Tuesday, May 31, 2011


If you done even a little fishing you've probably seen this interesting reaction. Perhaps you have even done it yourself. I have.

A guy will be fishing and a fish will either approach his offering and refuse it or get hooked but then get away and the guy will respond by getting angry at the fish.

Odd isn't it. But, at the same time, absolutely ordinary. Everybody does it some time. We start to think that the experience we want is already ours because we want it. And it's harmless enough with fish.

The underpants gnome theory of seduction

The fascinating thing about the false dichotomy between being be a nice guy versus be a pick up artist is how much it mirrors South Park's episode about the underpants gnomes. The episode is about a local coffee shop that faces a challenge from a huge coffee company called "Harbucks".

Now what makes the show brilliant is that it doesn't even try and pretend that Harbucks are nice guys. The big chain is portrayed as being only in it for the money. It's on the other side of the equation that the satire hits. For the other side think that because they are nice guys who are locally owned, everyone should buy from them or, at the very least, support a law that will prevent the big company from setting up in town.

Meanwhile there is a parallel plot involving gnomes who steal underpants in order to get rich. And the gnomes have a business plan (image courtesy Wikipedia):

(Philosophy professors must love this for it illustrates a common fallacy.) The point here is that the gnomes business plan is exactly what Harbucks' competitors are advancing.
Phase 1: Be a nice, locally operated business
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Collect money
That isn't their real business plan of course. Their real business plan is something more like the following:
Phase 1: Provide a location for people to drink coffee
Phase 2: Insist people pay to get coffee
Phase 3: Collect money.
Of course that is so simple it goes without saying. And it is exactly Harbucks' plan as well. If you want to run a coffeeshop, you have to offer them the coffeeshop itself, the coffee you sell and the price you charge as the reason to come buy from you. The fact that you are a local business run by well-meaning people is irrelevant.

Now it should be obvious that that is not very far from this:
Phase 1: Be a nice guy, a friend and confidant for a  woman
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Have sex with her
Not only is this every bit as manipulative as anything the pick up artist might try, it's also ineffective.  It's ineffective because it leaves out that you are selling coffee. If you want sex with a woman, you have to present yourself as a sexual being and you have to make it clear to her that you want sex with her.

Now we could spell out a whole lot of concerns and considerations at this point but it seems to me that this point is so important as to warrant making it a conclusion. You want her! You want to take her clothes off and do things to her! That is why you are here talking to her.

If you really were only interested in being just a nice guy it wouldn't bother you if she didn't have sex with you.

A moral question

The thing that got me started on this pick up artist thread was something Dr. Helen wrote. She is positive on the pick up artist thing (a surprising number of women are but that is a subject for another post). I disagree with her about that but I thought she hit on something really important here:
I recently recommended them [books about how to be a pick up artist] to a friend of mine for her son who she said was depressed over his lack of ability to get a date. At first, I started to give the same old tired advice. "Just tell him to be himself and a woman will find that attractive." "Bullshit," I thought to myself. 
She is right that very often the advice given to young men is to "just be yourself" and that it is useless advice (and I'll get into that later too). But the question I have is this: Is it a morally good thing to "just be yourself"?

Turn it around, would you be satisfied with someone else if you knew that she was just trying to be herself?

I've embedded this video before and I'll probably embed it again because it's brilliant:

The best yearbook ever!

I love Pope Benedict, I really do, but this sort of thing makes me sad:
Vatican City, May 30, 2011 / 10:47 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Benedict stressed the urgency of evangelizing modern society, saying that Christians today face the task of reaching a world that grows increasingly apathetic to the message of the Gospel.
Remember the girl who ran for student council president back in high school in order to overcome "apathy"? Remember how bubbly she was and even attractive and actually kind of hot because she was always neat and clean and smiling and was on the swim team? Remember how you started avoiding her after a while?

That's what will happen here too. I can only hope that this lead paragraph reflects more of what the folks at CNA wanted to hear than what the pope actually said.
“The crisis we are living through,” he said, “carries with it signs of the exclusion of God from people's lives, a general indifference to the Christian faith, and even the intention of marginalizing it from public life.”
Life always feels like a crisis. It always feels as if we need to change what we are doing or very bad things will happen. Sometimes the feeling is justified and sometimes it is not.

Look, I'm a believer. Whether I'm a good Christian I don't know but I am a serious one, I go to church more than once a week. I couldn't even begin to convince myself that apathy is worth overcoming.


I've been meaning to write about "pick up artists" aka the "seduction community" aka the "got game" guys for a while now. For these guys are not completely crazy. If that sounds like faint praise that is because it is faint praise.

I take it as a given that anyone who reads me will agree that it is wrong to manipulate another human being into giving you sex. But there is a huge difference between "knowing" that it is wrong to manipulate other people into sex and not doing it. We all do things that we know are wrong all the time so right at the outset we need to face the possibility that we are more manipulative than we realize.

There is also a deeply ingrained consequentialism in our culture that makes us all into manipulators whether we mean to be or not. Consequentialism just means a moral system that evaluates the moral choices in terms of their consequences. That can be very complicated but consider a simple example. We've all been advised at some time or another to respond to someone who is behaving badly to us by reaching out more to them. "Try treating little Johnny the way you want to be treated yourself." Or, as they teach people in teacher's college, "Try modelling the behaviour you want from your kids to pick up."

What never seems to occur to the people who say these things is that this is pure manipulation. It's behaving in a certain way on the belief that this will cause others to change their behaviour to something more like we want.

And at some point, that desire becomes an entitlement. Once we've been told often enough that the right moral choices are the ones that produce morally good results, we start thinking that being a good person should be enough to ensure that good things happen to us: "I'm a good person, therefore someone I find desirable will come along and fall in love with me." And once people who believe this are in love, they continue to believe that if they are good, they will also get the kind of marriage they want.

Now we could go all sorts of places with that thought but I just want to stop there. Huge amounts of the moral advice we give and receive amount to the following: "Do X and the other person is more likely to respond the way you want". And that is manipulative. So the most obvious argument we might use against the pick up artist is closed to us. The guy who is "being a nice guy" in the hopes that this will get him sex and love is every bit the manipulative bastard as the guy who uses neuro-linguistic programming techniques to get the girl.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sort of political Monday

Incremental Whiggism
Last week I suggested that a lot of centrist parties are in fact really left-of-centre parties. I got some pushback on that for which I am grateful.

 I'm going to carry on a bit on the same theme this week starting with the European "right-of-centre" parties. In practice these parties are always left-leaning on economic and ostensibly more conservative on social issues. There is nothing contentious about my saying this, by the way, look up the way they define themselves and you will see that they themselves see themselves this way.

What that has tended to mean in practice is that these parties have pushed for leftist economic reforms and that they have resisted liberal shifts on the social front. They have expanded and improved the welfare state while fighting a rearguard action on changes in divorce, marriage and sexual freedoms. Menaing they have tended to push for more and more in the way of leftish economic policies and gradually concede more and more to the left on the social front.

Now before I go on, please note I am not saying that what they are doing is wrong. Nor am I saying that it is right. All I am claiming is that when you look closely at what these parties actually achieve, these trends are what you find. That what the elite of these parties have thought about of the centre is actually a moving target that is steadily moving left.

Now a number of things follow from that, two of which are of particular importance.

The first is that parties of this sort will always respond very aggressively to parties to the right of them. In Canada, for example, the shift from slightly left of centre—the apparent position of the Liberal Party—to slightly right of centre—the apparent position of the Conservative Party—wouldn't be much of a shift. But the real positions these parties represent is from a politics that is always moving incrementally to the left to a politics that would cease to do so and perhaps even begin to move the other direction in some areas. That is a huge change even if the starting points proposed during any individual election campaign are so close they can seem indistinguishable. It is the difference between slowing the ship of state down a little. or even just stopping it for a while, to reversing course.

The Liberals themselves have slowed down or even stopped the ship when it suited their purposes but changing direction is a huge shift and they responded to it with a barrage of invective directed at the Conservatives.

Which brings me to the second thing about these incremental leftist parties. For why didn't they respond by returning to fundamentals and arguing for their ideology rather than accusing their opponents of every vile thing they could think of? And the reason for that is that the "centrist" parties have quite willfully forgotten what their own ideology is. For them, that is the whole point of positioning yourself as a centrist; if I am in the centre I am just a  pragmatist who doesn't need an ideology. In fact, one of my primary claims against my opponents will always be that they are driven by ideology and I'm not.

There are all sorts of attendant difficulties that come with that but that is a subject for next week.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A moment of vanity

It's Memorial Day weekend and readership is way down. Given that, I thought a moment of vanity might be okay.

I think the post that I have reposted below the "read more" jump below is the best thing I've ever written on this blog.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday ...

The inner experience of being a woman
What it feels like to be something often seems like the most important question in the world. We assume that we can understand someone else because they have the same experiences as we do. And when we worry that other people don't understand us we assume it is because they don't know what it feels like to be us. So inner experience obviously seems like a hugely important issue when we worry about the ways women relate to men. And it can seem somehow less important when we worry about the way women relate to other women.

Think about Tiresias for a moment. Because of some complicated mythology that need not trouble us, Tiresias was changed from a man into a woman and several years later back again. And one day when Zeus and Hera are having a fight about who enjoys sex more: men or women. Zeus asks Tiresias for the authoritative answer.

Now whole story of Tiresias is just a wacky superstitious belief but it seems enormously important. The temptation is to think that if Tiresias really did exist then he/she would know. And the flip side of that is to think that because no one is like Tiresias then no man can really understand women.

But put yourself in Hera's sandals for a moment. Zeus keeps cheating on her. Suppose she begins to wonder if maybe there is something wrong with her. Maybe, she thinks, the problem is that I don't enjoy sex enough and Zeus goes to other women because they enjoy it more. Maybe Europa appeals to him because she is more responsive as a lover.

So here is the question: Is Hera any better off trying to under stand what sex feels like for another woman such as Europa than a man is wondering what sex feels like for women? And if the answer to that question is 'no!'—as it pretty much has to be—then we're really going to have to reconsider the whole inner experience issue.

Keys to understanding
Let's use an analogy. Suppose you've just bought a large mansion and the owner has left you with a box of unmarked keys. And just to make it clearer imagine that every lock in the house is identical so all the keys are of the same size and share certain general characteristics. The keys are, of course, different from one another but the only way to tell if this key opens this lock is to try it and see if it works.

And the problem we have is that we have to wander around this mansion trying all the keys on all the locks so we can figure out which keys go with which locks so we can label them for future use. To further complicate matters we have a child along with us who needs to be kept amused.

To keep the kid amused, I'm going to tell her that every lock knows which key fits it. I show the kid the bumps on the key and say that when the key is inside, the lock knows that this is the right key and agrees to open for it. And then I point at the lock and say, 'We can't see inside so we can't tell which key the lock will want. Everything that really matters is secret.'

And then I can show the child the keys themselves and say, 'See how complicated they are. They all have all these different bumps that we couldn't possibly memorize them.'

Now we have a game. It would even be a fun game. Once that is. Twice it would be boring.

And think of the consequences of it. In a sense I have made locks and keys seem like magical and mystical things but I solve the problem by putting pieces of tape on each lock and writing "front door", "garage", "3rd bedroom" and so forth.

You are not a lock
Do you, as a woman, really want to be on the end of this analogy? Because that is where inner experiences get you. Because you can't really see your inner experiences either.

Now you may be tempted to say, "I don't need to see them because I have them. These experiences are who I am." And nothing I can do or say can stop you from thinking that. But think of the consequences. If that is true, then you, as a woman, become very much like a lock. Nothing outside of you tells anyone the important thing but the right key, once inserted, will ... well, will what?

And do you know which keys work? Another way to ask the question would be, Have you ever been wrong about love? Or, have you ever thought you'd really like to try some new hobby or job and then found out you were wrong? Or, have you ever met someone and the sex was really great and then later it wasn't? If the inner experience of being you really is this special thing that you have a solid grasp on then none of those things should ever happen.

If you want to be a success as a woman (or a man) you need to pick outward models to emulate and then emulate them. And you need to keep updating the models as you move through life. The way to fail is to take your own testimony based on some supposed inner experience and say, "This is who I am."

But our own testimony is nonsense. A woman might say, "I can't be a manager, a scientist, more social, sexier ... because that's not really me," but she knows full well from looking around her that other women manage to be X just fine with exactly the same resources she has.

And that is really all you need to know: a woman can learn more about what it takes to be a woman by means of outer evidence—that is by learning what it is to be a woman by studying other women—whereas any appeal to inner experiences or truths is useless. As my cousin Kathleen once put it, the most useless question in the entire world is "What do you really want to be?"

What's really wrong with "girl power"

In my earlier post I mentioned that some feminist bloggers are critical of a Beyonce song that presents girl power in ways that are trite and foolish. They're not wrong about the song. It's awful. (But millions of girls will buy it.)

But here is the question, could it be any different? Why would we think that girls could do anything more significant than make Beyonce even richer than she already is? You may say, "Girls are the future" and to that I reply, "Not until they grow up."

Girl power can never be the alternative to silly princess fantasies because girl power is a silly princess fantasy.

Genderless children and princesses

There was an odd little story about a couple who are raising a genderless child this past week that got all sorts of attention. Which isn't surprising because getting a lot of attention is precisely what the child's parents set out to do.

One of them says by way of justification, "“If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs". That's true. But do you normally do this? When you meet Frank for the first time do you think, "I wonder what his penis looks like?" Do you assume he has one and therefore you know who he is? Does the fact that I discover Crystal has a vagina change the way I think about her or is it perhaps more important that I know Crystal chose to wear jeans so tight that it removed all doubt.

Here is someone else making the same mistake: a blogger named Amanda Marcotte criticizing a trite song about girl power by Beyonce:
Still, the lyrics to this song are classic faux empowerment, as she's literally suggesting women run the world by being very persuasive with our vaginas.
But that is nonsense and you can confirm it yourself by going to YouTube and watching any Beyonce video you want. Because Beyonce is in fact very convincing  using everything but her vagina. In fact lots and lots of girls and women can be very convincing about their sexuality using anything but (a fact that some young men will endlessly whine and complain about if you let them get started).

This whole debate about genderless children is supposed to establish the importance of some inner experience. What the child the really wants to be is supposed to be more important than what is or isn't between their legs. But what the parents are unconsciously admitting is that it isn't some inner experience of important aspects of our identity such as sex that really matters but the outward expression of it. For they are firmly convinced that the outer experience of dressing in pink rather than blue will trump these inner feelings.
The moment a child’s sex is announced, so begins the parade of pink and barrage of blue. Tutus and toy trucks aren’t far behind. The couple says it only intensifies with age.
“In fact, in not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, ‘Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s (he) wants to be?!.”
 Does that sound familiar? Because as extreme as this child's parents might seem, they line up exactly with the logic used by the anti-princess people:
Orenstein finds one such enlightening explanation in developmental psychology research showing that until as late as age 7, children are convinced that external signs — clothing, hairstyle, favorite color, choice of toys — determine one’s sex. “It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best,” she writes. “That’s why 4-year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage,’ become the self-­appointed chiefs of the gender police. Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.” For a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy, a crinolined bulwark to fortify a still-shaky sense of identity.
And there is the give away: what both Storm's parent's and the anti-princess movement have in common is that they don't want to give their children certain experiences. This isn't about freedom but control.

Look at what Orenstein doesn't want:
“It’s not that princesses can’t expand girls’ imaginations,” Orenstein explains. “But in today’s culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It’s not just being the fairest of them all, it’s being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.” Translation: shallow, narcissistic, slutty.
Because there is nothing even remotely narcissistic about parading your parenting choices in the media for all the world to see and your child's privacy be damned. Okay, turning the snark off, back to the serious point. If Orenstein really believes her daughter should be free to make her own decisions about identity, why is she so busy shutting the doors on some options?

I'm not saying that parents shouldn't teach their daughters not to be sluts (and their sons for that matter). Quite the contrary actually. But remember that, from Orenstein's perspective and from the perspective of the parents raising the "genderless" child, the most important thing is that the child be really free to choose who they are and yet their very first move is to shut off a whole lot of options. The painful irony is that the only input Storm is being allowed about his or her sexuality is what they have between their legs.

Except, of course, that the whole charade is doomed to fail as all these parents must know at some level. The inner experience is useless. The child, like everyone else, will learn about sexuality by looking at the outward signs and not by looking deep into their own consciousness. (And what do these people say if their daughters turn to them at seventeen and say, 'I've thought about it and I really want to be a slut. That is who I really am and feel more fulfilled and happy this way.' The old-fashioned moralist at least has no illusions about the fact that they are trying to shape their child into a particular sort of person.)

Children are capable of changing their minds as they grow up. The fact that Elsa wears pink PJs as a child will not limit her forever.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Here's a reassuring thought

The Last Psychiatrist writes about methods for detecting if someone is a psychopath. The whole thing is interesting but I thought one bit particularly challenging. First off, he quotes someone named Jon Ronson who has had a disturbing thought about the methodology for detecting psychopaths:
Becoming a psychopath-spotter had turned me power-crazed and a bit psychopathic. I was starting to see the checklist as an intoxicating weapon that was capable of inflicting terrible damage if placed in the wrong hands. And I was beginning to suspect that my hands might be the wrong hands.
And he immediately reassures Ronson:
... Ronson is not a psychopath.  He has the insight, and, more importantly, the self-doubt, the guilt, that he may be doing something wrong even though everyone else might think he’s doing the right thing.
Did you get that? Self-doubt and guilt are good things. They are so good that you should have self doubt and guilt even when everyone around you is supporting what you are doing.

Say it quietly to yourself" "self doubt and guilt are good things". Think of the enormous cultural implications of that. Think of all the people who've claimed the exact opposite and blamed their self doubt and guilt on others such as, to pick a few not-so-random examples, men, Christianity , their mothers, their fathers, their ex lovers and ex spouses.

Can you imagine what it would be like to stop blaming all these people and perhaps even feel a little grateful to them for giving you reason to question yourself?

Well, stop imagining then and do it. Say a little prayer of thanks.

Gender variations and choices

Courtesy of Ann Althouse, a link to a story from Oakland about a  school that is teaching kids that "gender" is a variable in nature:
... fourth- and fifth-grade students learned about the crazy world of gender within the animal kingdom with lessons about single-sex Hawaiian geckos, fish that switch genders and boy snakes that act "girly."

"That's a lot of variation in nature," Gender Spectrum trainer, Joel Baum, told the students. "Evolution comes up with some pretty funny ways for animals to reproduce."
Yes evolution does. There are for example those female spiders who kill and eat the male who is mating with them. Strangely enough that gender variation is not being presented to kids. And we might consider the male lion that, on taking over a pride, immediately kills all the cubs that aren't his. Perhaps we could teach kids that one of the options nature provides is that if your mom remarries, her new husband might kill you so that more resources are available for his offspring. For that too is one of those "funny ways" that animals reproduce in nature.

I mention these rather gruesome bits of natural lore because you might be surprised to learn that the reason this California school is teaching kids about how things work "in nature" is to make the kids more comfortable.
The lesson on gender differences was one small part of a much larger effort to offer what parents last year said they wanted at the school: a warm, welcoming, safe and caring environment for all children, said Principal Sara Stone.


"If we don't have a safe, nurturing class environment, it's going to be hard to learn," she said. "Really, the message behind this curriculum is there are different ways to be boys. There are different ways to be girls."
That's odd because all you really need to do to learn that there are different ways to be boys and girls is open your eyes and look around you.

The real problem for these 'reformers", of course, is not that boys and girls aren't aware that there are lots of choices but rather that in an era where girls and boys have more choices than they have ever had before they overwhelmingly  keep choosing identities these reformers would prefer they didn't choose.

Manly Thor's Day Special

The girl in the shirt dress ...
... was standing by the counter at the tea shop placing her order. I walked past her and then went back and asked my friend if shirt dresses were hard to pull off. I asked because I rarely see them and I thought this young woman looked very good in hers.

What I discovered was that my friend disagreed entirely about the girl herself. She didn't think this girl unusually attractive and asked, somewhat incredulously, what I could possibly have seen about this girl to make her stand out from the several other attractive women standing near her at the counter. And my problem was not that I couldn't answer the question but rather that I could and that I could answer rather specifically.

I'd noticed the girl's face with was French looking and had a placid coolness about it that went perfectly with the coolness of the dress, which had thin blue and white vertical stripes. And I also noticed, because I walked behind her, the rather subtle curves of her body; subtle curves that went well with vertical stripes.

That's the positive way of putting it. You might also say that she didn't have many curves at all and had done herself a huge favour by wearing the narrow vertical stripes because they tended to accentuate what shape she had.

The way men look at women
My friend had a different assessment of the girl in the shirt dress and I suspect that her assessment was probably more accurate than mine in some ways. Her gaze was cool and largely disinterested. Mine was not.

Her assessment was also far more general for let me make a confession here: when I say that I admired the subtle curves of this woman's body, the truth is that I admired the subtle curves of only part of her body. I walked behind her and that allowed me to luxuriate a bit, if you know what I mean. I could not answer any specific questions about other parts of her body beyond her face and these particular subtle curves. I can't even remember whether she was tall or of average height and could not even tell you what her breasts looked like.

That is a fairly common way for a man to look at a woman and it is something we are commonly criticized for. I think it is highly defensible.

For what we men do when we look at a woman that way is to look for things that will give us pleasure. Our experience of a woman is sexual even if all we do is walk by her at the tea shop. Not all men do this. Gay men, for example, make broader assessments that are as likely to spot negatives as positives just like my woman friend did, which may go some way to explaining the significant number of gay men in the fashion industry. And there are men (as there are women) who aren't very sexual. But most people are sexual and so men mostly look sexually and women mostly present themselves sexually.

It's not an unalloyed good that we do this but it is a good. The obvious qualification is that it can tend to treat women as means and not ends. A woman may not want to be experienced sexually. Then again, I don't think this girl picked that shirt dress solely because it was comfortable.

That said, there is good reason to play this aspect of our personalities sotto voce, not the least of which is that most women prefer it that way most of the time. But even that is complicated because "sotto voce" means to speak quietly so as to emphasize not to de-emphasize. The sexual aspects of a woman's self presentation often lose power when explicitly discussed.

And there are a lot of women who don't seem to understand what is or is not appropriate. If your colleague shows up at work in a cleavage-revealing shirt and leggings, your best response is to act as if she really were wearing the suit she ought to be wearing.

But, all that said, I think we should be proud of the way we look at women. There is something inherently right about looking for a good experience and therefore looking at a woman in a way that makes this more likely.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Looking back at the revolution (4)

I think I've mentioned Jillian before. She was at university with me. Jillian would quickly shake you out of any quaint notions you might have that young women now dress in ways that were unthinkable in the past. She typically wore skin tight pants and a skimpy tank top and she (literally) did not own a bra. I remember another girl saying that if there was a single guy on campus who had not seen Jillian's breasts it wasn't Jillian's fault.

But that exhibitionism was not what made her famous on campus (it couldn't have because then, as now, there was too much competition). No what made Jillian famous was an interview she did with the local papers about date rape. The anti-date-rape crusade was just getting going at that point and Jillian was a very active feminist. And she and her colleagues had proposed some guidelines for what counted as consent and proposed that these be made part of a campus code of conduct.

It's funny to think now that this stuff was ever taken seriously but it was a mere thirty years ago. As Jillian explained to the reporter, a boy should stop and ask the girl if it was okay to touch her breasts. And then he should stop again to ask if it was okay to unbutton her shirt. And then he should stop again  and ask if it was okay to remove her bra.

If you had set out to create a parody of strict legalism, you wouldn't have dared create something as extreme as the feminism of that era.

But the point I want to make is that it really is quite understandable if you think about it. This was also the era when we saw the rebirth of chastity movements on campus. I remember a girl who came to speak on the subject and admiring her bravery standing up in front of a very hostile audience. At one point someone incredulously asked her if she really meant it when she said that couples should avoid even hugging and kissing. She said, "If you don't want to go to Cleveland, you don't get on the bus that goes there."

That was, of course, a canned answer. She was speaking in Canada and she should have said, "If you don't want to go to Sudbury ..." When she said "Cleveland" she gave away that she had been trained using materials prepared by some group in the USA. That said, the group she represented (it was called Campus Crusade for Christ) had a significant presence and there were lots of girls and boys who joined. And the feminist line on date rape and other issues that Jillian spouted was equally canned also having been produced by some generously funded group in the USA.

At the same time, it was impossible not to notice that these new chastity girls weren't actually practicing what they preached. I remember a nasty trick one of these girls had played on her at the time. All her roommates (who had different views) shouted good bye as if they were leaving the house and slammed the door and went quietly to hide in the front room. It worked and Sharon was caught trying to sneak her boyfriend out and accused of hypocrisy.

But so was Jillian. One of Jillian's roommates unkindly pointed out that she had the adjoining bedroom in the house they shared and that not only did Jillian not practice what she preached, she was actually much more enthusiastic about being told what to do in bed than being asked.

Strict legalism doesn't work but it's a natural temptation when things seem a little out of control and things felt like they were getting a little out of control  in the early 1980s. Oddly enough, it is now obvious that that period was precisely the moment when things started to turn around. The divorce rate began to decline. So did youth crime and a whole lot of other indicators.

What hasn't changed is the sexual behaviours that came with the sexual revolution. Everything got terribly upset for a while but then we accommodated ourselves and our lives to it.

Looking back at the revolution (3)

Reading Anthony Powell last night I was struck by his handling of marital infidelity during the two World Wars. It's a big theme in Powell and it was something that really did happen and had a huge effect on people.

Betrayal was also a major theme of American movies covering the period. Think of the Blue Dahlia for example. The whole noir genre is haunted by women who get mixed up with seedy men and even when the war is not explicitly referenced that is what is driving it. For what kind of man was still stateside to be pursuing these women.

It seems oddly sexist to us now sometimes because the concern was overwhelmingly with women cheating on men when we know full well that husbands posted elsewhere weren't particularly faithful either. But let's try to see past that and figure out why this vision so haunted people.

The Second World War took place in a world that was urbanized like had never been the case before. The thought that women might exploit the anonymity of the city to have sex while their husbands were away was jolting.

No one was shocked that men would do this; in the past even small towns typically had brothels. No one thought this was a good thing but no one was surprised. You can imagine a movie or novel about a guy who falls for the temptations offered by the anonymity of the city but you can't imagine him being portrayed as some sort of uniquely horrible moral monster for doing so. Women who did so were so portrayed.

The point being that the 1950s, far from the era of conformism we think of it as, was actually an era of social turmoil. Any era that really was dominated by the sort of domestic stability we often associate with the 1950s wouldn't have spent do much time idealizing domestic stability. That so much effort was spent doing so tells you people were terrified of losing it.

The big church attendance of the era tells a similar story. People were trying to get back to an era they were conscious of having lost but they didn't know how to get back because they'd never really lived it. The urbanization of the west and had been going on a long time and the idealized, small community existence that people sought after the war was nothing they had ever experienced. These days you sometimes read liberals accusing conservatives of wanting to go back to a time that never existed but the era that really wanted to go back to a time that never existed was the 1950s.

All that church attendance, the nice new houses in the suburbs, the domestic comedies on television? That was all an attempt to capture something that felt like it was slipping away. At the same time, wealth was exploding. In truth, the real lives people imagined recreating were much, much poorer than what they were creating in the suburbs.

And it all had to fail.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Do you have to be unhappy to be a feminist?

There was an interesting response in the comments this morning:
I think you have failed to understand the difference between feminine and feminist. With the way the world works against women, why wouldn't a feminist be unhappy ?
And then I read Simcha Fisher over at the National Catholic Register and found a similar sentiment:
Some women just fall naturally into their roles, and don’t think about it at all. Maybe, as off-putting as it sounds, a feminist is always someone who feels some distress or dissatisfaction with the way women are treated—someone who agitates for change.
Those are similar but not identical sentiments. Fisher's thought is softer: "some distress or dissatsifaction". (See update below as well.)

But does feminism, or any movement for justice, come from unhappiness? is it even likely?

And if you define a feminist as someone who is unhappy, doesn't it more or less have to follow that they need to sustain this unhappiness in order to remain a feminist?

In any case, defining yourself in terms of what you don't like strikes me as a recipe for, well, as a recipe for unhappiness and then more unhappiness ad infinitum. I would think that the only kind of feminist worth being is a feminist who defined feminism first in terms of what was good about being a woman and then second in terms of how society needs to change.

UPDATE: Rereading Fisher's column, I see that I missed that she arrives at a similar conclusion:
But feminism is not all about complaining and protesting. What I would like most of all is for women to ask themselves honestly, without worrying about history or politics, “What is it that I, as a woman, can do especially well? How can I help other women do what they do well?”

Which is pretty good if we add the caveat that not all women will be good at the same things.

Looking back at the revolution (2)

Have you ever stolen a kiss?
Knee deep in flowers we'll stray,
We'll keep the showers away.
And if I kiss you,
in the garden, in he moonlight,
Will you pardon me?
And tiptoe through the tulips with me.
That's quite a naughty little song in its way. Nick Lucas sang it in move Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929. It was a huge hit but you can be certain not everyone was pleased.

It's interesting, no, that he wonders if she would pardon him for kissing her in the garden in the moonlight? Isn't that sort of thing we all dream of? Why would we need to pardon it? And pardon would mean that the kiss was unwelcome but the singer seems to think that after pardoning him, the girl will continue to "tiptoe through the tulips" with him. We might be forgiven for thinking that this is a euphemism for something else.

It's a gentle euphemism though. If we don't want to see it, we can cheerfully imagine that all he means is a stroll through the flower bed. Although that too sounds like a euphemism. But it's a lot gentler than, say, "Baby let me be your crosscut saw". You couldn't honestly pretend that the guy is really just offering to cut and stack her firewood. (Oddly enough that too sounds like ....)

But, to get back to the point, there is something that is (to use the ugly modern word) transgressive about sexuality. It's so normal that we forget just how common expressions like "steal a kiss" are. We tiptoe through the tulips, as hopelessly harmless as that seems to us now, because we normally aren't supposed to be walking in a flower bed.

There was a YouTube video that went viral last week or the week before of a very young boy and girl sitting together. And she gets this impish look on her face and leans over and steals a kiss. And he thinks about it and very clearly decides that this is more than okay. And, aaaaawww, it's so cute because they're just kids.

It's not so cute when you aren't kids and one of you really doesn't want it. Or if one of you decides that they really do want it but should not actually let things go any further because it would be wrong given other moral commitments they have.

But, at the same time, love always starts with someone doing something bold. Boys push and girls expect to be pushed. Girls entice but enticement never necessarily means acceptance.

Last summer, I saw a girl with a T-shirt that read "Yes I do, but not with you". And you know what the implied question is don't you? But how does she know that the guys she does want to do it with will know that the message on her shirt does not apply to him? She doesn't know but merely has to hope he will push her anyway and he doesn't know and merely has to hope she will let him when he does.

When a woman accused Bill Clinton of grabbing her breasts, Gloria Steinem, of all people, defended him by saying he did the right thing because he stopped when he was asked to stop. And Mark Steyn quipped that he was glad to know that he had one free shot at grabbing any woman's breasts so long as he stopped when she asked him. Who is right?

They both are but let's focus on Steinem for now. Any system of sexual morality has to allow for people's willingness to remain ambiguous about what they do or do not want. And any system of sexual morality has to allow for the possibility that one person may misjudge another person's willingness to have her breasts touched. Or that they may to fail to appreciate that while she may want very much to have them touched, she would prefer to deny herself this pleasure for other reasons and is thus sending mixed messages. And it also has to preserve her right to decide to do something terribly obvious if he keeps missing the point. Of course, such a sexual morality would also require that women appreciate that sometimes men might make sexual advances that are misjudged and be willing to pardon while making it very clear that any further perambulating in the flower bed is not going to happen. Well, not now, as it is her prerogative to change her mind at some future date.

The point, and I will come to it rather abruptly here, is that any sexual morality that is based on strict legalism is doomed to failure.

Looking back at the revolution (1)

There are two things about the John Jay study on the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church report that I think people misunderstand.

The first is that both men and women who are not homosexual will sometimes have same sex relations. It is, therefore, quite plausible that the abuse was primarily with boys because boys were what was available as claimed in the report. Plausible doesn't mean correct of course but the argument that the claim made in the John Jay report that this scandal was not driven by gay men in the priesthood is not plausible on "common sense" grounds says more about the people making it than anything else.

The second really important thing that is being misunderstood is the impact of the times. The report suggests that the spike of sexual abuse that began in the mid 1960s and declined in the early 1980s. Father Z, for example, writes:
Remember, 1.8 million to be told that men are influenced by age they live in. Okay.... and?
And he is, of course, correct in general. But what if something really unusual was happening at the end of the 1960s?

One way to get at this would be to ask the question the other way around: Why did the rate of abuse suddenly plunge in the 1980s? It's not like the hyper-sexualization of our culture suddenly stopped. Quite the contrary. And it's not the case that the Catholic church suddenly started handling abuse issues more intelligently. All the available evidence suggests otherwise.

And it's not just sexual abuse. All sorts of things went crazy in those years: youth crime, divorce, out of wedlock births .... Well, all sorts of things related one way or another to sex went out of control in those years. And then they declined again.

Let's think about the word "revolution" for a moment. We use the word in different ways. Sometimes to have a revolution means to change things into something radically new and different. But there is also an older sense of revolution that means to return things to something like normal after they fall apart. Both the English revolution and the American one were driven by a strong sense that something important had been taken away from those countries and that it needed to be restored. Something that was so important to restore that it justified a lot of tearing down and destroying.

I'd argue that all successful revolutions (and it should be noted that the vast majority of revolutions are miserable failures) are driven by a desire to restore rather than to replace. I'm going to suggest that the sexual revolution has been a successful revolution because it restored something that was lost.

That will not be obvious at the start of any revolution because the proximate causes of revolution are never clear-cut. The British had fought an expensive war in North America before the revolution and there is a sense in which their desire to recover the costs was perfectly reasonable. In the process, however, they managed to remind everyone that there was something unsustainable about having a colony. Likewise, the intentions behind social strictures governing human sexual relations in the 1950s were perfectly reasonable but something about them was unsustainable. The walls had to come tumbling down and tumble they did.

The proof of a revolution is that it comes full circle. After the destructive phase, there has to be a restoration. And I'd argue that is exactly what happened with the sexual revolution.

But having sexual restraints torn down was bound to be confusing and damaging in the short run. The sexual revolution had costs and they were steep costs and some people suffered much more than the rest of us did.

But let's think a bit about what living during that phase when the tearing down is happening but the restoration has not begun feels like (I'll say more in an upcoming post).

There is a bit in Lucky Jim in which the protagonist Jim Dixon watches Christine Callahan serve herself some food at breakfast. As she bends over he sees the curve of her breasts and thinks to himself that it would be the most natural thing in the world to reach over and cup one of them in his hand. And it would be the most natural thing in the world and not just for men. So why don't we do it?

At this point you might be inclined to advance all sorts of perfectly correct moral arguments starting with the fact that we need Christine's permission before touching her in an intimate way. And that is a perfectly good answer to the question, "Why shouldn't we do it?" but the question here is why don't we, in fact, actually do it; for we actually do do all sorts of things we should not do. What actually keeps my hands off of Christine's breasts?

Well, I think the reasons are social. It's not just that Christine might yell at me and call everyone's attention to what I had done, for example, but that I would feel deeply shamed when she did yell at me. That is assuming she did yell at me, for sometimes the touching is very welcome. There is a tremendous ambiguity here. Thus the need for strictures governing our sexual behaviours.

If we remove the strictures, things will go crazy. And they did go crazy. But the sexual revolution was not primarily driven by people who sought to remove all constraint but rather a particular set of constraints. There was something unsustainable about them.

There is more to say about this ...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sort of political Monday

The ebbing of the paternalistic left

Doug Saunders has an interesting piece in the Saturday edition of the Toronto Globe and Mail called "Why did all the West's big centrist parties go down the drain?"

Before we go anywhere with this, ponder on that headline for a while, especially on the word "centrist"

Okay, got that? Now let's read the list of examples of centrist parties that have suffered sharp decline that Saunders provides in his article
The Liberals in Canada. The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in many European countries. Labour in Britain and the Netherlands, and the Socialists in Spain and France.
It's odd, don't you think, that all those "centrist" parties are all actually "left wing" parties. For Saunders, being in the centre actually means being on one side of a political debate. Except that that isn't surprising at all because almost everyone defines "the centre" as the place where they are standing. Social conservatives are equally convinced that they are the centre and that the other guys are the radicals.

Once we allow for Saunders' bias, I think we can see that he is still on to something important:
The big-tent parties functioned, during their glory years in the postwar decades, as the paternal overlords of protected, closed national economies, engaging in brokerage politics whereby the fruits of growth could be spread out among clients and beneficiaries on the left and right. The big political parties were like family heirlooms, their loyalties kept for life and passed on between generations – badges of personal identity, like Ford and Chevy, Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Microsoft. Membership had its benefits. 
That, I think, is largely correct. I'd only make the slight correction that the slogan is "membership has its privileges" not "benefits". Then again, Saunders has already tacitly acknowledged this by speaking of "brokerage politics whereby the fruits of growth could be spread out among clients and beneficiaries".

One of the reasons I don't do partisan politics here is because the supposed differences of partisan politics are often a lot less interesting than the deeper similarities they conceal. For what the paternalistic left and social conservatism have in common is that both take for granted a strong centripetal force pulling everyone towards “the centre”.

Where did that assumption come from? My guess is that it is a consequence of the conditions after the Second World War. Conditions that were bound to change with time and have changed with time.

But if "partisan politics" tends to conceal deep similarities, it also tends to conceal deep differences. For if we try to define the centre we discover that there isn’t much agreement about where the centre is and that different people locate it in wildly different places.

I'd like to wrap up pointing out that as far as something like new urbanism may seem from partisan politics, this particular dead end is exactly the same one Raymond Hain ends up at:
It looks like all this is only possible if enough people agree on the end, the general shape of human happiness as a whole, and this agreement on what matters most shapes and makes possible all the other integrative activities of our community. But what if we no longer agree on this (and, frankly, this seems exactly the situation we face today)?
For the thing that social conservatism and paternalistic leftism share in common is that there is a single correct answer about how to best pursue human happiness and that that answer is knowable and known. But was it ever different? Or, to put it another way, are paternalistic lefties, social conservatives and new urbanists all driven by the same false nostalgia for an era when it only seemed like everyone shared the same understanding of human happiness?

Sort of political Monday

The ebbing of social conservatism
I'm increasingly convinced that social conservatism is ebbing away. Which isn’t to say it is going away, just that it is in decline and may go into eclipse for a while. One of the prime reasons I am convinced of this is the way the Republican field for 2012 is shaping up. There isn’t a single sunbelt candidate in this field. That is staggering when you consider that since 1960, only two GOP leadership candidates (Gerald Ford and Bob Dole) have come from outside the Sunbelt. All the others came from the sunbelt.

Sunbelt candidates project authenticity and social conservatives value authenticity.

But this year none of the sunbelt contenders have been able to get any traction with the Republican base. And I emphasize that “Republican base”. Huckabee was always a long-shot with the general electorate but he dropped out when he realized he was a long-shot with the Republican base. Even Republicans have gotten tired of this kind of authenticity.

I think there are two reasons for this:
  1. A lot of people are now scared of social conservatives. They scare fiscal conservatives, they scare independents, they scare libertarians, they even scare a lot of other social conservatives who publicly support social conservatism but secretly hope that it never gets to be too successful. And the reason for this is simple: people worry that social conservatives want to turn back the clock on the sexual revolution and fiscal conservatives, independents and substantial subset of social conservatives just don’t want to do that. (I think this is most true of the Catholic voter who often will feel compelled to provide lip service for traditional sexual morality in public but privately is deeply grateful for the sexual revolution.)
  2. Social conservatism is often just a mirror image of liberalism and a mirror image is a lot more like the thing it reflects than anything else. A guy with a mole on the left side of his face becomes a guy with a mole on the right side of his face in the mirror but, either way, he’s a guy with a mole on his face. For example: social conservatives are addicted to social spending. They don’t want it decreased—in fact they always increase it when they get into power—they just want to move this particular mole from the left to the right.

I think there are a lot of people who’ve wanted to jump away from social conservatism for a while now. They’re just looking for a way to do it.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Ann Althouse doesn't think it's a good idea to move the period outside the quotation marks. She seems to feel strongly about it.
"How about never? Is never good for you?"

The thing is it isn't about moving them outside. It's about having them outside when the punctuation isn't part of the quote and inside when it is. I bet she hates that even more.

In any case, it's the rhetoric she uses that I love:
People in the comments are talking about what makes sense . I say:It's not about making sense. It's about aesthetics. What feels right? We are accustomed to the quotation mark holding and containing the period and if the period is exiled from that embrace, we will have the uneasy feeling that it might roll away."

That's an awful lot of words to say, 'Don't change it because I like it the way it is'.

"This is what a feminist looks like"

That's what it said on her T-shirt.

The T-shirts were obviously printed up on the theory that a whole bunch of feminists would buy them and wear them and we awful men would see that feminists come in all shapes and sizes and thereby be disabused of our negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, the woman wearing the T-shirt fit the stereotype right down to a T. She was decidedly unfeminine and you could tell she had put zero effort into trying to look feminine. She was unhappy, unpleasant and it was painfully obvious that she doesn't like men much.

So the T-shirt achieved the exact opposite effect of what was desired. I would think that any self-respecting feminist who knows this woman well should take her aside and say, 'Please, for the sake of the cause, never wear that T-shirt again.'

There is more here.

UPDATE from the department of unintended consequences: In the comments below Harmony mentions that she found this post while searching for a place she could buy the T-shirt. Well, as a consequence of her making that comment this post now rates far enough up the search listing for people looking to buy that one or two people come here every day looking to buy one.

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Too Beautiful for You
Does anyone else remember that movie? It was a French movie from the period that produced the very worst French movies. The Serpentine One once described them as movies in which people did stupid, self-destructive things for no obvious reason and then the movie ended with no clear resolution.

I guess the one thing you could say in favour of movies where people do stupid, self-destructive things for no obvious reason is that they accurately reflect modern life. The thing about Too Beautiful was that the hero was married to a sophisticated and elegant woman and had an affair with a crass and inelegant one. You may or may not want to look, but suffice to say that the Arnold Schwarzenegger affair is looking a whole lot like the one described in Too Beautiful.

The good news is that you don't have to look to get the point. This sort of thing happens often enough in life that it has almost certainly happened to a woman you know and perhaps it has even happened to you. If you don't know a sophisticated and elegant woman whose husband or boyfriend had an affair with a crass or inelegant woman you will certainly know a sophisticated and elegant woman whose marriage or relationship broke up and then her ex took up with a crass and inelegant woman.

And the odd thing in these cases is that the sophisticated and elegant woman loses something in our eyes. For no matter how much we may sneer at the crass women whom Arnold and others like him have their affairs with, we can't help but think that, however wonderful she otherwise might be, there must be something ... something ... something cold about that sophisticated and elegant woman.

It's funny because in every other way, the woman wins. In the court of public opinion the man is the bum here and Arnold will be condemned widely for this just as Tiger Woods was. But there will be this sense in the back of our heads that somehow Maria Shriver and Elin Nordegren failed as wives and even if we are too polite to say it aloud (well you, as I can hardly make such a claim) we'll think it and our combined thoughts will hover around haunting poor Maria and Elin and other women in their predicament.

The thing is that I think it makes no sense at all to look into the facts of the case. This whole Arnie story has an inexpressible tawdriness about it and the more we read about it, the cheaper we become. No, the enigma here is psychological. We are programmed to think this way; that is to assume that a wife has a duty not to be cold.

Was it Stendhal who said he'd rather have his wife try to stab him twice a year than to always have to look on a sour expression? This the fear every woman has to have: that some lesser woman will come along and steal her man's affections away by being warmer and more appreciative.

They say that our nightmares about falling stem from a period long ago in human evolution when our ancestors lived and slept in trees. That fear is then just a useless vestige in our psychological make up. You can't quite say the same about the fear that women have that another woman will move in on their man and win the day by being warmer and more appreciative.

At the risk of offending every right-thinking person in the universe, let me say that I think it is a very healthy fear and one every woman should have and, more importantly, that she should work on building and maintaining her character such as to minimize the risk that any lesser woman can steal her man's affections this way.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

No inspiration today. It happens sometimes.

Reacting to the reactions

The John Jay report is being much discussed.

Here is George Weigel:
In fact, according to the John Jay study, the bishops were as clueless as the rest of society about the magnitude of the abuse problem and, again like the rest of society, tended to focus on the perpetrators of abuse rather than the victims. This, in turn, led to an overdependence on psychiatry and psychology in dealing with clerical perpetrators, in the false confidence that they could be “cured” and returned to active ministry ....
Look, if you knew that someone had committed arson you might well wonder if they can be treated but you still have a duty to call the police. It was not the church's job to solve a criminal justice problem with therapy.

It's chilling to see that all  these years later, prominent Catholic writers and commentators still don't see that the fact that the Church concealed crimes is the central problem here.

Here is Rev. C.J McLoskey at Crisis Magazine:
However, there is still something strange here: The researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely than straight priests to abuse minors. The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report concluded. But a very high percentage of the abuse (excepting pedophilia) was of teenage boys, and not teenage girls. Is the report telling us that a majority of the abusers were heterosexual priests abusing teenage boys? This strains credulity. I sense an agenda for the homosexual priesthood is behind this conclusion.
Is the report telling us that the majority of the abusers were heterosexual priests abusing boys? Yes, that is exactly what it is telling us. And this is not a crazy idea. There is lots of evidence from, for example, prisons, single-sex schools and summer camps that suggests that heterosexuals will pursue same-sex relationships if they sense that nothing else is available to them.

And, seriously Reverend, take a deep breath and count to 100 before you make accusations that someone has a hidden agenda. The alacrity with which you and other conservative Catholics such as Bill Donohue and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons have all rushed with the same accusation here suggests an agenda all right ...

The Catholic Civitas

One of the things that makes Raymond Hain's piece defending New Urbanism so interesting to me is that I detect a certain vision behind it. I call this vision, the Catholic Civitas. You find it in a heck of a lot of Catholic social thinking and I think it largely explains why so much Catholic social thinking is doomed to failure.This vision haunts official Catholic social teaching such as Centesimus Annus and it haunts seemingly secular ideas by Catholics such as Marshall McLuhan's global village.

This vision assumes that a certain kind of civic existence would be ideal for human moral development. I think the valuable service that Raymond Hain does in his piece is that he sets out the moral qualities this idealized town would have:
Finally, the most important overall human community is the city itself, a community of communities, whose purpose is to shelter the various smaller communities and make possible the discovery, pursuit, and achievement of our complete human good, happiness itself.
This is a medieval vision and we might think it is based on  actual medieval society. This supposition would seem to be supported by a lot of the literature and art depicting medieval society produced at that time and since. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Medieval society was like a shattered flywheel that had been glued back together; it was in constant danger of flying apart. Medieval thinkers lived in isolated communities under constant threat from invasion from without and division within. They read Roman texts they had in their possession and dreamed of how a new unity something like what they imagined had existed under Pax Romanus could be created without the help of a powerful, world-conquering Roman state to back it up.

The glue that would hold this dreamed of Civitas together was to be moral. It is precisely this moral glue that Catholic thinkers such as Raymond Hain so often find missing in our world. For we do live in communities that are communities within communities so what's wrong with what we have? Isn't this just the ticket?

Here is the central problem from the Catholic point of view:
Though suburbanites still live, work, play, worship, and shop, there will be very few people, if any, with whom they will have more than one activity in common. We live with people other than those with whom we work, and we pray with yet a third, different community.
In the sought after community, all these areas would overlap. Why is that good thing in Hain's view?

 Well, Civitas is a term that means both the city and the citizen and the fact that we move within different sub-communities that don't overlap means that our moral character will also be fragmented.
Typically, we have no companions who share all the various parts of our lives, but if we require the counsel of others in order to integrate these different aspects, we will need help from those who, alongside us, are a part of all the different activities that we must integrate.
We "must" integrate? Why I wonder? Logically it seems like a good thing that our entire lives should be integrated, that we should not live one type of moral life in one sub-community and then live a different moral life that is not fully commensurate with the other while interacting with another moral community. But is this really so? In practice we do just that and it seems to work just fine.

Hain's three arguments amount to one over-arching point, namely that an integrated community would help us to develop in a morally integrated way. And that is true if that is what we should desire. But we might also observe that it is easier for others to control our moral choices in an integrated community. One of the big appeals of the type of community within a community structure we actually have, as opposed to the ideal of Catholic thinkers, is that I can escape from moral environments I find suffocating or stultifying and go places where I can let my hair down.

So, should we want to integrate our communities and thereby integrate our individual moral life? I suspect my bias here is obvious but no one has to agree with me. In practice, however, I think this is why Catholic social thinking keeps failing to strike any sort of responsive chord in our culture.

Ultimately, I suspect Hain would argue that his vision, being based on natural law arguments, is better because it best represents what human beings are supposed to be. The argument against such a view would consist of a  series of reminders that human beings have never, in fact, actually lived that way. But while such arguments might undermine Hain's faith they would not logically compel him or anyone who thinks like him to change their views; for if you believe that something should be it is not fatal to your view that it is not and never has been that way.

So there we are.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The John Jay Report is out

That is the John Jay Colege report on The Causes and Context  of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the  United States, 1950-2010. There will be much to say and a lot of it will be bad and deservedly so but there is also some good stuff here. If you want o read it yourself, you can get the PDF here.

So let's start with the good.

The report confirms a number of things we already knew that are worth underlining. The problem was not gay priests. And the problem was not the requirement that priests be celibate.

Interestingly, the most important indicator is not about the people involved but the period. The amount of abuse started increasing sharply in the mid 1960s through the 1970s and then plunged. it was, as the report indicates, in sharp decline by 1985. Now that is interesting because that corresponds to larger social trends. Youth crime, for example, follows, the same trajectory.

Now why did that happen? Honest answer: I don't know. I doubt very much that anyone else does either. And it's important to note that we don't know why the abuse increased but it is also just as important that we also don't know why it later declined either.

The report also finds that priests who had been ordained in the decades previous who abused children did not do so in significant numbers until the crucial period. This suggests that there was nothing about the priests themselves but rather something about the larger cultural factors at play.

So far so good but now the bad beginning with the very bad and then the worse.

The very bad is that the study seems to have defined pubescent as ten years of age or older. That's a huge problem. It's very important to differentiate between abusers of sexually maturing children and those who pick on children who have not developed. Not because one is or is not worse than the other but for the simple reason that we need to understand what really did happen here.

Ten years of age is not a reasonable cut off and it undermines the claim made elsewhere in the study that the abusive priests did not fit the profile of true pedophiles. It suggests to the contrary that that is exactly what many of them were/are.

That is a bigger problem because we also learn from this study that the church authorities recognized that true pedophiles cannot be treated. If they knew that then why weren't authorities called in in cases where children frame ages ten to twelve were abused, cases where the authorities should have recognized that the offenders were highly likely to repeat their crimes. By putting the cutoff too low, the study fails to uncover the church's failures.

The worst is that the study has not dealt with the utterly irresponsible response of the church. The problem is very simple: When they became aware of these cases the priests and bishops in authority should have picked up the phone and called the police immediately and they did not. There are all sorts of things that went on but that is the heart of the matter. And it is a problem the church has failed to answer to adequately to this day.

As a consequence, the report treats the efforts the church made to deal with the problem but never confronts the more important issue that it was none of the church's business to be dealing with the problem. It was a criminal justice problem not a church management problem and the bishops failed to recognize this. (And I'll give an example that suggests that they still haven't learned the lesson in an upcoming post tomorrow.)

In any case, this is a long, long way from good enough. It's useful to know that the abuse follows larger social trends of that period but what we really need to know is why did the church respond so stupidly to the crisis. The problem that needs to get fixed is not with the abusers but with the authorities. We need to know what they were thinking and doing and why they thought they were entitled to try to deal with a problem that should have been handed over to the criminal justice system.

Plato's cave again

Watch this and ask yourself: Where is the really dangerous illusion here?

Is there really a risk that people might mistake illusion for reality? Or is the real risk that we will once again fall for Plato's con job?

Yes it's a documentary and those are real people whose lives have been ruined by their obsession with this game. But I can also think of people who have ruined their life, marriages and health over other games. A guy I know threw his career, marriage and health down the drain because he decided that he could become a successful singer-songwriter. I've know girls who flunked out of high school while they tried to become models. There are people who spent the rent and grocery money on lottery tickets every month.

The thing that makes this tick is the sense that virtual reality might get to be so compelling that we won't be able to tell the difference anymore. But do you really think that is possible? Do you worry that virtual sex will get to be as good as real sex? If you do, you're doing it wrong.

PS: I'd bet dollars to donuts that some moralist with too much time on their hands is already writing a terribly distraught piece in response to this movie about the effects this sort of virtual reality will have on marriage, complete with a checklist of things worried spouses should keep an eye out for.

Of course, if you are already worried enough to be looking for signs that your spouse is focused elsewhere (be it virtual reality, porn or whatever), perhaps the real problem is you. Just a thought.


Awake, my soul;
awake, lyre and harp.
I will awake the dawn.
Jim Morrison stole from that. Lots of far better poets as well. It's from Psalm 108 and we read it during Lauds this morning. This particular sentiment occurs a several places in the Psalms and whenever something like this comes up. I think of this:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight
And it isn't surprising that the Rubaiyat  feels similar because in the middle east it feels like that when morning breaks. It feels that way on the Bay of Fundy where I grew up too. Every summer morning there, the world is created anew every day. First there is light. Then ever so slowly the horizon comes into view as the mist dissolves dividing the dome above from the below. Then the land appears. Sit around and you get to see vegetation, animals and humans in that order.

The thing is that it isn't symbolism. This stuff isn't mean to stand for something else, it is what it is.

Which brings me to this:

I bought a set of seven of these on the weekend. I was shopping for antiques and couldn't resist this bit of exotica. Here is what the other side looks like.

That's a Mai Tai giving her that lovely skin tone. The temptation is to say, that is why they hate us; because we trivialize their culture into exotica.

The truth is, we go to foreign cultures for our sensual imagery. Growing up in Quebec, I used to take offense at the way kids from the English-speaking parts of Canada imagined girls from Quebec. Then it hit me that kids in Quebec entertain similar fantasies about American girls. The ____ is always ____ on the other side of the border (you can fill that in for yourself).

But there is something special about what Alan Lomax once called "the old high culture" of the Mediterranean. When that culture speaks in sensual terms it does so with an authority we cannot ignore. Cleopatra will always be Cleopatra.

Except in the Bible. Rachel, Rebecca and Ruth never get their full due as women. We always manage to miss just how sensual images the Bible uses are. We go to the Rubaiyat because we love the Exotica but that same kind of thinking permeates the Bible. This bit of Isaiah, for example, was also read at Lauds this morning:
As a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.
I'm feeling a bit humbled about my ability to interpret this morning having badly misread a news story related to a post I have now deleted. But even humbled, I have a hard time imagining how anyone could not read that as meaning what it appears to mean.

Would it even be possible to create new urbanism without Draconian intervention in people's lives?

New urbanism has proven to be a surprisingly popular subject by my humble standards. Everyday I see in the stats that someone new comes along and works their way through the four posts.

Anyway, Gaius put up a limited defence of Raymond Hain yesterday in the comments that I promised to respond to. Here is what Gaius said:
If any community is the equivalent of a natural language, it's some small village or city, preindustrial, local. Modern communities are all intentionally shaped to some degree or another by technology, regulation, administration, etc. That is to say that we're all already speaking esperanto, or newspeak. Hain thinks he can bring us back to speaking a natural language, but unfortunately he is limited to the same bureaucratic, regulatory techniques that already form the way we live.
Let me start by conceding the point that we all live in intentionally shaped communities. All sorts of regulations and even detailed planning go into these places. Whether this amounts to Esperanto communities is an interesting question. I also think we could make some fine and valuable distinctions about the kinds of planning or the kinds of regulation involved. But let's not go there this time.

Instead I want to try and focus on a particular question. We might ask ourselves, is the problem the amount of regulating of human life that Hain has in mind or is the problem built right into the nature of the project he proposes? To put it another way, is Hain proposing a project whose very goals would necessarily require Draconian intervention into human life to implement? Short answer: yes he is.

And here I have to credit Hain for already seeing the problem, although I don't think he sees it fully. Here is how he begins the last paragraph of his piece:
Nevertheless, these three arguments in defense of new urbanism also remind us just how difficult the new urbanist project is. If the most basic reason we need new urbanism is that we need to integrate our lives with the help of others, whom we, in turn, help to integrate their lives, and both activities are made more likely if we cannot isolate our failures and their consequences from the rest of our life, then we face an obvious obstacle. It looks like all this is only possible if enough people agree on the end, the general shape of human happiness as a whole, and this agreement on what matters most shapes and makes possible all the other integrative activities of our community.
But, as he goes on to say, the very existence of suburbs suggest otherwise:
But what if we no longer agree on this (and, frankly, this seems exactly the situation we face today)? Bess reminds us that suburbia represents a turning away from public life towards private life. Front porches have become back decks, and public squares have disappeared. Suppose we were to rebuild those public squares, and all of us spent our evenings on our front porches. We might discover, to our dismay, that we had almost nothing to talk about.
 I don't want to go on too long, but what Hain is missing is that the kinds of communities people live in now have been worked out through millions of people making choices in the marketplace. Regulated and planned as our communities may be, people have quite a wide variety of choices and they have consistently chosen to live in communities unlike what new urbanists would prefer. It wouldn't just be very difficult to implement the new urbanist project, to do so in a serious way would mean merging onto the superhighway to serfdom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Marriage stats from the Netherlands

First a funny story about Ontario. In 1996, the Ontario Court of appeal effectively struck down laws forbidding women from appearing topless in public.

And then everybody got bored and everything went back to normal. It turns out the overwhelming majority of women aren't interested in baring their breasts in public. I've long wondered if the same thing wouldn't happen with same-sex marriage.

Now we have a study of the Netherlands (NB: that link downloads a PDF), where same-sex marriage has been available for a decade now, that confirms my suspicions. It doesn't change anything at all. The vast majority of same-sex couples don't actually want to get married.

So who lost? Everybody.

My guess is that the advocates who fought so hard to win these battles will soon realize that they have won a Pyrrhic victory. Even when they win the field, they get nothing worth keeping and nothing they can keep.  And the price they have paid for this wasn't worth it.

Meanwhile, the defence-of-marriage crowd probably drove the final nail in the social conservative coffin with this struggle. The argument that we need to stop this or else marriage will be destroyed is now dispatched for good.

Not unrelated

Courtesy of American Catholic comes this recent remark of Stephen Hawking:
The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.
 "We" assign them higher value? Who exactly do you mean by "we" Kimosabe? That should really trouble us.

And here is a rough question: What happens if the societies we think are most likely to survive don't? What if you're wrong Mr. Hawking and it turns out that the rational scientists aren't all that adaptive?

This quote is nonsensical on some many levels it hurts. Darwinian natural selection doesn't tell us which societies are most likely to survive. It only tells us which ones did survive. The race is not always to the strong et cetera. Most people would have bet on the sabre-tooth tiger as likely to survive but it did not.

Hawking has a favourite in the race and he wants us all to accept it as the winner. And how far is he willing to go in assigning "higher value" to the culture he favours? Is he willing to use the law to make sure people who believe the right things, Darwinianly speaking, get the best jobs and are the only ones entitled to govern others.

Really, his goals are anything but Darwinian. He wants to load the system so that one group wins and everyone else loses.

Carrying on the comparison between Esperanto and New Urbanism

On one level, the comparison is easy. The challenge for both is the same: they have to get accepted. Esperanto by attracting speakers and New Urbanism by attracting people to buy houses in New Urbanist communities.

Of course, from the point of proponents the argument is already won. As they see it the language or community makes clear, rational sense and the only question is how long will it take everyone else to see this too.

So the question becomes, what means are acceptable to push their argument?

Consider these statements:
  • It is a good thing to learn the common language of the country where you live, therefore the government should fund and make mandatory language courses in that common language.
  • It is a good thing to learn a second language, therefore the government should fund education in a number of second languages, leaving the choice of whether students learn any of these languages up to them and their parents.
  • It is a good thing to learn a second language, therefore the government should fund education in a number of second languages and it should be mandatory that all students learn at least one second language.
  • It is a good thing to learn a second language and X, Y and Z are the languages spoken by the most people, therefore the government should fund education in a number of second languages and it should be mandatory that all students learn at least one of these three as a second language.
There is a definite progress here wherein the government acts in ways that are progressively more intrusive.  But all the options are somewhat intrusive. If we accept the first, which seems pretty anodyne all by itself, then we have accepted the principle that the government may force people to learn a language. When we get to the third, where the government is forcing people to learn a second language, we have already conceded that it has the right to do this.

From that moment on, the argument becomes one of utility. I can't challenge the government's right to make language studies mandatory anymore so I can only argue about whether it should be this language or that one. So imagine that a government is elected on a platform of promoting tolerance between citizens of different cultures and one means they propose to achieve this is that all schoolchildren will learn to speak, read and write in Esperanto.

As it stands, speaking Esperanto is an oddball enthusiasm not unlike being a nudist, following the Playboy philosophy or joining the Unitarian-Universalist church. None of these are likely to gain much support beyond there current marginal status. But all four share universal aspirations. And all are born of the same Enlightenment ideal. Which is to say, the proponents of all these enthusiasms believe that you will be happier and more fulfilled as a human being if you take up their beliefs too. The negative also applies, they believe that failing to do so will make you less happy than you could be.

Why? Because they all stem from an Enlightenment notion that our lives are cluttered up by a lot of merely contingent factors that stand in the way of our being what we really can be. Take these barriers away and we can be truly free of cultural barriers to brotherhood of all humanity, hangups about our bodies, hangups about sex, or specific religious traditions that exclude others.

And that changes the nature of the argument. To argue for Spanish is to make a series of comparisons with other choices. To argue for Esperanto is to argue that the other choices aren't really legitimate choices. Don't believe me? Well, a defender of Esperanto chimed in on my last post and give a link to a website where we can learn the truth about the language. And one of the things we learn is that it has an ideal behind it:
The basic idea of Esperanto is about tolerance and respect for people of diverse nations and cultures. Communication is indeed the essential part of understanding each other, and if that communication happens through a neutral language, that can help the feeling that we 'meet' on equal grounds and help create respect for one another.
A "neutral language" is one that is free of merely contingent aspects particular to one culture or people. Natural languages don't make that claim. They are the languages of particular peoples. To learn Spanish is to some extent to become more like the Spanish. Esperanto claims to be a language for all humanity and bases its claim on its purported ability to make us all happier because we will be able to get along together better.

Does New Urbanism warrant comparison with these Enlightenment projects with their universal aspirations? Yes, it does.
Given how we pursue and achieve happiness, and that our built environment can encourage or discourage the activities necessary for human happiness, we must promote building patterns that will help these various small-scale human communities to flourish and make virtuous action possible.
And faced with strip development or sprawling suburbs, new urbanists tend to see these as the result of a bunch of merely contingent factors and not of legitimate choices made by a large number of individuals working out their different ideas of pursuing happiness between themselves. If anything Raymond Hain's argument is a little more troubling because he uses so many imperatives and is so frank about using political means to make communities better.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The repulsive quality of Esperanto

I sometimes had the impression that the deliberately rational and unemotional attitude of the scientist and likewise any ideas which had the flavor of "enlightenment" were repugnant to Wittgenstein. At our very first meeting with Wittgenstein, Schlick unfortunately mentioned that I was interested in the problem of an international language like Esperanto. As I had expected, Wittgenstein was definitely opposed to this idea. But I was surprised by the vehemence of his emotions. A language which had not "grown organically" seemed to him not only useless but despicable.
                               Rudolf Carnap
Damned straight Rudy.

It seems to me that Wittgenstein gets this absolutely right and Carnap gets it absolutely wrong.

Elsewhere, Wittgenstein shows considerable affection for made up languages and there was a playfulness about the man that suggests he might well have liked made up cultures such as Tiki Culture as well.

It's the "Unemotional attitude of the scientist" and "flavour of the 'enlightenment" that repulsed him and rightfully so if you ask me.

I think this relates to the points I made about Raymond Hain earlier.

Whatever happened to purity? Pt3

The political aspects of purity
"... pathological sexuality is a terrible plague for its victim, who lives in constant danger of violating the laws of the state and morality, or of losing his honor or even his life."
                                       Richard von Krafft-Ebing

Morality always has a political aspect about it. The "terrible plague" above is not the effects of the actual supposed "pathology" but rather of the harsh things that society will do to someone who doesn't fit the norms. There are moral ideas we are all expected to stand up and salute when they get run up the flagpole or else suffer estrangement or even criminal punishment. Our ideas about these things change. Kraft-Ebbing, who wrote the above in what was a commonly used manual for judges to help them understand sexual perversion, believed that all recreational sex was perverse. When he wrote this about a century ago, a girl caught living the way most female university students do today would have found herself condemned to an asylum.

Purity was the word that summed up how girls and women were expected to act sexually. We can be certain that actual purity was pretty thin on the ground but women were expected to live their lives as if they were pure whatever they did or didn't get up to when no one was looking. And they were largely willing to do so until relatively recently. The thing that still needs explaining is why did girls and young women swing so massively, and seemingly suddenly, from thinking that it really mattered to be thought pure to not thinking so anymore.

The moral logic underlying purity had long been dispatched before the sexual revolution. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles for example, Hardy doesn't set out to convince his 19th century readers that purity is an unfair double standard, he expects them to already agree with him on the matter.

And we can go back further and ask John Donne:

If thou be'st born to strange sights, 
Things invisible to see, 
Ride ten thousand days and nights 
Till Age snow white hairs on thee; 
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me 
All strange wonders that befell thee, 
And swear 
No where 
Lives a woman true and fair.
If thou find'st one, let me know; 
Such a pilgrimage were sweet. 
Yet do not; I would not go, 
Though at next door we might meet. 
Though she were true when you met her, 
And last till you write your letter, 
Yet she 
Will be 
False, ere I come, to two or three.

And yet, for all that, women and men continued to respect the taboo.

And so it remained until relatively recently. If you'll pardon me for saying so, I doubt many of the women in Kate Middleton's family over the last two or three generations were virgins on their wedding nights either. What stands out with Kate is that she cares so little that everyone knows she wasn't. And it isn't just that they lived together before marriage but also that it's a pretty safe assumption that William was not her first prince.

If I might be so indelicate as to ask, how far down the list of "suitors" does William have to be before you'd think ill of Kate? If I were William (and thank God I'm not) I wouldn't dare hope for more than that the total number of predecessors be in single digits. More likely, he'd want to hope that she'd always been careful enough to pick guys who are unlikely to be running around trying to peddle stories about how good, bad or indifferent they found her to the media.

And that is a good cue for us to wipe the scales of the Princess-wedding fantasy away from our eyes a moment. Do you think that a woman like Kate would normally be interested in a dweeb like William if he didn't have the word "prince" in front of his name? The real value of the Kate-William wedding as an example, and something that you apparently need a Y chromosome to see, is how utterly mercenary the thing is. And it says a lot that purity was of no value at all to Kate in these manœuverings—for you can be sure that she would have used it if she'd thought it was going to buy her anything. Women abandoned purity because it ceased to matter politically; that is because it stopped having much effect on how others saw them.

What, if anything, did purity protect?
Political morality is always shame and honour morality. Guilt can be removed through repentance and forgiveness. Shame cannot and requires harsh punishment for political reasons. As any mean girl in high school can tell you, the point of shaming another girl is not so much to hurt that girl (although it will hurt her plenty) but to force all the other girls to pay hommage to the values the mean girl wants them to. (If you just want to eliminate someone, you can chop their head off in a dungeon. If you want to use shame as a political weapon, you do something more dramatic like hang him from a cross on top of a hill where everyone can see.)

And thus it used to be a hanging offense to have unmarried sex with a woman whose children might be in line for the throne. It's not hard to guess one possible rational for such such a law. But if we hang around and think about it too long, we'll soon recognize that the people who passed such a law didn't have high expectations of women being terribly pure.

In any case, the logic that insisted that a woman be a virgin on her wedding night for reasons of assuring parentage was beyond wobbly. For who was better placed to cheat and get away with it than a married woman? The King who managed to have his wife conceive a son on their first night together could be certain but no one else. And even in that unlikely scenario, how would he really know? The married woman could no longer expected to remain a virgin and while she couldn't be absolutely careless about possible pregnancies, she was much better off than the unmarried woman should she find herself pregnant.

No, the requirement that women remain pure lay elsewhere. And here the whole thing gets necessarily indelicate but I will try to be as delicate as I can about it. For, really, the desire for a woman to be a pure, really translates into a desire for a woman whose sex drive is very weak and whose sense of decorum is strong enough that even that weak drive will never overcome it.  A man who seeks to marry such a woman does not expect much sexual pleasure out of or for his wife. This sort of arrangement is driven by an need to avoid shame so strong that it is willing to eliminate what most of us now would consider to be one of the prime good things in marriage.

As I've mentioned before, there is a bit in Samuel Pepys diaries where he is having sex with his wife—this in between endless tales of his adventures with other women—and he notices, to his horror, that she is rather enjoying it. And he puts a stop to that right away.

What was sought was protection against shame. The fear of seeming like a cuckold whose wife had sought pleasure (or greater pleasure) elsewhere was stronger than the desire for good sex. Men, of course, had access to all sorts of extra-marital sex at places such as brothels. And women played their part in that arrangement largely because they had to.

And thus we can see why girls and women are no longer interested in purity.  It was always a standard that served men's interests and not women's. The second they gained any sort of real freedoms, women were going to drift away from purity. They had been long before the late 1960s and early 1970s; that was just the tipping point.

By way of examples of how some things never change, we might consider that young William and Kate's first date involved him coming to see her model for a charity fashion show where she appeared in a see through dress. Well, and how wonderful that it should be for charity. It would seem just a little less okay if she'd done it for money. And even less so if, as has recently been revealed about her sister, she'd had a few drinks and danced around at some party in her undies for the sheer pleasure of it.

Funnily enough, though, the fact that Kate showed the entire world her lingerie is almost protective of her exclusiveness. Anyone else who'd seen her in her lingerie before this moment can no longer claim to have experienced anything special can they? In an odd way, the whole episode protects him from shame.

On the other hand, what did she offer instead of purity? That is a subject for an other day. For many other days actually.