Thursday, March 28, 2013

Decadence: for those who came into this world too late

With this post I sign off until Tuesday next. Wishing all a blessed Paschal weekend.
"... he shrunk more and more from the realities of life and above all from the society of his day which he regarded with an ever growing horror—a detestation which had reacted strongly on his literary and artistic tastes; he refused, as far as possible, to have anything to do with pictures and books whose subjects were in any way connected with modern existence.”  
Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature

" ... consider, if it please you, the need of my afflicted soul ..."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Marni Battista calls herself a "life coach" and she calls the organization she founded "Dating with Dignity". She also calls men "Manimals" and the "Manimal species". There isn't a lot of dignity in that. (Of course, men sometimes use similarly degrading concepts to describe women, I sometimes do it myself, but it's odd to talk this way when advertising yourself as someone who cares about "dignity".)

I know I go on a lot about narcissism here but think about that for a moment. The concept she is pushing for her customers is "dating with dignity" and she takes it for granted that they will take this to mean their own dignity and no one else's.

How did we get here? By abandoning the belief that there are real moral truths. When morality becomes merely a matter of competing personal preferences then it also becomes merely a matter of manipulation. Moral argument becomes moral manipulation for the simple reason that that is all it can be. If we believed in moral truths outside ourselves then we could appeal to them.

It's important to note that you don't have to have a sure grasp on the truth in order to believe it's there. I can point at some moral truth that I believe in and you can reply that I'm just wrong about the moral truth. The point is that we are arguing about things that are outside of us. Take that away, by saying that all moral truth is just a matter of personal desire and, therefore not subject to rational argument, and the only move left to you is moral manipulation.

Which brings me back to Marni Battista.
When you're finally ready to remarry post-divorce, you need to know what characteristics to look for in a husband. Although you've been married previously, we're willing to guess that you didn't have a checklist before you took your vows! To help when you're looking for a long lasting, serious(ly) fun relationship that has the possibility of leading to marriage, here are five traits you should look for in a guy ...
Notice whose needs are completely absent from that discussion.  Similarly, while it's pretty clear we're going to be analyzing men in terms of their strengths and flaws, there is no suggestion that the woman reading this article might consider her own strengths and flaws.

She is not held entirely blameless. We are "willing to guess that you didn't have a checklist before you took your vows!" But note that the implication is that she didn't think carefully enough about her choice. She failed herself, in other words. There is no suggestion that she might have failed the man whom she made marriage vows to. And that is a little odd given that the odds that the problem with her marriage were her fault are at least fifty fifty.

Marni Battista is in the business of selling advice and she no doubt grasps that the market for advice that encourages people to be self critical isn't nearly as big as the market that encourages people to look for Prince Charming. That is what she is selling. She's more up-to-date though; she calls the prey being sought "the one" or "boyfriend material" rather than Prince Charming.

Okay, Mr. Smart Manimal, what should she do then?

You might think that women might simply reverse the questions Battista applies to the men these women might date and asking them of themselves would make the thing work better. But it's not that simple.

Battista tells divorced women starting to date that they should look for a guy whose "actions match his words", "has strong communication skills", has the ability to "take charge and make decisions", "has a great sense of humor" and "shares a similar value set". First off, that is a pretty obvious list. You could have come up with that without any help yourself. She isn't telling you anything, she's flattering you.

And what are the odds that you will be fully honest with yourself if, for example, you asked whether your actions match your words? Well, of course they do, you say. Okay, but has anyone ever accused you of being dishonest about your real motives? Your ex maybe? More simply, do others have trouble figuring out what you really want? Do you sometimes have trouble figuring out what you really want? Have you, for example, ever purchased something that you really thought you wanted only to find that you never made much use of it?

Since the answer to most of those questions is going to be yes, why is it fair to ask that of the person you want to have a relationship with? It's perfectly reasonable, when shopping for a car or a dishwasher, to ask for something that is dependable and reliable. I want my dishwasher to clean the dishes every time I push the button even though I myself tend to not do the dishes if I don't feel like it. I can't treat another human being like that. The advice here isn't crazy, you do want someone you can count on but it only makes sense to apply that standard to others to the same extent you apply it to yourself.That is to say, since you know you often fail to be consistently good at these things, then you can't expect him to be either. You also can't expect him to have any better self knowledge than you do and, be honest, yours isn't as good as you would like it to be.

The next one is much the same. Here is Battista on communication skills:
Guys who are able to identify their feelings, express them appropriately and manage them will most likely have an easier time being in a relationship with a mature woman who has the same skills. Although it can be attractive at first when a guy is closed off and mysterious, as time goes on you're probably going to get frustrated.
That's good stuff but if a guy seems "closed off" it's just as likely that the fault lies with you for being inattentive as it is that he has poor communication skills. Maybe you're just not very good at understanding others or, a slightly more brutal point, maybe you don't tend to notice other people's feelings because you are too selfish to notice. As long as I'm being brutal, let me remind you that you are divorced and therefore you have something to prove about yourself.

By the way, situations where the other person seems to be bad at identifying, managing or expressing their feelings are often the result of neglect on your part. If someone is hurt and you don't notice it, they will try other tactics. The longer you fail or refuse to be attentive to their feelings, the more extreme or bizarre their efforts to make you pay attention will get.

That a man should "take charge and make decisions" is an interesting one. Is he also required to only make decisions you agree with? You want him to take charge, okay but what if he tries things that you don't like? This one also doesn't work if, as too often the case, a woman uses this requirement as a way of weaseling out of all responsibility for making things work. You have to be very good at telegraphing your feelings for this to work. You have a right to expect him to be attentive to your feelings and needs (including the ones you aren't very good at understanding or expressing) but you also have to be open-minded enough to recognize that you don't always understand yourself and willing to let him lead things in directions that are new to you. (You also have to be very good at being consistent about and at making it clear where your private concerns that you don't want him to be masterful about are.)

He should have a great sense of humour? Note the requirement is not for a "good" sense of humour but a "great" one. It's also worth noting that there is a double standard here and in the previous category. Battista grasps that women want a man who can " a guy who can masterfully solve a problem or protect you from a threat" or who can "you laugh when you're feeling down or helps lighten up your mood". Nobody even pretends that these are essential requirements going the other way. Yes, there are women who can masterfully solve problems or who can lighten your mood when you are feeling down but you won't see many romantic comedies wherein a woman wins a man over by doing these things. (and before you get snarky, remember that women are the primary consumers of romantic comedies; it's not sexist men who are responsible for this double standard.)

Here is the rude question, given that there is a general cultural agreement that men don't seek these qualities in women to the same degree that women seek them in men, what is the explanation? Is it simple sexism? Or is it the case that men look for other qualities in women? Those questions are rhetorical of course. Everyone knows that men don't especially seek those qualities in women. When a man praises a woman's sense of humour he either means that a) she laughs at his jokes or b) she is good at making sharp witty observations. He doesn't mean she makes him laugh and helps stabilize his emotions with humour when he is out of control.

Battista is, as I said at the top, merely flattering her audience. Women already want these things and they know they want these things. Reading an expert telling them to look for these things doesn't give them any new information, it gives them validation. The real point of the article is to tell women that it's okay to want these things. Battista might simply have said, "it's okay to hold out for a good one." Except that that would have been too obvious.

If you are a man, she has inadvertently done you a much better service than she has done for her female readers. Battista has given a good solid list of what a man should be if he wants to attract women: be emotionally stable and predictable, be good with words, be masterful and protect her, make her laugh and help soothe her when her less stable and less predictable emotions get the better of her. I know, kinda old-fashioned when you put it that way.

But it gets worse. Turn the microscope around and make a complementary list for what men seek in women. Because if it's fair to ask men to be good at the things women want them to be good at, it should be fair to do the reverse. And that is a problem because every woman knows what those other things are and they can be a lot of work. Especially when she is already in a relationship as opposed to seeking one because then she isn't doing these things for herself anymore. When she was single, these things got her attention and helped her find the relationship she was seeking. To keep doing them afterwards is to do them for you. But it is what he wants and if she want him to be a masterful problem solver and the sort of guy who can help her through the rough patches when things get rough, she should be willing to deliver in those other areas that matter to him.

Finally, "he shares a similar value set". That's true enough but how did you both come by your value sets. Is it just a matter of fluke and contingency or does something else matter? Does it matter that your values should have some relationship with the truth or is just enough that they be similar to yours?

And that is where I began.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Goodbye to Chinua Achebe

The man died last week. He wrote one good novel and a bunch of others not so good. That's not meant to be dismissive. Very few novelists manage so well. Ernest Hemingway wrote a really good novel (The Sun Also Rises) and a bunch of not-so-good novels. Likewise Kingsley Amis. And Achebe's good novel is very good indeed. No it's not as good as The Sun Also Rises and it isn't even in the same solar system as Heart of Darkness but it's a good book.

He also wrote criticism. As with his novels, his criticism will not be remembered except for one singular exception. That exception is An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That essay had the effect of legitimating postcolonial criticism.

At first glance you might think that a critical movement called "postcolonial" would be primarily the work of people from former European colonies seeking to redress the wrongs done unto their countries and cultures by oppressive colonizers. Certainly, that is the image the movement wants you to get of it. And there certainly are writers from these colonies (of whom Achebe is an example) who have contributed to postcolonial literature. For the most part, however, postcolonialism is a white liberal guilt movement.

Also for the most part, postcolonian literature is a hash of warmed over stupid ideas from the New Left. It insists that the west still exerts indirect colonial power over the colonies in the form of capitalism and globalization. If you ever wondered how the spoiled kids who camp in the city park and beat drums as a form of protest learned to hate Starbucks, the answer is because they were taught this crap at university.

And whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire Achebe's chutzpah. In attacking Conrad, Achebe picked an unlikely target.  Conrad was a role model for the postcolonial thinkers. And little wonder, he was a white guy who had attacked white people for oppressing black people in African colonies. That is to say, he had done what postcolonial critics were also trying to do. Going after him was nervy.

First, a couple of acknowledgments. There is racism in Heart of Darkness and in other writing of Conrad. That should neither surprise us nor alarm us. Their pretty much has to be. Racism was a factor of the European culture of that era. You breathed it in everywhere you went.

The second acknowledgment is that the core of Achebe's criticism of Conrad, that he treated Africa as a backdrop for the moral and spiritual adventures of white characters who went there, is absolutely true. It is a simple fact of Conrad's (and many other writer's) work.

It's worth noting that a similar criticism has been made of the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. (That's why people read me, because I draw such profound connections between great literature and pop culture.) The issue reportedly, I haven't actually seen it, features shots of mostly white models in exotic locations with locals providing interesting background.

And that is what Achebe (correctly) accused Joseph Conrad of doing with Heart of Darkness. The novel is the story of the company men, and Marlowe and Kurtz and the weird engineer type who worships Kurtz. Africa and the Africans in the story serve mainly as an exotic backdrop against which the character of the white men will stand out.

Well, gee, how horrible of Conrad to do that and to care so little about the identity and the self realization of these Africans. Before you get all incensed about this ask yourself a simple question. How is that different from your last vacation? Thousands of college kids study post colonial theory every year and then they go to Cancun for spring break so that Mexico, Mexican culture and actually Mexicans can serve as an exotic background against which they can have adventure and sex.

I know, I know, you're not like that. When you go on a trip, you really go to a place and you're in touch with the local culture and the people. Of course you do. Liar! (The rude question is this: How different is reading a couple of novels by writers such as Achebe now and then different from what fabulously wealthy celebrities do when they mix a couple of charity balls into their round of extravagant living?)

It's easy to see why Achebe felt the way he did. His land and his culture were not taken seriously by the people who came there from Europe and that showed in the books they later wrote about the place. They still aren't taken seriously by most of the eight million people who bought his novel. Hey, you're denying me my identity. There can't be any worse crime than that. Well, except maybe for just about any crime you can think of.

We don't just do this when we go to third world countries. Visit New York City or Paris and you will do the same thing. Those two cities, however, have rich histories and strong economies and vibrant local cultures. They don't care about you using them as an exotic backdrop. Hell, they don't even notice you. Nigeria, not so much. I know, how condescending of me to say that. But what I say of Nigeria was just as true of New York City in Edith Wharton's day. There was a local culture that New Yorkers took very seriously but they couldn't get Londoners, Parisians or Berliners to see it that way.

This, not incidentally, is a point that Conrad is well aware of.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”  
He's talking about the Thames when he makes that point.

But that doesn't make it fair! That's the real point, you insist. The fact that once upon a time the ancient Britons were oppressed the way that third world cultures are now dominated through capitalism and globalization doesn't make it right. Uh huh.   And then I reply by asking how those college courses you took on postcolonial criticism and those Putumayo sampler disks of third world music that you own are supposed to fix this. And then you say something like, "Maybe I'm not doing much to fix the problem but at least I care." And I say, "Now we're getting somewhere because you've admitted that this is really about you."

Here is the final point: you'll never convince anyone of anything if you don't believe it yourself. Al Gore preaches against the "evil forces" that cause climate change and then goes home to his giant mansion. You've got a copy of Things Fall Apart on your self and a pile of third world music and you've visited Mayan ruins while doing ecotourism. But you don't really believe any of this bullshit. Al Gore is a whore but he's an expensive one. You're a fifty dollar trick.

And Chinua Achebe is dead.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A little light culture: university sex weeks

Instapundit comments on the "sex week" being held at the capus where he teaches:
My only objection — besides noting that when I was in college, every week was sex week, and I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today — is that the whole thing seems kind of lame and contrived, and so very derivative of what’s already been done repeatedly at other schools.
It is weird. Sex weeks for university students is a little like teaching fish to like water. Working out your sexuality is something that people tend to do, ah, naturally.

Here, for example (and courtesy of Wikipedia), is a sort of mission statement for one of these sex weeks:
Sex Week at Yale explores love, sex, intimacy and relationships by focusing on how sexuality is manifested in America, helping students to reconcile these issues in their own lives.
This is what people used to do by holding, hands, kissing, making out in cars, and, not incidentally, by watching others*. Why do we need a special week to tell university students to do something that human beings have needed no help doing for as long as there have been human beings.

My suspicion is that it is really happening because the nannies who love running other peoples lives for them who dominate at universities think that kids, left to their own, are coming up with the wrong answers. That is the modern liberal creed: Everyone is free to reach their own conclusions so long as they reach the "right" conclusions.

And there is hope a plenty in the fact that the nannies feel the need to push sex weeks in the hopes of molding young minds suggests that human nature is real and it stubbornly refuses to change.

* Just to be clear, I mean watching other people in normal human contexts and not voyeurism.

And now for some good news ...

Having expressed lots of doubt about whether Pope Francis really gets it, let me send you into Passion Sunday weekend with some very encouraging news. Francis made a speech to "the Diplomatic corps". That means the diplomats from various countries posted to the Vatican. There are two things in this speech that I find very encouraging.

Here is the first one:
As you know, there are various reasons why I chose the name of Francis of Assisi, a familiar figure far beyond the borders of Italy and Europe, even among those who do not profess the Catholic faith. One of the first reasons was Francis’ love for the poor. How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.
Note the emphasized section. This is a huge improvement over the earlier reported remark of wanting a church that is poor and cares for the poor. That earlier remark was taken by the press as evidence that the church was going to start caring for the poor.

It's important to remember, and especially important for Pope Francis to remember, that the good college-educated liberals, which includes all journalists, believe that they, and only they, are the good people. It's crazy, I know. What has the New York Times ever done to help the poor? Or CNN? But that is how they see themselves.

The plain truth is that the Catholic church does a lot to help the poor and that needs to be hammered home. To not do so is naive; it is like handing the Church's most determined enemies a loaded gun.

Now onto the second, and even better part. Read the following and weep tears of joy:
But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the "tyranny of relativism", which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

One of the titles of the Bishop of Rome is Pontiff, that is, a builder of bridges with God and between people. My wish is that the dialogue between us should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister to be welcomed and embraced! My own origins impel me to work for the building of bridges. As you know, my family is of Italian origin; and so this dialogue between places and cultures a great distance apart matters greatly to me, this dialogue between one end of the world and the other, which today are growing ever closer, more interdependent, more in need of opportunities to meet and to create real spaces of authentic fraternity.

In this work, the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam. At the Mass marking the beginning of my ministry, I greatly appreciated the presence of so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world. And it is also important to intensify outreach to non-believers, so that the differences which divide and hurt us may never prevail, but rather the desire to build true links of friendship between all peoples, despite their diversity.

That, my friends, sounds like someone who really gets it. Let's pray for more of this. Much more because we need it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


From the Vatican Information Service:
Vatican City, 21 March 2013 (VIS) – On Holy Thursday, 28 March, the Holy Father Francis will celebrate the Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in the morning and then, at 5:30pm in the afternoon, will go to celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper at the Casal del Marmo youth detention centre instead of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, where it had been traditionally held in past years. 
The Mass of the Lord's Supper is characterized by the announcement of the commandment of love and the gesture of washing the feet. In his ministry as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio used to celebrate the Mass in a prison or hospital or hospice for the poor and marginalized. With this celebration at Casal del Marmo, Pope Francis will continue his custom, which is characterized by its humble context. 
The other Holy Week celebrations will be held according to tradition, as established in a notification by the Office of Liturgical Celebrations. 
Pope Benedict XVI also visited the Casal del Marmo youth detention centre, on 18 March in 2007, to celebrate Mass in the Chapel of the Merciful Father.
Here is the sentence that fills me with dread:
With this celebration at Casal del Marmo, Pope Francis will continue his custom, which is characterized by its humble context.
That gives me the willies. It's not humble to keep telling people you're humble. It's an arrogant and self-centered thing to do. So is breaking with tradition in order to do things according to your custom.

And note the last paragraph. Pope Francis isn't showing any more humility or concern than Pope Benedict did but he is making much more of a show out of it. That isn't a good sign.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The strange case of Keith Cardinal O'Brien

 I had better get today's post up while it's still today.  It's rambly.
CARDINAL Keith O’Brien is being investigated for sexual misconduct in the Vatican on the very night he was made a cardinal, The Herald can reveal. The cardinal is alleged to have assaulted a priest at the Scots College in Rome in October 2003, hours after being awarded the red mitre by Pope John Paul II. The priest, who is Scottish but now based in London, made a formal complaint to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops last September, after which Cardinal O’Brien was summoned immediately to Rome.
The complaint, which was dealt with by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, who was one of the early front-runners this week to become Pope, was the first which eventually led to the cleric’s downfall and is not from one of the four complainers whose allegations were made public last month. It is understood the complaint involved an attempt to grope the priest, who was known to Cardinal O’Brien. Alcohol had been consumed at an event in the Scots College attended by many priests who had travelled to Rome especially for his elevation. Scots based at the Vatican also attended.
We think we know hypocrisy when we see it it. When we read about Cardinal O'Brien above we tend to think we are seeing hypocrisy. But is that hypocrisy? Let's walk around this and look at it from a few different perspectives.

We usually think of a hypocrite as someone who preaches one thing while doing another. I don't think that is enough though. Take, for example, cowardice. Many of us admire and praise bravery while worrying, generally with good reason, that we wouldn't live up to what we praise in a really tough situation. If I really meant to be brave but collapsed in fear in the heat of battle I am not being a hypocrite. We might be inclined to call that a failure of will but not hypocrisy.

We take it that the hypocrite never intends to live the way they advocate others to do. But ...

Here is the problem, on the other end of the scale, a complete charlatan is not a hypocrite either. Someone who clearly only pretends to praise a certain kind of behaviour while planning all along to to the opposite is reprehensible to be certain but we mean something else by "hypocrite".

Let's go back to Cardinal O'Brien again. Here are a few sentences from O'Brien's Wikipedia page:
Before his elevation to cardinal, O'Brien had been regarded as "liberal" on the issue of homosexuality, noting the number of homosexual priests in the Church.[12] In 2005, O'Brien rebuked Bishop Joseph Devine who had suggested that homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in Catholic schools commenting, "I don't have a problem with the personal life of a person as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality."[13] In December 2004 he told members of the Scottish Parliament that homosexuals were "captives of sexual aberrations", comparing homosexuals to prisoners in Saughton jail.[14]
I've left the footnotes on that so you can look them up if you want. The quotes are interesting in retrospect.  It's hard not to suspect he was quietly justifying his own behaviour when he said,  "I don't have a problem with the personal life of a person as long as they are not flaunting their sexuality." That doesn't suggest hypocrisy. That suggests someone who is afraid of being shamed.

Even when, in other contexts, he criticizes same-sex unions, he isn't being a hypocrite.
"The empirical evidence is clear, same-sex relationships are demonstrably harmful to the medical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, no compassionate society should ever enact legislation to facilitate or promote such relationships, we have failed those who struggle with same-sex attraction and wider society by our actions.”
He may well have believed, probably did believe, that his own experience bore this out. Looking at his own life and his own failure to control his sexual impulses, O'Brien could without the least hypocrisy argue that facilitating such behaviours in others was not to do them any favours.

Consider, by way of analogy the case of an alcoholic who can't stop drinking but wants laws that will make it more difficult for others to drink to excess. I'm not asking you to believe that homosexuality is analogous to addiction but merely to imagine how the world appears to someone who does believe that. His own behaviour, then, would not be evidence of hypocrisy. He feels lots of guilt about what he is doing but cannot stop it.

The presence of actual alcohol in the case tends to reinforce that. There are lots of cases of men who think of themselves as heterosexual when sober but who pursue sex with other men when drunk. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy were like that. It could be that such men are secretly gay or in denial about being gay but it could also be that they became rank opportunists who lost all sense of restraint and pursued the most accessible sex partner when drunk. Had a willing woman, or susceptible fifteen year old girl (or boy), been in the room at the time ...

And let's not make this only about men: it's not hard to imagine women doing similar things.

Again, we should hesitate before calling that hypocrisy for which of us really knows what we might do if we were loosened up after a few drinks and the opportunity for sex that we would normally disapprove of on moral grounds became a possibility.

Okay, but I hear someone say that there ought to be some self-knowledge and self mastery with time. O'Brien was 65 years old the night the alleged events took place. (Corrected from an earlier version: Alleged events because while he has admitted that some things really happened we don't know if he has admitted to this particular event.) You can't claim that raging hormones got the better of you at 65.

And that, I think, is the real problem. And given that, I wonder how useful a concept hypocrisy is. O'Brien advocated self control to others while being a failure at it himself but what lesson are we meaning to draw from that? That he should have been able? For many of his critics mean to say that it was inevitable that he would fail at trying to deny his sexual impulses and that, far from trying to restrain them, he should have quit the church and married another man. No matter which way you go, it seems less like hypocrisy than some other sort of moral mistake.

I'm going to shift gears here a while and talk about shame and guilt. Which do we mean to invoke when we call someone a hypocrite? If someone really just wants me to feel guilty then public exposure of my failings is not absolutely necessary. A public accusation of hypocrisy is always to invoke shame.

And when is it acceptable to shame another? I can't justifiably do it just to hurt someone who has hurt me. And here the waters around the accusations against O'Brien get murky. What was the point in exposing him when he was exposed. The priests who came forward with the accusations against him could have done so any time in the last decade. Why wait until just before he was about to leave for the conclave? Was there reason to believe he was going to grope other cardinals and that they needed to protected from him?

The waters are further muddied by the fact that O'Brien had in fact tendered his resignation back in November. It was not accepted at the time and we don't know it it eventually would have been accepted if the accusations had not become public. We further don't know if his accusers knew of his resignation. In any case, the coincidence of the accusation and the conclave does not seem to be accidental.  It could be that the accusers merely wanted to prevent him from participating in the conclave but that seems unlikely as his one vote wasn't going to make that much of a difference. More likely, these accusations have been around for a while and it could be that the people who wanted him gone were not trying to shame O'Brien into finally taking action so much as they were trying to shame the church into doing something about him. If you asked me to guess, I'd say the latter.

And I think you can find evidence for this right in the story I quoted at the top of this.
The cardinal is alleged to have assaulted a priest at the Scots College in Rome in October 2003, hours after being awarded the red mitre by Pope John Paul II.
That's a barb aimed at Rome. For why has the church been so slow to take action? To avoid shame. O'Brien appears to be a serial sexual harasser who sexually pursued people under his authority but does not, at least on the evidence so far, seem to have pursued teenaged boys. Having this revelation come out, however, would still hurt the church's reputation. It would shame it. So you can see how the temptation to let him quietly retire without making a big thing of it could take hold of the hierarchy.

So what would you do if you knew about all this and you wanted him out? In that case the conclave to elect a new pope would seem like a Godsend. Now you can really shame the church into action. And that is obvious from the nature of the accusation above. If you want to get the media upset, you play on the nature of the abuse and make it sound as horrible as possible. If you want to influence Cardinal Marc Oullet, you hammer home the point that this guy was making a mockery of the church by saying that on the very night of his being named a cardinal, O'Brien got drunk and and groped a priest.

And that is what they did. And it worked. Well played really. But for our purposes, the point is that they also zeroed in on the real hypocrisy. O'Brien made a mockery of the very vocation he vowed to live and the church seemed willing to let that slide so as to avoid bad press. The hypocrisy was not with the Cardinal but with the hierarchy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Posing nude pt2: "I began to regard my body as a money-making tool"

It's odd that we tend to get outraged about people with double standards. Pity is the more appropriate reaction because most double standards are a result of a staggering lack of self awareness. The quote in the subject line above is from an article in which a woman writes an anonymous confession of her time as a nude model for photographers. Her tone throughout is one of regret coupled with self justification. But the thing to notice what she fails to realize about herself.

The thing she wants you to know is that most of the guys who hired her were creeps.
The sad truth is that most of the photographers who I worked with were usually men with lucrative jobs who were willing to heavily invest in their “new photography hobby.” Their photos were unfailingly amateur and cheesy, but they were always the ones willing to pay my $150 flat rate for three hours of shooting. During those shoots I always felt like a piece of meat: they most likely booked me just to spend time with a naked girl. Don’t misunderstand, not all of the photographers operated like this; some were very talented and I was deeply honored to work with them. But the large majority of them were creeps.
As I said in my first post on this subject, the first temptation is to ask, "What part of 'naked woman equals suggestion of sex' do you not understand?"And the question is even more pertinent in this case. The modelling was not for art students but for private sessions. What kind of man pays for private sessions with a naked woman?

But even worse than that is the flip side: What kind of woman accepts money to take her clothes off for a private session with her customer? That question never seems to have crossed the mind of our friend anonymous.

Here is what the real-life version of Breaking Bad looks like:
I reached the height of my nude modeling career when I began my senior year of college. Having made a name for myself within the ModelMayhem community, I’d spend up to five hours a day networking on the site. I averaged two to three photo shoots a week and was bringing in around $2000 a month. For a college student, that’s quite a lot of money.
Actually, no it isn't a lot of money. Not if you're spending several hours a day networking and doing two or three sessions a week. It's entirely possible that her real motives her weren't about money, or weren't only about the money.

Later, when she tells us why she stopped doing nude modelling, she lets the cat out of the bag. Read the following sentences slowly, saving yourself for the revelation in the last one:
It wasn’t just how I felt about my body that started to chafe; nude modeling began to feel violating. There was the hobbyist photographer in New Jersey who —unbeknownst to me —zoomed in on my crotch during our entire shoot. There was the nude photography workshop where I was pressured into spreading my legs (something I always said I’d never do) for an erotic shot. There were the photographers who wanted to pay me for sex. There were the old men who just needed somebody to listen to them. There were the numerous photographers I did have sex with.
The numerous photographers (AKA "paying customers") she did have sex with! That's kind of, well, creepy. It also sounds like prostitution. Because it is!

Monday, March 18, 2013

What kind of modernist is Pope Francis?

During the past hundred years, in particular, admiration of St. Francis has been widespread and spontaneous among Christians of all communions and among others too. There is a compelling appeal in his Canticle of the Sun, and in what we are told about him by the Little Flowers of St. Francis, and the Mirror of Perfection; in his simplicity, directness, and single-mindedness; and in the lyrical qualities of his life. He was the popularizer, though not the precise originator, of the Christmas 'Crib".
The Penguin Dictionary of Saints
The word "modernism" is always going to have special resonance when applied to religion. (It's a Catholic word, by the way; we invented it and we have been using it for a lot longer than you have so don't tell us what it is supposed to mean.)

Gregory XVI was the last pope you can convincingly argue was an anti-modernist. All the popes from the end of his reign until the end of that of Pius XII accommodated modernism to one degree or another, some more grudgingly than others. Beginning with John XXIII, the popes have all been enthusiastic modernists.

It's easy to miss that last point because, with the exception of John XXIII, all of these popes have been painted as opponents of modernism, mostly because of their attitudes on matters of sexual morality. What has really driven these popes, however, is a desire to make a church more responsive to the modern world without provoking a free for all. And, if you think of it that way, the hard line on sexual morality makes a lot of sense; if a free for all is going to break out in any area of human life, it will be with regards to sexuality.

But modernism is not monolithic. There are different kinds of modernism and there are different shades within each type of modernism. For better or for worse, Saint Francis of Assisi has become the rallying point for a certain kind of modernism.

The principal quality of this modernist religious is pure spirituality. People want to believe in a saint who was not practical or concerned with earthly things. They want to believe in a saint who was terribly, terribly spiritual—a guy who could reason with wolves. Such a saint is the perfect one to back the notion that all we need to do to make it stop raining or to stop war is to want it badly enough. He is also the perfect saint for those who embrace narcissistic political movements such as environmentalism. Finally, and probably most significantly, he is the perfect saint for those people who believe poverty is caused entirely by unequal distribution of money.

And the obvious question when confronted with a pope who names himself for Saint Francis is whether he too believes this nonsense. Honest answer: I don't know. That said, there are good reasons to worry.


The most obvious aspect of this is what Pope Francis believes about economics. He is deeply wed to the notion that the problems are largely matters of inequality. That said, economic literacy is not very high among popes. He is not much, if any, worse than any of the other popes of the last 150 years.

On the plus side, while he preaches a naive economics, he is most emphatically not naive about politicians nor is he naive about nonsense such as Liberation Theology. He is unlikely to lend support to demagogues either inside or outside the Catholic Church.

Uriah Heep

The bigger worry, as far as I'm concerned, is personality. I've never been a Dickens fan but Dickens was good on character and we do well to take seriously his warning against people who put their humility on display. This for the simple reason that humility put on display isn't humility.

Now in Francis' defense, it must be admitted that we don't know who is putting this humility on display. Pope Francis may be just being himself and it may be the cynical efforts of the public relations staff at the Vatican and the self-serving response of even more cynical journalists that is behind this.

That said, I am waiting to see. (There is no reason to believe that every Pope is God's choice, by the way. As Benedict XVI said while still Joseph Ratzinger, beyond any theological arguments that might be advanced, there is the incontrovertible truth that there are far too many examples of really bad men who became pope to the contrary.)

Not the patron saint of managers

Ever since his election, I keep reading conservative defenders of Pope Francis arguing that concerns such as mine are based on a false view of the saint from whom he takes his name. The real man, they tell us, was much more hard-nosed. That's true enough but which Saint Francis did the pope have in mind in picking his name? Was it the real guy or the modernist spiritual fantasy? I think it is way too early to safely draw any conclusions.

But even if we are focused on reality and not fantasy, the simple fact is that the real Francis was a disastrous manager. (And he was not an effective diplomat either.) Saint Francis had a huge influence but he didn't fix the church. It was men such as Gregory IX who did the actual work (Added: Often with a brutality that was not nearly so repugnant to Saint Francis as his modern fans would like to think.)

There is one aspect of the Saint Francis mythology that seems to fit the actual man and that is the belief that sufficient good will is all it takes to achieve success. With it goes a less sugary corollary: that all failures can be blamed on a lack of good will. I say "less sugary" because the hatred that follows when failure is believed to based on lack of good will is staggering.

Again, I don't know about Pope Francis himself. Perhaps he isn't as naive as he can seem. But you can rest assured that a lot of the enthusiasm he is currently stirring up is that naive and look out when, as it inevitably will, disillusion sets in.

In the mean time let's be cautiously  optimistic.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A little light culture: What posing nude tells us about "equality" pt 1

I have done it myself. There are a bunch of paintings of me nude out there somewhere. Assuming any have survived that is. Perhaps the parents of some fine arts graduate from my college days have dutifully kept all of their son or (more likely) daughters paintings from school. I did it mostly because I had this gigantic crush on a woman named Katrijn and I needed an excuse to hang around the art department so I could talk to her. (It worked but that isn't a story for the blog.)

Anyway, I thought about my experience when reading a couple of recent pieces by women about their experience posing nude. (I'll only discuss one of these today.)

This quote from Slate's Emily Yoffe , for example, struck me:
I stood there, suppressing a strong desire to giggle (fortunately, the students suppressed their giggles, too) as I tried to think of appropriate poses—something neither sultry nor stiff. I began doing yogalike twists, but with my being undressed and all, I was afraid it had the feeling of yoga porn.
On the one hand, you can see how that would be a issue, especially for a woman.And that is the issue: "especially for a woman". You can't avoid that.

On the other hand, one is tempted to rudely say, "What part of 'naked woman equals suggestion of sex' do you not understand?" Not necessarily actual sex but there is a definite sexual overtone that is always there when a woman gets naked. It's usually there when she's dressed too.

It can't not be there. I can see why that can feel terribly unfair. The reverse is not the case. Several hundred women and men did paintings of me with no clothes on once upon a time, and it was a time in my life when I was very fit, and, as I remember, only about three paintings had any erotic feeling about them. And in each case it was added by the artists. Unless he is unusually well endowed or has an erection there is nothing necessarily erotic about a naked man.

Is the reverse the case? Are paintings and photographs of naked women erotic only because the viewer or artist puts it there? No. Sex is always implied. Don't just take my word for it. Here is Marta Meana, professor of psychology at UNLV, as quoted by the New York Times:
“The female body,” she said, “looks the same whether aroused or not. The male, without an erection, is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion of sex” — a suggestion that sends a charge through both men and women. 
She means that quite literally, by the way. If you connect heterosexual female test subjects to plethysmographs to measure sexual arousal and show them pictures of naked women, they respond by getting sexually aroused.

And here we run up against a real problem for modern political thought. Ever since Brown vs Board of Education we have regarded the notion of "different but equal" as bogus. In the popular understanding* of Brown vs Board of Education, the court over-turned previous judgements that said that it was okay to provide different schools for blacks and whites provided the schools were "equal" on the, very sound, grounds that the schools offered were not, in fact, equal. But is it necessarily the case that different can never be equal? And what do you do when "different" is built into the very facts of life?

That is what happens with sexuality: the if we want women and men to be equal, the only way to achieve it is through different but equal arrangements. One of the big differences is that we always see women in a sexual way. I know women, particularly women of a feminist bent, who really don't like this. For example, I once met a female clergy-person who took great umbrage at being told that she was attractive. "I wish," she told me, "that my sexuality didn't have to come into it." "It" in this case meaning her role as clergy. I didn't want to get her angrier than she already was so I didn't say what I was thinking which was: Too bad, because it always will.

It's not fair, of course. Anyone who has taught or raised kids through puberty will have seen cases of girls who were simply crushed when they went from childhood to person of sexual interest. Past a certain age, women will always be evaluated sexually in ways that men are not. Until they aren't, at which point, as a woman I know once ruefully put it, "You become invisible".

And there is nothing much you can do about it. This because, as Catholic moral theologians put it, you can compel obedience but you can't compel assent. You can insist that men and women restrain their sexual impulses but you can't make them not have those impulses in the first place.

More to come ...

* I have no idea if this is actually an accurate reflection of what the court said but for my purposes here it doesn't matter for it very clearly is the lesson that the popular political culture has taken from it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Francis I: a caretaker pope

Very few things drive traffic away from this blog quite as much as blogging about Catholic stuff.

Oh well.

My first feelings at the announcement was cautious optimism tempered by some very troubling concerns.

Given the age of the last two popes, it is painfully obvious that the cardinals are not interested in a long pontificate any time soon. My sense of this is that there is a lot of factionalism among the cardinals. That shouldn't surprise us as that is an inevitable result of the resolving of a bipolar crisis. For years we had a polarizing struggle between conservatives and liberals that began during the pontificate of Paul VI. That struggle made each side of the struggle look more homogenous than it really was. Now that the liberals are trounced, the fault lines between various groups of conservatives are becoming more evident.

The primary consequence of this is that if you put a bunch of the current crop of cardinals in a room and make them elect a pope, their first instinct is going to be to try to elect a a guy who perfectly reflects their hopes. When it (rapidly) becomes obvious to them that they can't do that, they will start looking at the frontrunners to see which option looks the least threatening. And thus you get an older pope with only one lung.

Anyway, here is what I worry about.

The first issue is economics

There is some good news: Francis I is politically savvy. He recognizes that liberation theology and similar movements are disastrous for developing countries. (In our Orwellian age, to say a country is "developing" actually means that it has failed to develop,) Even better, he has a record of standing up to these groups.

On the other hand, Francis does not seem to have spent a lot of effort figuring out why markets and economies that succeed do so. His views on the subject strike me as well-meaning but naive. Unfortunately, there is a deeply entrenched and deeply corrupt poverty industry in the Catholic church. Equally unfortunately, the church's social teaching is a mess.

The prognosis is mixed: Francis will have the courage to stand up to the corrupt poverty industry but is unlikely to do fix the deeply flawed social teachings of the church.

The second issue is liturgy

This one is more complicated. Francis is reported to be hostile to the traditional Latin mass. If that is true it can spin out in different ways. (Update: It may not be true. It looks more as if he isn't sufficiently supportive for some hard-core fans of the TLM.)

To be honest, while I love the TLM, I have some serious reservations about some of its fans. I think that a hermeneutic of continuity means that the Novus Ordo will be celebrated in a more solemn and reverent fashion and that it will incorporate more of the beautiful culture that has grown up around the mass over the centuries, including some prayers and singing in Latin. But I don't see returning to the TLM.

I think a lot of advocates for the TLM don't want a hermeneutic of continuity (which is to say an ongoing conversation between the past and present). What they want is the TLM restored as the mass of the Catholic church. And that isn't going to happen. Furthermore, it would be a very bad thing if it did.

In addition, I've long thought that a more beautiful Novus Ordo, which can be achieved, would render the TLM unnecessary within a generation. On top of which, I don't think that multiplying the number of rites available within the church is a good idea. I don't think it will ever be possible to have only one, but adding new rites is something that should be done with extreme caution. If you really believe "lex orandi, lex credendi", and I do, then you have to see that multiplying the forms of lex orandi will innevitably cause disunity downstream as well.

The third issue is cleaning up the Vatican bureaucracy

If I am right about the essentially defensive posture of the voting Cardinals, then pessimism follows in this area. At some point very soon, someone is going to sit down and brief Francis about how bad things really are. We all suspect that they are very bad but we don't really know, nor do we know where the bodies are buried.

As with the sex scandals, the primary problem is not the corrupt officials themselves but the others who chose to not stop them. And I would not exclude the possibility that really cleaning up the mess might not entail revealing that a certain very beloved figure or two might not have stood by and watched while very bad things indeed took place. I wouldn't even discount the possibility that certain very beloved figures didn't later choose to cover up rather than reform corrupt institutions.

I don't know any of this, of course. It's what I worry about. I worry quite a bit about it.

The fourth issue and final issue is that name

Saint Francis of Assisi* is a beloved figure both inside and outside the Catholic church. I'll be blunt, there is a lot of romantic and superstitious nonsense that has accumulated around the man. I always worry when I see people waxing poetic about this saint.

There is an old legend about the student riots of 1968. The story goes that the students, having taken over the streets, ran to one of the Marxist professors they idolized and asked him what they should do next. It rapidly became clear he didn't have a clue. When you peel away the mythology, the real life of Saint Francis seems to have been like that. He seems to have been very good at inspiring people to embrace ideals and not so good at running the new shop he inspired them all to join. I don't think he is the model to pick. To be honest, I've always thought Anthony of Padua the more impressive figure.

* It occurs to me that I have not seen any evidence that Francis of Assisi  was the inspiration for the name. I, like everyone else, just assumed it was. But, given that Francis is a Jesuit, it is entirely possible he had Francis Xavier in mind.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cleaning up the mess that Pius XII left.

Liberal Catholicism is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge  signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Liberalism is as dead as a door-nail.

The mention of liberalism Catholicism's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that it was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Okay, enough fun. The point remains, however, that if you are going to understand where Catholicism is going, you have to grasp that liberalism is a dead letter. It has very little influence in the church today and it will have even less tomorrow.

So where do we go from here? Or, to put it another way, what is at stake with the election of a new pope? I think David G. Bonagura, who writes for a site called The Catholic Thing has summed up the future tensions within the church well. He divides Catholics into two groups, "the new Orthodoxy" and "the Benedictines". 

He does a fairly good job of describing the two groups but I think he fails to see how much divides them.

Here is his description of the new orthodoxy:
They adhere to the true teachings of Vatican II as expressed by the Council fathers, not the liberal “spirit” as falsely advanced by what Benedict recently called the “Council of the media.” Their theological standard is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and they are employing it to foster the New Evangelization.
And here he is on "the Benedictines":
... for them reverently celebrated liturgy is the ultimate standard of orthodoxy. They believe wholeheartedly in the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi – how and what we pray directly influences how and what we believe.
That is pretty good as far as it goes. Where he goes wrong, I think, is the synthesis he so obviously believes in.

For example, Bonagura says that the Benedictines share the New Orthodoxy's enthusiasm for a moral crusade "against the immoral demands of the secular West". It's not that the Benedictines disagree with the church teaching on sexuality, for example, but I don't think they are particularly enthusiastic about being actively and personally involved in the struggle to promote NFP.

He is more aware of the tension on the new orthodoxy side. He grasps that they are perfectly happy with the blander aspects of Post Vatican II worship. This isn't surprising as they tend to see Catholic life as a matter of moral duties and going to mass is just one more of these. They can see that the mass can be a beautiful thing and are aware of enough of the history to know that there are tremendous resources to draw on to make it more beautiful. But they don't see beauty as a moral duty so they don't see that every mass should be beautiful. They might even see mass as one responsibility  among many and look to it mostly for a homily that will talk about moral duties.

Okay, but what has all this to do with Pius XII. Well, the big hint is in the maxim"lex orandi, lex credendi" that Bonagura quotes above. Literally, that translates as the "law of prayer, the law of belief". The important thing about the maxim is which one comes first: you pray to God and you worry about getting that down right before you worry about getting all your theological and moral beliefs straight. Well, not just that, that and more. But how much "more" and exactly what "more".

Pius XII worried about this, and worried quite correctly about this, in an Encyclical called Mediator Dei. What worried him is a complex subject but one aspect of it was that people had begun to argue that the form of prayer should determine the form of belief. That is that you worked out what should be in the catechism by working out what the form of the liturgy should be—that the law of prayer should determine the law of belief.

And if he had left it like that, everything would have been fine. But he didn't. He reversed the maxim he didn't like (always a bad idea):
But if one desires to differentiate and describe the relationship between faith and the sacred liturgy in absolute and general terms, it is perfectly correct to say,"Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi" - let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer.
And with that he handed the reformers the sledge hammer they would use to nearly destroy the church when they were let loose after Vatican II. For what we believe about God should never determine how we pray. Prayer, especially liturgical prayer, is always at heart a mystery. o put the form of worship into the hands of a bunch of moralists and pedants or liturgists (but I repeat myself) is to always to cheapen it.

And that is what is at stake with this election. It is absolutely essential that the spirit of Benedict regarding the liturgy, the spirit of Communio not be allowed to die.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Do they really want to know?

The US federal government is funding a study to see why lesbians are so much more likely to be fat than heterosexual women and why heterosexual men are more likely to be fat than gay men. As quoted by Ann Althouse, the authors of the proposal write:
It is now well-established that women of minority sexual orientation are disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic.... In stark contrast, among men, heterosexual males have nearly double the risk of obesity compared to gay males.
Well, you could guess, couldn't you? It just might be because men care more about appearance than women do.

But the study is being conducted for health reasons: "Obesity is one of the most critical public health issues affecting the U.S. today".

Well, all this could be terribly problematic because they wouldn't want to report that women are healthier as a result of social pressure men put on them to look sexy would they?

More liberal racism

This time we're talking about liberals discovering racism in their own midst and being troubled by it. Tellingly, the good liberal in question, Ta-Nehisi Coates is describes this as racism of the good people. And we could easily stop reading right there for anyone who assumes that the people who share his political culture are all good people clearly has blind spots that detract from what he has to say about racism or any other prejudice.

But to discount him entirely would be just to repeat the mistake ourselves. All of us are deeply flawed.

What makes it interesting, though, is that Coates is himself very much inclined to blanket judgements about those who have been "flawed" by racism.  I suspect that is because he, like many liberals and progressives, particularly young liberals and progressives, has come to believe in a sort of founding mythology based on racism. In this founding mythology, racism is the original sin of America and that for America to truly become America, it must overcome "racism". I put this second mention of "racism" in scare quotes because it assumes, because it has to assume, a mythological dimension to play the role it has to play. (The "fight against sexism" is also part of the myth but to far lesser extent.)

That mythological racism is always at odds with the real thing. The mythological racism is a thing of the past preserved only by conservatives who need to be swept out of the way by "good" liberals. Until reality jolts you out of this mythology and you see that liberals are just as racist as anybody else.

The challenge is that everyone is racist—you me and Ta-Nehisi Coates—because we all tend to see race as a real category for organizing our thoughts. Try as we might, we simply cannot see skin colour the same way we see hair colour or eye colour. As a consequence we have to make adjustments. To take the example that got Coates going, if we are working in a deli and find ourselves looking at a black customer suspiciously, we have to ask ourselves what is really going on—is it my racist instincts that are making me feel this or do I have actual reasons to suspect shoplifting?

The converse, by the way, is also possible. When Natalie Cole had a hit with a reworking of her father's song "Unforgettable" in the early 1990s, I remember reading in Toronto's Globe and Mail a piece on Nat King Cole in which the writer, who clearly knew little about what she was talking about, simply assumed Cole as a far superior singer than Sinatra because Cole was black*. This is simple racism that might be summed up as "black people are so entertaining" but she failed to see it because she was convinced that she was one of the good people.

As the book of Leviticus says, the desire to be fair must cut both ways: "Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty". The second we start seeing history as a battle between the forces for good and the ones who would preserve evil racism, putting ourselves on the side of the angels of course, we become bigots.

By the way, one of the most offensive aspects of this is the way it treats the historical contributions. I like Coates, which is why I read him, quote him, praise him and criticize him, but my generation and his have contributed only a slight amount more to the battle against racism than we did to the battle against polio. The real heavy lifting was done by others, black and  white, who came before us.

* Cole was a magnificent jazz singer. His delivery and enunciation are second to none at slower to medium tempos. (A fact that becomes painfully obvious when his far less talented daughter sings along to his recordings.) It's when he starts to swing faster tunes that he can't deliver the way Sinatra can. Likewise, while neither man had a huge range, Cole had, as he himself said, a pretty limited range for a professional singer. And many of the notes within his range sound forced. In the song "Unforgettable", to take an example that everyone has heard, there is a D natural that should be an easy reach for a baritone in the phrase "That's why darling its in-cred-ible" and you can hear him having to strain for it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Another image: What are they selling?

This one's a beaut:

I used to know a woman named Patricia who looked just like her. She is an economist and she told me once that she dreamed of marrying a man who would let her have six children. That's most emphatically not what's going here.

Anyway, the crucial bit of background knowledge you need to understand this one is that a lot of men fantasize about their partner having sex with other men. In fact, after hot teenagers, it is the second most common male fantasy. It's not the sort of thing guys admit to publicly but it comes out in confidential surveys and there is a huge porn market that caters to this interest. There is also, as you can see above, mainstream ads that cater to it.

But it's a male fantasy! Men, not women, have this fantasy. That is the thing that is being pitched here. Ineffectual metro-sexual hipster guy looks on adoringly while his girlfriend (notice how careful the art director was to make sure her unadorned ring finger is in this shot, they knew full well this add would not be acceptable to many people if the woman were married) talks to her lover. She looks like she is ready to walk out on him to join this lover if he so much as drops a hint that he is willing to meet her.

Which is what makes this ad so puzzling. The ad is supposed to attract women, they are your prime target for high end retail, and yet it pushes a male sexual fantasy that will have no appeal to women. To be blunt, someone wasted a lot of money on this ad.

(For those of you who don't live in Ottawa, the Rideau Centre is a shopping mall. They have a brand-new Nordstrom's moving in that they are hoping will revitalize their third floor—the third floor being where the high-end retailers are. They can't actually directly advertize Nordstrom's because their other tenants would have a fit. Thus the word "change".)

No doubt they convinced themselves that this is really a women-are-powerful message. The guy looks at her adoringly even though she talks to another guy. But put yourself in her place. Is this the way women fantasize about their own sexual power? It's no stretch to imagine that women in relationships might fantasize about being pursued by other men. But do you think that when a woman daydreams about getting a call from a fantasy lover that she imagines her irritating hipster boyfriend listening in on the call? And even if she pictures herself with multiple sexual partners, do you think she fantasizes that one of them is a total dweeb like the guy in the picture?

You see this sort of thing surprisingly often, by the way. They appear in women's magazines with shocking regularity. Would it be unkind of me to suggest that this sort of ad is more of a reflection of the number of gay men in the advertizing industry than any reflection of the real needs of that advertiser or their intended customer?

So what are they selling? Not much. They got sold in fact.

Here is the perfect theme song for the man in that picture:

Friday, March 8, 2013

More feminist nightmares

There is an article about women in their twenties still wanting romance and feeling guilty about it over at The Atlantic. It's gotten, as you might imagine, a certain sector of society all in a tizzy. By a certain sector, I mean the journalists. I don't think anyone else cares, nor should they.

I mention it only because it's an astounding example of someone refusing to see the facts right in front of them. The writer, a sociologist named Leslie C. Bell was given the choice of believing feminist ideology or her won lying eyes and she went with ideology.

The point of her article is that large numbers of young women she interviewed in her research crave a boyfriend and they feel guilty about it.
Some young women deeply desire meaningful relationships with men, even as they feel guilty about those desires. Many express the same sentiment again and again: "Why do I, a young and highly educated woman in the 21st century, value relationships with men so highly?"
And it's worth noting, before moving on to life's cruel punch line, that she didn't interview "young women" so much as she interviewed young professional women with college degrees, which ought, if anything, to skew the results in a direction compatible with feminist ideology.

Anyway, here is the money quote from Bell, "I would never advocate that women return to the stereotype of the single woman pining for romance." What she fails to note is that her own research clearly says that many women have never left this "stereotype". They live there.

In that regard, note Bell's solution for these young women,
But I do believe that young women who are taking risks in so many other important areas of life should also pursue experiences that may, on their face, seem to be at odds with independence and progress. The successful woman who is in a relationship is not the same as the pining woman. She's the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.
Do you see the problem with that? It's right in that last phrase: the woman who pursues both a career and a relationship is "acknowledging the full range of her desires". That, of course, is just another way of saying "having it all". And we all know how well that strategy (a damn selfish strategy by the way) has worked out.

UPDATE: Ann Althouse has a whole lot of good insight on this.  My favourite of her comments is This:
... it seems to me that the shame of admitting to wanting a boyfriend is the concession that you don't have a boyfriend. Pride leads you to act as though what you are doing you are doing intentionally.
And that seems right. It's the old, "I meant to do that" excuse.

Then she goes on to say,
And if you really do want a boyfriend, you probably also think that revealing that you want what you don't have only makes it harder to get get what you want.
This in response to a Slate round table in which women respond to the Atlantic article. Althouse is putting it gently but there is a real sting in that.

The feminist nightmare continued

Here is Emily Bazelon writing about Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and getting it wrong:
When I actually opened the book and started reading (as opposed to hearing about it for all these years), what hit me was Betty’s howl of frustration. It’s primal, and you feel its desperate force on almost every page. God, did she feel trapped among the slipcovers of the suburbs and in the pages of the women’s magazines she wrote for, where big ideas and questions were entirely unwelcome.
The problem is one of context. Friedan was never trapped in the suburbs, she had left them to live in radical circles. The frustration that screams out from every page of The Feminine Mystique is not Friedan's own but what she theorizes must be the case for those women who did live in the suburbs.

That was probably inevitable. Rebels are often people who are already partly outside the norms of the community they seek to lead to freedom. The problem is not that Betty Friedan misrepresented herself. No, the problem is that she was the wrong person to lead the movement. A fact, as I will get to below, that most women had no trouble grasping.

And it is important to note what a cliché her hatred of the suburbs was. The suburbs definitely have their problems (although it ought to give us pause that millions of people still willingly choose to live in them) but intellectuals hatred of them was a commonplace thing throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Friedan's "rage" in The Feminine Mystique was nothing more than reboiled potatoes and about as tasty.

Generations of women have experienced it that way. Feminism's nightmare is not that lots of women who don't have sympathy for the objectives of the movement reject it but that women who do have sympathy for the objectives of the movement continue to reject the feminist label. 

Let's go back to Taylor Swift as an example. She was asked if she was a feminists (every female celebrity is pressured into declaring herself a feminist, a rather troubling thing all by itself). Here is her answer and one feminist's response to it:
Next, Setoodeh asks: "Do you consider yourself a feminist?"

Taylor Swift replies:
I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.
Yes, what you're describing is equality, and equality is what feminism is all about!
Notice the assumption: If you believe in equality then you have to support feminism! Well, No, you don't. Feminism is a battery of theories and strategies and no one has to publicly align themselves with it just because they believe in equality. They are perfectly free to look outside feminism.

To get back to Friedan, it's telling that Bazelon admits in her piece that she had never managed to read The Feminine Mystique even though she knew Friedan quite well and had even received an autographed copy from the author decades ago. And it's not just that she didn't get around it, she admits that she skimmed it. Of course she did. The problem with the book is that it is mind numbingly boring to most people. Even now that she says she has finally gotten around to reading it, she credits the introduction for helping her to grasp the value of it.

And therein lies the central truth about any movement of rebellion including second wave feminism. It's origins are not in lived experience but in theory. And Marxist theory at that. The attack on the suburbs didn't come from nowhere. It came from the radical left and it was revolutionary ideology, which is to say its intent was to encourage discontent.

Okay, you may say, but that doesn't matter because there was lots of discontent and the proof is in the very existence of second wave feminism. And you might further say that this is a point I've made cheerfully in other areas; that it doesn't matter if the movement's founder is a bit of a fraud if what she says catches the imagination of millions. And you'd be right to say that. With one important caveat.

And that caveat  is that it was never the case that the majority of women embraced feminism. It has always been, and probably always will be, a minority movement. And the reason it always will be is precisely Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet, Germaine Greer and many others. Because they made the ideologies that women have to sign onto when they call themselves feminist.

This is not, by the way something unique to feminism. Every movement starts off as a feeling of discontent and then becomes a theory. And every movement starts after change has already become possible. It's always the person who is halfway out of the old ways, as Friedan was, who leads the charge.

That tells us something else important: that theories about why life should change always springs up after life has already begun to change. Realizing that deflates the importance of theory. Nothing is less important to feminism than Betty Friedan. No one should feel obliged to read her.

If feminism is to succeed, it needs to have the courage to stop romanticizing its past. Friedan was important at one time but no longer is. A big part of her current lack of appeal is her radicalism, that ugly streak of the hate-filled radical politics of the post-war left that drove so much of early feminism. Trash it.

That said, it isn't that important that second generation survive in any form. If it dies, as it currently appears to be doing, it will be replaced. What, if anything, it will be replaced by is up to young women themselves. I think they can be trusted to decide for themselves.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On feminist nightmares

Apparently, Taylor Swift is one.

You know, I can see nightmares about ghouls, car crashes, falling off cliffs, being locked out your dorm room naked five minutes before the big final exam ... but if your nightmare is Taylor Swift, then your pathetic.

The real problem, on the surface anyway, is that Taylor Swift won't call herself a feminist. APparently that means that she isn't allowed to object if other women say mean things about her. Yeah, that makes sense. Agree with our ideology or will attack you. You're either for us or against us.

Note, by the way, that even Hana men-are-so-over Rosin thinks maybe the term "feminist" may have used up its fifteen minutes. Why can't Taylor Swift do likewise?

Is it because she's kinda, what's the word, normal? No, that can't be it. Here are the the right words:
Some may argue that Taylor Swift is a role model, a class-act in the drugged-up, sexed-up music industry. But do we need another photogenic cisgendered carefree white girl singing heteronormative songs about mooning over boys?
 Glossary break:
Cisgender: "individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity,"
Heteronormative: A word meant to imply that being heterosexual is an oppressive act.
Well then.

Of course, most girls are like Taylor Swift. Most girls get all worked up about boys. And pop singers who sing songs about what most girls care about will always be much more popular than pop singers who call themselves feminists. What feminism is or isn't is up to feminists to decide but, a little free advice, if your ideology requires girls to stop being girls, you're doomed.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In other words "no"

Is the south more racist than the north? That is the question. Tellingly, The New Republic decided that best person to ask the question is a man who hates the south. Right from the start, you know that Chuck Thompson is going to say "yes".

But you also gotta know it isn't going to be easy for him to reach that conclusion. It's easy to prove that the south used to be very racist but a lot has changed.

Thompson acknowledges these problems and even goes so far as to admit that there is no evidence for the claim. Let's repeat that: There! Is! No! Evidence!
I tried to find a magic formula, aggregate statistics, gather a collection of irrefutable facts to show that what I felt to be true, what many of us feel to be true, is in fact the truth—that Southerners really are more racist than the rest of us. But the truth about bigotry in Dixie is that, with one or two exceptions (we’ll get there in a minute), you cannot prove that racism is worse in the South than it is anywhere else in the country.
And there is more:
Articulating the country’s widespread gut conviction, Feagin and Myers have a powerful argument. Pity that the facts don’t support it. Based on empirical evidence—scholars never tire of tracking wealth distribution, voting patterns, and the like—you simply can’t state unequivocally that racism in the South is worse than it is anywhere else in the country. The land of Harpers Ferry nostalgics may yield plenty of horrifying anecdotes and a bitter historic record to support such a view, but constructing a quantifiable measure of racism turns out to be nearly impossible.
The obvious question is, "Why is it a pity that the facts don't support the contention that the south is more racist than the north?" Isn't that a good thing? Well, it's only a good thing if you aren't looking for reasons to hate the south and Thompson is.

The one or two pieces of evidence that Thompson alludes to above, by the way are 1. Southern Poverty Law Center's "hate Map" and 2. anecdotal evidence. And given that Thompson himself refers to the first as "infamous", you can tell it's going to be a rough haul.

You don't have to look any further than the article itself before you start to find evidence about why the map might be infamous. Thompson and the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, advance the claim that what they call "anti-immigration" laws are proof of hate. Well, perhaps they would be if they were anti-immigration laws but they aren't. They are laws intended to help capture people who have entered the country illegally! That's a crucial difference.

The anecdotes are easier given that the south is a target-rich environment. But even there it ought to trouble Thompson a lot more than it does that two of the three monuments to racists in South Carolina he provides as anecdotal evidence date to 1940 and 1906 respectively. The thing about anecdotal evidence is that you can cherry pick the best examples for your case while forgetting any and all counter examples. That Thompson is reaching not just for anecdotal evidence but weak anecdotal evidence is telling.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dystopian visions

Yesterday in the comments, Billy Carmichael wrote:
In line with your observation, it also seems to be that our images of the future tend no longer to be utopian (like Star Trek Next Generation), but rather dystopian and apocalyptic (and brutally so). 
A few years ago one of the British academic publishers, probably Oxford,  cranked out a collection of love stories. The editor of the collection was interviewed on the CBC. After observing that the stories were really break up stories rather than love stories, the interviewer asked him why. The editor's answer was that, "For me, that is what love is." Those aren't his exact words but my recreation of the memory.

That outlook tells you a lot about the serious literary world these days. There are no happy stories anymore. There are also no tragic stories. There are absurd stories and sad stories. Them's your cherces folks.

Which isn't surprising really as absurd or sad are also your only choices in a universe without God, which is the universe a lot of very intelligent people choose to live in.

The other factor at work is old age. Somewhere in your forties, the inevitability of decline and death really starts to sink in. It changes the way you look at the world. If you've been coasting by ona  dilettantish sort of nihilism, it really hits home.

At some point you have to let go of the world. Your possessions, your loves, your political hopes and fears and leave the world and everything you owned in it or even just cared about to others and then die. For the very intelligent people of our time, that is going to be a bloody awful thing to face and they know it. Thus the dystopian visions. It's the final distraction.

We should pray for them.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The end of Disney modernism

Did you ever notice how a lot of visions of the future found in science fiction really consist of predicting that it will be exactly like the past. Columbus traveled across the ocean and discovered other continents with new civilizations. Kirk and Spock travel across space and find other planets with new civilizations.

"Serious" science fiction fans will now rush in and say that neither Disney nor the heavily Disney-inspired worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars and are good science fiction or perhaps that they are not science fiction at all. I won't argue the point because I don't care. The point I want to make is about the genre that those giant successes fall into and what we do or don't call it matters little to me. The thing about these series is that they are bromides that confidently predict that the future will be exactly like the past. If inter-racial intolerance is a problem now, Star Trek tells us, then inter-species intolerance will be a problem in the future.

Only the other species aren't really other species. They are always very much like human beings only with pointy ears or blue skin or something to make them stand out. They are very much a projection of racial differences and usually accompanied with a solution to the problems of racial tensions that a not-very-bright teenager could dream up.

The "science" that accompanies these fictions is interesting. It operates on the assumption that "science" and "technology" mean the same thing. The job of science is to give us cool new gadgets not to explain the world. I think that part is pretty good. That is science's job and any scientist who purports to tell us what the world is really like or what we should believe or how we behave instead of making keen new gadgets should be ordered to shut up and get back to his cave.

But these fictions are notoriously poor at predicting future technology. No science fiction author successfully predicted Google (keep that in mind as the nature of Google is important to the story). The plots of many science fiction stories would be about two pages long if the participants had simply Googled the names of the places and people they encountered as these often give away their real purpose or intent. And they give these key factors because they are inevitably drawn from human history.

Even the sole shining exception is telling. The geostationary communications satellite is a triumph of engineering. That is to say, it is the successful adaptation of old technology to a new situation. It takes the idea of an earthbound relay station and figures out how to put it on an object in space that always remains in the same relative position to the stations on earth that use it. That is nothing to sneeze at and the engineering problems that needed to be solved were formidable. But thinking up the idea—"Hey, let's put a relay station on a spaceship"—is far, far less impressive than actually making it happen.

Which brings me to Tomorrowland and a link to a post about it provided by InstaPundit. The post is by a writer named Zohar Liebermensch. She notes that Disney is abandoning exhibits based on emerging technology and replacing them with exhibits based on movies.
Rather than foreshadowing, like the early Tomorrowland did, current Tomorrowland is opening attractions like Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, where passengers shoot targets modeled from Toy Story or a submarine voyage where passengers go “under the sea” to spend time with characters from Finding Nemo.
I don't doubt that is true but what, if anything, does it signify. 

Liebermensch, to her credit, wonders if it doesn't signal a justified new pessimism on Disney's part. The new technology, she argues, just isn't as momentous as the old technology.
Facebook and the iPhone may be classified as the monumental inventions of the past decade. While they improved the social networking and convenience of society, can they really be compared the monumentality of the first airplane or personal computer? Previous milestones are being expanded and fine-tuned. Rather than thinking of new revolutionary discoveries, the current generation attempts to fix the old ones. Technology seems to be hitting a very worrisome plateau.
This is a big improvement on the usual lame arguing that we need to start thinking big again—"We went to the moon, now let's go to Mars already!" But, if anything, I'd say she hasn't been nearly pessimistic enough. Facebook and iPhone improved social networking? Does anyone seriously think that today's youth are better at these things? (And ask yourself this: did the airplane or computer have as significant a cultural impact as the car or telephone?)

If you go back through science fiction, you find a lot of predictions of videophones. People are always looking at screens of the person they are talking to. This marvel is now widely and cheaply available in the form of Skype and Facetime. Not much use is it? I mean, outside of phone sex (and perhaps even there), it's just a novelty. No one mentions Skype in the same tones they reserve for Facebook or even text messaging.

Think of Google again. On Star Trek there were often moments when someone communicated with a computer. Spock asked the computer a question and the computer replied. This model still prevailed with the later generations of the show. The Holodeck was run by a computer that answered human requests. (it also relied heavily on virtual reality, one of the great busts of computer technology.)

What no one thought of was the possibility that a simple messaging concept could create the possibility of drawing quickly on the knowledge and experience of not a computer but millions of other human beings. That is interesting and exciting. What isn't clear is how useful it will be. My guess is that Facebook and Wikipedia, to pick just two examples, will soon hit their limits, if they have not done so already. But that caveat aside, millions of people have embraced the possibilities of sharing ideas electronically.

 (You'll notice that I am very careful to not say "social networking". This for the very simple reason that the most people use these sites for exactly the opposite reasons. There are sad people who actually look for "friends" on Facebook but for most users it is really a way of holding people you have little interest in having direct contact with at bay. Similarly, there are sad people who look for love through on-line dating but for most users it is a way of finding sex partners without forming serious connections.)

That is the aspect of technology that shapes our culture right now. The optimism that drove the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises was very much of its era. Disneyland was established in 1955. That was a period of economic growth and hope in the aftermath of two horrible world wars and the great depression. Embracing "the future" was almost a desperate thing in some ways. If you had the brutal reality of Auschwitz and the brutal power of nuclear weapons suddenly thrust on you, you too would worry whether the human race had a future. In that atmosphere, a science fiction that soothingly reassured you that the future would present the exact same challenges as the past, only with way-cooler gadgetry, would be just the ticket. And it was.

Now we are entering a different era, an era when the past is becoming much more interesting (and much less frightening.) to us. This "past", of course, will often have as little to do with actual history as science fiction had to do with actual science but that matters a lot less than you might think as its job is to reflect our hopes and dreams.