Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sorta political: Jonah Lehrer doesn't look lazy to me

In the wake of the demasking of Jonah Lehrer we see the same explanation popping up everywhere. A couple of weeks ago,  Ta-Nehisi Coates titled a post on the subject "The seeds of lazy journalism". John McQuaid at Forbes makes the laziness point in terms of a failure to sweat the details:
And his fall shows what can happen when the personal brand supersedes everything else, including the drab scutwork of journalism.
Again, Lehrer seems to have been willing to do lots of drab scutwork.

All of this is dodging the central point which is that Jonah Lehrer made shit up. His crapulous and shoddy book Proust Was a Neuroscientist was not a product of laziness but of dishonesty.

With that in mind, take a scan around at the reviews you can find through Google. There are a  few negative ones here and there but there are a lot more positive ones. The positive ones show no evidence that the reviewer took the trouble to look for any evidence beyond what Lehrer himself provided for his various claims. The gate keepers just opened the door and said, "Come right in Mr. Lehrer." And that brings us to the second problem. He got away with this stuff for a long time. If you read the article in The Tablet that appears to be the final nail in his coffin, you'll notice that there was lots of evidence that something was amiss with Lehrer's work.

So how did this clown rise to the top of his profession?  That's the question that needs to be asked. He wasn't just any journalist. Like Stephen Glass before him, he was a star in his field. It's great that they finally caught him but how did he get through the gates in the first place?

To put it another way, we hear a lot about "meritocracy". Well, here's a troubling thought: this guy made it all the way to the top of a meritocracy without, what do you call that stuff, oh yeah, merit. How did that happen? And he is not the first or even the second or third "brilliant journalist" to turn out to be a fraud. If this was a field journalists covered, instead of the one they work in, they'd be screaming for a full inquiry.

(It's scarier if you think about how he might have gotten a way with it. Dylan is a special case. Any other celebrity and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to verify the quotes.)

The problem is that the guy was credentialed. He went to Columbia and then got a Rhodes Scholarship. When committees review your application for some academic honour, the very first thing they check is what other academic honours you already have. One honour tends to beget another.

Along the way, he learned how to flatter the vanities of other members of the credentialed class. His "Proust was ..." book, for example, was all about how major discoveries of brain science were supposedly "re-discoveries" of things novelists and painters had already figured out. Well no, they weren't but anyone who has been anywhere near a university any time in the last 100 years knows that academics love to entertain themselves with the notion that they aren't studying just stories and pictures so much as "explorations of human consciousness". (As dodgy as the claim that Proust was doing neuroscience is, it isn't even an original dodgy claim.)

Lehrer fed them exactly what their vanity was seeking and that is why they ate it up. His most recent book is called, vomit, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Was the launch party in Strawberry Fields?

This scandal isn't about a lazy journalist, it's an indictment of the entire credentialed elite and the era they rode in on.

Things that aren't giving

Everyone must give according to what he has inwardly decided; not sadly, not grudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver.
That's from this morning's office of readings*. The last clause is the famous one but the larger context is better.

One of the things I see more clearly as I get older is how easily we dress up things that aren't giving as giving. For example, renunciation is not giving but is often framed as giving. Living an ascetic life is not giving either.

Even sacrifice is not giving. God clearly means to tell us this in the Psalms when he reminds us, again and again, that we cannot give him sacrifices for everything already belongs to him. Sacrifice has a purpose and it is a good purpose but we'll never get it right if we tell ourselves that we are giving something when we sacrifice. But that's a subject for another day.

I started off saying that this has become clear to me as I get older. I see it especially with renunciation. As life gets older and things get more difficult, it is very easy to renounce favourite activities, foods, drink even friends and tell yourself that you are "giving" in doing so. The truth almost always is that these renunciations are acts of monstrous selfishness.

The Lemon Girl pointed one of these about a dozen years ago now. A woman we knew was throwing herself into a life of charity; spending days of every week helping with various groups. Meanwhile, her husband was the loneliest man in the world.

I think there are a number of characteristics that distinguish real giving from the fake kind, the most important of which is that real giving is always done to someone with whom you have a relationship.

To take the most obvious, and contentious, example, giving to panhandlers is not giving. It's a selfish and self-centred act.

If you don't have some knowledge of this person you give money to, you have no notion of what effect your gift is going to have. Yeah, you heard the story, it touched your heart and you "gave". Problem is the story is almost certainly a lie. The money you give will most likely be spent on drugs or alcohol.

And the point here is not that you've been lied to. So what if you've been lied to? No, the problem is that the money you gave meaning to help is actually going to do harm because you didn't care enough to give to someone with whom you actually have a relationship and would therefore be in a position to assess whether your "gift" will really do them any good.

The harm you do to panhandlers by giving them money is both immediate and long term. The long term is worse. The drugs or alcohol will certainly hurt their health but your enabling them to continue living on the street sinks them a little deeper into dependency with every passing day. The longer they are on the street, the more hopeless their situation gets. As contradictory as it may seem, taking away this option will improve their lives.

And your giving is actively hurting others. By supporting street life, you are actively promoting crime. You are making your city into a more dangerous place for yourselves and others.

All so you can feel good about yourself.

Again, we can see it with living an ascetic life. We tell ourselves it is giving on the grounds that what we are not using is a gift to others. But we don't track that gift. We don't even know if it exists. Locavores, for example, tell themselves they are helping but when you do the math, their activities do not produce any measurable benefits.

The real focus in living an ascetic life is ourselves. We are making lifestyle and aesthetic choices that we approve of and dressing them up as acts of charity.

The worst, though, is renunciation. Most often, it is a way of simply giving up on something we don't feel like doing anymore. Ask yourself honestly, when was the last time you gave something up so that someone else could have the benefit of it? Virtually all renunciation is about us and not others.

I've seen it done right. When my mother was dying, she gave up things one after another and every single one was an act of giving. With every gift it was easier for those who loved her to imagine life without her. But that was a very rare thing.

And she loved every single thing she gave up. She put effort into the giving and thought about the recipients. She took the time to remember everyone she'd had a conflict with and called them. And when she got them on the phone she enjoyed the conversations she had with them. Think of how different that is from what we mean when we renounce something.

* Corinthians 2 if you want to look it up.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Today's music

I never did do the follow up post I promised on Friday afternoon.

Short answer, I blame the audience. That makes me a contrarian as everyone I talked to about it wanted to blame the music industry. The industry is not completely blameless. Over the past few decades it has,
  • tried to fool everyone into buying the same music, drastically limiting the variety of music available,
  • manipulated people into buying long-playing formats such as LPs or CDs that led them to buy much more music than they really wanted,
  • endlessly cranked up the volume.
That said, they got lots of help from the public.

Just as John Phillip Sousa predicted, recording technology has made us less musically literate. As we became so, it became easier and easier for the industry to sell us crap.

Beginning with the recording ban and the ASCAP battle against radio, the industry began to get hints that the public would buy crap. At first they thought that hillbilly and race music was selling because hillbillies and blacks were buying it. Over time, however, they realized that a larger audience of musical illiterates was buying this simpler music.

Perhaps the pivotal figure in this story was Nat King Cole. A very good musician, Cole was capable of producing sophisticated music for a musically literate audience and he did so at considerable profit to him and to Capitol records. As the fifties went along, however, he and Capitol discovered that they could make a lot more money out of tripe like "The Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer" than they could out of his brilliant recordings of jazz standards.

That Cole was a black man had a lot to do with this. A black man singing romantic love songs was simply too threatening for the white audience.  They could stomach silly tunes such as "Straighten Up and Fly Right" though.

But the real discovery was that white audiences would stomach songs that dealt with transgressive sexual behaviours from black men and women. This, of course, was racism at it's very ugliest. It was precisely because they harbored crude racist beliefs that the whites were willing to "allow" blacks to sing about things that would have tainted a white performer in their eyes.

It wasn't primarily grunt and groan pornographic sex that was flogged by the way. There was always a hint of that but it was primarily themes of infidelity and premarital sex that were used to sell black music to a  mass white audience. Even now you will find "serious" critics who will praise the black girl groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s for being so much more aware than the white girl groups.

The problem with that is that an awful lot of the more "knowing" songs were written by Jewish girls and boys from New York. Everyone knew about this stuff but only black girls were allowed to get up and portray these roles on stage because everyone already (for racist reasons) thought less of them.

From then on it was only a matter of packaging. The first step was made by hipsters who sold the supposed "black" music (there is an awful lot less evidence that black audiences liked this stuff than you would think) as a new and interesting art form. They were helped in this by the industry which had gradually replaced the sophisticated music of the 1940s and early 1950s with an increasingly bland product. Although we should remember that they only got away with this because the audience increasingly didn't know the difference between sophisticated and unsophisticated music.

The next step was to convince the audience that socially challenging ideas were the same thing as musical and lyrical sophistication. That done, the door was open for white artists such as the Rolling Stones to exploit the long traditions of the minstrel show and step in and play act the roles already established by black artists. And so on down to Lady Gaga.

As I've mentioned before, one of the transformational experiences in my life was seeing the Rolling Stones movie At the Max. It was the first time I'd seen them when I wasn't being carried along by the crowd enthusiasm and alcohol. Part way through it hit me with a sudden jolt that Jagger, who'd been in the business more than thirty nearly forty years at that point, had a very hard time remaining on key.

It's not just the discovery that a pop singer is actually not a very good singer. It was that a very hard working and driven performer had never put much effort into his singing. And the reason he hadn't was because it didn't matter. If it had mattered, you can be sure Jagger would have worked at it.

And that is our fault, not his.

The big problem is that we never grew up. Listening to crappy pop music is both natural and harmless in teenagers. The problem is that, beginning with the baby boom, people with a string appetite for music, kept buying the same junk as they got older. They occasionally tried more sophisticated forms but that was too hard so they kept going back to pop.

Meanwhile some helpful critics stepped in with useful rationalizations. If you couldn't get more challenging music, we'll just pretend that the Beatles new record is challenging. And we can repeat this with every passing generation.

Combine this with an unrelenting attack on anything middlebrow and pretty soon you have college boys sitting around listening to sloppy, inept bands such as The Violent Femmes and actually congratulating themselves for being superior to the girls in the same dorm for their "unsophisticated" tastes in performers such as Joan Armatrading, even though Armatrading is actually a much more accomplished musician producing more sophisticated music.

And so it went, down, down, down ....

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The moral apocalypse continues

Some things you couldn't make up. An actress cheats on her boyfriend with a married man and then apologizes to ... wait for it ... the public! And then an organ of what used to be called the serious press runs a piece commending her for her exemplary moral conduct.
In fact, Stewart's blase attitude toward her own image could explain why she apologized so quickly and with so much apparent emotion. She didn't try to see if she could trick the public into believing the affair didn't happen. She didn't wait for a damage-control expert's opinion on what sort of statement would sound best to her fans. She just wanted forgiveness, so she asked for it.
She wanted forgiveness from her fans? Kristen Stewart cares deeply about getting respect from a whole lot of people who were completely unaffected by what she did because her financial future depends on her image.

I love the apology too:
I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I've caused to those close to me and everyone this has affected. This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry.
Look at her word choice: "momentary indiscretion". Having sex with someone isn't a momentary indiscretion. You're lying. This was a big, nasty thing you did and you did it fully aware of what you were doing. You trashed everything starting with yourself. Apologize for that you jerk!

Hey guys, remember the rat rule if this ever happens to you: for every rat you discover you can be sure there are several more about the place.

Direct experience of murder

The other point I would make: Even with all the murders in the United States since the Kennedys were killed, very few people have experienced murder directly. 
That's a huge cultural shift.  In Leviathan, for example, Hobbes argues that we seek to avoid shame and that the most shameful thing there is is to die at the hands of another. He wrote that for an audience who all would have known at least one person who died a violent death at the hands of another.

There are lots of movies with high body counts from murder or war but comparatively few with high body counts from highway accidents. The difference is that we all already knew of someone who died or will someday live to experience someone we know die in a car crash, so we demand that these things be treated with moral seriousness.

Near neo noir Thursday: Obsession

[Spoilers galore so don't read any further if you are planning on watching this turkey.]

Short version, don't waste your time. But some failures are interesting in that they point the way to future success.

It's a Brian de Palma movie so you know what you are going to get. A whole lot of Hitchcock devices combined with utterly unbelievable character motivations. The thing is based on a "story" by de Palma and Paul Schrader except that it's really story lifted right out of Hitchcock's Vertigo.

It's on the way-too-long, way-to-inclusive list of supposed Film Noir up at Wikipedia. I think every dark-mood movie ever made is on that list.

So what has it got going for it? Not much.

But it does highlight one element of neo noir that is worth noting and that is the protagonist's being driven by some past failure to do the morally right thing that is required of him as a man. This element was more hinted at more than used or drawn out in Chinatown and it is beautifuly used in Body Heat. Even Palmetto uses it fairly well. Here in Obsession it is overdone to the point of ridiculousness.

If you know the plot of Vertigo, then you know this one too. A man is haunted by the memory of his wife's death, an event he holds himself responsible for. He meets a woman who looks exactly like her and becomes obsessed at the thought of having a retake of his old love. In Hitchcock, the man fails because he hasn't changed. He has the same weaknesses and failings so, when he comes up against a similar situation, he makes the same mistake leading to the same tragic end.

But de Palma and Schrader change a key element. Unbeknownst to our protagonist, the whole thing is actually a  set up. He only thinks it is his failings that caused his wife's death when it is actually the plotting and machinations of a person he thinks of as a friend that cause her death. And then they stick a happy ending on it. It's sort of like sitting down to watch a movie about the Titanic only someone has replaced the last five pages of the script with the ending from one of the weaker episodes of Fantasy Island.

Controversy that isn't sexy
Oddly missing from the plot is any sexual element at all. We have a man who falls deeply in love with two women and both relationships are so chaste they make Emma and Mr. Knightly look like hard-core porn by comparison. This in a movie by two guys, Brian de Palma and Paul Schrader, who specialize in creepy sexual relationships. What happened? Oddly enough, the reason the movie is so unerotic is that they went too far.

Huh? Well, consider this oddly uninformative line from the Wikipedia article on the movie:
Completed in 1975, Columbia Pictures picked up the distribution rights but demanded that minor changes be made to reduce potentially controversial aspects of the plot.
And all five people who read the article said, "What potentially controversial elements?" And you can read far and wide and find no explanation. Apparently it's so "controversial" that no one wants to talk about it even now.

I don't know for certain myself but I'll make a pretty confident guess [here comes the big spoiler]. The woman who looks exactly like the dead wife that the protagionist becomes obsessed with isn't just any woman. For while it appears that his daughter also died in the accident that killed his wife, she actually survived. She has been spirited away to Italy by the villain bent on revenge all these years and fed a steady diet of "your father irresponsibly caused your mother's death" so now she is ready to be used as a tool in revenge.

(Which is sort of like planting an oak tree so that you can cut it down twenty-five years from now and make it into a club so you can kill someone. I mean, why not just buy a baseball bat right now?)

Okay, the "revenge" then turns out to be that an encounter is set up and the hero falls in love with the hate-filled daughter and becomes obsessed with marrying her. Again, in the Vertigo plot, the protagonist is emotionally disturbed because he has seen his wife die in front of him. It could happen so you believe it. But it could also not happen. In this plot, you have to believe that the villain knew with absolute certainty that the daughter would grow up to look like exactly her mother and that the protagonist would become obsessed with her if he ever met her and that all well-meaning attempts to help him would only drive him deeper into his obsession until ...

Anyway, the bizarre plan works because it's in the script and then our protagonist marries the woman he has become obsessed with who is actually—I suspect you are beginning to see where the controversy might arise—his daughter! It's best to resort to clinical language when dealing with such sensitive issues. For example, icky, icky, gross, gross!

So how does the movie handle it? Well, we start with our protagonist unconscious. He is dreaming of his wedding day the morning after it happened. The image is literally fuzzy. We see the vows, the cutting of the cake,  the kiss, and then we hear his wife/daughter mysteriously telling him she is going to give him another chance to prove he loves her and then, bang he is awake and she too has been kidnapped.

And what else happened on their wedding night? Did he get drunk and was unable to perform? Did she drug him? Was the incestuous sex so good it clouded his brain? Who knows. They do kiss on the lips so presumably something at least started to happen but the changes demanded by Columbia all conspire to muddy the issue as much as possible, not so we won't know, but so so we won't think about it.

All of which makes a certain sense but why not just not make the movie in the first place. It's like remaking Lolita and making Dolores twenty-five years old. Okay, the story is not offensive to anyone anymore but it also isn't the same story anymore either. "We stopped the spread of the cancer by shooting the patient in the head."

Oh yeah, just in case that isn't crazy enough, de Palma sticks a happy ending on it. An utterly conventional romantic happy ending in which the two leads run into one another's arms in defiance of the whole world and the camera spins around them and they are so in love. Okay, in the abstract—father and daughter go through serious trauma and then are reunited so they hug—all seems harmless enough. But put the specific context in and icky, icky, gross, gross!

The subtext is so elaborate they had to leave out the text
The perhaps surprising thing is that the whole movie is an intensely literary exercise. It's not just that it features extensive references to Vertigo, the movie assumes you know the plot of Vertigo because otherwise you couldn't follow what was happening. And there is a whole Dante Vita Nuovo subtext as well.

All of this is quite deliberate. I'm sure they had Nabokov in mind and were attempting to achieve a succès de scandale that could be justified on "artistic" grounds when they wrote it. And then they were forced to tone it down. But you can't blame the censors for this one. It was a confused mess before they got their hands on it.

The whole thing is so damn complex that most viewers must have left the theatre not entirely sure what had happened. Not surprisingly, this is one of those movies that critics loved and viewers hated. Critics love things that are hard to understand because it justifies the existence of critics.

The neo noir elements
The big neo-noir thing, as I say, is the hero driven by his inner demons and past failures. That is an important element in neo noir. A hero like Sam Spade has a past and demons but he is also driven by a genuine and admirable sense of justice that triumphs over his and everybody else's selfish concerns.

But that hero is harder to believe in now. The turning point in hard-boiled and, therefore, noir history comes with I, the Jury. The unintended effect of Spillane's travesty was to expose the weakness of the hard-boiled hero. How is the hard-boiled hero with his personal sense of justice any different from a psycho path? How is Batman really all that different from the Joker? Everyone felt sure the hard-boiled hero they loved was different but how do you explain the difference in an era that doesn't allow appeals to moral truth?

We tell ourselves, "But he is the hero is on the side of truth and justice!" The problem with that, however, is that his reasons for doing right are always personal and not an appeal to any principles outside himelf. Raymond Chandler, forced to face the contradictions, created the character of Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye. Marlowe says this of Lennox:
I'm not sore at you. You're just that kind of guy. For a long time I couldn't figure you out at all. You had nice ways and nice qualities, but there was something wrong. You had standards and you lived up to them, but they were personal. They had no relation to any kind of ethics or scruples. You were a nice guy because you had a nice nature. But you were justa s happy with mugs or hoodlums as with honest men. Provided the hoodlums spoke fairly good English and had fairly acceptable table manners. You're a moral defeatist. I think maybe the war did it and again I think maybe you were born that way.
"No relation to any kind of ethics or scruples". What he means is that nothing of Lennox's code can be justified by appealing to anything outside himself. And that is the way of the neo noir hero. Why does Batman fight crime? Not because crime is wrong but because he saw his parents killed in front of him when he was a kid. If he'd had a happy childhood he'd presumably be happy working as a concentration camp guard.

We all feel that the hero we like is different but we can't actually explain why he is good. In the end, the only reason Batman comes down on the side of good because his fans really want him to and the scriptwriters are careful never to disappoint them.

You could blame the writers and directors for this except that it's true of our entire culture. Why should you "walk for the cure"? The ads tell you to do it for someone you love—your mother, wife, daughter, best friend. No one makes a case for why defeating this cancer might serve some greater moral truth. Every moral appeal is an attempt to sway your emotions and not an appeal to some moral reality that could be argued about. No, do it because you care.

But what about the hero who cares deeply for reasons that are vague, or disturbed, or twisted or even crazy? How is the bad dark knight different from the good dark knight? The reason neo noir is so important to anyone wondering what it is to be a man in our era is that it forces us to consider those questions.

It's interesting to compare Chinatown  and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in that regard. Jake Gittes has a past in Chinatown and his inability to bring about justice in Chinatown, his managing to get the woman he was trying to protect killed, haunts him. The idea is there but it's latent. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, heavily based on Chinatown, you can see how much the plot motif had developed in just thirteen years. And it's all the more evident because Roger Rabbit is just a cartoon with lots of parody aspects. The demons from 'toon town haunting Eddie Valiant are much more prominent in the story than the ones from Chinatown haunting Jake Gittes.

Obsession was a step along that path. It's not a terribly well-made movie but it's part of the history.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learn from losers? (part 2)

Carrying on from what I was saying earlier about marriage advice based on the experience of divorced people, I'd like to pull out some interesting tensions in the piece. All of these tensions exist over the same fault line.

1. For example, there is an interesting reversal that occurs in the advice given by Terri Orbuch. Here is how the WSJ article opens the discussion of showing your love:
Of the divorced people, 15% said they would give their spouse more of what Dr. Orbuch calls "affective affirmation," including compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying "I love you," and emotional support. "By expressing love and caring you build trust," Dr. Orbuch says.
Now look what happens in the very next paragraph:
She says there are four components of displays of affection that divorced people said were important: How often the spouse showed love; how often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are; how often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things; and how often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.
 In one paragraph we went from the person who wishes they gave more love to their former spouse who to the perspective of the person who wishes they had  received more love! How did that happen?

 2. There are other odd things. Consider this, for example:
The divorced individuals didn't specifically identify sex as something they would have approached differently, although Dr. Orbuch says it is certainly one aspect of demonstrating love and affection.
Okay, but it might be worth asking whether the fact that they didn't identify sex as an important issue is not worth investigating all by itself. The single best predictor of failure is poor risk assessment skills: people who fail at things tend to do so mostly because they don't see risk factors or don't attribute enough importance to the risk factors they do see. I'd say that while Orbuch is right that sex is" certainly one aspect of demonstrating love and affection" she isn't giving it nearly enough weight.

Consider the advice you'd give to someone who wanted to be a lifeguard. A lot of it would overlap with the advice you'd give them if they told you they wanted most other jobs but you'd absolutely insist that they be a strong swimmer to be a lifeguard! Sex in marriage is like swimming to a lifeguard. It's not an incidental thing, it's not "one aspect" of expressing affection. It's right at the centre of your marriage. If you can't, don't or won't put a lot of time and effort into expressing love sexually, then don't get married.

3. There is another anomaly when we hit blame. Orbuch is being very even-handed in her approach but her own data makes it painfully clear that the people who need to handle blame issues better are mostly women and she won't come out and say that.
In the study, 65% of divorced individuals blamed their ex-spouses, with more women blaming an ex-husband (80%) than men blaming an ex-wife (47%). And 16% of men blamed themselves, compared with only 4% of women.
I'm sorry but there is a divergence of attitudes here that is not just marked, it's breathtakingly marked.  If we can admit, as we do admit, that more men than women sabotage their marriages by having affairs, why can't we admit that more women than men sabotage their marriages by complaining too much?

The article goes on to give advice about how to blame in a healthy way but why blame at all? If you're always unhappy with your spouse, the problem is you. Step back a moment and try to imagine what it feels like to be married to someone who is unhappy and complaining all the time. Fix it and stop blaming the other person!

4. Okay, but what about legitimate complaints then? Well, a huge problem is that Orbuch never confronts the issue of legitimacy of complaints. She just goes from "you have a complaint" to "how to express it" without ever passing through a stage of "is your complaint legitimate". And the advice she gives on expressing these feelings is bad advice.
How do you blame in a healthy way? Say "we," not "you" or "I." Say, "We are both so tired lately," not "You are so crabby." When you remove blame, it's easier to come up with a solution.
To see how stupid that is, consider any real-life problem. May wants Jim to stop cheating on her, do you think it helps for her to say, "Why are we so unhappy?" She doesn't mean that for a second. It's a lie. Jim is doing something she wants him to stop. The problem is "him" and not "we". What possible good will it do to lie and pretend it's something we need to work on together?

Worse, this approach simply opens the door to some of the worst passive-aggressive tricks. If you've ever dealt with passive-aggressive behaviours in others or analyzed your own passive-aggressive subterfuges, you will know that shifting from "me" to "we" is always the first evasion.

Terry tells Karen he is unhappy with their sex life and he has evidence to back it up because they've only had sex three times in the last four months. Karen looks chastened when he points this out to her. If Karen plans to do something about it, she will apologize and set about improving. If, on the other hand, Karen has no intention but can hardly argue the point in the face of the evidence, the move that any passive-aggressive person will make at this point is to is to immediately shift from "me" to "we" by saying something such as the following:
Yes, you're right but I am going to need help fixing this. We have to work on getting me to a place where I can be more relaxed, where I don't have to worry about ....
If Karen says something along those lines, what she really means  is "No!" If Terry takes Orbuch's advice and approaches this as a we problem, all he is doing is handing Karen the knife so she can stab him in the back with it.

The problem with the we-instead-of-you approach is that it begins with a lie. Putting things in less-threatening terms in an attempt to be more effective at changing them is just a polite way of describing how to be a manipulative jerk.

The missing element in all these things is truth. Before we talk about what are good and bad ways of expressing blame, for example, we need to talk about whether blame is justified. For everything changes when you know it is justified. You can be damn sure that Orbuch would never tell a victim of domestic violence to approach her husband with "Why are we so unhappy?"

Here is an analogy: suppose Sue tells us that she doesn't think the thing that caused her accident is her being a bad driver but that she was "simply driving too fast". How do we test that claim? We'd start by considering the evidence. She was driving over ten speed limit? How much over? Most people drive over the speed limit and most people don't lose control of their car. Sue only has a point if she was driving way over the speed limit or if she drove into a curve much faster than was reasonable.

But notice how that changes the way we see the driver. If Sue was driving way over the speed limit we are more inclined to ask, "What the hell were you thinking?" And if she drove into a curve much faster than was reasonable, we might ask what's wrong with her judgment that she either can't figure this out or was she simply not paying attention and didn't see the curve coming. And the problems we will see here may begin with technique but ultimately they point to problems with Sue herself.

The same is true of advice about how you might handle issues that arise in marriage. Yeah, this advice is valuable to a point but there is also a point where you start wanting to ask, "What is wrong with these people that they couldn't figure this stuff out for themselves? Why do they need to be told how to better relate to another human being in the first place?"

And that, to go back to the point in my earlier post, is the real issue: are you good enough to be successful at marriage? It all comes down to that: Are you good at being a man or good at being a woman? That's what it takes to make a marriage work.

"Want to learn how to succeed in life? Ask a loser."

I take it that it's pretty obvious that is bad advice. At least it is when you put it baldly like that. And yet, the formulation is so tempting:
Want great marriage advice? Ask a divorced person.
That's the opening of a piece by Elizabeth Bernstein in The Wall Street Journal. And it's just strange. Maybe because it's in the WSJ it acquires a weight it wouldn't otherwise have. I don't know. We could put it differently: "See that bitter, unhappy person over there? She failed at marriage and she could teach you a lot about how to make yours work."

Bernstein's argument, which she takes from Terri Orbuch, "a psychologist, research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research", is that divorced people sit down and analyze their experience in an attempt to learn from their mistakes and we can all learn from paying attention to what they have to say.

Some of what she has to say is, in fact, good advice. And some is not. But I think there is a deeper problem here and that it is that she focuses on changing behaviours rather than changing who you are.

It's an open question whether anybody learns much from their mistakes but the first reservation I have is that I am especially doubtful that divorced people learn much from their mistakes. (As a group that is; there will, of course, be individual exceptions.) The divorce rate for second marriages is much higher than the divorce rate for first marriages. And you would think that if there were lessons to be learned from observing marriage failures that the children of divorced parents would know them but children of divorced parents are much more likely to divorce than children of parents who did not divorce.

All of which says that if you really want to succeed at marriage, or anything else, your best bet is to find someone who succeeded and model yourself on them.

But we don't want to do that do we? These days we tell ourselves that we want to succeed at things but we want to do it on our own terms. We want the marriage but we don't want to be like the people who have the successful marriage.  The problem was well put by Leslie Loftis: "The old advice focused on how to be a good woman. The new advice, however, focuses on how not to be a bad person." Tell someone that they have to model themselves on successful role model and you are telling them they have to change who and what they are. No one wants to do that, so we prefer to seek out advice about how to simply replace our bad habits with good habits.

To get back to my main point, how can you put advice such as the following into practice:
Communication style is the No. 1 thing the study's divorced individuals said they would change in the next relationship (41% said they would communicate differently). 
Notice first how the scope has been narrowed down by the expression "communication style". The implication is quite clear: "You don't have to change yourself, you just have to change the way you say things". That's not completely crazy because the way to change yourself is begin by changing the things you do. But it needs to be clear right from the start that we are aiming to change ourselves.

There is a huge difference between, "I want to stop acting like a bitch," and "I want to stop being a bitch". To embrace the first is to effectively say, "I think I am just fine, I just want to change a few things about how this otherwise fine person behaves" The second starts with a profound self accusation.

The outward behaviour that goes with the two approaches will look pretty similar. To stick with my example, the person who doesn't want to be a bitch doesn't click her heels together three times and think how much she wants it. She begins by acting the part of what she wants to be. Fake it until you make it. But the goal is different and that is important.

More to come ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sorta political: When did feminism become the embarassing guest that everyone wishes would just go away?

With every passing year, feminism becomes a little stupider. I was a big fan when I was in high school. By the mid 1980s when I finished university, feminism was already losing its bearings. As John dos Passos once said of American communists, when they should have been taking a strong stand, feminists had muzzled themselves by making disastrous political alliances, and when they should have kept quiet, they rushed to keyboards and microphones.

A good example of the latter is Hanna Rosin's response to the news that Matthew Robert McQuinn, Jonathan Blunk, (who both died) and Alex Teves (who survived) all placed themselves in the path of gunfire to save the women they were with during the Aurora shootings. She sees it as an opportunity to flog her thesis that men are in decline. No, I'm not making that up.

I have nothing against her arguing that view, although I suspect she is wrong. But really, there is a time to make your case and there is a time to be respectfully silent.

BTW: Another item for the long list of stupid things that only very smart people can convince themselves of:
Papers have described what happened in the theater as "chivalry." But it's not really that. Chivalry is a code of conduct connected to social propriety. Throwing your body in front of your girlfriend when people all around you are getting shot is an instinct that's basic, and deeper.
If you really believe that then ask yourself what you think would happen in a similar situation in an Islamic culture. Think of those Saudi schoolgirls who burned to death because the authorities didn't want to risk  that men might be damaged by seeing the girls without their headscarves. Police reportedly beat the women who tried to escape the fire and drove them back to their deaths. How much chance do you think there is that men will develop a "basic instinct" to protect women in a culture like that?

And we might also remember the École Polytechnique massacre in which an entire classroom of men meekly filed out leaving nine women to die? Where was the "basic instinct" that day?

Chivalry may be an inconvenient fact for feminists but it's a very real thing and while there are other societies with admirable ideals for men, the sort of chivalry we saw at Aurora is a western ideal.  

What those three men did was the end product of a whole life training themselves to be men. To paraphrase this month's uncool quote: "One is born male, but being a man is a personal accomplishment."

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Wrapping it up (2)

[Spoilers galore below, so if you are planning to read it ....]

The most important moment in the book happens in the second-last section, which is called "And sometimes they were very sad". Well, it actually doesn't happen in that section but we get a flashback to it. Here is the order we learn things.
  1. Leonard  proposes to Madeleine while in a manic state but she doesn't know that is what is happening. 
  2. Then the story shifts to Mitchell's experiences in India. The only thing we know of her is that Mitchell receives a letter from Madeleine telling him that she is serious about her "boyfriend" and tells him anything between she and Mitchell is now officially over.
  3. Then the section called And sometimes they were very sad" begins with the aftermath of a disaster. Madeleine and Leonard are married and living with her parents because he had a major breakdown on their honeymoon. They have no where else to live and Leonard is on suicide watch.
  4. And then we get the flashback to the back and forth between Madeleine and her mother in the moments leading up to and immediately following her engagement to Leonard.
Okay, this is where it almost gets interesting. For it here that a moral question arises. What exactly that moral question is isn't clear. Here is how Eugenides brings it up. Madeleine's sister and mother came to visit Madeleine and Leonard and her sister snooped in the medicine cabinet and found Leonard's lithium. When she needs a weapon against Madeleine in a family argument that later takes place, the sister mentions the lithium in front of Madeleine's mother.

The mother and sister leave and Madeleine waits in dread for "the call". When it comes her mother says,
"... manic depression is a chronic condition. People have it their entire lives. There's no cure. People go in and out of hospital, they have breakdowns, they can't hold a job. And their families go along for the ride. Sweetheart? Madeleine? Are you there?'

"Yes," Madeleine said.

"I know you know all this. But I want you to think about what it would mean to marry a person with a ... with a mental illness. Not to mention raise a family with him."

"Who says I'm going to marry Leonard?"
Now that is an interesting quandary.

Let's note first that Madeleine isn't being honest with anyone, least of all herself here. She is in a  serious relationship with Leonard. Even if , like Madeleine, we never bother to think about where a serious relationship is going the inescapable truth is that it is going somewhere. The longer you spend together, the stronger the links between you. But it's worse than that. Madeleine has given up a chunk of her life to go live with Leonard while he does a research fellowship. Doing that and not knowing whether you want to get married is like having sex without birth control for a few months while you think about whether you want to have children.

The great eighteenth and nineteenth century novels would have confronted that issue directly but no one in this story except for Madeleine's mother even recognizes that it exists.

The problem that the novel does struggle with is whether bipolar syndrome (aka manic-depression) is a good enough reason to refuse to marry someone. Let's acknowledge that this is a difficult, gruelling really, decision for Madeleine. She is in love with the guy.

Okay, but let's also remind ourselves of some important details here. When Madeleine learns that Leonard is bipolar they are not a couple anymore. Not only are they not a couple, they broke up because Leonard responded to Madeleine declaring that she loved him by being a manipulative swine. He then has a breakdown but not because of the emotional stress of the break up. He has a breakdown because he stops taking his lithium. She learns about his breakdown and rushes to the hospital to see him.

And then she spends a long time taking care of him. I find this not even remotely plausible, everything we know about Madeleine tells us she would avoid a situation like this. Eugenides, however, has her proceed while wondering about her lifelong aversion to "unstable" people. And the thing that makes this tricky is that Madeleine clearly doesn't believe her aversion for unstable people is justifiable.

We need a modifier here. "Justifiable how?" is the obvious question but I'll leave that blank for now. The problem is that Madeleine loves Leonard and his illness doesn't seem like a good enough reason to avoid him. And again, she has broken up with him when she learns. She doesn't have to leave him, all she has to do is believe that she doesn't have to go back to him.

But she does go back to him even though he isn't the same guy he used to be. Among other things, the massive doses of lithium he now has to take have side effects so they have a lousy social life and a lousy sex life.

Okay, let's flash forward to that conversation between Madeleine and her mother again. Madeleine tries an analogy on her mother:
"Say Leonard had another disease, Mummy. Say he had diabetes or something. Would you be acting the same way about that?"

"Diabetes is a dreadful disease!" Phyllida cried.

"But you wouldn't care if my boyfriend needed insulin to stay healthy. That would be O.K. right? It wouldn't seem like some kind of moral failing."

"I didn't say anything about morality."

"You didn't have to."
No, she didn't have to because the whole discussion they are having is a moral argument. Both are making their points in moral terms and yet neither is willing to acknowledge that they are having a moral argument.

And it's an oddly lopsided moral argument. Phyllida is arguing for prudence and Madeleine is trying to defuse that argument. Madeleine doesn't have an argument of her own. And she never formulates one. What happens is that things start to go better than they had been and Madeleine forgets about the bad times and, more importantly, forgets that any relief she is experiencing is only temporary given Leonard's condition.

The terms she uses to think about this are very telling:
The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.
Yeah sure.

What we have here is a peculiarly modern situation. We have people who argue endlessly in moral terms. Even their aesthetic judgments are made in moral terms. But, for all that, they don't take morality very seriously. Moral argument is only used to manipulate others, and sometimes to manipulate yourself, into behaving in the way that we desire. And that is important because, in the end, all morality comes down to wants: the moral outcome we seek is the one we want. No one believes that morality sits on any solider foundation that personal wants and no one believes that it could sit on anything solider than that. (the technical term for this sort of moral belief is "emotivism".)

The moral question that Madeleine never confronts is this: "Is it morally justifiable for her to end her relationship with Leonard and go look for someone else on the grounds that his mental illness makes the success of any marriage extremely unlikely?"

"Morally" justifiable. That's the modifier that was missing above. The question is not whether it's okay to avoid unstable people but whether it's morally justifiable to avoid a serious relationship leading to marriage with them. As long as Madeleine only treats it like a question of simply "avoiding them" it seems like a  question about unfair prejudice against others—witness how she defuses her mother's reasonable prudential concerns by painting her mother as unfairly biased against Leonard. But Madeleine isn't getting all antsy about having to sit on the same bus as an unstable person, what she is hesitating about is continuing a loving relationship that could lead to marriage. Except that she refuses to confront the question directly and neither does Eugenides.

And it's not just her. Real moral questions, the kind that have real answers that are true or false instead of simply being an expression of our desires tend to do that to us. Because they are so very serious, we'd rather not answer them. It's all so heavy.

And we do owe the person with bipolar syndrome something. We must care about them and even, if we take Jesus seriously, love them. But do you have to consider marrying them if you learn about their condition after a relationship has started?

It would be a different question if you were already married. Certainly, it would be wrong to divorce someone you had married if their bipolar syndrome was diagnosed after marriage. You made a vow to stick by them in sickness and in health. On the other hand, if you married someone who suffered from bipolar syndrome and they hid this fact from you until after marriage, I'd argue that you'd be well within your rights to ask to have the marriage annulled. A lot of people might try to make the marriage work anyway. They'd probably fail too. But they'd try and perhaps others might find this morally admirable.

Let me toss out an analogy here. Suppose you discovered, far into a dating relationship, that the attraction this person had felt for you was temporary and now they no longer felt anything for you. But they still wanted to get married for other reasons. Perhaps they really, really want children or maybe the invitations have all been sent out. It seems a lot easier then doesn't it? I suspect that there are some people who would still get married believing that they can "love enough for both of us" but it's much easier to see that what this person is doing in getting married to someone who doesn't love her is not morally admirable.

We all insist that love is a necessary condition for marriage. But is it sufficient. Try imagining how the novel would have read if madeleine had said, "But we really love one another Mummy!" Jeffrey Eugenides seems to grasp that love is a necessary condition for marriage but it isn't sufficient. What he doesn't seem to want to allow is that this is a question a girl and boy ought to ask themselves before getting married. That they ought to ask it before they even fall in love. Because this love and marriage stuff is serious.

But we can never go there if morality is never confronted as a source of truth. So long as moral questions are only about what we want and don't want to do, a novel like this can never go anywhere. The problem is not—as he sets it up—whether no fault divorce and prenuptial agreements have made the marriage plot impossible. That's nonsense and you can prove it by reading any of Emily Giffin's books which all not only handle the marriage plot , they do it well and at some moral depth.

If you want to get married you need a better reasons than, "But we really love one another and we really get along together and the sexual chemistry is amazing". You need to think about what marriage is where it's going to go and you need to think about whether there is a good reason not to get married.  Jane Austen knew this and that is why the English novel became great. She forces her heroines to confront the question of whether there is a good reason not to get married—and forces is the word because some of them really don't want to face the question— and sometimes they don't get married as a result. But Eugenides never makes Madeleine face it. She just drifts into and then out of marriage and then she sort of "gets over it" but having casual, and not very good sex, with Mitchell. And then the novel ends leaving us wondering why we read it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Marriage Plot: Wrapping it up (1)

Having finally finished it (I stopped enjoying the book around halfway through had to more or less force myself to read the final three chapters), I think there are two really important things going on in this book. I'll deal with one today and the other tomorrow (UPDATE: Make that Monday). The first important thing is the portrait it gives us of a certain character traits you find in a lot modern men.  Defining this character is something I want to hold off on so I will start with an anecdote.

About a decade ago now, the Lemon Girl (aka the Serpentine One) and I were watching a movie. I didn't notice any problems but the Lemon Girl was clearly getting more and more impatient with him during a scene in which the male and female leads were interacting and she said, "Come on, just f__ her already!"

That''s a crude way of making the point but some points need to be made crudely and this is one of them. Some men these days just won't come clean about what they want. We might put it a little bit more "correctly" by saying, "Come one, just let her know you want to f___ her already." We pretend to be interested in other things instead of honestly letting ourselves want a woman. We may think we are being sensitive to her needs or we may think we are being independent and strong but, either way, what we are really doing is chickening out on life. There are, as I've just hinted,  two equally frustrating ways this trait manifests itself and both are represented in this book.

There is the nice guy; the man whose answer to "What do you want to do?' is always, "What do you want to do?" This guy never pushes, never leads, never even asks a woman on a date never mind trying to seduce her. We might excuse him on the grounds that he is worried about being accused of date rape or sexual harassment except that he shows himself to be a hopeless pussy about at just about everything in life.

The guy who represents this type in the book is Mitchell. He travels all the way to India to volunteer at Mother Theresa's hospice but he turns into a mass of quivering jelly at the thought of performing simple nursing duties such as changing dressings, bathing patients and helping them with bed pans. He actually runs away from the hospital when faced with this!

The second type is the pseudo bad boy who is actually just a needy loser. He pulls women in by being ambiguous and distant. Music is really important in his life because he uses it like a drug to trigger the emotional responses he is incapable of having on his own. Rather than tell a woman how he feels, he'll put some music on (always some moody, alternative stuff and never a happy song or something you could dance to) and turn up the volume so he doesn't have to talk.  His answer to just about any attempt the woman in his life makes to find out what he wants is to sulk and walk away. Again, he won't actively pursue a woman but instead sends mixed messages alternating between having sex with her when he wants it and sulking alone in the corner and refusing to make eye contact any time she needs other kinds of love from him. He sells himself as some sort of sexual gunslinger but he is actually incapable of taking care of himself never mind any woman who enters into his life so she ends up alternatively servicing and mothering him.

The guy who represents that type in the book is Leonard. His portrait is complicated by the fact that he is bipolar but he is a guy who has succeeded at school largely because he has never needed to try. He takes this attitude to everything in life only showing any enthusiasm for the things he knows he can succeed at and crumpling like Sonny Liston in the face of anything that will involve any struggle on his part.

You probably recognize those traits. If you are a man, you've probably fallen into one or both of those patterns. If you are a woman, you've had to put up with them from men. I know I have done these things. I did the Leonard thing a few times when I was in my twenties and nowadays I sometimes catch myself doing the Mitchell thing. But if you are a man at all worthy of being called a man, you will recognize those traits as weak and despicable and will associate them with your lowest moments. And if you are a woman you may associate those traits with moments when you put up with a lot of crap you shouldn't have from some creep because you didn't have the confidence to tell him to go away.

The problem with the book is that I don't think Eugenides sees that these two guys are really weak and despicable. He seems to think they are pretty normal guys whose life struggles are worth following and not as a way to identify traits you should hate in yourself.

The credentialed class
That is perhaps not surprising Eugenides is a member of the credentialed class of university-educated upper-middle class whites who have thrived under a system that is called "meritocracy" but is really just a rigged game like all the other class systems in history. This class is driven by a combination of entitlement and and an impostor syndrome that they have in response to their entitlement.

We see the entitlement, for example, in an offhand thought Mitchell has towards the end of the book.
He would come back to New York, and find a job, and see what happened.
He is imagining how things might work between him and Madeleine. She is now sort of free and they might pursue a relationship. And he thinks, "Yeah, I'll move to New York and get a job. That way I can be near her and we cans see what might transpire." What is so odd about that thought? To Mitchell, nothing is odd about it and that is why it is so significant because he thinks it in the middle of a recession. Unemployment was ten percent in the years this novel is set in and it was much higher for recent university graduates. And Mitchell just takes it for granted that he can just move to one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country and not worry because he'll be able to find a job.

And he isn't wrong. He is the member of such a class. I'm part of it myself, albeit much further down the ladder than Mitchell or Eugenides—if they are nobility, I'm part of the lesser gentry. But the types of despicable traits I am describing here are very much typical of university-educated white boys from the 1980s.

Similarly, while Leonard occasionally expresses concerns about his ability to make ends meet, he never acts like it's a real concern for him. When his life falls apart, he just goes back to Oregon and goes to live in a cabin in the woods with his buddy from high school. How exactly they are going to pay for groceries is never dealt with because people in the credentialed class never have to worry about this. They spend their entire life performing over a safety net. The big question in life for them is not, "Will I succeed?" but "Will I succeed well enough that I can be happy given my inflated sense of entitlement?"

The net effect of Eugenides writing about these characters without recognizing their flaws for what they are is to make them come off like dilettantes who are afraid of really living life and don't have to do anything about it because they are members of an elite credentialed class for whom everything will always turn out alright.

One of the ways these very male behaviour patterns show themselves in the book comes out regarding religion. And religion is absolutely central to this book. However, only male characters—if you accept Mother Theresa, who makes a cameo appearance—have any sort of real religious dimension.

Now we might wonder about this because if there is one thing that characterizes current religious life, it is that women are more likely to be religious than men. But the religion in the book is a weird religion. The central thing to this religion is a kind of experience and not a doctrine, belief system and, most emphatically, not a belief that we should live worthy lives as consequence of our religion. And this experience is very much an eastern thing: the two characters who pursue it value the experience because they believe it's going to bring about a loss of ego.

Madeleine, the lead female character has no religious dimension at all besides the fact that Mitchell craves her body because he accidentally saw her "Episcopalian breast". This is a troubling moment given that Mitchell is sexually attracted to Madeleine because she is a type he has a fetish for. Try imagining how this would read if he had wanted Madeleine because she was oriental or black and you might be able to see the problem more clearly.

To get back to my point, the weird sexist undercurrent running through the entire book is that the sought after religious experience is a male thing. Men are shown in a quest a quest for a certain kind of experience and that quest involves pilgrimage, suffering and loss.

The only woman to talk about religious experience at any length is a woman at a Quaker meeting in the last section of the book who babbles on foolishly about how her mother gave her butterscotch candies to keep her interested in going to meeting. Worse, this silly girly story harmonizes with, and is clearly meant to harmonize with, a thematic development wherein Madeleine deals with the loss and suffering she goes through because of the failure of her marriage by reverting to a girlhood. And not just girlhood, but a rather silly girlhood:
The only times Madeleine brightened were when an old girlfriend of hers came by the house. With her friends—and the earlier made and dippier they were, the better: she was fond of certain ex-Lawrenceville girls with names like Weezie—Madeleine seemed to be able to will herself back to girlhood. She went shopping with these friends. She spent hours trying things on. At the house, they lay by the pool, tanning and reading magazines, while Mitchell drew away to the shade of the porch, watching them from afar with desire and revulsion, exactly as he had done in high school.
The message seems to be that men deal with the dark, difficult challenges of adulthood by seeking religious experiences and women deal with the dark, difficult challenges of adulthood by reverting to adolescence.

At the same time, however, these men never stop being these hopeless jerks who just need someone go shake them out of their self-involved and self-indulgent uselessness. For all their interest in religion, the thing that Mitchell and Leonard seek never manifests itself in any thing outside themselves such as a change in behaviour.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A little light culture: The sexbots are coming! The sexbots are coming!

Well, no they aren't because they are sexbots. Okay, but suppose there was a sexbot that could simulate the reactions of a woman or man reaching orgasm so well that you couldn't tell the difference? Now there is a subject to get the wheels spinning.

Actually, I can't think of anything more boring than discussing sexbots but others apparently differ. It started with Heartiste who inspired Dr. Helen to respond and since she is married to Instapundit he naturally mentioned that his wife was blogging about sexbots and that inspired Ann Althouse to start musing.

I have no idea why but there is a deep human need to worry about virtual reality. Think of Plato who obsessed about the notion that shadows cast by light on the back wall of a cave could be so convincing that people would live their lives like zombies unaware that everything they experienced was false. No such thing was possible in his day and no such thing is possible in ours. But he worried about it and approximately every ten seconds another human being works themselves into a tizzy about this non-problem.

Here is is the key thing to keep reminding yourself of: there is no virtual reality! You are at as much risk of being fooled or replaced by virtual reality as you are of being attacked by Martians. Neither thing exists. Virtual reality has never been possible. Yes, maybe someday, some brilliant innovator in technology will pull it off. (And maybe someday space aliens will invade our planet.) But as of now it's all in your imagination.

We can be momentarily tricked. Go to an IMAX film shot from a plane and you will find yourself leaning to compensate when the plane banks. But that's an illusion and illusions aren't virtual reality. You have all sorts of ways of correcting for illusions. But try to imagine a technology that would simulate a swimming pool so well that you would believe you actually were in the water. That's the quality of illusion it would take to make a sexbot that was more than just a complex sex toy.

A sexbot, when such things become widely available, will be just a masturbatory aid. It will never be even vaguely like having sex with another human being (although I do have to admit that I had a couple of partners back in university who were so bad at sex that they might have been accused of trying to simulate a sexbot).

Of the four links I give above, Heartiste and Althouse are the most interesting. I think Althouse believes that Heartiste is just posturing. That's a reasonable conclusion as Heartiste does a lot of posturing. He knows he isn't really an alpha male but he plays one on the internet. Reading him, I think of those pathetic guys who are really into superhero comics and movies. He lives in a world in which caped Alpha men conquer evil, cock-blocking pussies everywhere! The world he imagines is full of harsh moral tests that clearly distinguish the winners and losers; a world that is just like a comic book world only the battle is sexual and not crimefighting.

In response, Althouse simply reverses the posturing and I suspect her tongue is in her cheek as she does so. The bizarre fantasies of the powerless are always vulnerable to being simply reversed and thus reduced to the point of absurdity.

But all that said, I think Heartiste has one realy solid point on his side and it's this:
Are lazy, apathetic, demotivated men unhappy? Surveys show women are the ones getting unhappier the deeper we get into the feminist and sexual revolutions. 
And that is where Ann Althouse's  joke stops being funny. I live right beside a university campus and the young men I see are a little more pathetic with every passing year. But they aren't unhappy! They could be happier but  they aren't unhappy. The problem, as Heartiste cheerfully points out, is on the other side. All the great feminist victories—birth control, abortion, no-fault divorce, Title IX—have made women unhappy.

Will sexbots catch on? My guess is that they will turn out to be like videophones; that is, a new technology some people anticipated with high hopes that turned out to be really underwhelming when it finally became available. But the key thing about sexbots is this: if you have one, you're a loser. Try this thought experiment if you don't believe me, you meet someone you really admire and start dating, do you think it will enhance your image in their eyes to learn you have a sexbot at home?

Human beings being human beings, we have all sorts of distractions to keep losers from having to face that they are losers: "Hey, you didn't fail at marriage, you're an independent single mother whose really making it on her own." And whether that works for you or not will depend a whole lot on how much your fantasies can compensate for the lack of an actual loving relationship with another human being. The difference between men and women, and the reason Heartiste has the edge over Althouse this one time, is that all the evidence suggests that men will be able to more easily accommodate themselves to being the loser with the sexbot than women will be able to do.  Men would prefer to be in love and they'd be happier if they were but, if that can't work out, they can get by being a fishless bicycle.

Women, not so much. No matter how great the orgasm the machine gives her, she will want love ultimately. Having one of the girls get obsessed with her vibrator makes for a great individual episode of Sex and the City but the longer plot arc always has to be about Pamela getting her Mr. B(ig) because that is what matters more to most women.

I wonder if women are collectively able to figure out what their problem is and if they are able to do what it takes to fix it? Over to you girls.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Neo noir Thursday: Chinatown

This movie seemed such a miracle when it came out. To sit in the dark and see the old Paramount clip and then that magnificent retro font they used for the titles and gorgeous music was to have a real sense of what it must have felt like to rediscover the Latin and Greek classics during the Renaissance.

So it's hard to admit nearly 40 years later that it drags and that the ending is just awful.

But prophetic it was. Just look at the opening scene for example. You see a garter belt and stockings, vintage fans, a glass block wall and wooden venetian blinds. Now, if you wanted any of those items in 1974, the year this movie came out, you'd have to go to a specialty source for them. Nowdays, you can buy all the above at any department store. The high style of American modernism—brash and optimistic, unlike the original European variety—is with us again. When this movie came out, it seemed gone forver.

And they really sweated the details making this movie. In the opening scene for example, Jake Gittes is consoling a working class client whom he has just confronted with evidence that his wife is cheating. Gittes turns around, opens a cabinet and, after studying his options, reaches to the back of the cabinet and pulls out a bottle of the cheap stuff (Old Crow) to offer his client.

(That touch, by the way, makes the movie very close to neo noir. We have a hero with what look like real weaknesses here—a hero who is more driven than a driving force in the story—but that doesn't hold.)

There are pictures of FDR everywhere and we see Gittes reading a racing sheet that features Seabiscuit so we know it's the late 1930s, probably 1938. This is perfect for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the very beginning of the noir era. At the same time, it is the very beginning of a period of great optimism. The depression is still around but the clouds are beginning to lift and America is about to enter the greatest period in its history. Over the next twenty five years, it will be the decisive force in the Second World War, become the world super-power, become the dominant world culture, and go through what is possibly the greatest stretch of innovation and economic growth in human history. While all this is going on, the long hard battle against civil rights abuses against black Americans will be fought and won.

All that is important because all that change will, despite the many gains, be hard to take for people living through it to adapt to. And it haunts the baby boomers because nothing achieved after 1965 will come close to what was done between the late thirties and early sixties.

And there is one of the two big problems with this movie. It was made by people who desperately needed to feel morally superior to the era they were portraying but had absolutely no reason to justify such a feeling. For starters, consider this, the disgusting villain of the movie is a creepy older guy who exploits innocent girls sexually. Got that? Now consider this: the movie was directed by Roman Polanski. Shudder! It's enough to make you want to shower yousrelf with disinfectant.

The other big problem is actually the thing that most people praise most about the movie: the Robert Towne screenplay. Towne has assembled a whole bunch of tasty ingredients but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. And although it starts great it really drags towards the end when Towne tries to shoehorn a series of sexual motives that just don't fit into the story.

The cool stuff
But let's look at the neat stuff.  Twenty-five minutes into the movie, Gittes goes to see a Mr. Hollis Mulwray and, as he is waiting at the door, he looks off to his right and sees this.

Now that scene does nothing to advance the plot. We already know Mulwray is rich. It's there as a tribute to another scene. This one:
There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible.
The car in the shot above is a 1938 Packard Super 8 convertible. It's not Maroon but that is because yellow was the most common colour for Packards and while the people who own such cars will consider renting them to moviemakers. they won't let them repaint it. (Nowadays, of course, the thing could be done digitally.) The second scene I quote here is from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (published 1939).

That tribute amounts to more than it might seem. I suspect that Towne used it as a sort of grid for his screenplay. The Big Sleep is about a rich man with two wild girls who are a little out of control and ultimately turns on a dark sexual secret. And Chinatown is a variation on that plot. It's not the same thing exactly but, as I've written about before, you can take the same grid and build a series of plots on it.

Check out this interior:

Restoration Hardware can probably sell you a duplicate of everything in that room and you can find dresses just like that one on the rack today. In 1974, all that stuff was almost as hard to get as a 1938 Packard Convertible would be today.

The shot above shot was the cinematographer's way of saying, "Thank you Mr. Toland." I can't figure out if those comics are real or not.

A Woody! if you're a man and you don't want a Woody, then you aren't really a man.

Why it's noir but not neo noir
It's simply too much of a tribute to vintage noir. It's beautifully filmed but it's largely a recreation and not an adaption to our times.

And while it is more explicit sexually, it doesn't do anything interesting with the new freedoms it has. The makers have, for example, given the hero a sex life but that sex life explains nothing about him. He is too much like a Chandler hero who is impervious to the corrupting effects of sex around him. And the one bit of corrupting sex we get is the incest angle and that feels like it was pulled from some overwrought piece in a woman's magazine from the 1970s than anything that really might have happened.

It's also not manly enough to be neo-noir and is very close to being a chick flic.

But it opened the door. It was the first movie in a long time to be made by people who clearly revered the great noir films. It signaled the end of that much-praised but actually awful era when directors such as Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick spent more time "subverting" everything that made Hollywood great than doing anything worthwhile.

The Marriage Plot: Time to change gears

I don't think there is anything more to say about this book and its failures. It is time, I think, to switch to the larger culture and its problems. A good place to start, I think, is with an insightful review at The Guardian. James Lasdun notes many of the same issues I have here.

He argues that the premise that the marriage plot no longer applies because of no-fault divorce and pre-nups doesn't do the 18th and 19th century novels justice.
It's a likably quixotic challenge; but I think it's premised on a misconception about those earlier books. What makes them great, surely, isn't just that marriage back then was a much higher-stakes game than it is now, but that their heroines are explored at such astounding emotional and moral depth, and articulated with such wit and precision, that just about anything that happens to them becomes rivetingly consequential. They would be no less interesting to us, I suspect, if the options of divorce and prenups were available to them. By the same token, I don't think the removal of those options would make Madeleine and her suitors any more interesting than they are, which is to say: moderately.
And that's right. 

I'd go further and say that it's a problem with post-modern art in any genre, we'd have a lot more respect for modern artist and writers "choosing" to do something different than what was done in the past if we honestly believed they could do the genres they are rejecting. Lasdun thinks that Eugenides has idiosyncratic strengths. I'm more inclined to think that he has avoided being seriously evaluated by writing oddball little tales that prevented his being assessed against a larger pool just as an athlete might compete in unicycle races so as to avoid being compared to more serious athletes in better known events. As long as Eugenides was writing about fairly freakish stuff such as group suicides and hermaphrodites, he didn't have to withstand comparison with the big girls of fiction that Madeleine enjoys reading so much. Now that he has put himself out there, his shortcomings as a novelist are painfully evident.

And it's not just as compared to the great writers of the past. I just finished reading Emily Giffin's Love the One You're With and find myself hard-pressed to say why the terribly serious Pulitzer-winning, capital-A-Art guy is entitled to more respect than the Chick Lit bestseller. Yes, Giffin has her weaknesses but so does Eugenides and when it comes to moral depth she wins comfortably.

Beyond that, I think our culture doesn't get the issues that apply in marriage. It's not enough to be "in love". Any two morons can fall in love.  What makes the Austen heroines in particular so impressive is their grasp of a whole raft or moral issues that come with just meeting and getting to know another person never mind marrying them. If you could somehow insert Elinor Dashwood into 2102 complete with birth control and fully updated about modern sexual mores, she might have casual sex but she would still be a lot more premeditated and  circumspect about whom she formed an attachment that might lead to marriage. The problem is not, as some conservatives argue, that we have easy hook ups now but that we've lost the ability to do more serious hook ups.

Nowhere is that more clear to me than when when I read this from Lasdun:
What we actually see of Madeleine seems rather ruthlessly uncomplicated, in fact, and furthermore the book as a whole seems to vindicate her chilly instinct to avoid "unstable people".  
Taking the points in reverse order, don't marry someone unstable. That's like building your house above a crumbling cliff. By all means take a moral interest in unstable people and support them where you can but don't marry them. The weird thing about Madeleine is that she suddenly stops being chilly with Leonard. With him she bizarrely drifts into a relationship that is at odds with everything she is. That she would have a one-night hook up with this creepy little guy would be understandable and would make for an interesting story as she tried to extract herself afterwards. That she falls in love with him is emotional and economic suicide. If she'd listened to the inner voice telling her to avoid relationships with unstable people, she would have saved herself a lot of grief.

To go back to the first point, being "ruthlessly uncomplicated" is a very good way to go about negotiating your way to marriage. There are very few characters as ruthlessly uncomplicated in their pursuit of a marriage partner than Elinor Dashwood or Fanny Price. And both would have made polite conversation with and then  instinctively avoided Leonard and Mitchell.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Smooth song of the day, #7 for 2012

What the World Needs Now

Who was responsible for this stupid idea? Sorry but the song is great and the lyric is clever but the idea behind the lyric is just stupid. I'm guessing the idea popped up in liberal theology first and then made its way to the mainstream.

I'm not going to dwell on the philosophical issues for too long. Suffice to say, where do you get the content fleshing out what love is? If someone wrote a song saying that what the world needs now is more "goodness" everyone would catch the problem pretty quickly. To say that the world needs more love or that "All You Need is Love" is to say nothing at all.

But here is the cool thing about the song, it's in waltz time. That's why everyone in the video above is a little uncertain about how to move. It's also what gives the song its lovely swinging lilt. You get all these long-pulse, short-pulse moments but you never think of the time.

Try singing it. It's perfect in it's way. There are very few songs that feel quite so right in your mouth.

The joys of antencedents

The President is getting all sorts of abuse for saying this:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. [Emphasis added]
I'll be honest, I think Obama just doesn't get it and I hope he loses in November. That said, I don't think the quote above is quite as bad as it sounds.

I think there is an antecedent problem here. The two instances of "that" in the last two sentences refers not back to businesses but roads and bridges. The point is not that people didn't build their businesses but that businesses didn't build roads.

That's still a stupid and uninformed thing to say. Stop for two seconds and ask yourself how many roads your town could could build without businesses and you'll see just how clueless Obama is. But it isn't quite the moral outrage that it might appear to be.

What is operating in the background here, by the way, is Marxism. Marx constructed a theory that said that profit was created not by a wide variety of forces marshalled through capital but by the workers. On that theory all the wealth that capital creates in the west is really the product of the working class. Marx thought that, well he thought a lot of crazy things, but his central thought was that if the working class created the wealth, then they also held the power to change society. He thought the problem was that they didn't know this because of a set of false ideas he called ideology that made it impossible for them to see the real power relations in society. If this ideology could be swept away, then the working classes could seize power and create a workers' paradise.

All that was wrong when Marx first wrote it. To still believe it now is a a little crazy. But intellectuals just can't seem to let go of it. No, I don't think that Obama or Elizabeth Warren were consciously thinking Marxist theory when they spun this nonsense. The problem is that in the three decades since the total collapse of communism, intellectuals still can't get the opiate out of their bloodstream. It's the only idea they have and they can't come up with anything to replace it.

The Marriage Plot: My Generation cont'd

Mitchell had been reciting the Jesus Prayer for the past two weeks. He did this not only because it was the prayer that Franny Glass repeated to herself in Franny and Zooey (though this was certainly a recommendation). Mitchell approved of Franny's religious desperation, her withdrawal from life, and her disdain for "section men". He found her book-length nervous breakdown, during which she never once moved from the couch, not only thrillingly dramatic but cathartic in a way that Dostoevsky was supposed to be but wasn't, for him.
Are you getting a picture of Mitchell Grammaticus after reading that passage?

I ask because I'm not getting any picture at all. Mitchell, whose family name means teacher of literature and languages and whose first name means "Who is like God", never seems to have any existence outside his literary references.

I don't mean that he is an unbelievable character. I wish he were. Unfortunately, there are quite a few guys like Mitchell. They never experience life directly but always through some literary or musical reference. But, real though he may be, I don't know what we are supposed to make of such a guy.

You know, there was a significant Evangelical Protestant presence on most university campuses in the 1980s. If you wanted to write about a character who'd had a religious conversion at university, there are more likely routes to take than a guy who was inspired by Salinger and William James. Again, it's not that such a thing couldn't or didn't happen but, rather, why anyone should care about such a guy.

(By the way, it's an odd tick of "serious" writers these days that all religious belief amounts to a need for spiritual experiences.  All "religion" is content free. Later Leonard will meet and admire a woman with a strong evangelical streak but Eugenides will be sure to drain any specific dogma from her beliefs. These guys just don't get religion.)

Now, it says above that Mitchell's admiration for Franny and Zooey was not the only reason he took up the Jesus Prayer. So, the obvious question is, any others?
Still, even though Mitchell was undergoing a similar crisis of meaning, it hadn't been until he'd come across the Jesus Prayer in a book called The Orthodox Church that he'd decided to give it a try. The Jesus Prayer, it turned out, belonged to the religious tradition into which Mitchell had been obscurely baptized twenty-two years earlier. For this reason he felt entitled to say it.
"My what deep reasons you have for doing things," said all the girls visibly excited to have met such a man. (Again, we later find out that Leonard has met Mitchell before he met Madeleine and he is supposed to be a little intimidated at Mitchell's profound insight into religious issues. That just not credible given that we know about Mitchell.)

And it gets worse. Here is Mitchell analyzing the prayer, it turns out the only thing he really likes about the prayer is the repetitive, chant like quality,
... whenever Mitchell stopped to think about the words of the Jesus Prayer, he didn't much like them. "Lord Jesus" was a difficult opener. It had a Bible Belt ring. Likewise, asking for "mercy" felt lowly and serf-like. Having made it through "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," however, Mitchell was confronted with the final stumbling block of "a sinner." And this was hard indeed.
Well yes it is. But it kinda matters that you actually have some sympathy with the words you are praying. Otherwise, you may as well say "When it rains it pours" or "Alfred Lord Tennyson" or even "I want a blowjob" over and over again.

It's interesting, by the way, to note that Mitchell, like many non-believers gets here not by being morally lax but by magnifying the requirements of belief to the point that they are so rigorous that no one, save possibly a determined suicide, could meet them:
The gospels, which Mitchell didn't take literally, said you had to die to be born again. The mystics, which he took as literally as their metaphorical language allowed, said the self had to be subsumed in the Godhead. Mitchell liked the idea of being subsumed in the Godhead. But it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.
Now, you may think, "that is just because Mitchell takes these things seriously and you, Jules, are a laxist. " But the problem is that, despite his insisting on a rigorist approach to some things, Mitchell does not, in fact, take anything very seriously. He is out looking for an experience largely for the sake of having experiences. He wants to go through this stuff without changing so he imagines that the only kind of change that will do is one so big it amounts to killing your "self" off so he won't have to do it.

(What is really happening here, of course, is that Eugenides is projecting Buddhism onto Christianity. Christianity as Christ taught it is based on self-interest—store up treasure in heaven—not self abnegation. When Christians talk about self-denial, we mean making yourself go with out things because you have a higher purpose and not the willful deletion of the self that drives Buddhism.)

We get confirmation of the shallowness of Mitchell by the way in an odd little segment in which Mitchell remembers an odd little nonconformist named "Moss" they met in school and how he and his friend Larry liked her.
Their silence registered solidarity with Moss against all the conventional people in their down vests and Adidas sneakers who were majoring in economics or engineering, spending the last period of total freedom in their lives doing nothing the least bit unordinary.
Think about that for a while. Here they are receiving a top drawer education at someone else's expense—and it's not just their parents, the taxpayers are also picking up a big part of the bill, along with alumni and various donors—so they can acquire an education and become adults capable of contributing to society, and Mitchell thinks about this period as "the last period of total freedom in their lives". (And the obvious question is, "Does Eugenides see this or is he as shallow as his creation?")

Yesterday, I suggested that Leonard and Madeleine were not very good representatives of my generation. Mitchell, on the other hand, is very much representative of a certain type you saw a lot of on campus back in the 1980s. (And, truth be told, of a type that I tended towards at times only snapping out of it when I graduated and was hit in the face with a stern dose of reality.)

But, the people in down vests and Adidas sneakers were also a representative type of my generation. In fact, there were many more of them. And you wouldn't learn much about them reading this book (or any other books favoured by literary elites). In fact, the whole of serious literature treats them with an odd contempt. (The only place you are going to see the story of the people who best represent my generation is in Chick Lit, which is one of the reasons I love reading it.)

By the way, I gave into temptation this morning and started Googling around to see what other people thought of the novel. Interestingly, I find that the three principals are a major stumbling block for a lot of people. Although many are willing to admit the book is well written, a lot of people can't like it because they just don't like Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell. I have to agree. All three are the sort of characters that, as my mother used to say, "You just want to slap them after a while".