agribusiness or anything that even vaguely resembled it. The problem goes the other way, it is modern market-driven economics that makes it possible for more people to own land than ever have before. If first century Palestine had had agribusiness the people would have been much wealthier than they were.

And that is where this sort of theology crashes into economic reality. It also crashes into biblical reality.

The problem might be put this way: Nowhere does Jesus say either that "the Kingdom of heaven is like unto a brothel" or that "the kingdom of heaven is like unto a glorious cooperative where everyone gives according to their abilities and receives according to their needs". Jesus always seems to pick examples that are morally neutral. A vineyard owner could be a good guy or he could be a bad guy. There is nothing built into the story to make owning a vineyard good or bad.

Preachers like Shuck aren't happy with this. He grew up on an economic ideology that says: Owners bad, workers good. (John Pilch, whom I admire a lot, is also subject to this bias in his interpretation of the parable of the talents.) He can't accept a neutral owner. He gets quite heated up at the suggestion that an allegorical reading would have us see the owner as a stand in for God [emphasis in the original]:
Whenever Jesus tells a story about landowners, judges, kings, and those with authority and power, we should be very skeptical that that character is a stand-in for God.

If we see this landowner as God, we will have to engage in a great many gymnastics to make sense of it.
That is a absolutely true as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn't go very far. Nothing about the parable tells us that we should see the owner as a God-like being. He is presented as a Vineyard owner and nothing else.

Think of the most obvious comparison in the Bible: God as father. Does it follow from this that every father  is an example of what God is like? The father in the parable of the prodigal son, for example, do we use him to see what God is like? Or do we read that parable and this one as telling us something about the sort of relationship God will have with us. To be able to say the Sun is to the earth as  basketball is to a marble it doesn't have to be the case that a basketball is as grand as the sun.

If someone says, life is like the game of golf, it is not reasonable to say but golf is just a game and life is real. "Is like" does not mean in this case that you can draw exact parallels at every point. If that were the case there would be no point in using allegory.

And while all parables are indeed parabolic rather than straightforward, isn't it Shuck who is engaging in a great many gymnastics here?

It is fascinating to compare the way business people get treated in the gospels as compared to the way religious leaders do. As I've said before, I've heard many people preach about Matthew 23 but I have yet to hear someone stand up at a pulpit and say, "You know, the intended target of this condemnation is people like me." Because it is a blunt and unmistakable condemnation of preachers. If Jesus condemns any group as a class it is religious and political leaders. And yet liberal preachers keep telling us that the real point is to condemn business leaders.

One aspect of this parable that does not get much attention is the absence of faith in the story. The typical Protestant interpretation, as Shuck notes, is that this is about grace and how grace is not based on works. But if it is about that, why the complete absence of faith in the story?

To the contrary, this is very much a parable about works and it is that, I suspect, that is at the very bottom of Shuck's problems understanding it. The message is not that all believers will be saved but that all workers will be paid.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Off season

The virtues of mad men
The people who can't forgive Don anything
There a certain reaction to not just this season but to Mad Men generally that fascinates me. That is the people have no concern for the humanity of the characters.

Perhaps the most telling example this year was when the Lucky Strike crisis in episode 11, "Chinese Wall", where people started speculating that Roger would commit suicide. There was a gleeful undercurrent in what they wrote as if all that mattered to them was the junkie-like thrill of watching dramatic upsets.

Some might say, But these are just fictional characters so who cares if they commit suicide or fall off buildings? They are fictional but if you are going to go to the point of investing your creative energy in watching a show like this, you really need to invest a little humanity in them. Otherwise they become just like video game characters who exist solely so we can mow them down with an imaginary gun.

There are many examples of such reactions but they all turn around the issue of redemption. And nowhere is that more interesting than around Don and Betty. The way people react to the show tells us a lot about what they believe about redemption.

Let's put Dick Whitman on Freud's couch
The most common reaction by far is the psychological one. We see this in the people who keep thinking that Don needs to confront his past. For these people, Don needs overcome his "cowardice" and develop the "courage" to talk about Dick Whitman in order to get "better". They see him as a man in denial who is always on the edge of implosion. See this rather bitter for a positive review in The New Republic for example.

A big part of this is a desire to read Mad Men as a sort of sequel to The Sopranos. Read various communities and comments threads and you see people comparing Don to Tony Soprano over and over again. Anyone who could seriously do such a thing has to have no eye at all for differences. Jack and The Beanstalk and Hamlet are both stories about a man seeking to avenge his father's death but if you start using Jack's character to explain Hamlet's character that tells us more about your inability to understand stories than it tells us about the characters.

The other problem that ought to trouble such people is Weiner's love of the MacGuffin. That is the plot point that is introduced to get people moving in the plot: a mysterious man named MacGuffin was seen at the scene of the crime and everyone started searching for him but, in the course of searching for him, the real story that has nothing to do with MacGuffin comes out. Sometimes the MacGuffin can be an ill-defined ideal that never gets defined. "The Force" is the MacGuffin in the Star Wars movies, courage, a brain a heart are all MacGuffins in The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Kurtz is the MacGuffin in Heart of Darkness and he may well be the very first MacGuffin in fiction because it is very much a modernist thing.

The thing about a MacGuffin is that it seems tremendously important but the more you try and pin down what makes the MacGuffin so important, the less real it gets.

The MacGuffin in Mad Men is Dick Whitman. We keep getting teased with Don's secret "identity" as if it itells us who he really is. As if Dick Whitman exists in Don's core values.

But look back at the four seasons and you'll notice that the Dick Whitman problem just keeps disappearing. It gets raised to sweep the story, and us, along but the actual events always turn on something else. This year was no different. And it should trouble people who want to believe that this stuff is important to see how easily the problem goes away every season. It gets swept up every year and then it's just gone. As Bert Copper says season one, "Who cares?

And if you go back and watch The Sopranos carefully, you'll see that the whole psychoanalysis of Tony is the MacGuffin. In the end it doesn't matter that Tony is seeing a psychologist. Nothing at all turns on it.It is, to borrow Wittgenstein's analogy, like a series of interlinked cogs that turn one another but ultimately aren't attached to anything but themselves.

If there is one thing that Matt Weiner believes it is that you cannot change yourself through self-analysis. Every character who tries this in any drama he is responsible for will fail. Tony fails, Betty fails, Roger fails with his book and Don fails with his notebook and (sorry if this disappoints anyone) but we can already see Sally failing despite Dr. Edna's best efforts. Whatever it is that makes it possible to succeed it is not having the "courage" to look deep down inside us.

Deep inside there is nothing except a nightmare. Don't trouble yourself with the thought that Dick Whitman is important for you too have a heart of darkness and digging your way down to it will do nothing.
One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
That's from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the key phrase her is "... and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing." And I ask you, Do you want to know a secret? Are any of the character's secrets this season worth knowing? Think of "The Suitcase". Both Peggy and Don have secrets that come out: does anything at all turn on the actual secrets themselves? The meaning, and therefor the redemption, if it exists at all, exists in the halo around the story.

So where is redemption for Weiner? I'm not entirely sure but I think we get a powerful hint in Betty for, just as there are people can't forgive Don, there are people who can't stop forgiving Betty not matter what she does and that is the subject for next week.

 The reason Quentin Tarentino, David Lynch and Brian De Palma all fail to satisfy is that no0ne of them have the courage to look beyond the MacGuffin. Watch Twin Peaks and you can see how the show runs out of gas the closer it gets to "Bob". That's because all Lynch has to offer is Bob and Bob, being a MacGuffin, can't actually explain anything.

It's sadder in De Palma's case because he does realize that the MacGuffin can't explain anything but he just cheats by using sad little pomo twists like the end of Femme Fatale to cop out by saying well it's all fiction. That has to worry us in Weiner's case because he used a similar cheat at the end of The Sopranos. Does he have an ending for Mad Men? I'll be honest, I'm not sure I care because with every show I feel I have more right to ownership of Don Draper than Matt Weiner does in the same way that the man in the room has more right to Don Draper than does the corpse rotting in a grave labeled "Dick Whitman" does.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A familiar Catholic non sequitur

We are very fortunate here in Ottawa in our Archbishop Terence Prendergast. I respect the guy a lot and regularly read his blog.

That said, I hope he won't mind a little well-meaning criticism. The following is something the Serpentine One spotted in a recent post of his recounting some remarks from an annual benefit dinner that he sponsors:
Ignatius was obviously moved by a profound devotion to the Christ Child, born in poverty in a stable, born to a Virgin under stressful circumstances, born, as Ignatius was wont to say “out of love for me” and “for my sins.” But at the same time he was affirming the dignity of every child born or ready to be born into our world. 
Now it is entirely possible, I suspect that it is even likely, that Ignatius Loyola did see the birth as affirming the dignity of every child born or ready to be born but nothing in that paragraph or in any of the rest of the Archbishop's remarks backs that claim up.

This is a familiar move we Catholics make in that we assume because we reject the culture of death that makes us a part of a culture of life. But we do not deserve the right to call ourselves a culture of life until we prove it.

As the Serpentine One said to me as she called my attention to it, "This is the kind of thing that makes non-Catholics shake their heads and say, "What!?"

While I'm at it
I might add that there is no evidence that Christ was born in poverty or that he was born in a stable. Luke's Gospel tells us that he was laid in a manger, that is a kind of trough for feeding animals*, rather than a crib. It does not tell us where that manger was. Luke further tells us that Jesus was laid there because there was no room at the inn and not because his parents could not afford to pay. Joesph and Mary were not rich but there is not one line anywhere in the Gospels that indicates that they were poor.

By the way, I've read some scholars who argue that the word translated in "Manger" in Luke is related to the word used to describe the vessel that holds a sacrifice. I have no idea whether that is true as my knowledge of Koine Greek is very sketchy. However, if true, that suggests that Luke's intention may have been to make a symbolic point about the child born rather than to describe his economic status.

That will strike many people who know only recent Catholic tradition as radical but anyone even remotely familiar with the popular piety surrounding Saint Anne (the mother of Mary according to Catholic teaching), for example, will know that centuries of tradition described her as not only not poor but aristocratic. The notion that Jesus was a poor and homeless is not only without supporting evidence, it's largely a late twentieth century fiction.

The status of the poor

Fans of Brideshead Revisited will remember that Lady Theresa Marchmain is of the opinion that the poor and weak are God's special favourites. Are they?

This Sunday's first reading from Sirach says, No they aren't:
The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
This reading says God cares about the weak because he cares about everyone and therefore is just to everyone. But, as the emphasized line insists, he shows no special favour to the poor.

The thing is that you can, by quoting certain other lines—such as, for example, the line about the eye of a needle—make the opposite case. That is the case that the Bible says, as Luke's Gospel appears to do, that it is blessed to be poor as opposed to the case that Matthew's Gospel appears to make that it is blessed to be poor in spirit. So which one is true?

Well, you have to make up your mind for yourself. 

What I will say is that this is one of those cases where the Catholic approach to the Bible stands in sharp relief from the Protestant one. Father Z put it very well a while ago when he said that the Catholic position is that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors and not that the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible. The Bible is not absolutely consistent and that is one of many reasons it is not self interpreting.

Sirach, Matthew and Luke all had a particular perspective of their won and it makes sense to ask what it was and to ask whether that should affect the way we apply Biblical teachings to our lives. Strange as this may seem, it makes sense to approach Biblical readings with a Hermeneutic suspicion particularly when you get one reading that is being used to make a very particular point.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A note regarding weekend posting

Where I live, the time from September to Christmas is the most beautiful magical time of year. Yesterday, some snowflakes blew by me in the crisp air. I had hoped they were coming because I had been walking and I'd smelt it, you know that way you think you can detect a woman being interested in you but you don't quite dare reach any conclusions in case you are wrong.

Anyway, I wasn't wrong and it was magic.

Anyway, I'm going to spend a fair amount of time in the upcoming weekends just enjoying the fall and posts will be thin on Saturdays and Sundays.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday is Venus Day

On not going there
One of the many reasons that women are better liars than men (a claim that is now backed by some very solid research so let's not argue the point) is because they lie to avoid having to tell lies. Proust noted this about his character Odette de Crecy and there are no shortage of women who use the same strategy.

Here is how it works. Craig and Lisa met in third year and got married two years after they graduated. Sometimes they reminisce about their school days. Craig was doing just that when he brought up the homecoming weekends. There was always a big outdoor party at homecoming and there are lots of stories to go with it. Except third year when a freak ice storm shut everything down. Craig talks about how boring that was. Lisa says, "I missed homecoming that year because my mother was really sick."

Then Craig goes on to talk about how boring it all was and how he spend the entire weekend indoors with a bunch of boring aged alumni all telling him how much better homecoming was in their day and how a little rain wouldn't have stopped them."

End of conversation.

The truth is that Lisa's mother did get so sick that she had to go home and missed homecoming but it wasn't the year of the ice storm. The year of the ice storm, she and Craig had just met and even though there was magic right from the start they were not actually officially a couple. Even though she wasn't under any obligation to be faithful to him it's still very awkward that she actually spent that entire weekend in bed with a guy they both still know. A guy who is a real jerk actually and the whole thing is kind of embarrassing and, besides, she knows Craig will be very intimidated because this guy had a bit of a reputation, well, actually, he had a lot of a reputation and she couldn't help being curious and, well, she'd rather not talk about it.

Now Lisa knows that if the conversation gets any further, Craig is going to ask her what she did that weekend. And then she is going to have to make up a lie or, worse, say that she doesn't remember. So she tells another lie to avoid having to go there.

It's an effective strategy.

Our lives are full of dangerous intersections.  Suddenly, you find yourself approaching one and you think, "Crap, it's dangerous down here, I'd better be careful." Lisa took evasive measures several blocks before to make sure she wouldn't end up having to improvise in the middle of a dangerous intersection.

And it's easier to lie about not being at homecoming, an issue she has no serious emotional investment in, than it is to lie about having sex with a guy she'd even feel guilty telling her best girlfriend about. It's like the difference between telling a child that the present is really from Santa as compared to telling the officer how many drinks you've had tonight.

The problem is that it works on her too
I've used this example before but there was a nice instance of the avoidance strategy in a science column in the local paper here a few years ago. A woman wrote in to ask about fruit flies: Where do the fruit flies that infest fruit left on the counter in February come from? They can't come from outside and there is nowhere for them to have been inside without her noticing.

The bug expert from the local university supplied the answer. His opening was classic, "I think you've already figured out the answer to your question and you're hoping you're wrong." And then he went on to explain that the flies hatch from larvae that are already in the fruit. In the normal course of events, they get eaten along with the fruit but when we leave fruit too long on the counter they hatch as fruit flies.

That's the thing about the do-these-pants-make-my-thighs-look-fat question. She already suspects that they do but the deeper issue, the one she doesn't want to face, is that maybe her thighs don't just look fat. She is hoping that you will do the moral equivalent of telling her that her thighs don't have to go to school today.
 As a man, the thing you really want to avoid is getting co-opted into this because when women lie to you this way they inevitably end up lying to themselves. When Lisa lies about the homecoming weekend, she creates a new dangerous intersection. Now she has to tell a lie to avoid going anywhere near that subject. The next time he starts reminiscing, she tells Craig that she isn't interested in that conversation anymore. Nostalgia about schooldays has lost its charm for her. She says. Pretty soon there are whole sections of her life that are walled off by detour signs. To maintain the detour signs, she has to tell herself that she really doesn't like this stuff anymore.

Which is why Robert VerBruggen is quite correct to mock studies that say women would rather date nice guys because women say they'd rather date "nice" guys:
In that study, the researchers simply asked women what they wanted in a man. The problem with this is obvious to any guy who’s ever taken dating advice from a woman: When faced with such a question, women tend to say what they think they should like, not what they actually respond to.
Where VerBruggen doesn't go is to ask whether the women in these studies really believe the steaming piles of crap they serve up to researchers. At the risk of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, the honest answer is that they will come to believe it if we let them get away with it. That is why so many women are vulnerable to seduction techniques. They keep telling themselves that certain kinds of guys have no appeal for them and that allows exactly that sort of guy to move in on them. Pretty soon she is giving the sort of guy she claims to hate the kind of fantasy sex she denies her regular boyfriend because she told him she doesn't like that kind of thing. Of course, she will later figure out the guy is a jerk but it doesn't matter to him because he isn't planning on staying around anyway.

As a man, there is no point in dwelling on this. Just face it, you are Craig. At some point she spent a weekend or maybe even six months of weekends giving it to a guy you both agree is a jerk. And you don't really want to know about that do you? The practical lessons for you are,
  1. Don't let her talk you into being some meek wimp because she tells you that she really likes "nice guys". Be the sort of man you admire not the sort she tells you she admires. That was the sort of man you were trying to be when you met her and she didn't object then.
  2. If she tells you she really doesn't like the kind of sex you do really like, why exactly are you still dating this woman?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rationality and political argument

I was given a link to a fascinating piece called "The Values of Everything" by George Monbiot the other day. I mostly disagree with Monbiot but I admire him because he is more honest than most. He is willing to admit, for example, when guys on his side of the debate were caught lying and also willing to admit when his side has lost and that is a rare commodity on any side of any political debate.

I also don't, as a rule, pick fights with idiots because I don't think we have anything to gain from picking fights with idiots. You can take it as read that I respect George Monbiot even if I disagree with him.

With that said, let's have a look at some of Monbiot's assessment of the reasons why progressives are currently losing the debate and what they can do to change.

First, he tells us what progressives have done wrong. citing a report by Tom Crompton he says:
Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the Enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.
A lot could be said here but the basic point is that this is factually wrong.  Progressives have always accused their opponents of making naked appeals to their self interest and desires. They themselves have typically argued in moral terms. The whole point of replacing classic liberalism with progressivism was to move away from rational self interest.

And you can verify that for yourself by thinking back to the last presidential election, for example. What part of "hope and change" was supposed to be a naked appeal to people's hard-nosed rational calculations of self interest? That campaign ran on pure idealism not self interest. Jimmy Carter ran on trust. LBJ promised a great society.

Clinton ran on self interest with "it's the economy stupid" but he balanced that with "I feel your pain". And we might note that Clinton is the only Democrat to win two terms since, cough, Harry Truman. And that record that is looking safer every day so we might ask if maybe a little more appeal to naked self-interest might not help.

Okay, let's leave that and move on. If the way for progressives to reach people is not through self interest,  what other sort of considerations should they take into account?

This is where it gets interesting and familiar. The other issues all have to do with our identity. (Crompton/Monbiot actually say our "social identity", to which my response is, "Is there some other kind of identity?") There are two types of values that drive our sense of identity.

There are extrinsic values:
People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame.
And there are intrinsic values:
Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance.
Now the first question we have to ask ourselves here is whether Monbiot isn't fibbing to himself a bit here. Not about the distinction, I think he has that right, but about the words he uses to describe the values that go with each. For he has begun to load the second with the sort of value terms he likes and the first with the sort of value terms he doesn't like. Read the whole thing and you'll see that the loading gets progressively (if you'll allow the pun) more weighted as he goes along.

And readers of this blog may find the split familiar. Extrinsic values is just another way of describing our old friends the honour-shame values and intrinsic values are just another way of describing sin-redemption values. And Monbiot acknowledges the claim that I have made and that is that no one is all one or all the other.

But, and this is the crucial move, Monbiot believes that conservatism is all about extrinsic values (or honour-shame) and progressivism is all about intrinsic values or (sin-redemption). And here things really start to fall apart on him. Read the following two paragraphs and ask yourself does paragraph "2" follow from paragraph "1"?  As you do so pay special attention to the value words Monbiot treats as the exclusive property of progressive values  (I have highlighted them to make it easier) in paragraph 2:
  1.  Conservatives in the United States generally avoid debating facts and figures. Instead they frame issues in ways that both appeal to and reinforce extrinsic values. 
  2. Ed Miliband appears to understands this need. He told the Labour conference that he “wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work” and “wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances … We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line.” But there’s a paradox here, which means that we cannot rely on politicians to drive these changes. Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values. Their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, friendship - even brotherly love.
Look, someone might argue that conservatives perception of intrinsic issues is wrong but you simply cannot do what Monbiot has done here and argue they don't care about these things. If someone to do a poll asking people which ideology they most associate with those value terms with, the blunt truth is that conservatives would win and they'd win by a large margin.

I think Monbiot has made a good start here but he still needs to put a lot more thought into it.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Go ahead and generalize about women
I still remember a terribly pained conversation in which I upset a friend of mine by laughing his face.

In the middle of an otherwise pleasant conversation he pounced on something I said really aggressively. It was a conversation about politics not about women (I'll get to women later). The problem was that while there were lots of cases to back up my claim it wasn't universally true. And I said, "I didn't say it was universally true I said itw as generally true."

That's when it happened. My friend took up this very solemn attitude and said, "You should never generalize."

That's when I laughed. It wasn't just the obvious irony impairment in his using a generalization to condemn generalizations, although that was, and is, funny. It was the serious moral tone. He said it in the same tone he might have used to reprimand someone for drinking and driving.

That tone goes double when it comes to generalizations about women. It's just not done nowadays. It used to be done all the time and even feminist icons like Virginia Wolf used to generalize freely about women.

When I say "generalize" here, I mean generalize in in a critical way. No one will give you even  a moment's grief if you say that women are more sensitive (in a good way), that they have more meaningful friendships or that they have more empathy than men.

No the manly generalization is the critical one and all men will find they are discouraged from doing so. This is weird because women make critical generalizations about men with no fear of retribution.

The thing about generalizations—are you sitting down for this?—is that they can either be done well or they can be done poorly. I know, generally speaking, that is about as trite a thing as can be said. But it is nevertheless true.

There are hundreds of stupid generalizations about women. If I hear one more person telling me about what to do when a woman asks, "Does this make me look fat?" I am going to laugh in his face so hard he'll get spittle in his eyes. But there are useful generalizations to be made and no man should stop out of some fear of being a pig for having done so.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

One more try on the Phillipa Foot post

Reading the comments on the Phillipa Foot post from this morning, it seems to me that I have to expressed myself very badly as the whole discussion went off in a direction completely different from what I meant to talk about.

I'll try again and be very blunt this time.
  • If we look at the Trolley Problem we'll see that it is highly artificial and we might assume that this artificiality was intended on Foot's part. after all, it's only a casually tossed off example.
  • But if we look at another example, we find that it too is equally implausible even though, in this case, it is painfully obvious that Foot intends this to be a realistic example.
Here is what I mean. Look at the following paragraph from Foot and note particularly the emphasized bit:
A man may murder his child or his aged relatives by allowing them to die of starvation as by giving poison; he may also be convicted of murder on either account. In another case we would, however, make a distinction. Most of us allow people to die of starvation in India and Africa, and there is surely something wrong with us that we do; it would be nonsense, however, to pretend that it is only in law that we make the distinction between allowing people in the under developed countries to die of starvation and sending them poisoned food.
Let me repeat the relevant bit again. Foot says, and means it when she says this,"Most of us allow people to die of starvation in India and Africa, and there is surely something wrong with us that we do." That is so detached from reality that it cannot be taken seriously and yet she had no trouble writing it and believing it.

Alice von Hildebrand revisited

A while ago I spent about four longish posts criticizing Alice von Hildebrand. I see that others are now stepping up to the plate.

There is a beaut here wherein Janet E. Smith makes it quite clear, albeit in the nicest way possible, that von Hildebrand doesn't have a clue what she is talking about. It's worth reading if you care about the debate and not if not.

H/T la nouvelle théologie

Phillipa Foot and the difference between ought and can

Whenever the Trolley Problem comes up, it occurs to someone in the discussion that there is something very artificial about it. It is a condition of the problem that we cannot simply yell, "Hey you guys, look out!" No one ever explains why this would be so however. At the same time, the problem requires that we should be able to do things that we typically wouldn't be able to do such as operate train switches or throw fat men off of bridges and stop the trolley.

In response, defenders of the problem inevitably say, "You're missing the point which is not to focus on what can be done but what ought to be done." This, as I have said before, is the classic Enlightenment move to rule out all considerations except those concerning what we ought to do.

As is typical of Enlightenment argument, the point is to be rational by narrowing the problem down to something we can be absolutely rational about. It is true that 12 x12 = 144. It doesn't matter for the purposes of calculation whether we are talking about twelve bags of twelve apples or twelve bundles of twelve rods of radioactive material. So, we say, forget "can", and just focus on "ought"; "can" is another problem we can deal with after we have established what we ought to do.

But was Philipa Foot really making such distinctions? I'm sure she thought she was but consider the following paragraph from her essay:
A man may murder his child or his aged relatives by allowing them to die of starvation as by giving poison; he may also be convicted of murder on either account. In another case we would, however, make a distinction. Most of us allow people to die of starvation in India and Africa, and there is surely something wrong with us that we do; it would be nonsense, however, to pretend that it is only in law that we make the distinction between allowing people in the under developed countries to die of starvation and sending them poisoned food.
Really? I wake up in the morning and allow people to die of starvation in Africa? How exactly do I do this?

Imagine an example where I really do allow someone to die. I am standing on the sidewalk and I see a trolley coming and the operator is arguing with a customer and does not see someone on the tracks. I could easily yell a warning to this person or push them out of the way and I don't. I just watch them die. Think of how different that is from the case of starvation in Africa.

Of course lots of very smart people believe what Phillipa Foot seems to have believed here or, at least, they tell themselves that they believe it. My guess is that they think they know that there is more than enough food to feed everyone on earth and also the means to transport that food to everyone who needs it. They don't actually "know" this in the sense that they have no means of doing the calculation nor of checking to see if it is true. But we have heard or read it somewhere so we believe it.

But, still, how do I allow people to starve in Africa. What could I actually do to prevent it? Write a big cheque? People would still starve. Campaign to have a government elected that would give more to foreign aid? People would still starve. Start a campaign to end world hunger by 2015? People would still starve.

In fact, people have been working to end hunger in Africa for a long time now. Very smart people have been working on the problem with significant resources.

What can she mean? Does she mean that we don't care enough? It seems like the distinction between ought and can—a distinction that is the only thing that keeps the Trolley Problem from being a foolish exercise is intellectual wheel-spinning— has simply vanished here. She doesn't seem aware of it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Since the Enlightenment we have take irrationality to be a bad thing.

We often forget that people were rational before the Enlightenment and often supremely so. What the Enlightenment changed was our attitudes towards what counts as rationality. It tells us that someone who has not sat down and critically analyzed their beliefs isn't really rational. Enlightenment rationalism pretends that such critical analysis will always make our beliefs better.

The problem with is, as Wittgenstein once brilliantly quipped, is that sitting down to use your mind to analyze what's in your mind is like buying a second copy of the newspaper to see if the first one is accurate.

This is a point we miss over and over again. The next time you see someone explaining that human beings are susceptible to all sorts of irrational desires and forces, ask them why they are so smart that they can see this.

I mention this now because coming up sometime here will be an extended piece about some current political arguments about irrationality. Because progressives seem to be in a  considerably weaker position than they were just two years ago, many progressives are trying to figure out why. Much of their analysis turns out to be a suggestion that voters are irrational.

Before I get into the content, I think we should just step back and ponder that in the the abstract for a while.

Suppose I am trying to convince you to support a cause. I spend hours telling you what a good cause it is and trying to convince you that even in these tough times you can and should spare a little effort and  money. Despite my efforts, you are not convinced.

Okay, I go away to lick my wounds and think about it and I come back with my analysis of what went wrong. Here it is "My arguments failed to convince you because you are not susceptible to rational argument."

I mean think about that. I'm sure you can see the problem  here. The irony is, or ought to be, painful. If I said something like that it would reveal a real lack of self awareness and ability to be self critical. You would say, and rightly so, "Hey Jules, has it ever occurred to you that your arguments just aren't very good or that this charity is not, in fact, the good cause you take it to be?"

Monday, October 18, 2010


The virtues of mad men
Did you catch that ending?

That was as good as television gets. Understated brilliance. And loaded with wonderful symbolism that just seems so natural.

Betty asks Don if he likes her new house.

Don says, "I do."

She asks him if he remembers their old place when they first moved in.

Don says, "I do."

And then a bell rings.

Everything about the scene was contrived. It ought to feel artificial but it doesn't.

I have not read anybody else's commentary yet but I'm sure everyone has to have picked up on the wonderful parallel between the end of this season and the end of last season, both episodes ending with a final shot of Don with a key character for the last shot on what had been an iconic set. (And was there an extra touch of nostalgia this time because this isn't just the end of Don and Betty, it's also the end of Jon and January?)

As we leave the kitchen, it's empty except for a bottle of Canadian Club on the counter.

Megan, Megan, Megan
As I say, I haven't read anyone else on this yet but I will; the second I post this, I'm going to Vulture at New York Magazine and then to Slate and New Republic, Sepinwall and Wall Street Journal. I'm guessing the reviews will be mixed. Why? Because Don does the opposite of what everyone wants him to do. (I'll come back and update this with links to all those after I read them.)

Faye Miller gives him the "good" advice that he deal with his past. And then Don jumps on a plane with his kids and goes to Tomorrowland and, while he's there, he falls madly in love with Megan. I know without looking that people will say he's running away again.

And it doesn't help that Megan is so nakedly ambitious about it. She plays him like a fish on a line and she is a master angler. And it's so old fashioned isn't it? Except that it still happens. She wants a husband. She plays the part of mother to his kids. she is the anti-Betty and we see that perfectly inn the scene where the milkshake is spilled. It doesn't take much imagination to see how Betty would have responded.

Note the touch where Megan calmly  asks Don to help her before the milkshake runs off the table onto her dress because she it is the last clean dress she has packed. You could not get further from Betty.

 Okay, I'll come out of the closet on this, I think Don does absolutely the right thing in rejecting Faye Miller's option. The notion that we get better by facing our past and sorting out our issues is, as Peggy Olson would put it, bull.

Megan carries the day in this conversation:
Don: You don't know anything about me.

Megan: But I do. I knowthat you have a good heart. And I know that you're alwasy trying to be better.

Don; We all try, we don't always make it. I've don a lot of things.

Megan: I know who you are now.
Let me bore you with a digression into ethics. All modern, which is to say post-enlightenment, ideas about ethics are deontological. That is to say they are based on the idea of rules defining our duty. It's a simple thing in one sense: you either fulfill your duty or you don't. And because duty is defined in terms of rules, interpreting whether you have done your duty is straightforward because you either followed the rules or you didn't.

The problem is that any set of rules worth looking up to is impossible to obey. That has been the recurring problem with all ethics since the enlightenment. You either have rules that are so incredibly lax that no one can take them seriously as ethics or you end up with rules that make everyone look like a hypocrite because we all have to make exceptions to them from time to time.

Virtue ethics includes some rules but it's really about trying to be better.

Megan cuts right through deontology in her conversation with Don and also in her behaviour with the kids, She speaks of virtue which is matter of developing character and she demonstrates virtue.

And you will no doubt remember the scene earlier this season when Don asks Faye if she will help with all and how that plays out.

How will it work out?
We all know, listening to Sony and Cher sing the outro, that Sonny and Cher didn't work out so well. We know that the age difference between Don and Megan is significant.

Most of all, we know that Don needs more than a  wife.

All this comes out brilliantly in the scene between Peggy and Joan when Peggy goes to discuss the engagement. Joan nails it when she says that Don will no doubt want to make Megan a copywriter and Peggy knows instantly that it must be true. And, you know, she might just manage it. Megan is not stupid.

And she knows about Faye Miller. She and Pete are the only ones who know. In any case, she isn't going into this blind. You can argue that he is. Don is being played. Megan can spot his advertising for what it is instantly but he doesn't see her advertising for what it is.

One of the most delicious bits of acting in the episode is the way John Slattery plays Roger reacting to the news. Because, as we all remember, Don gave Roger major grief about doing more or less the same thing as Don is doing right now. Being Roger, he immediately smooths over the feathers he ruffles but he is not pleased with what he sees.

And Joan also has to see reflections of herself in what is going on here, only she has to notice now that, for all her cynicism, the only real difference between her and Jane and now Megan is that they successfully pulled off what she wanted to do.

Well, on to season 5. I said earlier that I was nervous about this episode. I got a lot more nervous when I heard Faye spouting psychobabble at the beginning. I was worried that the show would abandon all that woinderful virtue for a bunch of therapeutic crap. it didn't and I'm relieved and looking forward to next season.

BTW: Watch this space for some sort of Mad Men replacement to fill the gap between seasons. I'm not absolutely sure what it will be yet but I have some ideas.

Phillipa foot and values clarification

Life is so full of opportunities to get into arguments that I hesitate to get into one. In addition, an awful lot of arguments are long running. They started before I got involved and they'll keep going after I leave so why bother.

And yet there are some things where I believe it is essential to at least state where I stand and one of these is the whole issue of values clarification. The point was made in the comments last week that what mental experiments such as the trolley problem  really do is to force us to examine our values and in the case of the trolley problem itself to specifically confront our values regarding the value of human life.

Some quick hits on this:

1. If the real point of the trolley problem is to evaluate the social worth of human lives there is a tremendous irony here because Foot's quite explicit goal in creating it was to devalue the life of a fetus so as to argue that in some cases at least it would be okay to kill a fetus for the sake of its mothers health. That is always the effect of these things. (Follow the logic of discussions in lifeboat ethics and they head very rapidly in the direction of forced population reduction.)

2. Related to the above, we should also note the intentional use of gradualism here. We begin with an argument intended to show that there are some imaginable cases wherein killing a fetus to save it's mother's life but where we ended up was abortion on demand.

 3. One of the biggest drivers for the use of ethics teaching such as the trolley problem and lifeboat ethics has been pedagogical. Because many schools are publicly funded, the argument went, they should not teach any particular ethics but rather teach students to think critically about their ethical beliefs. The argument was that students who evaluated their moral beliefs critically would have stronger moral beliefs than those who (catch the language here) merely accepted moral beliefs uncritically. This turned out to be exactly backwards. The students who were taught moral systems turn out to be both stronger in their moral beliefs and better able to evaluate moral arguments.

4. I'm repeating what I have said before but the inescapable truth is only someone who teaches from a position of authority teaches better than someone who claims only to teach neutrally. The best way to teach people how to value human life is to value human life. The way to learn how to value human life is to train yourself to actually value human life.

5. When I compared Phillipa Foot to Niels Bohr I meant it. She made a huge contribution to the development of virtue ethics but her conclusions are worthless. Foot herself at least partially realized this. She kept revisiting and redoing the very basis of her moral arguments like a person who keeps tearing up their work and starting again. Even her last work has a very tentative quality about it. She helped move the game forward but she added nothing in the end. (The same is true of her colleague Elizabeth Anscombe BTW.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Slow posting weekend

Apologies to all for the slow posting. I spent the weekend going on long walks and, today, pulled fence posts out so I can replace them with new fence posts, a back-breaking job involving lots of digging and smashing up forty year old concrete with a ten-pound sledge. Real he-man stuff.

Tonight, we get the very last Mad Men episode for the year. I'm kind of nervous, oddly enough, because I have invested a certain amount in these characters. I have some ideas for keeping the virtue in film theme going.

Rob Roy is also coming, Tuesday.

In honour of my hammer swinging activities, a little Sweet Honey in the Rock singing a magnificent working song:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday is Venus Day

Is it all the fault of women
The man up post that inspired my my posts yesterday has, perhaps predictably, inspired someone to blame women. Yes, it's all because girls really go for jerks. This has its counterpart on the other side in the belief that men are only interested in big-breasted airheads and therefore it is really men's fault that some women are so ditzy.

There are, of course, cases of wimpy men who do well with women. There are examples of anything you care to look for them.

Now anyone who reads this blog will know that I am not easy on women in this post-feminist age. Like a lot of men, I had the experience of sitting in a room while a bunch of women cheered for Carrie Bradshaw and for Samantha Jones as if they were some sort of liberating heroines and thought, "Well, if that is really what you want then I'll give it to you Honey."

A lot of men, as in the link above, have responded to this stuff rather petulantly.  It's easy to see why. First we're accused of being pigs, which we know we aren't, and then women turn around and behave like pigs themselves and say, well, we're only doing what men have always done. My mother used to say, you may as well get hanged for a  sheep as a lamb; if we're going to be punished anyway, we may as well enjoy the life of crime first

But it isn't what most women really want and that is today's subject. Carrie and Samantha are fantasy figures much like James Bond. Women identify with them but most don't really want to be them and the women who try are shallow jerks just like the men who really try to be like James Bond. It's important what we fantasize about, of course, but, as I've said before, the point of fantasy is fantasy and it's not about real life.  I'm off on a pastoral visit and I won't be back until this afternoon. As I go about my day, what i will be thinking about is what women really want. I'll get back to you about that ;-)

Thursday, October 14, 2010


There is a response to that Katherine Miller piece I wrote about earlier here. It's a male response. The male in question, whose name is Cameron Parker, chides Miller for being too concerned with mere style issues and not for the deeper truths. I can't help but think he also wants to suggest that he himself does many of the symbolic things Miller considers unmanly but is not actually unmanly.

Which is a bit of a problem in itself. I remember seeing a skinhead back in the 1980s who assured me that he wasn't like those other skinheads and the proof if this was that he wore a button that said "Skinheads against racism".

Symbols are more than buttons we can take off or put on. No one can do like some Lewis Carrol character and declare that symbols, gestures and clothing mean only what they want them to mean. It matters how we wear the symbols but the also symbols mean something independent of anything we might indend. The clothes, make up and tattooes on Amy Winehouse in the video for "I don't want to go to rehab" tell us pretty clearly that she should go to rehab.

But Cameron Parker misses the point entirely and thinks that Miller is just being superficial when she list the attributes she doesn't like. And you can see it here:
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short.” From “Man Up,” it’s clear that Miller likes her men nasty, brutish and tall.

The problem here is that Parker doesn't grasp what brutish really means. Miller does and gives us a good example here:
Fratastic can thrill a girl with Lost Generation levels of raging and fluent French, but in between tequila shots, he’ll judge anyone with a harshness that stings.
 That is what real brutishness looks like. It's that combination of accomplishment with a deep insecurity that causes the person to go for the dagger to the kidneys when they think they can get away with it. You want to see what a real brute is like, read Frank Rich in the New York Times.

What Miller wants—and she says so—is a man she can rely on in a crisis. That Cameron Parker can't tell the difference between that and brutishness doesn't speak well of him.

Thor's Day special

Someone over at The Corner has this quote up today:
America’s elite has a problem. It’s skinny jeans and scarves, it’s Bama bangs and pants with tiny, tiny embroidered lobsters, it’s Michael Cera, it’s guys who compliment a girl’s dress by brand, it’s guys who don’t know who bats fourth for the Yankees. Between the hipsters and the fratstars, American intellectual men under the age of twenty-five have lost track of acting like Men—and these are our future leaders. We have no John Wayne, no Clint Eastwood. And girls? Girls hate it.
That's from a young conservative named  Katherine Miller and it's an excerpt from a new book. You can read the entire excerpt here. (Readers of this blog should click on the link just to see whose photograph they picked to portray what a man should be.)

In my typical shallow way, I'm going to focus on just the bit I have highlighted. There is something important there. It's an odd thing for a single man to understand a whole lot about women's dress. For a married man it probably ought not to be; for his wife has presumably been telling him about this stuff and he, therefore, ought to have been paying attention. But a single guy knowing enough about women's dress to run off the designer's name is a bad thing.

Proust could do it—I've been reading Proust again—but that is no recommendation. Proust wasn't into girls and he wasn't much of a man in any case, although he was a great novelist.

When the Lemon Girl and I were just beginning dating but not being public about it, a coworker of ours once complimented her shirt. I was a little surprised by the compliment at the time because it was a fairly ordinary shirt of the sort that a lot of girls wore. The Lemon Girl just smirked at this and then patiently explained to me, as one might explain to a child, that the shirt wasn't the point. "When a guy says 'nice shirt' he really means 'nice breasts'," she said.

And suddenly all was clear; that was what he meant and I knew it because he'd expressed the thought to me privately. The point being, that is what a real man is supposed to mean when he compliments a woman on her clothes. The point of complimenting a woman on her clothing is not to compliment the clothes. The point is, "You look good in that shirt," with the emphasis very much on the "you".

Complimenting a woman on her clothing is a polite way of telling a woman she has a beautiful body without being explicit about it. It's polite because you leave her the option of not acknowledging the full meaning of what you have said. If you tell her you really like her skirt she can smile and say "thank you", thereby acknowledging what ought to be the real meaning of your compliment, or she can tell you where she bought it, thereby deflecting both the meaning and you away from her intimate self. There is an entire secret language, consisting of both words and gestures, that goes with these things.

An old roommate of mine used to spend a fortune in pursuit of women he had zero chance with because he just didn't get it. He would particularly fall for waitresses because they would be nice to him so he kept trying. And he kept trying and trying and trying and trying.

What Doug could never pick up was the subtle signals that these women were sending him. They were nice to him but they were also drawing a line. He could never see that girls had a way of receiving compliments that was receptive but would also send signals that beyond a certain point he would not go. The whole issue was particularly complicated with people in the service industry because a good part of their job requires them to be receptive and friendly so they couldn't really tell him to piss off without risking the loss of their job.

(As an aside, what Doug did was, as a consequence, very close to harassment. It wasn't overt enough to count as such legally speaking but I'm sure some of these girls felt quite pestered by the guy.)

Doug couldn't see this and after a while I began to suspect that the real problem was that he wouldn't because Doug had a deep resentment of being rejected. A big part of being an adult is being rejected. It's one of those things an adult learns to deal with.

Doug still remembered a girlfriend who'd dumped him when he broke his leg skiing (a really serious break that ended his competitive skiing). On one of her visits to him afterward, when his parent's helpfully left them alone, she stunned him by telling him it was over.

When I first met Doug, I took this story at face value. I just took it that his ex-girlfriend was a heartless bitch who'd walked into his family home to see him lying helpless on the couch, encased in this huge cast, and callously dumped him.

As I got to know him better, I began to wonder if there wasn't more to it. I never doubted the facts. I knew the facts were right as the story was later told to me by a friend of the girl who dumped him and she told essentially the same facts and she didn't think much of what her, by then, ex-friend had done to Doug either. But she did wonder why he was still going on about something that happened back when he was seventeen now that he was in his early twenties.

That bothered me too. And when I looked at the way he talked to girls, and the way he missed what ought to have been obvious hints, I began to see denial. I have no doubt that his earlier girlfriend might have been nicer about it, although we might also wonder how much nicer it would be to have nursed him through his injury only to dump him.

My guess is that she saw something in Doug when he hurt himself that she didn't like. I don't really know this for certain but I think she saw something about the way Doug was dealing with the accident. She saw a sort of victim-hood or, more accurately, an attitude to victim-hood. For Doug really was a victim, he wasn't making that part up. But she saw a guy who was responding in a  way that told her he wasn't much of a man.

She may not have thought it through consciously. Consciousness is over-rated. The guy who saw the Lemon Girl girl looking really good in a shirt may not be consciously aware that the thin horizontal stripes accentuated both the curve of her breasts and the flatness of her stomach. He just knew that he really liked what he was seeing.

Doug's girlfriend really didn't like what she was seeing.

And it came out when I knew him as a kind of solipsism. He only saw things as they related to him. He didn't see women he liked as other people who needed to be impressed and he didn't see that women looked at him and they wanted to see manliness the same way he wanted to look at them and see womanliness. So he never bothered learn the language that would have allowed them to tell him whether or not they were interested because that way he'd never have to face rejection

(There will be at least one more post on this subject.)