Thursday, March 31, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

The second-best case against Don Draper in which I rant
A while ago in the comments, Gaius put me onto a fascinating site called The Last Psychiatrist. It strikes me as a little like this site but only with even less restraint. He cuts loose and says stuff that you might think but would think better than to actually say. And he has devoted two long, rambling posts to trashing Don Draper.
That's odd—meaning unusual—because most people who think so little of something wouldn't bother arguing the point. They'd consider it beneath their dignity to waste all that time on a mere fictional character that only a small segment of the population watches. The longer someone spends trying to diminish something, the more they succeed in making it appear significant.

Anyway, he has come up with the second-best argument against Don Draper and I think that is worth some comment. Now he would insist that he has made a case against wanting to be like Don Draper but that is redundant. Draper is a hero and the whole (only) point of a hero is to inspire emulation.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Greek manners and Gothic morals

A deep respect for obstacles
To recap: Stendhal says love is projected onto the loved one by the lover. It is, therefore, the passion that aggrandizes the lover and not the loved person. Therefore, the way to keep love alive is to throw up obstacles. The woman (and with Stendhal the real lover is always the man) who would keep her lover's passion alive will find ways to deny her lover her presence. In fact, Stendhal insists that a woman cheapens herself any time she grants sexual favour to her lover.

Now I think that perverse vision has something in common with Romantic love and that thing in common is a respect for obstacles. Romantic lovers do not take obstacles as some sort of inconvenience or tragedy but as an essential part of any real erotic love.

The opposite of romantic love is found in ancient heroes such as Achilles and Aeneas. Achilles loves Briseus whom he has taken in war and is little more than a concubine and flies into a rage when Agamemnon takes her a way from him. He cuts Troilus's head off when the youth denies him sex. He turns into a vicious killing machine when his lover Patroclus is killed. Aeneus falls in love with Dido but, when reminded that his destiny is to found Rome, he cruelly abandons her. Love is a strong passion for these men but it is not a quest, it is not part of their heroic identity but merely something they do.

During the late middle ages, as the idea of courtly romantic love came into full flower, Achilles's victims were celebrated as the real heroes. Their quests, to find love, became the real heroism and the destroyers and founders of cities were devalued.

And there we have a literary explanation for the obstacles that always seem to crop up in Romantic love. It wouldn't be a heroic thing if it were easy. But romantic love is not the story but what two people actually are for one another. And here lies a danger but I'll get back to that.

There are a whole series of complementary reasons that might also play a role:
  • As mentioned above, there is the sense that love is a heroic quest and cannot be easy.
  • There is the sense that love is a sacred and holy thing and, like all sacred things, must be surrounded by respectful ritual and sacrifice.
  • There is an epicurean instinct that says the pleasure will be highlighted and enhanced if we discipline and deny ourselves. Better to have a single glass of the fine port in front of the fire later than to guzzle away whatever is at hand now.
  • There is a sense that love is powerful, irrational force that might lead us to destruction and that is often at odds with social priorities.
  • Related to the previous but I think slightly different, there is the sense that love is like starting a fire and that there are aspects in the early stages that we can and should control when possible.
  • Finally, there is a sense that real love will survive denial and the fact that two people deny themselves sexual satisfaction now will test the mettle of their love. If it is real, this denial will only strengthen it and if it is not real, better to have done without the sex that would debase real love.
Which is true? They all are.

And that, I think, is what distinguishes romantic love from what Stendhal and Proust go on about. For if we get focused on the story rather than the people, something can and probably will go wrong. Then the obstacles can become the whole point and it is the passion not the person that matters.

There is also the Disney version wherein the grand stories are told with all the heroes replaced with animated cartoons. Here the actual love becomes a gauzy, ill defined thing summed up by the phrase "happily ever after". Worse, romantic love becomes something that only princes and princesses and movie stars can have and not the residents of 5135 and 5133 Kensington Avenue or over there in the suburbs.

The odd thing about the Disney version is that it feeds narcissism in that it encourages us to think like children and think that we are somehow elevated above everyone else by our love. Again, the humble residents of Kensington Avenue get pushed aside because having to relocate because your father has a job in another city  somehow suggests that, well, this happens to ordinary people all the time. Worse, it suggests that once you move into a new suburb, you might meet someone else and fall in love with them.

Cristina Nehring doesn't ignore the important role obstacles play in the story. She couldn't. But she doesn't think much about any role they might play other than being part of the passion.

The next front of the polemic is with Christianity. It will come as a surprise to those who have been paying attention to find that there is a tradition within Christianity of attacking romantic love as unhealthy and disordered. After all, if anything saving yourself for your spouse, the sanctity of marriage and the theology of the body ought to sit well with Romantic love. What is more, Romantic love came into full flower in a Christian culture and it is hard to imagine how it could have happened anywhere else.

But that is for next week.

This series begins here.

The next post will be here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What is a university education worth?

Overheard snippet of a conversation between three university students from when I was out walking the dogs,
There may be some potentiality to change the rules of the system.
In other words,
We may be able to change the rules.
Is it worth shelling out the equivalent of a down payment on a house so your kid can learn to speak like that?

Note that my version is not only shorter and clearer, it actually has an agent to do this rule changing. It's not just better style, it's a morally perspicacious way of putting things in that it makes it clear who might do the changing.

Greek manners and Gothic morals

Love as irrationality
One of the things that polemicists tend to do is to open battles on multiple fronts and Nehring does that in a big way in the first chapter of her book A Vindication of Love. I want to slow her down a whole lot here and go through the various fronts one at a time, taking time to notice differences and even similarities that she misses.

She starts with Stendhal. He is, to our way of thinking, an odd character but he was hugely influential in his time. When I went through something of a hard-core feminist phase in my early university days I read Simone de Beauvoir and she can't think of enough nice things to say about Stendhal. If I remember correctly—life is too short to read de Beauvoir twice—she somewhere says that he is the only male novelist to really understand love. That is quite jarring, as Nehring notes, if you take the time to unpack what Stndhal says about love a bit.

For Stendhal regards love as an irrational projection; as something magnificent that the lover only imagines he sees in his beloved. And here, as Nehring brilliantly draws out, there is a problem. For if the magnificence that leads the lover to fall in love is not in the person he loves, where is it? There is only one possible answer here and that is in the lover himself. And I write "himself" advisedly here, for as Nehring further notes, this quality of projecting good is only attributed to men. When women did it, they were treated as irresponsible or delusional.

There is a further odd consequence of this projection. And, again, this all makes sense if we go through it step by step. If the love object herself is not magnificent but merely has magnificence projected onto her, then she cannot possibly live up to what we think we see in her. If our love begins to falter, then the worst thing (if we believe Stendhal) is to actually spend a lot of time with her. For any time with her can only waken us to the gap between the person herself and our image of her.

The only real question here is why anyone would call this love at all. Psychologically speaking it sounds like narcissism; epistemologically speaking it sounds like solipsism. And it sounds like those things in both cases because it is those things. I'll tell you one other thing it sounds like modernism to me. I'm going out on a limb here with this modernism claim so don't feel obliged to agree with me.

Anyway, there is a further consequence of the above. If you really believed what Stendhal did, then you would advise the woman who felt her suitor's interest lagging to withdraw herself and to make her lover jealous as a way of restoring his interest. And that is exactly what Stendhal does advise. (And his biggest disciple in this is Proust.)

To my mind there is a huge problem here and it is that nothing here sounds like anything I think worthy of the name love. It does sound a little like some accounts of romantic love though and if we want want to vindicate romantic love—and I do—then we have to deal with that. Tomorrow.

This series begins here.

The next post will be here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sort of political Monday

One of a small herd of elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about
Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times about the challenges of establishing democracy in the Arab Middle East. Here is what he says it is going to take:
Democracy requires 3 things: citizens — that is, people who see themselves as part of an undifferentiated national community where anyone can be ruler or ruled. It requires self-determination — that is, voting. And it requires what Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy’s Good Name,” calls “liberty.” 
It's the last one that Friedman thinks is going to be most difficult. Now he isn't necessarily the best advocate for liberty as he has shown a marked disregard in the past. And you can see why in the further quote he cites from Mandlebaum.
“While voting determines who governs,” he explained, “liberty determines what governments can and cannot do. Liberty encompasses all the rules and limits that govern politics, justice, economics and religion.”
Liberty determines what governments can do? No, guys, liberty determines what governments cannot do. The notion that there are a lot of areas where government has no place is the very core of our idea of liberty.

But here is the elephant I want to draw your attention to. Liberty also requires a certain kind of public virtue on the part of citizens. It's not enough, as is said above, that we see ourselves as part of an "undifferentiated national community". We also have to see ourselves as being entitled to liberty as a very part of our nature as beings. Entitled to a liberty that defines our moral status in the world.

So, how likely is that kind of self understanding in a culture dominated by a religion whose very name means surrender?

While we're at it, how many functioning democratic republics can you think of where the majority of the population is Muslim? How many countries where the majority of the population is Muslim and the liberty of non-Muslim religious communities is guaranteed by law and in practice can you think of? Because that is what "undifferentiated national community" has to mean if it is going to mean anything.

And if you aren't willing to confront those questions, then you're just a dilettante wasting our time. Which brings me back to Thomas Friedman ....

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My official cocktail for the summer of 2011

I'm back, sort of. Here's what we've been up to in the land of the pink and blue. You've heard the expression, "we decided to rip out the bathroom and rebuild"? Well, here is what rip out the bathroom means:

Anyway, I was cleaning things out of the fridge and found just a little bit of left-over Pina Colada mix. And I decided to make something of it. Here is:

The Inauthentic
1.5 ounces Pina Colada mix (it probably doesn't matter what kind but I used Mr. and Mrs. T's)
1.5 ounces cream
1.5 ounces vodka (picked because Vodka is the blandest tasting hard liquor money can buy.)
A dollop of Maraschino cherry liquid (mostly to turn it pink)
a good handful or so of ice.

Pour it all in the blender and whizz it on the frozen drink setting. Pour into a high ball or Collins glass and enjoy. It tastes sort of like a milk shake and not at all like a cocktail. It is guaranteed to cause disdainful looks to cloud the faces of purists everywhere.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brief hiatus

This is our new living room by Christo.

We're doing major construction here and I won't be able to blog for a day or two.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Greek manners and Gothic morals

That piece I linked earlier today, has the following interesting observation:
But perhaps another reason women are losing it is that they're repeatedly told that they're no different than men-and many believe it, particularly in the realm of sex.

This, of course, is clearly not true. Not in the realm of biology, as "Manning Up" reminds us; not in the realm of emotional health-a new book, "Premarital Sex in America," details the heightened correlation between female promiscuity and depression; and not even in terms of interpersonal communication. The irony is that many of the "empowered" true believers, certain we're all androgynous frat boys now, often end up catering to the child-man's every whim.
What Heather Wilhelm  is pointing to here is a growing body of evidence that says that women pay a steep emotional price for casual sex.

What Wilhelm does not acknowledge is that men also have an Achilles heel in this post-sexual revolution world. We pay a far higher price for failures of serious relationships and marriages than women do. Knowing that, it will come as no surprise that two thirds of divorces and eighty percent of living together break ups are initiated by women.

Put those two facts together—the higher price that women pay for casual sex and the higher price men pay for relationship failure—and you have all that you will ever need to know why men and women behave the way they do. Much of that piece by Wilhelm wonders what can be done to stop today's men from acting like frat boys and she suggests that at least part of the problem originates in women's behaviour towards men. There is no doubt something in that but I think she misses an obvious point that needs to be shouted out here:
These child-men or frat boys or what you will, are all behaving perfectly rationally!
There is no rational reason for them to do anything but what they are doing. The irrational thing is love. That is what makes Romantic love such a distinctive thing, it begins with the assumption that love is an irrational thing.

We are apt to miss this because one of the first things that proponents of Romantic love do is to burden it down with all sorts of rules. But the rules aren't there to make the love rational. They are there because it is irreducibly irrational.

By the way, to imagine that other people will start to behave better if you change your behaviour first has another name: manipulation. We see this one all over the place, even from the pulpit. And now in the so-called battle of the sexes. But its manipulation pure and simple.

This series begins here.

The next post will be here.

Okay, Cosmo is low-hanging fruit but ...

... one of the teasers on the cover of the edition of Cosmopolitan up at the place I buy groceries reads as follows:
Fifty ways to seduce a man
That's the big print. The smaller print that follows says,
in less than a minute
And I keep thinking is there a nontrivial difference between "seducing a man in less than a minute" and "making it painful obvious to him that you are there for the taking"?

And that inspires a deeper question. I keep reading that men are in horrible trouble in today's world; that women are ascendant and triumphant. If that is so, then how come so many women are still such losers that a teaser like that sells magazines?

For a deeper exploration of that theme, see this.

One more thing about that Mark Shea piece

The most telling line in that Mark Shea piece is this one:
The trick, of course, is to communicate this, not in such a way as to terrify scrupulous people or unnecessarily enrage licentious ones, but to get people to see what the Church is trying to guard: namely, the joy of mutually self-donating marital love, which is one of our great icons of and sacramental participations in the union of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church.
 By "this" Shea means the Church's teaching that masturbation is a grave sin. And he has two kinds of concerns about why people might not be receptive. One is that scrupulous people will be scared in the face of what is a very broadly defined and, for most, impossible to avoid sin. The second is that people who are "licentious" will become angry. Notice, however, that Shea is only concerned with the possibility that people might not be receptive to the message of the church because of something that is wrong with them.

I tell you this, no one will ever believe the Church is truly repentant about the horrid abuses carried out by her members and, much, much worse, covered up by her bishops, until this arrogance disappears.

Every Catholic, whether clergy or laity, inclined to make moral pronouncements on sexuality (and yes, this includes me) needs to stop and recognize that the church has lost virtually all its credibility in this area. It will take decades to re-earn any authority to teach in this area and yes, it has to be earned. Telling people who might be resistant to Church teaching on sexuality that there is something wrong with them is not the way to go about this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Did Mark Shea really say that masturbation is worse than adultery?

I'll get back to my Lenten reading project tomorrow, but Mark Shea has written a long piece on masturbation. A long and, I'm sorry to report, rather confused, piece. I read it and thought, 'Well, that's interesting'. But the more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that I could not in good conscience let this one go without comment.

Is masturbation worse or as bad as adultery?
The Internet barroom stools are spinning because Mark Shea seems to have said that masturbation is worse than adultery.

So, does he say that? Short answer: not really. His exact words were the following:
Indeed, I would note that it can (not must, but can) be argued that it is, in fact, graver than adultery. After all, which sin -- adultery or masturbation -- at least involves the disordered love of another person and so participates, to that degree, in divine love (albeit, I repeat, in a radically disordered way)? Answer: adultery. With masturbation, even disordered love of another person is totally excluded.
The crucial phrase here is "not must, but can". But he doesn't really answer the question does he? He says, hypothetically speaking, you could argue this but he owes us more than that because we want to know 'Is it worse?' in fact, if we go back to the reader question that inspired the piece, the reader says, "To my mind, adultery is a far more heinous offense, but perhaps I am missing something."To which Mark Shea says the equivalent of, well, you can see why someone might argue this.

And then he rambles, meanders, goes off on tangents and generally confuses things for a few hundred words. He remains absolutely clear on one point and that is that masturbation is wrong but he never really gets around to saying why. He does quote church teaching but never gets around to really explaining it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Not unrelated ...

... to the Catholic tendency to smother conflict I was bemoaning in my earlier post today is this sad attempt at avoiding seeming pejorative by a Canadian politician who was brought up Catholic*:
OTTAWA - Liberal MP Justin Trudeau said the government should not call honour killings "barbaric" in a study guide for would-be Canadian citizens. 
The paragraph in the study guide that bothers him is this one:
Canada's openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, 'honour killings,' female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence.
Trudeau thinks  the term barbaric is heavy handed:
There's nothing that the word 'barbaric' achieves that the words 'absolutely unacceptable' would not have achieved.
Dear Justin Tudeau, I'll make it simple for you:
These practices are unacceptable because they are barbaric! Saying anything less just tells people you don't really care that much. (And perhaps that is the real point.)
Heaven forbid that we should hurt the feelings of barbarians by telling them that barbaric practices are barbaric.

* And may still be. I use the vague language above because I don't know.

Sort of political Monday

Bad reasons to be Catholic
There is one, and only one, good reason to be Catholic. That good reason is because you believe that it, more than any other church, is the church that Jesus Christ founded to carry on the remembrance of him decreed at the last supper.

There are many bad reasons. Too many to cover here.

You can be certain, however, that if your motive for being Catholic is political it is a mistake.

Most people could figure that out for themselves if the reasons for being Catholic were overtly political. Unfortunately, it is ridiculously easy to disguise a political motive as a moral one. It is easy to convince yourself that you are really concerned about "the poor" or about young women (or even young men) being pressured into doing what they don't want by a society obsessed with sex when what you really want to do is run other people's lives for them.

A good friend of mine used to collect what she called vindications. These were cases where history or recent science seemed to justify some bit of Catholic sexual teaching. One problem, of course, was that she only noticed the stuff that appeared to vindicate the things she wanted to believe. You would find contraindications for Catholic sexual teachings just as easily if that was all you were looking for.

The deeper problem, however, is in the word "vindication". I saw this recently in a Catholic writer I otherwise admire. She'd seen some bit of social science that appeared to vindicate some bit of Catholic teaching about sex and marriage and had written an impossibly smug column sneering at feminists that they may as well face it, "the Catholic Church is right about everything". If there was ever a clause that ought to set off alarm bells in the person who wrote it ....

Catholic social teachings
As I've said before, I think most of the hullabaloo about Catholic sexual teaching is just that. The debate, in so far as there ever was one, is really over. The real damage is being done with Catholic social teaching.

It's surprising the number of Catholics who think that anything and everything the church has ever said about the mass is either optional or open to endless interpretation there are who will turn around and quote Catholic social teaching as infallible TRUTH whispered into the ears of popes and church doctors by doves that have flown directly from God's shoulder.

There are, of course, things embedded in Catholic social teachings that do have such status. The absolute necessity to respect the dignity of persons for example. Just how this is done is, however, open for considerable discussion.

Perhaps the most dangerous Catholic idea out there is the notion that the problem is just that people won't get along. This perspective is not unique to Catholics by any stretch of the imagination but it is deeply ingrained among us. I think it is a misapplication of the concept of natural law whereby people arrive at the the conclusion that the default position is harmony and any time there is human dissonance it must be because someone or everyone is doing something wrong.

Conflict is part of human life. It will always be with us. The greatest danger is not that a conflict be allowed to take place but that it will be smothered in good will.

The flip side of this is the conflict that is maintained forever because we won't let one side win. I once heard a devout Catholic defend terrorism by saying, 'They have no choice because they keep losing at conventional war.' Therefore, this holy person had convinced herself, it was okay for someone to blow themselves up at a pizzeria literally tearing arms and legs off of the innocent teenagers  sitting there.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Don't eat that Melvin—a Lenten observation

One of the pretenses of conservative Catholic websites is that here, at least, you will get nothing but orthodox Catholicism. It's well ... I allude above to one of my father's favourite expressions, "Don't eat that Melvin it's horse****!"

Case in point a piece up at First Things by Francesca Aran Murphy called "The First Rung of the Ascent".  Well, really, the title is all you need to know isn't it? If you saw this stuff on a poster downtown advertising a lecture by Swami Gimmeurcash you'd spot it right away as stuff Melvin shouldn't be eating. But here it is on the website of a conservative Catholic publication. How'd that happen?

Especially with gems like this (emphasis added):
Vegetarian and vegan practices are not something new, imported from eastern religions. They have sustained the Church since the first centuries. They belong to us for some of the same reasons they were practised by ancient Pythagoreans and modern Buddhists: natural, human religious wisdom acknowledges that the body must be tamed before the soul
 In a word No! You don't have a body, you are your body. Disciplining the body and disciplining the soul are the same thing. it is to discipline yourself. The only self you have.

What is happening here is gnosticism pure and simple. How long into this article do we have to read before learning that life is ascent wherein we leave things of the body behind and ascend to a spiritual plane? Exactly three paragraphs:
However, Christian spiritual writers depict the ascent to God with the metaphor of a ladder. Experienced spiritual travellers like St. Bonaventure describe the ‘soul’s journey to God’ as ascending through sensible things, taking pleasure in their beauty, while being purged of undue attachment to them, up to the mind, and its graced experience of God, and on up into God himself. They knew all about the effects of giving up meat. Abstaining from the ‘mind’ habits is more lightly achieved by a vegetarian. Giving up favourite things paves the way for giving up favourite ideas.
Leaving aside the obvious point that there this no evidence whatsoever to indicate that vegetarians are any better or any worse than anyone else at moral discipline, I can't help but think that there is no mention in the Gospel of the Last Supper being vegetarian. I can't help but notice that the author is of Irish descent. That could be coincidence but it sometimes seems to me that more pagan notions have been smuggled into Catholicism by the Irish than any other group.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday

Why talk about womanly virtues at all?
I mean, why not just talk about virtue tout court? Is there some reason to divide out womanly virtue from manly virtue? Isn't that all rather old fashioned and, quite frankly, sexist?

Yesterday, I wrote about virtue in a sense that applies to both men and women. Why not do that all the time?

Well, I'm not going to answer all of the above questions at once and I may not get to some of them at all. But it seems to me that one reason for talking about womanly virtue is that their is a very important sense in which even the possibility of virtue has been denied to women. Virtue when applied to men has meant the ability to do something well. And a man is still regarded as virtuous even if his admitted skills lead to failure. If anything, the glorious failure is deeply admired in men. When applied to women it has too often meant the fact that she has not and will not do certain things.

You can see this right in the language when you consider the following word: virgin. It means, intact, untouched, unspoiled. And it means a woman. You can talk about male virgins of course but it is always a special qualification like saying a flying car. If you don't believe me, open any Catholic book of saints and count the female virgin martyrs. Then go back and count the male virgin martyrs.

Or we can look at a couple of perceptive comments of Cristina Nehring's:
To be respected as a thinker in our world, a woman must cease to be a lover. To pass for an intellectual of any distinction, she must either renounce romantic love altogether or box it into a space so small in her life that it attracts not attention.
And she goes on to show how women who have had extravagant romantic adventures are diminished in intellectual life as a consequence; perhaps most tellingly, they are diminished by by both men with oppressive attitudes towards women  and by feminists! But, as Nehring goes on to say, no such limitation applies to men:
Over the centuries, we find, in fact, almost the opposite assumptions shaping the valuation of male writers. From Ovid, Petrarch, and Dante, to Hemingway, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Michel Houellbecq, literary men have been admired rather than punished for their active amorous lives—whether or not their overtures were crowned with success.
And even when men make complete fools of themselves or behave basely—even so far as to sexually exploit serfs as Tolstoy confessed in his diaries (he seems to have raped them for all intents and purposes) or used their power to sexually exploit teenage girls as Gandhi did—these men are never disqualified from consideration for their other qualities.

It's no accident that the sexual revolution begot feminism. Women took one look at Playboy and immediately recognized that there was nothing in this for them as women. For no matter how good the sex was, this sexual liberation was only going to diminish them. There was always a recognition in the sexual revolution that women should also allowed to do anything sexually that men are being allowed to do but that always seems to lead back to the same set of traps.

Nehring is on to something very profound and it is this: women will never really be allowed to be good at anything until they are allowed to be really good at love.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saint Patrick's Day

My mother was Irish. One hundred percent. She wasn't particularly proud of it and I have to say I share her sentiments about my fifty percent Irishness.

She was not ashamed of being Irish. In Saint John, New Brunswick you really didn't want to be because you were surrounded by people who would cheerfully reinforce any sense of inferiority an Irish person might have about being Irish. My uncles were all very big, tough men and more than willing to stand up to anyone who insulted them for being Irish.

It's an odd thing that they were so big as both their parents, especially my grandfather, were small people. And so were all my grandparent's siblings. Well, not so odd, really. They were small because they didn't get enough to eat as children. My mother's generation were the first to eat properly all their lives. My grandfather managed this on a barber's salary. And there were ten children to feed.

Eight of them went to university. One of her brothers became the head gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic. Another became a newspaper writer and then editor until he had paid all of his siblings way through university. Then he went back to school and became a lawyer. He argued a half dozen cases before the supreme court in his career including one of the very last death penalty cases in Canada. (He told me later that his two clients were the worst people he ever met and he sometimes regretted saving their lives as both went on to other horrid crimes.)

But the thing is that all of them ditched their Irish accents and culture. The oldest boy had a trace of an Irish accent all his life. The others took great pains to train themselves to speak with no discernible accent. (My mother rarely sneered but she always sneered at anyone "who has been here twenty years and still speaks with an accent".)

They looked at the preppy east coast Anglicans around them and saw that, however much they resented the way these people treated them, the culture of success had gotten to be that way for a reason. And they adopted it as their own. In Saint John, they lived long enough to see the old Loyalist order collapse and lose all its power and influence to be replaced by a new elite. An elite they were part of. At the end of their lives they looked at the English and saw, with justifiable pride,  that they had replaced them by being truer to the English values of liberty, merit, prudence, restraint, elegance and, yes, class than the English had been.

I think that's a model and culture worth emulating. Alternatively, we could all go out and cite whatever percentage of "Irish Blood" we thing we have and drink green beer until we puke.

Manly Thor's Day Special

What is worth working at
I mentioned Laura Kipnis earlier. I'd never heard of Kipnis before reading Cristina Nehring. Unfortunately for me I have this odd compulsion to check into author's who come up in the context of what I'm reading. So I got Kipnis's polemic Against Love out of the library and started reading.

Here is the paragraph that made me give up on her a mere 18 pages in:
Yes, we all know that Good Marriages Take Work: we've been well-tutored in the catechism of labor-intensive intimacy. Work, work, work: given all the heavy lifting required, what's the difference between work and "after work" again? Work/home, office/bedroom: are you ever not on the clock? Good relationships may take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard: work doesn't work. Erotically speaking, play is what works. Or as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it: "In our erotic life ... it is no more possible to work at a relationship than it it is to will an erection or arrange to have a dream. In fact when you are working at it you already know that it has gone wrong, that something is already missing."
There are a lot of rhetorical tricks going on in that paragraph. There isn't any actual argument: the conclusion that "work doesn't work" is simply asserted.

The thing I'd note is that it is possible to will an erection. It's not a hard difficult thing. What is difficult is to will an erection away. I can only speak for myself here; perhaps Dr. Phillips' gets different mileage. All sorts of "unconscious" phenomena can be willed. You can learn to slow your heart rate down, you can control your temper and, yes, you can will yourself into love and you can will yourself to stay in love.

By the way, the modern word "slut" derives from "slattern" meaning a lazy and sloppy woman. Somewhere along the line it got a new meaning of a woman who is very enthusiastic about sex, something that has always been a high compliment in my books. I have no idea what made the change take place but you can see another way to think about the original sexual vice that was meant by the word in that Kipnis quote: we might also speak of either a woman or man who is so lazy and sloppy about life that they give up on a relationship as soon as it becomes work. Or, to turn it around, we might want to speak of the person whose vice is to always seek no partners because it is always easier for them to get aroused for a fresh partner. And we all know people like that don't we?

I assume it's obvious enough that if the woman in your life starts talking the way Kipnis does in the paragraph I quoted above you should leave. Now. Get the heck out of Dodge son, there is nothing but trouble for you here. (And if your psychoanalyst sounds anything like Adam Phillips, you need a new psychoanalyst. Or none at all.)

But there is something else here. For the truth is that no one works harder at a relationship than the single person with the chance of entering into one.  The Serpentine One and I were at a pub the other day and there was a young man and woman falling in love there. It was amazing to watch her (his back was towards us). Her eyes were locked on him. She smiled and laughed and followed his every word and thought.

Years from now, she may remember that night and think how amazing it was that their thoughts ran parallel. She always understood where he was going and he always understood what she meant. Why, there were times when he seemed to know even the things she left unsaid.

Towards the end, when he was gone to pay the bill, I looked over and recognized the expression that someone gets when their face hurts from smiling all the time.

Contra Kipnis, the difference is not between times when a relationship requires work and times when it did not. The difference is between the times you feel like working at it and when you don't. Play isn't the opposite of work. It's work with a specific intention.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Greek manners and Gothic morals

What do we see when we see things we didn't see before?
Only in love does one take the time to puncture one's neighbor's masks, to consider them in the kaleidoscopic fullness of their psychology, to refrain from dismissing them when they say or do something embarrassing or something that—worse—falls into a category. Categories are the end of thought and, in many ways, the end of sight. With most people we have firm habits of categorization ....
That's quite a claim for love.

A friend of mine used to say that a lot of modern liberal thought is perfectly fine if you read it very quickly but deeply troublesome if you read it more deeply. I'd put the above quote from Nehring into that, ah, category.

If you read it quickly you get the surface thought that we diminish others by categorizing them and, therefore, one of the magnificent things about love is that our deep sense of wonder at this person we are in love with enables us to see ....

Well, enables us to see what exactly? That's where it all breaks down. If categorization is bad then what is the opposite of categorization? The closest we get here is that word "kaleidoscopic". I can't read that sort of thing without getting a picture of a heavily stoned guy back in high school days listening to the Beatles through headphones and saying "wow man, the music goes right through your head" over and over again. Later he tried to tell me that the experience had changed his whole way of seeing the world but could not, of course, explain what was so different.

Let's consider an example. Aidan is an urban guy who went to a first class university. He hates people from the south and is firmly convinced that they are all racist haters and stupid. He meets a Nanci-Jane woman from the south. At first nothing about her challenges his existing categories. He sets out to have sex with her for no reason other than he wants the power thrill he thinks will come from nailing this dumb southern woman. Only something changes as he sets out to do this. She keeps defying his categories. He realizes he never understood the kind of culture she grew up with and that everything he thought he knew about the south was nothing more than a series of stereotypes that crumble like so man sandcastles in the face of this richly cultured and deeply intelligent woman.

Okay, what happened here? Did he reject categories or did she show him new categories?

That isn't a rhetorical question. It could be either. The rhetorical question is this one: which one should it be?

This series begins here.

The next post will be here when there is a next post.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Does the Catholic Church's social teaching support collective bargaining rights?"

The question in the title is in quotation marks because I think the question is more interesting than the answer.

Okay, maybe you want to know the answer anyway: unions can be a good thing but are not necessarily so. In other words, no. (If you want more, a lot more in fact, you could begin here.)

But here is the thing: why would you even ask? Here are some possible responses, all of which strike me as perfectly rational.
  • The Catholic Church has a position on unions? Does it have a position traffic regulations too?
  • How strange, it never even occurred to me to ask what the church says about this.
  • I don't care.
  • I don't care enough to even figure out if I care.
  • Is there anything about this problem that I couldn't figure out for myself without recourse to anything beyond the church's general positions of morality and the dignity of the human person?
  • I'm not sure the institution that supported corporatism is really qualified to have positions on economic and social issues.
There is a social shift that has taken place here that is worth noting. Once upon a time, a Catholic priest would have been the most educated people in his town. In such an environment, it made sense that people would turn to the priest for advice in a whole lot of areas. That is no longer the case.

Against that context the, perfectly true, statement that 'The church has authority to teach', no longer means the way it used to mean. If someone still wants to be a moral policeman running around enforcing the authority of church teachings there is nothing anyone, least of all me, can do to stop them.

But we don't need to stop them do we? It's not like anyone is actually listening to them anymore.

You might say, 'It shouldn't be that way'. There have been times in my life when I have been tempted by that approach but I keep coming back to this problem: No one is paying attention and there is no way to get them pay attention without resorting to measures that would completely disqualify the Church as a moral authority.

Is the same true of the Church's sexual teachings? Until recently no. In the future? I don't know but I know which horse I'd bet on if this were a race.

Greek manners and Gothic morals

Is love blind?
One could equally well make the opposite case: Love, far from being blind, is the very emotion that allows us to see. It is the only state of mind in one is entirely and uncompromisingly open to another person.
That's the case that Cristina Nehring wants to make. And that is pretty much the case that you have to make if you are going to defend love. And we all want to defend love right?

Love is not, however, particularly clear eyed about the hard facts. It's a lot like optimism in that regard. Pessimists make better editors than optimists.

Of course we might also say that hard facts are not the only kind of facts there are. Optimists are happier, live longer and have better marriages than pessimists. You can do a lot of important work with soft facts. On the other hand, the harder a fact is the less real work it can be made to do. Hard facts don't engage much with the world.

To digress a moment, there is no clearer example of this than the philosopher who sits down and decides to make a list of things that he knows for certain. Oooh, we all sigh in gratitude, what a relief to know that statements that contradict themselves cannot be true. Or, what a powerful reassurance it is to know that you cannot doubt your own existence.

But the fact remains, love does a pretty darn good job of mimicking mental failure. People in love can look like they are crazy from the outside and they often do crazy things. And where does the line get drawn between the sort of obsession we call love and the sort of obsession that leads people to murder their own children?

This series begins here.

The next post will be here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Everything that has happened to Japan ...

... will happen to California someday. And will probably happen in the lifetimes of people alive now.

Greek manners and Gothic morals

I can't get started
"Greek manners and Gothic morals" is the general head I've decided to go with for my Lenten reading project. It's a reversal of an admonition delivered by Mr. Deacon in the second volume of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time:
'... as a very dear friend of mine once remarked when I was a young man—for I was a young man once, whatever you think to the contrary—"Gothic manners don't mix with Greek morals". Gypsy would never learn that.'
Mr. Deacon is not alone in defining the Greeks as moral and Gothic art as merely mannered.  Gothic here does not mean the actual period but how it has come to be imagined.

Because the Gothic era was imagined to be a period of great social rigidity, Romantic love has largely been imagined as two people against the world; as the story of a couple who pursue their love against the conventions and social mores of their time even unto death.

It's a revolutionary idea—that love could be a heroic act—and it has had a huge influence on western culture. And yet it seems very much out of style. For example, my first exposure to it came heavily laced with irony.

As a teenager, I had appalling musical taste and so I bought David Bowie's record "Heroes" as soon as it came out. It told the tale of a couple kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. It featured hokey lyrics like this:
And we kissed
As though nothing could fall
And the shame
Was on the other side
Bowie, in typical fashion for him puts the word "Heroes" in inverted commas on the album cover to make sure we don't assume he really means it. Except of course that he does but he wants the protection of irony. And that is the way with Romantic love nowadays.

How refreshing then to find Cristina Nehring. Her book A Vindication of Love is many things. As the title would suggest she also means to vindicate Mary Wollstonecraft who, as far as I'm concerned, can go unvindicated. She also picks a fight with a lot of feminists such as Laura Kipnis who, quite frankly, don't deserve the minimal respect even a refutation would award them. But all of that is overcome by the central theme:
For those of us as bored by the cult of safe love as we are repelled by the man hating clichés of old-style feminism, it [Romantic love] needs to be reformulated afresh. The purpose is by no means to beatify romantic love, or to reclaim it as a fine hallmark sentiment suitable for swooning schoolgirls. The goal is to embrace its dangers and darknesses as well as the light it sheds so amply, so sometimes piercingly. We must confront the role of transgression, the effect of power inequalities, the place for obsession, the reality of strife, the seduction of chastity, the necessity of heroism, the draw, sometimes, of death. Love is a volatile play of shadow and light. It is a brush with the sublime.
And not a even a whiff of irony about the thing anywhere.

But a few surprises. Notice how Nehring is very clear about not wanting to beatify romantic love. And then notice that chastity makes an appearance. And "the necessity of heroism".

Even as Romantic a poem as The Eve of St. Agnes, which I blogged here a while ago, treats Romantic love as something not quite realizable anymore. The last stanza of that poem tells us that Romantic lovers are of another era. It begins:
 And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
Nehring wants us to consider it as very much something for right now. So here we go ... again.

This series begins here.

The next post will be here.

Sort of political Monday

Why you should never trust the press
There was a piece in the Washington Post by David Ignatius about how Egypt needs a culture of tolerance. The piece has been distributed far and wide. I found it on Real Clear Politics.

I don't particularly recommend reading it. I only want to highlight one sentence, actually one clause of one sentence, that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about David Ignatius. And everything you need to know about him is that he is a craven liar.

 Here is the sentence with the clause in question in bold italic:
The ugly old politics of division surfaced last week in Egypt in three dramatic confrontations: Participants in a women's march reportedly were "groped" by male bystanders; Coptic Christians clashed with Muslims following the burning of a church, leaving 13 dead; and protesters ransacked the files of the hated security police, looking for dirt on the old regime, and perhaps on their neighbors.
Let's start with the grammar. the clause in question is an interesting mix of active and passive voice. "Coptic Christians clashed with Muslims". Not, you will note "Coptic Christians and Muslims clashed" but "Coptic Christians clashed with Muslims". So we know who to blame? Or, to be more precise, we know precisely whom Ignatius does not want us to blame.

Which brings us to the oddly passive language of the next phrase, "following the burning of a church". Was this fire caused by an accident perhaps? Or did someone do the burning? And did these someones belong to an identifiable group?

And finally, we get, "leaving 13 dead". It may come as a surprise to you to learn that all thirteen dead were Coptic Christians. The sentence isn't constructed in a way that makes it very likely that you will figure that out does it? In fact, the sentence is constructed in a way that makes it extremely unlikely that you will guess that what actually happened is that a mob of Muslims attacked the Copts. And you might not also guess that the Egyptian Army was present in large numbers and did nothing to stop this attack. Some observers say the army helped the mob.

The way Ignatius writes about these clashes is intentionally deceiving. He writes in a way that gives us the impression that a bunch of different groups are equally responsible for the intolerance. That's not true and he knows it.

And yet he chose to lie. And he will always choose to lie. You can take that to the bank.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Missing winter already

Okay, March is a bit early to be missing winter and it did snow when I walked the dogs tonight.

But I just made some chocolate sauce for dessert and was thinking how nice it was to be able to walk out the back door with a pot of the stuff, sit it in the snow and whisk away and feel the sauce thicken in less than a minute.

Won't be able to do that in July. No sir.

And we have running ice water right now. Won't have that in July either.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Women have changed that much?

Lilith Fair appears to be dead. I was surprised to find out it was still alive. This quote from Sarah McLachlan's press conference announcing the demise really struck me (emphasis added):
"... bringing the same thing back last year didn't really make sense, in retrospect, without due diligence being done on how women have changed. Because in twelve years, women have changed a lot. Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for."
Women have changed a lot in twelve years? Okay, we all know what is happening here. McLachlan doesn't want to face certain rather blunt truths about her declining popularity and she doesn't want to acknowledge that Lilith Fair, far from the feminist victory a lot of people wanted to believe it was, was just another pop music fad. And although this is far, far away from Charlie Sheen territory, she no doubt is surrounded by toadies who indulge her her fantasy life.

Speaking from professional perspective however, I can't imagine why someone in McLachlan's camp didn't see that embarrassing answer was inevitable. It's their job to keep her from looking like an idiot so they should have drilled her in some possible answers before they let her go up in front of the press. Yes, she was plainly determined to to spin her fantasy vision but there is no reason it had to be an inane fantasy.

Womanly virtues Friday

What it takes to be hot
The hottest woman I ever knew had thick ankles. Not ugly you understand. It was more that if you stood back and coolly assessed Stephanie, you'd notice that, proportionally speaking, her ankles were a bit thickish on her long, slim legs. The only reason I ever noticed was because she told me. I didn't believe her at first but once it had been pointed out to me the truth was inescapable.

It wasn't a problem for, well anybody. By general agreement Stephanie was the hottest girl in my year at my university.  The really important thing, though, is that it wasn't a problem for her. It didn't stop her. She, like any woman, had strengths and weaknesses and she'd decided to use her strengths and minimize her weaknesses and she did that very well.  That's the thing about hot girls. They really, really want to be hot. It would be easier to hate them or minimize them if it was just a gift, a fluke of genetics and age. You see girls that does happen to and they get a year or so but Stephanie wasn't naturally hot. In high school she'd been this gawky, awkward teenager (and still was in our first year). She got to be hot because she'd made herself hot by the time she was in her early twenties and she still was hot the last time I saw her, when she was in her late 40s.

Most women don't want to be hot that much. They want to be valued. They want others to look at them and think the best. They want others, especially men others, to look for what is good and find it. And that is an understandable emotion in both women and men. It's not just that we want to be loved, although we certainly want that, we also want to be appreciated, even by people who don't particularly care about us. And that is where we can get a little crazy.

We can all learn a lot from hot women. Women like Stephanie don't get to be that way by fluke. Stephanie got to be hot the same way good athletes get to be good athletes—she kept working at it. When most of us wouldn't have bothered, Stephanie was in the gym. She looked at her body and evaluated it in a really objective way the rest of us would never dare do. And her workouts, her clothing were designed to make her hot. She didn't spend more money on clothing than most other women in our circle but she did spend a lot more attention.

I remember her telling me about it once when we'd gotten past all the awkward stuff. She told me that the thing that really had been a barrier for her was her posture and the way she moved. 'Good posture is like losing five pounds and gaining a cup size,' she said. And she somewhere along the line she realized she looked awkward in high school because she was awkward. As she'd gotten into better shape she'd actually gained weight. She'd moved up to 145 pounds, which was a perfectly reasonable weight for a twenty-two year old woman who was five feet, ten inches tall. Everyone who tried to guess her weight pegged her at twenty pounds less than that and other women were sometimes quite shocked to find out how much she weighed but Stephanie remembered full well how she'd looked when she'd weighed a hundred and twenty-five and didn't have the muscle mass to stand and move gracefully.

At this point the temptation is to say, 'There are more important things in life.' Which is another way of saying, those grapes are probably sour. But I have even worse news for you. Stephanie is good at those other things too. She has a successful career and a successful marriage. Last I heard, her kids are growing up well too. We were friends for fifteen years until she moved to Vancouver and she was everything you'd want in a friend.

Hotness for Stephanie was never about what other people thought or about what she hoped/wanted other people to think. She didn't do it because she wanted to be loved. She, like a significant minority of women, believed that this was a big part of being a woman and she mastered that aspect the same way she learned how to drive a car, hold down a job or pay the bills because knowing how to do those things well is something every adult is supposed to be able to do.

You could see this in the way men responded to her. We couldn't stop telling her she was hot but, after being her friend for a few years, I quickly realized that this made zero impression on her because she already knew she was hot. It was a simple objective fact. Telling her once was a nice compliment; it was to say something nice about her and she appreciated that. Telling her over and over again was all about us. Telling her over and over again was to reveal something weak and pathetic about ourselves. It was to demand some sort of response from her.

Hotness was something she'd achieved and that pretty much any woman (or man) can achieve if they really want to just as anyone can be good at their job if they really want to be.

Now, the perfectly reasonable question from any woman at this point is, 'Why should I want to?' And the perfectly reasonable answer is, 'No reason at all. No one is making anyone do anything.'

And you're satisfied with that aren't you? You don't feel some nagging need for more justification do you? Because asking the question over and over again is a lot like guys telling Stephanie she is hot over and over again.

Because, if we are being honest here, the question is not whether hotness matters. Of course it matters and we all know it does. When we ask ourselves that we're really already on to the next question; which is, 'Does it matter that much?' That's a perfectly reasonable question but it is also perfectly reasonable to ask ourselves why we are asking it of someone else. Why are we demanding a response of them?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"What is the matter with the world today?"

Thinking about that question it strikes that the correct answer is the one that Voltaire hated. Which is to say, the world is not perfect but it is the best possible world.

You can fix the dripping faucet, apologize to a friend, maybe even negotiate a peace or cure a disease if you are really gifted. But no matter what you do you will succeed in subtracting one iota from the sum total of evil in the world.

In my view, every time an idealist keen on making the world a better place collapses in tears of despair an angel gets its wings.

PS: One of the best parts of Casanova's memoirs is the section on Voltaire. It's worth reading just to see how much Casanova was the better man and more profound thinker of the two.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Men hate rejection. I sure do.

I'll tell you how I got over it. I took a notebook with me to have a coffee. Nowadays you'd probably want to take a laptop. I didn't think I was curing myself of rejection. I was just writing descriptions of people I saw. It was a writing exercise. I was going to write some portraits of people. And they ended up being portraits of women-people because, for some bizarre reason, I find women much more interesting than men.

The thing is I didn't write many because I kept rejecting people. The vast majority of the women who walked into the coffeeshop weren't worth my time to even write a paragraph about. I didn't look at each one and think, 'Well maybe but no'. No, I looked at them and then looked away because, to me at that moment, she wasn't worth the little bit of investment it would have taken to reach a judgment about her. I made those decisions so fast I didn't even notice they were decisions.

That's how women reject us and they have every right in the world to do so.

Now you may say, 'If you'd taken the trouble to try to find something interesting in them, you could have.' Yeah, I could have. But so could you. I mean that is what every pathetic guy with a crush on a woman thinks. He knows she is beautiful and intelligent and wonderful so why should she pay attention to him? Well, the pathetic guy that we all sometimes are thinks, because she should. If she really is as wonderful as she is, then she should be willing to see past all the reasons to reject me and find what is good in me. Why even if I can't see these things for myself she should be able ....

I'll stop there because it should be obvious that is crazy talk.

Women often reject us for trivial reasons and they often reject us for good reasons but here is the point: they don't need to provide reasons. This is how your mother screws you up. She tells you that you can't do something and then she gives a reason. And she is willing to let you argue the point.

You've seen this right? You've sat and been made uncomfortable and everyone else in the room has been made uncomfortable because the child's mother keeps reasoning with him. She keeps explaining and giving more and more reasons. She won't say what needs to be said, 'You can't do it because Mummy said you can't do it.'

That's the thing about rejection. We all do it and we're all allowed to to do it. She doesn't have to give you a reason for why she won't to talk to you, for why she won't let you kiss her, for why she won't let you touch her breasts, for why she won't go out with you, for why she won't keep going out with you. Our mother fell over herself proving that she loved us no matter what happened but (if we are lucky) she is the only woman in our lives who will ever do that and, quite frankly, we'd all be better off if she'd tried less hard than she did.

Other women will reject us for whatever reasons they want and those reasons don't have to have anything to do with us.

'She doesn't care that I exist.'

'That's absolutely right. Do you have a problem with that? Because you shouldn't.'

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Marxists, Feminists, Christians and Erotic Love

Crazy Love: My Lenten reading project
How does oppressed people, say women, get into the revolution in the first place? Well, the most likely thing is actually rising expectations. If, for example, women gain some freedoms and hopes that they never had before, they will fight for more. That is the way, historically speaking, feminism actually came about. It is why feminism sprung up in precisely the countries where women already had some freedoms and not in countries such as Iran where it would seem most logical and is certainly most needed.

Marx never saw this. Marx thought that revolutions came out of greater and greater suffering. That was why he liked capitalism. Capitalism, thought Marx, was going to make the workers poorer than they had ever been before and the workers would therefore rise up and revolt. He also thought that capitalism, and this is important, removed all the romance from life. In capitalism, Marx argued, all relationships tended to get reduced to purely economic relationships.

Churches especially irked Marx. He thought they covered up what were really hard economic facts with a lot of incense and ritual. He liked capitalism because he thought it would replace church with something much harsher and cruder. Which it might well do yet. But Marx's bet was that this harsh and crude thing would be so horrible that the oppressed people would be forced to see the problem and rise up.

He was wrong and the entire history of the left ever since has been a struggle with that problem. There has, as a consequence, always been a tendency on the left to trash talk capitalism. Over and over again, our leftist betters keep telling us that we don't really like all the comforts and conveniences that capitalism has given us.

There has always been a similar tendency in feminism. One of the most visible things girls and young women have done with their freedom is to embrace erotic love like never before: there she is, waxed and trussed up in her lingerie, short skirt and low cut top, cheering along as Taylor Swift sings about love. For romantic, erotic love is like the church of sex and marriage and anyone who likes to look at young women can tell you that there are more young women who are true believers in this religion than any other.

Not surprisingly, feminism has always been suspicious of love at best and some feminists have felt the need to trash talk love.  For them, love is the thing that keeps us from seeing these relationships as purely about power and personal gain. For it does them no good to tell women that men often exploit women sexually (which is perfectly true, as is the reverse that women often exploit men sexually) so long as people still believe love is possible. It does no good to tell people that there are lots of bad marriages, that there is often violence and betrayal in marriage so long as people believe that love is possible.

In her memoir about being at the barricades during the heady days of radical feminism, Susan Brownmiller recounts having her bona fides challenged because she lived with man. How could she be a feminist, she was asked, when every night she went home and sucked  ____? More recently, Laura Kipnis has written a book that she describes as a polemic against love. Here is the teaser she gives at her website:

Who would dream of being against love? No one.

Love is, as everyone knows, a mysterious and all-controlling force, with vast power over our thoughts and life decisions.

But is there something a bit worrisome about all this uniformity of opinion? Is this the one subject about which no disagreement will be entertained, about which one truth alone is permissible? Consider that the most powerful organized religions produce the occasional heretic; every ideology has its apostates; even sacred cows find their butchers. Except for love.

Hence the necessity for a polemic against it. A polemic is designed to be the prose equivalent of a small explosive device placed under your E-Z-Boy lounger. It won’t injure you (well not severely); it’s just supposed to shake things up and rattle a few convictions.
But you know, this is one of those interesting areas where feminism lines up with a certain censorious strain in Christianity. Saint Paul is relatively blameless in this, although he is often recruited to the cause. Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine, on the other hand, were right in there.

And let's give them their due. Erotic love is a huge problem for Christianity. For erotic love is a lot like a religious commitment with the added pay off of having sex with it.

And so we have a long, long history of Christian writers from Augustine to CS Lewis trash talking erotic love.

So who speaks for love? Kipnis, above, implies that lots of people do, but actual defenders of love are actually pretty thin on the ground. There are people who speak for sex but they are even keener to diminish erotic love than the feminists and the Christians. And there are people keen to speak of commitment and mutual support but they are rather shy about connecting this to actual, you know, luuuvvvv.

There was an odd little book that came out last year by Cristina Nehring called A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance in the Twenty-First Century. It got a lot of reaction and then disappeared. Her website, for example, is now just a shell. When the book first came out it was full of stuff. It now has the look of something that is just a placeholder.

The reason for this is, in one sense, obvious. There was something embarrassing about the book. It was embarrassing to read, embarrassing to write about and embarrassing to think about.  It's always embarrassing to write about love and that is one of the puzzling things about it. So I'm going to read it for Lent.

My blogging will start Monday. I will assume that few people reading here will actually read the book so the remarks I may will be set out such that they do not need any additional context. OTOH, it's an interesting book. It's not a great book so I can't recommend it as unreservedly as I recommended Brideshead Revisited (which is also a defence of erotic love) but I like it warts and all.

The next entry in this series will be here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More Christian narcissism

I've mentioned before a story I once was told about GK Chesterton. I was told it by a member of the clergy who thought it embodied important moral truth. This story smacks of urban mythology to me; although it may be true for all I know. For my purposes it doesn't matter because it is the attitude behind the story and not whether it really happened that is interesting.

The story is that a British newspaper asked various leading figures to write on the theme "What is the matter with the world today". And the conclusion to the story is that Chesterton submitted a two word response; "I am".

Now that is about as pure an example of narcissism as you will ever find. For the narcissist the entire world exists only as a theatre for their moral struggles. The narcissist lives in a world where they act and everyone else responds. Only a narcissist could imagine that they were what is wrong with the world today.

Take a deep breath and say the following:
 "I will die. Not maybe but definitely. Some people will miss me but they'll probably get over it and if I have even a shred of decency in me I will hope and pray that they do. Beyond that small circle, my death will hardly be noticed. It will have almost no impact on the world. That is the way it is and, if we believe in God, it is the way it should be."
To put it another way, George Bailey is a narcissist. That is to say, there isn't a better example in our culture of pure, unrestrained narcissism run amok than the movie It's a Wonderful Life.

I know, I know, now I've gone too far. It's one thing to be writing this blog taking shots at the clergy and other fellow Christians but when I start trash-talking holiday classics I've really gone over the edge. Maybe. But before you decide I am watch the movie again. Watch it now, or in May, or in August. Watch it all alone. Watch it away from all the ritual that has grown up around it. See it again for the first time away from whatever preconceptions have taken hold. The movie is about as clear a portrait of a man who has completely lost his grip on reality as you will ever find. Really! Watch it. George Bailey is Charlie Sheen crazy!

George Bailey convinces himself that if he didn't exist the whole universe would reverse to that weird world where Mr. Spock wears a goatee. He's an ordinary little guy doing the best he can but he restores his "sanity" through megalomania pure and simple.

This is not Christ's message. Christ's message is all about how everyone, including Christ himself, is absolutely dependent on God.

Monday, March 7, 2011

By the way

A follow up point from my earlier post:
What we are doing is assuming a simple causal relationship between doing good and a better world. It's as if we believe that if Christians generally, or Catholic Christians specifically, behave the way we are supposed to then all the evil in the world will dissolve.
In clinical psychology there is a name for that kind of thinking: narcissism.

Go back and reread the Joe Carter quote I started with and you'll see the point:
The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work.
It's really all about him. It's a fantasy projection of personal feelings onto the whole world. What looks like morality is really a kind of megalomania. Think about it: we look out the window and see poverty and suddenly that is a sign of something about us? That is megalomania pure and simple.

It's an impulse we are all prone to but we really do need to control it. Dressing up a political morality and calling it Christian morality doesn't help.

Sort of political Monday

Two people making the same mistake from opposite ends of the Catholic political spectrum

Joe Carter put up a piece at First Things about his experiences with poverty and what he feels the poor really need most as a consequence of his having had that experience. The piece is worth reading. But there is a howler in it and it is a howler that is so predictable from Christians. Here it is:
The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work. 
Huh? How exactly do you make that out? And that howler opens the door for the first comment from someone named Brian that comes in like the old joke about the definition of a split second:
Persistent poverty in a society is not a sign of failure of the government, but of failure of the Church, failure of Christians. Amen.
This sort of thing comes up so often that it is pointless to try and correct it. Short version: Jesus isn't stupid and that is why he never told us to deal with poverty or to make it go away. He told us in blunt, direct language that persistent poverty is a fact in this world and that it always will be. The poor will always be with us and Christians are not and never have been charged with doing something about poverty.

As I say, there is little reason arguing with this sort of thing but I do wonder why it keeps happening. As I've said before, when smart people keep making the same stupid mistake over and over again it is worth looking into why they do it. Not to convince them—nothing will ever convince them—but rather so we can better understand how we ourselves are prone to the same sort of mistake.

As luck would have it, the very next day Father Z made a similar mistake from the other end of the Catholic political spectrum. He is quoting Louis Verrecchio but he is in agreement with him. The gist of the thing is that liturgical reforms from the 1960s led to Catholics' increasing disregard for Catholic teachings about sexual morality.

 Before I begin I should say that I am very much looking forward to the improved translation, that I hate it when priests who improvise and cheapen the mass and I crave elevated language. I'm with Father Z completely on that end.

Anyway, the first step in the argument is that when Catholics get the idea that something as important as the liturgy is optional, then they get the idea that everything else is optional too. That's a very good point. But then it gets carried over to the question of sexual morality. Well, maybe but with any argument like this you want to step back first and look for the longer trend.

As it turns out, there is evidence going some ways back that even the most conservative Catholics have been progressively moving further and further away from the church's teachings on sexuality and I can turn to a traditionalist Catholic of impeccable credentials to back me up on this one:
Magister began his piece by stating that a “divergence” has existed between the teachings of the Church and individual Catholic practice long before contraceptives were even on the market. The Vatican analyst then discussed how the book cites a case study involving a model Catholic area in Italy during the first half of the 1900s.
“Rural Veneto was at the time the most Catholic region in Italy, with an extremely solid, grassroots presence of the Church,” Magister explained. “But even in Veneto in the first half of the twentieth century – where almost everyone went to Mass on Sundays and to confession at least once a year – the birth rate was cut in half in the span of one generation.
“It went from 5 children per woman in 1921 to 2.5 children per woman in 1951 because of generalized recourse to contraceptive practices, the most widespread of which was coitus interruptus.”

So much for that.

But why do we keep makings connections where there are none. Why do we think that a commandment to care for the poor widow and orphan in our midst or to show kindness to aliens among us must translate into a socialist agenda? Why do we get onto a good cause, as Father Z has done, and then connect it to everything that seems wrong with the world? What we are doing is assuming a simple causal relationship between doing good and a better world. It's as if we believe that if Christians generally, or Catholic Christians specifically, behave the way we are supposed to then all the evil in the world will dissolve.

There is nothing in the Bible or church teaching or in plain logic or common sense that would justify this naive faith. But I know that I get into moods where I make just that connection and I bet you do too.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

American Catholics and Catholic Americans

This post was inspired by a  question in the comments. It will probably be more meandering and vague than even my normal posts are because this is not a subject I have attempted to set out my views on in any ordered way before.

It's also a subject I don't really know the history of terribly well. I know some.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Buckley and Hef

I've been commenting over at The American Catholic. My comment was in response to Paul Zummo posting a post that Mike Potemra had put up at The Corner earlier today. The point of the both posts was that it is odd that both Playboy and National Review went on to have significant cultural impacts. That it is odd both in the sense that no one would have predicted it but also odd in that the two magazines represented opposing forces in American culture.

That was where I disagreed:
What I wonder is whether the two are nearly as contradictory as they seem. I don’t know if William F Buckley ever went to the Playboy mansion in the 1960s but it wouldn’t surprise to learn that he had. The two men had a lot in common.
It took me only four seconds after I'd clicked "submit" to determine that Buckley had indeed visited the Playboy Mansion.

The two men shared a lot. At the risk of offending everyone at one stroke, neither man was terribly deep. They didn't read nearly as much as they liked to let on and what they did read, they didn't read very deeply. As intellectuals, both men were utter frauds. (As long as I'm offending people, this was a quality they shared with a lot of figures of the period such as JFK and Pierre Trudeau. Unlike JFK and Trudeau, both Buckley and Hefner could laugh at themselves and didn't mind lapsing into self-parody.)

They weren't really cosmopolitan sophisticates either although that is closer to the mark. Dare I say that they were playboys? That isn't completely fair to Buckley but it's not completely wrong either.

What Buckley and Hefner had in common was that they recognized that most of us don't want to have to listen to a lot of moralizing prudes. Buckley famously said he'd preferred to be governed by the first hundred names from the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard and Hefner might just as easily have said he'd rather answer to the moral standards of those hundred people than to The League of Decency.

Both those designations are meant to represent larger groups: college-educated liberal intellectuals and culturally conservative Christians respectively. The thing is that both Buckley and Hefner made good bets. Most of us tend to think that those two groups are hungry for cultural and political influence far beyond what their numbers warrant and most of us fear that they may succeed. Both groups still haven't gotten it yet having, as the famous quip about the Bourbons had it, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

This is probably redundant at this point, but I think both men had more positive impact than negative on our culture.

What brings them in

The software tools that Blogger supplies let me keep track of the search terms that bring people to this blog. That interests me because every day a quite few people come in and read old posts.

Some of this stuff is deeply flattering. Today, as every day, there are several people reading their way through my posts on Saint Agnes' Eve, Brideshead  Revisited, and the various Jane Austen novels.

Some other stuff is strange. As I write this there is someone reading a post I wrote back in October comparing Sir Walter Scott to Count Basie. They got their because they did a search for a proverb that says "every tub must sit on its own bottom", which was a favourite of Basie's. It makes sense that it would happen once.

It's when these things happen again and again that sometimes gets me. There is a post I wrote once saying only that I wouldn't be posting much that day and it gets a five or six page views every week. I have no idea why.

The following word strings have brought hundreds of people to this blog. They all make sense in a weird Googly sort of way.  But it is still weird to think that there is not just one but hundreds of people who type  "Northanger Abbey sex"into a search engine. What do they teach these kids in university these days?
studiously uncool

mad men 666

if personality is a series of unbroken gestures

we're flawed because we want so much more

that's not sexy

gaudete sunday

gaudete sunday 2010

the silent generation

"northanger abbey sex"

we are flawed because

"good girl sex"

Marijuana and psychosis

There is a German study that finds evidence that marijuana use precedes psychosis.

If you haven't been following the science pretty closely, this may come as news to you so a little background. It has long been known that there is a higher incidence of psychosis among marijuana users than among the general population. You probably haven't heard much about it for two reasons.

Womanly virtues Friday

SAHG Rules
 There was a piece that had the feminist bar stools spinning last week about being a stay-at-home girlfriend. This is my second post on it. Short version, a woman lost her job and her boyfriend is paying the bills. She, her name is Quiana Stokes, has started living according to what she herself describes as "stereotypically Stepfordish rules to keep our relationships afloat and ourselves sane". And she has discovered that other women are doing the same thing.

Then she gives a list of her rules. Aside from bikini waxes, the list she gives sounds exactly like what an early 1960s housewife might have done. It is exactly what my mother did in the early 1960s except that she also raised four kids. Others born years after me had the same experience.

Some people are just railing. But even the defenders come off weird. They point out, for example, that the woman who wrote the rules "she doesn’t actually want to do".

I might add she isn't doing anything that a lot of college girls with and without boyfriends do. Because of where I live and work, I'm surrounded by them and if you eavesdrop on their conversations, you'll notice that they talk about doing exactly what Quiana Stokes does. Far from being some kind of throwback to an ugly pre-feminist past, Quiana Stokes represents the future.

But I'm a man writing for men, so what do we men have to learn from this? Well, there is good news.

  1. The do it for yourself movement is dead. When 1970s feminism died, there was an awkward period when women collectively discovered that they really do want to wear bras and make up and nice clothes and generally, as Stokes puts it, "keep themselves up". But women's literature of the period sold these things as something a woman did for herself. They had no choice but to go along because women were doing all this stuff anyway but they insisted that you should never do this for a man. No bad idea can sustain itself for too long and this is another example of that.
  2. The other thing that women seem to be collectively recognizing is that there are material advantages to being married. I know, I know, the article says stay at home girlfriend but the relationship she describes is a sort of marriage wherein two people are not mature enough to realize they are married, something I wrote about a short while ago. Yes it would be nice if there was some recognition that there is also something sacred about a couple but that too will come with time.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

SAHG Rules
There was a piece that had the feminist bar stools spinning last week about being a stay-at-home girlfriend. This is the first of two posts I will do on it. Short version, a woman lost her job and her boyfriend is paying the bills. She, her name is Quiana Stokes, has started living according to what she herself describes as "stereotypically Stepfordish rules to keep our relationships afloat and ourselves sane". And she has discovered that other women are doing the same thing.

I might add she isn't doing anything that a lot of college girls with and without boyfriends do. Because of where I live and work, I'm surrounded by them and if you eavesdrop on their conversations, you'll notice that they talk about doing exactly what Quiana Stokes does. Far from being some kind of throwback to an ugly pre-feminist past, Quiana Stokes represents the future.

But what about men? Because what is really impressive about women like Stokes is that they apply rules to themselves and they do this for the sake of their relationship. And, whether feminists like acknowledging this or not, the vast majority of women will do exactly what Stokes has done at some time in their lives. That is they will sit down and say, "If I really want a man in my life what do I have to do to make myself the kind of woman that a man is likely to want to have in his life?"

You don't see men do their part so much these days. There are books, magazines and blog posts galore about how to get her, how to giver her good sex once you get her and how to tell if she is cheating and so forth. There isn't much about sitting down and evaluating your habits and, yes, your body and dress, and asking yourself, is this what some woman is likely going to want in a man?

One of Stokes' defenders insists that this woman isn't doing anything she doesn't want to do but that isn't quite true. Everything she does is done for the sake of the relationship and that is all about making herself a better person for him. Here's her list with some attempts to convert them into their male equivalents by me.

Don’t sleep in: She gets up with him in the morning rather than sleep in. This a good rule and easily generalized. Are we really in this together? Because if we are I should be getting up for the things that I don't necessarily have to be involved in. And I should do it so easily and naturally that she isn't aware of any special effort I made for her but rather I should ensure she takes it as something she has a right to expect. All Stokes' rules are about recognizing a man's legitimate entitlements and there are lots of those going the other way too.

Keep the place clean:  Nothing to explain here. But we should be honest here that women generally need less pushing here than we men do. And don't just keep it clean according to what feels good enough for us. If we really want to have a woman in our lives we should be aiming for the sort of cleanliness that appeals to women. The really important thing about the kinds of rules we should be setting for ourselves is that they should require living up to the standards of others.

Cook or order dinner every night: Again, self explanatory. In my experience men need less prodding here than women do. Women seem more inclined to care care about what is proper for every day (i.e. keeping the place clean) whereas men seem more inclined to care about what is proper when creating a sense of occasion. But, let's be brutally honest, the women in our lives do more than we can about keeping the place clean so maybe we could work harder at creating sense of occasion and maybe resent it a little less that she doesn't seem as enthusiastic as we are.

Keep yourself up: Let's be honest, no matter how far from perfect a woman may be, women generally are better at this than men are. And, again, keeping yourself up means keeping yourself up in the ways that matter to her.

Pamper him:  To be brutally honest, I think men are better at remembering to pamper women than women are at remembering to pamper men. I'd replace this with pay close attention to her needs so you can guess what they are. And I use the word "guess" advisedly. At the risk of getting tarred and feathered and run out of town, women send mixed and often bluntly contradictory messages about what they want and being a good man means learning women's behaviours.

As long as I'm being incorrect, I also use the word "behaviours" knowingly. What a woman says she wants is never the whole story and sometimes it is often the worst guide to what she really wants and needs.

Sexy Time: This may seem self evident but it isn't. One of the biggest dangers in a relationship or marriage is for her to let sex to become something she does for you. In a sense she does this out of laziness. It's much more effort for her to enjoy herself than it is for her to simply go along with your more persistent and consistent desires. And pretty soon she'll start to resent what is happening.

I've noted before that there is a multi-billion dollar industry designed to helping women indulge themselves sensually. That industry wouldn't exist if women didn't need all that help. She needs to learn how to enjoy herself. That's where you come in.

Not unrelated, there is also a billion dollar porn and semi-porn business (think of The Huffiungton Post if you want to know what semi-porn is). Anyway, it may seem like the easiest thing in the world for a man to learn how to enjoy a woman sexually.  But if that were really true we wouldn't need all that help.

Leave the house: Socialize with other people. Here I would disagree with Stokes a bit. She talks about getting out with other women and it is good for women to get out with other women and, she would presumably say, for men to get out with other men. But I'd argue that both do a lot better if they socialize with mixed groups and even with other members of the opposite sex. Other people keep us sane and not just in the sense that they keep us from going stir crazy. They also keep us thinking about and evaluating the rules that we apply to our relationships.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Life's lessons

The squirrels are mating. Squirrels have a way of doing this that either is or isn't just like humans. You can be the judge.

When a female squirrel is in season, a whole bunch of males start chasing her. The problem is that none of them can mate with her because the other males will prevent them. So the female leads them on a merry chase until all the squirrels except one are too tired to do anything. And so he mates with her. And then she leads the remainder on a chase until the next one gets lucky. And she keeps doing this until she is out of heat, at which point she turns bare-fanged on any remaining males and chases them all away.

Anyway, it's happening all around the house right now. There were five red squirrels—four males, and one female—in our Butternut tree yesterday. The acrobatics were very impressive.

And then there was a harsh life lesson for a crow. Crows are big, tough birds with little reason to fear most other birds. It turns out, however, that it is a very bad idea for a crow to take on a blue jay. Since yesterday at 11:30 AM there is a crow over by the river who now has only one eye who'll tell you all about it. It was not a pretty thing to watch I'll tell you that.