Friday, June 28, 2013

Something to think about heading into the big holiday weekend

I check my stats every week and often re-read the old posts that got the most visits that week. Reading this much-read post*, I was struck by some interesting language use that I missed the first time around:
Even in research about appropriate dating behavior among adults today, “men and women both agree that men should actively pursue female partners and that women should be passive recipients to their advances,” says Jessica Carbino, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UCLA who studies online dating and relationships.
The two modifiers I have added emphasis to are doing one heck of a lot of work distorting reality.

For starters, ask yourself what "inactive pursuit" would look like. The expression is pure jargon from bureaucrats, not unlike the expression "action plan. These expressions were created because bureaucrats are so notorious for accomplishing nothing.

But the flipside is worse. A passive recipient is someone who just stands there and takes what is dished out to them and that is neither what women do nor is it what is expected of women. Putting it so categorically allows Ms. Carbino to seriously misrepresent what is actually going on in order prop up feminist fairy tales about victimization.

In fact, playing the responsive side of courtship and sex requires a very active recipient and is an enormously difficult challenge, a fact that can be readily affirmed by simply observing how few women are much good at it.

* Much-read by my humble standards.

Smooth baritones of summer #1: Crosby and Sinatra

My thing never was duets, I liked doing them, but, you know, I just never got into it as much as Bing did. Bing did so much singing with the Andrews Sisters and backup singers, also he liked singing with another voice, just having another presence around. His stuff with Armstrong, for instance, was fabulous stuff. When I sang with Bing early on, I was so nervous to be with this big gun I probably didn't sound so hot. But, you know, when we did the movie together, we sang together and did OK, but it never went over as well as I wanted. Bing's voice was great, he bent over backwards to mesh it with whoever he was singing with and he had, you know, so much practice from singing duets for so long. The little girl he sang with in the movie, he even pitched up to her level. He was real talented in that department, you could say.
There is a lot in that quote.

I'll start with "the little girl he sang with in the movie". The movie in question is High Society and, because there is a child actress in the movie. you might assume that Sinatra is referring to some duet he sang with this child. But he doesn't sing any duet with her. The duet he sings is with Grace Kelly!

So why does Sinatra brush Grace Kelly off as "the little girl he sand with in the movie"? Because she and Crosby had a torrid affair during the filming of that movie and that ease with women that men like Crosby and Bogart had was something Sinatra coveted just as much, if not more than, Crosby's superior skill singing duets. (Being a lover was very much a part of Sinatra's public persona, of course, but the evidence suggests that he wasn't very good at it despite Ava Gardner's famous bragging point about 19 pounds.)

The point here is not to enter into an interminable debate about which man was better. Both were very, very good (although Crosby doesn't get as much credit as he deserves these days while Sinatra tends to get overpraised). But if we compare their ability to do certain specific things, then there are clear differences between the two men.

I'll get to Sinatra later this summer, but here are some of the things that Crosby was very good at that Sinatra couldn't do.
  • Sing the blues
  • Syncopate
  • Harmonize with other singers
  • Be at ease with women (not unrelated to the previous point)
  • Sing in a way that was healing and soothing
The ability to harmonize is most of what Sinatra is getting at in the quote above. There are, of course, recordings in which other singers sing with Sinatra but that is a very different thing from a duet in which two singers sing with one another. That requires a two way adjustment and Sinatra couldn't do that nearly as well as Bing. Why not? For starters, Crosby has much, much, much better intonation. Even if Sinatra had worked at singing with others as long and determinedly as Crosby, he just wasn't as good a musician. Crosby (who started as a drummer) also has a much better sense of time than Sinatra and always knows where the one is (which also helps explain why Crosby can syncopate and sing blues well whereas Sinatra can't sing the blues at all).

But there is another reason: Sinatra is a bit of a narcissist in a way that Crosby and his generation never were. The video above is the only Crosby-Sinatra duet that really clicked. If you watch it carefully, you can see why. When Crosby responds to a line that Sinatra has sung, he does so musically, pitching his voice to complement what Sinatra has just sung. When the shoe is on the other foot, Sinatra relies on his ability to act rather than on musicality. Sinatra isn't actually drunk be he uses the fact that he is playing someone who is supposed be drunk as a crutch. It's a very telling difference between the two men and between the eras they represent.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Imitatio Project: Some preliminaries

I'll start with a couple of quotes. First BobinCT commented yesterday:
I think that part of the ambivalence that people feel about Draper is that he himself is ambivalent. He really is trying to be Don Draper, but you never get the sense that he ever thinks he has succeeded. This goes back to Season 1 when he goes out to pick up the birthday cake and doesn't come home until hours later with a dog no less. Aside from the office,and even there increasingly, he always seems to be at loose ends. He's done the family things--holidays, birthdays, funerals--because that's what was expected of him. He thinks he wants to be Don Draper, but why? Why is being Draper so much better than being Whitman? He never fully answers that question for himself in his own mind. The irony is that his core, that which enables him to set himself apart from others, is pure Dick Whitman, from whom he tries to escape. From what we've seen in the flashbacks, Dick Whitman was a good kid, who suffered at the hands of bad parents. But he didn't become like them, something in him enabled him to rise above that.
And then something I said about Don Draper back in 2011:
Well, let me tell you about an argument I had with an English professor back in university. We were reading Lucky Jim and I was defending an unsympathetic character from that novel named Margaret Poole. After class the professor approached me and said, "How can you like her, she is a psychotic, neurasthenic b____?" And I said, "Yes she is but she is because Kingsley Amis made her that way and I think he was cheating." 
Yes, Dick Whitman never seems to succeed fully at being Don Draper but is that because the trick can't be done or is it because the show's creators won't allow it? This is an argument I've been having with myself about the show for a long, long time. I'd put it this way: Is Don Draper greater than the people who created him? Can we read this text in ways that the people who created it never intended but that is truer than their intentions?

The key to such a reading, as I've said many times before, is Roger Sterling. He is a type of character who is instantly recognizable because he represents an entire moral tradition.
There is a type of dramatic tradition—Japanese Noh plays and English medieval morality plays are examples—which possess a set of stock characters immediately recognizable to the audience. Such characters partly define the possibilities of plot and action. To understand them is to be provided with a means of interpreting the behaviours of the actors who play them, just because a similar understanding a similar understanding informs the intentions of the actors themselves; and other actors may define their may define their parts with special reference to these central characters. (After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre p. 27)
From the moment Roger Sterling walks into a scene in any of the first four seasons, we know where we are. Watch any episode and you will see what I mean. In the pilot, for example, Don Draper's character is drawn out for us in a few short brush strokes when Roger walks into his office and banters with him about the big meeting coming that day. We've been watching Don for a whole 10 minutes at that point and we still don't have any sort of grip on him. It's how he responds to Roger that makes him come alive.

And from that moment we are captivated.

The funny thing is I don't think Matt Weiner had a clue what he'd done in creating Roger Sterling. The evidence for this is that he wasn't a full member of the cast for the whole first season. I think they even planned to write him out of the show with his two heart attacks that season. But they didn't and all you need to do to understand why is to watch that first season—almost every scene with Roger sparkles. Weiner knew he had to have Roger, that's the thing about a stock character, everyone knows they are needed. What Weiner didn't see was just how incredibly important that character was.

A lot of the credit for this lies with John Slattery and he saw it because he wanted to keep working. What he saw was that a certain kind of moral limitation also gives a certain kind of moral freedom. Whereas everyone else (with the possible exception of Joan Holloway) had to be played with a certain ambiguity, Roger can be direct in a way that others cannot be. As a stock figure in a morality play (and Mad Men is very much a morality play) he is expected to have all sorts of scruples in his public presentation but no actual morality. Like Captain Renaud in Casablanca, that allows  Slattery to glory in a certain kind of rakish tendency: "When God closes a door, he often opens a dress."

Now the reason MacIntyre is interested in these characters don't just exist in fiction, they are essential to certain moral ways of life too.
So it is also with certain kinds of social role specific to certain particular cultures. They furnish recognizable characters and the ability to recognize them is socially crucial because a knowledge of the character provides an interpretation of the actions of those individuals who have assumed the character. It does so precisely because those individuals have used the very same knowledge to guide and to structure their behaviour. Characters specified thus must not be be confused with social roles in general. For they are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way which many other social roles do not. (MacIntyre ibid.)
To get what MacIntyre is getting at here, think of teachers and police officers. These people fall in love and lust just like the rest of us but they can't do so when they are in character. It's not that they will be punished for doing so, though they may well be, but that they will stop seeming credible as police officers or teachers if they do this on the job.

There are many good examples of this in the first season. For example, in the episode which Right Guard is introducing aerosol antiperspirant, the junior executives start horsing around in Don's office. He encourages them almost as if he is one of them but he doesn't join in. He can't.

Why not? Because he wants to be like Roger, a point that is emphasized when Roger shows up a few moments later and he and Don go outside to discuss the Nixon campaign with Bert. We can see that the guys in the office continue with their horseplay but these two have to be different because they are under moral constraints that others aren't. Again, it's not the fear of punishment that is the constraint. The junior executives have, if anything, more reason to fear Bert Cooper's wrath than Roger and Don do. No, the difference is that if they join in others will stop seeing them as really being the characters they are. They can't take off their Noh-masks.

Now I could go on and on about this, and I will over the summer, but the important thing to grasp is that Roger Sterling is a sort of replacement father figure for Don. He is a certain kind of father figure that our culture rejects and I'll fill begin to him in a bit on Monday. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Imitatio project: What's real?

I'll begin by quoting myself:
Which brings me to the Mad Men backlash feared by Rosin's colleague Seth Stevenson,
I’ve sensed brewing Mad Men backlash this season. Some whine that the plots are slow. Some argue that the advancing era doesn’t lend itself as well to stylish art direction. But the most common complaint I’ve heard is that Don Draper has failed to progress as a character and is congealing into a grim, awful man. I actually find that a fascinating development—I’m impressed by a show that, steadily over the course of several seasons, manages to turn a sexy pop culture heartthrob into a figure both reviled and pitied.
And there is a sort of impatience with many fans of the show. No matter how much they love Don, they want him done away with. Some want to see him superseded by Peggy or Ginsberg or some other new generation figure. Others want him to change and become the new sensitive man that Esquire will soon be writing about. The backlash that Seth feels brewing is driven by a feeling that the change isn't happening fast enough. Don just keeps being Don.

And I hope, although I suspect my hopes will be crushed, that he never changes. I hope he remains what even Rosin can see, although she doesn't like it:
By this crisis calculation, Don is the last honest man standing. Unlike in the earlier episodes, he is not stumbling around blindly. Unlike everyone else around him, he sees himself clearly and he understands what’s important to him. He does not care about a race vigil. He doesn’t care about Betty’s rules. He doesn’t even so much care about his children, as he confesses in that heartbreaking speech.
And all I can say is, good for him for being a man.
We live in an anti-man culture and that culture fears Don Draper. It needs to bring him down, to destroy him.
Yesterday, I found something absolutely pathetic that shows us why this pathetic era needs to destroy Don Draper.
“My girlfriend is a Mad Men madwoman,” says Eugene, a 26-year-old software engineer from Manhattan. “The show combines her love of all things old-fashioned with — so she tells me — ruggedly handsome men dressed in fine-tailored suits.”So how can modern guys compete with Don Draper’s retro-sexual appeal?
That's from an on-line dating website that also includes articles for men and women looking to present themselves as better prospects for dating. They have advice to give but, before we get to that, let's learn a bit more about Eugene and his relationship with his girlfriend.
Eugene, whose girlfriend is “militant” about watching the show (“She has to turn it on; she has to hold the remote”) says he’s definitely heard suggestions about adopting a Mad Men aesthetic. “She sometimes drops hints: ‘You’d look great in a skinny tie’ — but it hasn’t reached the point where I’ve bought a whole new wardrobe,” he says.

Eugene has folded a few retro bits into his look, though. “I’ve recently gotten into the art of wet shaving using an old-style safety razor and shaving brush,” he says. “I think she gets a kick out of watching me shave this way. I’m also looking into incorporating suspenders into my formal wear.”
I'm a big fan of old-fashioned shaving but notice why Eugene is doing it: "I think she gets a kick out of watching me shave this way". He's not shaving this way because it gets him a better shave but because he thinks his girlfriend likes seeing him to do it. 

I usually avoid putting things this crudely but Eugene's problem is that he is a total pussy.

So, what was the advice that the expert gave Eugene?
“Instead of trying to compete, I’d just roll with it,” says Isakson. “Find out why she’s caught up in Mad Men. Is it the era, the characters, the clothes? Have a good conversation about the show the next time you watch it together. Find out what she likes about it and then play off of that.”

If your girlfriend’s into the era and the clothes, host a Mad Men viewing party where everybody dresses up as their favorite character, suggests Isakson. Or learn how to make cocktails — a martini for her, an old-fashioned for you — and serve them up while watching the show together.

Incorporating a few 60s touches into your wardrobe is another way to show you’re paying attention to what she likes.
Have a party where everyone dresses up as their favourite character! 

The question we need to ask ourselves is what is it to really be a character? As opposed to dressing up like them for a Mad Men viewing party. Not to be Don Draper himself—because that character is under the control of scriptwriters who want to impose a cheap and shallow morality on him—but to be the Don Draper type. For, again, the people who write the tripe I quote here accidentally give the game away in revealing just how enormously appealing he is. 
 “He’s an observer,” says Isakson, who received hundreds of flirtatious messages from smitten women while posting as the character. “He stays on the outside. He’s curious about human nature but wants to be removed and not reveal anything about himself. He’s very guarded with his personal information.”  
That's getting there but most of all, Draper is a guy who does stuff instead of playing at being a character.  Most of the criticism of Draper is pointed at his duplicity and deception in adopting a new name and persona and his serial affairs but his appeal comes from the fact that he really does these things. Dick Whitman, unlike Eugene, is really trying to be Don Draper.

And before you get really worked up about how this is so terribly unfair to women, you need to explain to us why so many women watching the show get so wet they have to change their panties at every commercial break. 

I'll wrap up with Eugene:
Eugene, who regularly watches with his girlfriend, says pointing out Draper’s rampant infidelity is his secret weapon. “I’ll go out of my way to point out his sleazy cheating ways during an episode,” he says. “I’ll tell her, ‘I can’t believe this guy would treat his pregnant wife this way. What a dirt bag!’” 
But notice that Eugene isn't condemning Draper's infidelity because he, Eugene, believes in fidelity. He's doing because he is threatened because a  a fictional character gets his girlfriend wetter than he can. He's talking this way because he thinks this sort of talk appeals to women. 

Really trying to become something you aren't isn't living a lie. Living a lie is what modern men like Eugene do. If some hot babe offered herself to Eugene and there seemed little chance his girlfriend would find out, he'd be in her in a flash. Assuming he wasn't cowed into "fidelity" by performance anxiety.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mad Men: Moving on from here

One of the signs of just how shallow our culture has become is the way all commentary on Mad Men dries up in the 24 hours after the season finale every year. At precisely the moment when we are actually in a position to analyze the show in a meaningful way, the news cycle demands that we move on.

So I thought I'd take a different approach to this year's wrap up: instead of looking back, I'm going to look forward. Here is the project I'm working on, imagine that, instead of watching next season, I decided to write a piece of fan fiction instead. If I were doing that, what would I have to build on?

The answer to that is both obvious and evasive. The obvious part is that our hero has an old-fashioned kind of masculine virtue to draw on.  He was trying to be a certain kind of man.

Now our culture both demeans and honours such a man. The demeaning part is the assumption that Don is living a fake life and needs to allow himself to be the man he really is. To continue to be Don Draper, we are assured, is to risk massive breakdown and failure. Keeping it all boxed in like that is, we are told, a recipe for failure.

Before going on, notice that that explanation is old-fashioned and wrong. It's based on nineteenth century pneumatic physics that was used as a metaphor for nineteenth century psychology by Freud. It treats our emotional self as if it were a steam-powered machine needing safety valves to let off the pressure before it builds up and explodes. And that is important to note because that 19th century psychology was wrong. Men (and women, for that matter) who "hold things in" don't explode and lose control. The better you get at controlling your emotions, the less likely you are to have some sort of giant character meltdown. It's the man who is constantly venting and complaining who has no self control and blows up.

As an aside, where this season's show went deeply wrong was in the huge shift from good storytelling to Freudian bullshit that happened right from the beginning of the season but especially in episode 3 "The Collaborators". Basing your fiction on discredited pseudo-science like Freud is to guarantee failure, so that is the first thing to thrown overboard.

There are some other things that we cannot disregard because they are facts of Don Draper's life. So as to avoid confusion, I'll assign them to a new character whom I will refer to by his initials JAC.* Let's start with some limitations:
  • JAC didn't have a strong father to provide him with a good example of manliness
  • He grew up in a feminized environment driven by social policing and dubious sexual morals
  • He has a drinking problem.
  • He has a a lot of romantic baggage that he brings along from the past.
  • The replacement he found for his first failed relationship is another weak and ineffectual woman who never grew out of her princess stage. 
  • He has burned some bridges by admitting publicly that he has a shameful past.
I'll analyze those one at a time beginning tomorrow.

* Short for Jules Aimé Costigan. I share a lot common with Dick Whitman. I was not an orphan who grew up in a whorehouse but my Grandmother was. My religious background is Catholic not protestant but, again, there is a fair amount of similarity. I also shared Dick's desire to become a newer, more manly man. That said, JAC is a fictional character.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men: In care of ...

"This is where I grew up."

There was a lot of promise in that line.  No, it wasn't a great episode like of old but it had its moments and that was the best of the bunch. And did you notice that they changed Don's hat. The brim on his fedora has narrowed just like Frank's did at the end of the 1960s. In fact, that look he gives Sally at the end is pure Sinatra.

Which makes it all the more painful that we had to listen to Joni Mitchell drag us through her second-rate Annie Ross imitation in that lame-ass song about Clouds right afterwards. Of course, to a lot of the people who watch this show, Joni Mitchel is a classic along with Sgt Pepper and a lot of other pretentious crap.

But before going on, I'm going to take a victory lap because you can read a lot of high-priced commentary out there but I got it better than anyone. No, we don't knowwith absolute certainty that Don and Megan are finished yet although it sure looks like it. Barring next season starting with Don stepping out of the shower and Megan telling him she dreamed it all, we have lots of reason to be hopeful. No matter what happens, we can be certain it's not going to be like before.

Can Don make it on his own? Well, we know he cam, he did it before. Besides, he doesn't really need to because he's rich.

And it could be so awful. We got a lot of Freudian crap this year and we could get an awful lot more of it next year. And I don't think we should be in any hurry to forgive them for putting us through this stuff. But there is a hope here and it is that they went with the Don Draper mythology in the end.

I don't mean mythology in the sense of being untrue. Quite the opposite in this case. He is telling the truth. No, the point is, as I have been saying over and over again every year (and especially this year), he is the centre of this show. Take him away and it's worse than boring. Take him away and it's stupid and pointless ... and boring as hell. His story, the story of how a modern, hopeful America grew out of the depression and then was lost in the late 1960s to all the Woodstock bullshit is the story people need to learn right now.

They'll never be allowed to tell it completely honestly just yet but this has promise.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mad Men season six final episode: predictions

My main predictions are that no one dies and Don and Megan split up.

The reason is that she has become a child and that bores him. Don needs a woman who challenges him and not a woman who needs him to launch her fantasy-princess career, as she had become by the end of last season.

Caveat: I'll cheerfully admit that I identify with Don Draper (and Bob Benson for that matter) and that tends to colour how I see things. Like most people, my prediction is also my hope. To my mind, Megan ceased to be worthy of the man by the end of last season and that is what i see driving his discontent so that is how I would write it. I hate the whole Freudian aspect that Matt Weiner has put such heavy emphasis on this year and suspect that is what has ruined the show.

Still, I can't give up hope. Dump Megan! You can do it Don.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A little do-it-yourself image analysis

If you go to this link, you will land on a collection of photos that are entries in a National Geographic contest. The first photo in the list is labelled, "a couple paddle out for a sunset surf in the coastal surfing town of Byron Bay". Both are backlit by the setting sun so all you see are silhouettes. You might say they are reduced to essentials.

Now look at the man and look at the woman, you can tell that they are man and woman, and ask yourself, "What messages does this image convey about these two people respectively speaking?"

Take your time. Not that you'll need it. There is a message her body conveys that his doesn't. It's not that his body is incapable of conveying this message but rather that hers will always convey this message whereas his will only do so under highly specific conditions.

Here is a musical clue:

Play it loud. The more noise, the easier it is to understand. There is no avoiding this, it's a basic fact of life.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Why women judge "sluts" negatively

There are lots of studies out there on the number of sex partners people have in a lifetime. If you look at the serious ones only (and you have to be careful because there are a lot of studies that are obviously completely bogus) you will find that median of what women typically report is four sex partners in a lifetime and of what men typically report is seven.

So where are men finding the three extra partners that women don't report? Now, it is possible that those numbers are honest even though they don't line up but it is highly unlikely. Other studies have been done in which men and women are asked a series of questions, including one about number of sex partners twice, the difference being that they are told they are hooked up to a lie detector for the second round. These studies have found that everyone lies but women lie by a greater margin than men. A pretty reliable guess is that most people have between five to seven partners in a lifetime.

Which brings me to my main point: even though we had a heavily advertised sexual revolution roughly forty years ago, things just haven't changed that much. Your mom and dad and your grandmother and grandfather probably had sex before marriage and they probably had more than one partner in their lifetime. Yes, they probably had fewer partners than is common now but that is most likely a function of the fact that people used to marry a lot earlier than they do now.

Things haven't changed that much! Go write that 100 times on the blackboard Bart Simpson.

Which brings me to this telling quote from Amanda Hess.
And as UCLA sociologist Jessica Carbino recently told Ann Friedman at The Cut, “men and women both agree that men should actively pursue female partners and that women should be passive recipients to their advances,” and that “when women do not adhere to these scripts they are viewed negatively.”  
The key phrase here is "men and women both agree". Both Hess and the woman she is quoting, Ann Friedman, clearly think that men and women should not agree to this. And it's important to keep that in mind as we move on to this next line from Ann Friedman:
We all get that the rules of traditional courtship — in which men make every single advance and women demur or acquiesce — are dead, but we haven’t replaced them with a new standard operating procedure.  
Because that is a lie. The problem is that all attempts to replace the rules of traditional courtship have failed and Friedman's own piece makes this point. The title to her magazine piece is "When Women Pursue Sex, Even Men Don't Get It."

There is an odd double argument here that is typical of progressives: on the one hand, they claim that world has changed and that the old ways are no longer valid while, on the other hand, the bemoan the fact that the world has not changed. The problem is human nature. It doesn't change so the old ways remain valid. Perhaps they can be improved, but they can't be replaced. Progressives try to ignore human nature, or pretend that it is infinitely malleable, thus they end up at this impasse over and over again.

What does it have to do with "slut-shaming"? Well, let's go back to that teaser quote I gave you yesterday:
 The study found that women—even women who were more promiscuous themselves—rated the Joan with 20 partners as less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant than the Joan who’d only boasted two.
Courtship is all about getting to sex under conditions that you want and when we study that the issue is competence. It's a skill. If you are man, you have to engage a woman and develop a relationship without making your pursuit of sex so blunt that it turns her off. But you have to be careful not to overdo it for if you are too indirect she'll file you under "just friends" and you don't want that. A woman, likewise, has serious challenges. She uses sex to entice men (look at how women dress before you even think about challenging this)  but she wants to play her cards, especially the one that treats sex as an actual possibility, close to her chest. If she is direct about her desire for sex, then she will be filed under "just for sex" and she doesn't want that. That's what human nature looks like.

Now go back to the assessment of Joan above and you can see that the real reason women don't rate her highly is perceived lack of competence. All the things listed are valuable personal relationship skills (competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant). Women don't want to be close to sluts not because they judge them as tainted but because they think they are losers and we all prefer to associate with winners so that we can learn to be like them. Thus even women who are promiscuous themselves would prefer to associate with non-promiscuous Joan.

And men, as boringly conventional as this may seem, admire men who seem to be successful at talking women into bed because that is a competence they want for themselves. And they want it even if they don't want to have a lot of sex partners themselves, which is the case for most men. (Hooper in Brideshead Revisited wants to see action in battle but not a lot, "only enough to say I've been in it" One hell of a lot of men feel that way about seducing women; the desire to feel competent, of knowing that you can do it, is more important than having a whole lot of partners.)

But that leaves a key question unanswered: Are women right to think more promiscuous women are less competent at work, life and love? My experience is that, yes, they are right. I can't prove that although I suspect that if researchers looked for such evidence in an open-minded way, they would find lots of it. (My experience has also been that amount of sex experience has nothing at all to do with how good a woman is at it. Any virgin could figure out in the first few months of her first sexual experience anything and everything that the woman with twenty partners knows. And the odds are that "Joan" probably isn't very good at connecting with another human being, the principal evidence for this being that she has gone through twenty different partners without settling down into a meaningful, loving relationship by her early twenties.)

For now I'll just note that there are one hell of a lot of articles out there by women who went to New York or some other big city looking to live the Sex-and-the-City lifestyle and then get married who are finding themselves single and wondering why.

The rest of this series:
Wednesday: The truth about slut-shaming
Thursday: Why women sit around talking about the real or alleged promiscuity of other women

Caveats and other bullets:

  •  The numbers four and seven will seem low to you if you read a lot of breathless pieces about our hook-up culture. That's the impact of media who have to have something sensationalist to report and, therefore, create the impression that everyone is doing it.
  • As I hinted in an earlier post, choosing the number twenty for promiscuous Joan strikes me as a bit much. With statistics suggesting that most women report just four sexual partners over an entire lifetime, Joan having twenty by her early twenties is way off the scale. As is the case with most things, there are degrees of sluttiness. (and this remains true even if most women are lying about having had only four.)
  • If the previous bullet hurts your feelings, I don't care. Go find someone else to complain to.
  • Related to the above point, notice the interesting verbal fudging in this report on the study from Science Omega: "Even when the female participants themselves reported a high number of sexual partners or liberal views on casual sex, the preference they expressed for less permissive friends was constant." It's one thing to say you have "liberal views" on casual sex and another to see a woman who has been logging as many partners per year as most women claim in an entire lifetime.
  • I think that there is a period in many women's lives when they will befriend a slut. You might call it the Samantha Jones phenomenon. When you're in an experimental phase, it's helpful to have a buddy who goes just a little too far to contrast with your own behaviour. (By the way, if you're a guy and your girlfriend or wife suddenly befriends a slut, look out, she's about to start cheating on you.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Women sit around and discuss the sluttiness of other women

They do! Everybody knows this but it doesn't fit the feminist narrative in any way shape or form. Why not? Because any feminist narrative at all has to be based on an assumption of solidarity among women or, at least, the possibility of solidarity among women. That cannot be the case if women have a propensity to undermine other women for not living up to complicated social norms regarding sexual behaviour and sexual presentation.

And that is why the study I discussed yesterday is so dangerous to the feminist cause; for it shows us a deep-seated psychological tendency in women. Thus the rather desperate tu quoque response from Amanda Hess in Slate's XX blog.
Slutty Joan is just another statistic tossed onto the mounting pile of evidence of girl on girl crime, in which sexism is inflicted on women by other women. But lately, the public fascination with female infighting has threatened to let men—and really, the society we all live in—off the hook for hating on ladies who get around.
Only if we keep the focus on men as the source of the problem can there be feminist solidarity and, thus, any evidence that women do this as much or, in this case, more than men do will cause panic.

"Joan", by the way, was the name assigned to the woman whom women participating in the study were asked to evaluate. They were given near identical profiles of "Joan", the significant difference is that in one profile she'd had more than twenty sex partners while she'd had only two in the other. The details of the different responses are interesting but I am saving that for a little later. The key thing to note here is how determined Amanda Hess is to keep the blame on men and not women.

The American Association of University Women is equally determined:
But lost in the overwhelming amount of discussion surrounding these incidents is the fact that this is not a women-hating-on-women problem; the problem is that our entire culture hates on women. It is not that women are catty and men are not. It’s that culture teaches us women should be a certain way, and any woman who dares fall outside those guidelines is fair game. 
The problem here, as I suggest at the very top is  that everyone knows that these issues play out differently among men and women. Don't believe me that everyone already knows this? Well, take a close look at how Amanda Hess parses the issue:
That finding could be interpreted as evidence that men engage in social policing of sexual behavior less than women do. But it’s really just that they’re saving their judgment for women like Joan instead of for each other.
Hess grasps the problem fully and gives it a name: social policing. Then she tries to diffuse it with a tu quoque about men. The problem is that she is describing two different behaviours. For "social policing" means collectively judging people and that is not the same as individually judging "Joan"; sitting around talking about people, which is what women tend to do, and individually judging them, which is what Hess describes men as doing, are very different activities. I'm not saying that one is better than the other but there is no denying that social policing will have broader social implications, that being the whole point of social policing in the first place.

Men are, of course, aware, often painfully so, of the fact that others judge them and of how they judge the women they are with. I knew a guy back in university who could never introduce the women he had relationships with to his friends because of the way he imagined they might judge her This, not incidentally, gave all the rest of us a powerful hint about how he judged our girlfriends but, and this is the important thing, it was a hint because we didn't sit around discussing these things. The importance difference is that men don't spend nearly as much time sitting around evaluating men or women as women do. Look up a typical male site on celebrity women and you will find something like Esquire's Women We Love, a site that singles out exceptionally attractive women. Do the same with women's sites and you will land on something like Go Fug Yourself, a site that spends most of its time mocking women for making bad clothing choices.

Of course, as I have been claiming all along, this is no surprise to anyone.  This is what women do, which is not to say that all women do it or that no men do but that this is a much more common trait amongst women than amongst men. Because it is.

Why? Any answer is going to be circular. The simple answer is that women and girls sit around socially establishing norms of behaviour because they have a deep need to know what the social norms of behaviour are. That's circular because it is the discussions that create the social norms in the first place.

You can see this most obviously with clothing. Right now we are just reaching what I suspect is the end of the fashion for skin-tight leggings. A woman can wear these right now and receive no criticism for doing so. If, however, a woman had appeared wearing such leggings in 2004, she would have been dismissed as a total exhibitionist slut for doing so. On the other hand, having your thong show above the waist of your low-waited pants was perfectly acceptable in 2004 and would be regarded as cheap and slutty now.

And you can see the next stage coming in that the most fashionable women are leaving leggings behind and moving to a softer, more-romantic look. The woman who still wears leggings a couple of years from now will be seen as desperate for attention. That is how "social policing" works. It requires a constantly shifting set of criteria because the social clique needs this to maintain its power. If, as the case with men, styles of fashion remained roughly the same year after year (despite a lot of effort on the part of the fashion industry to change this), then the cliques of women who do the social policing would lose all power.

It's interesting in this regard that the people doing the study chose to give promiscuous "Joan" twenty notches on her bedpost. To me, that suggests that standards of promiscuity have changed over the years because the researchers obviously felt they needed to go quite high*.

I'll end with a teaser for tomorrow. You might think that the problem with promiscuous "Joan" in the eyes of other women was that she was cheap or easy. You'd be wrong. Women saw her as lacking in "virtue" in the Aristotelian sense,
The study found that women—even women who were more promiscuous themselves—rated the Joan with 20 partners as less competent, emotionally stable, warm, and dominant than the Joan who’d only boasted two.
Those are competencies of various sorts rather that what you might guess the case against "sluttiness", however defined, might be. And that is interesting because it might just line up with mens' attitudes. For men don't hate sluts, however much Amanda Hess wants to insist they do. They just don't want to be ion love with one.
The Cornell study itself didn’t rate male attitudes about promiscuous women (or vice versa), but as lead author Zhana Vrangalova told Science, that’s partly because “study after study has found that sexually permissive women are discriminated against by potential romantic partners.”
I started off talking about different standards of rationality and how behaviours that can seem irrational can, if we do a little detective work, turn out to be supremely rational. That is what I am going to suggest is the case with women's harsh assessment of promiscuous Joan in tomorrow's post.

The rest of this series:
Wednesday: The truth about slut-shaming.
Friday: Why women judge "sluts" negatively.

* To a point that is getting a little ridiculous.  If someone becomes sexually active between the ages of 16 and 20, to get to more than twenty partners by your early twenties is quite a pace. Most reliable statistics indicate that the vast majority of people will have fewer than ten sex partners in their entire lifetimes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"... that which is helpful to view as disease"

Glen Reynolds and Ann Althouse both catch nanny-staters abusing the notion of unhealthiness as an excuse to manipulate others. First, Reynolds' catch:
BLOOMBERG NEWS, UNSURPRISINGLY, WANTS MORE “PUBLIC HEALTH” RESEARCH ON GUNS. They call the ban on funding such research “senseless.”

The problem is, that research has been politicized junk science if not actually fraudulent. Here’s a lengthy discussion by Don Kates, and here’s a shorter one from Reason.

Meanwhile, my suggestion to the “public health” community is to focus on actual diseases, rather than politically-disapproved behaviors.
Not much more to say except that he's right.

And here is Althouse on another issue being handled the same way:
 "The American Medical Association has officially recognized obesity as a disease a move that could induce physicians to pay more attention to the condition and spur more insurers to pay for treatments."

The question whether something is a disease is really beside the point, unless you define "disease" to mean: that which is helpful to view as disease.

This reminds me of those plastic surgeons who say that small breasts are a "deformity." 
The question that Althouse leaves unasked is to whom is it helpful to define obesity and, I would add, gun ownership, as being something like a disease threatening public health.  The answer is the same in both cases: college-educated white liberals who hate middle-American culture and wish it could be manipulated into a different form such that these people would then behave in ways college-educated liberals would find more congenial.

This isn't being done as a conscious conspiracy. It's just that everything rich white liberals hate looks like a disease to them. This is, in fact, exactly the way college-educated white liberals treated racial minorities and women in the past. Now that those groups are officially off limits, white middle-American culture is the only one left for them to indulge their manipulative instincts on.

The truth about slut shaming

One of the worst things you can do in the modern world is to come up with a study that runs against the narrative. For example, hundreds of thousands of women took to the street in "slutwalks" a few years ago now so that must be because "slut-shaming" is something men do to oppress women. Right?

Well, no, of course not and anyone who has gone to high school should know that slut-shaming is primarily something women do to other women. But women can't be the problem. Men have to be the problem. (You will, of course, meet men who will condemn this or that woman for being "a slut" but it's almost always because they have some personal grievance, however fantastic, against her. It's primarily women who will sit around in a group talking about "what a slut Shelley is," even though they have no other reason to dislike her.)

Anyway, the study established that women don't want to be friends with promiscuous women. (Promiscuous defined here as having had twenty or more partners by your early twenties, which strikes me as a pretty good definition, although I would have said ten myself.) I don't think anyone who isn't completely absorbed in the feminist narrative will be surprised at that.

What might strike a few people as counter-intuitive is this:
Head researcher Zhana Vrangalova says: "What surprised us in this study is how unaccepting promiscuous women were of other promiscuous women when it came to friendships – these are the very people one would think they could turn to for support."
The theory the researchers came up with was that women worried the social stigma of the promiscuity woman would rub off on them if they befriended her. That's probably not completely crazy but I suspect it misses something more profound.

Before we get to that, however, let's turn to men and see how they respond to promiscuous men.
Men's views, on the other hand, are less uniform – favoring the sexually permissive potential friend, the non-permissive one or showing no preference for either when asked to rate them on 10 different friendship attributes.
This is one of the reasons that men tend to think of themselves and other men as "rational", we tend to pride ourselves on judging each case based on the particular facts we think apply in that case.  In fact, you could just as easily argue that have a general policy towards everyone else, as women tend to do with regards to promiscuity, is equally rational. Either way what makes a behaviour rational is that it is consistent and can be explained in terms of some reason or reasons. Although the person doesn't have to have that reason in mind when they make the decision to be rational. The rationality behind actions (even our own actions) is often something we have to dig out.

What I find most significant, and no one else seems to have noticed this. is that promiscuous men respond to other promiscuous men in a similar way to that which promiscuous women respond to other promiscuous women. Which is to say, they didn't want to be friends with them. Unlike the case for promiscuous women, however, the researchers provided a reason why the men might feel that way,
Promiscuous men favored less sexually experienced men, however, if they viewed other promiscuous men as potentially interested in stealing their girlfriends.
Why wouldn't women act this way for the same reason? What are we to make of that? Is it crazy to think that women, especially promiscuous women, might worry about competition from other women? No, I don't think that's the whole explanation but I suspect it's part of it. I do know this: any time you meet a woman who is sometimes intensely jealous of other women, you can be relatively sure that she has "stolen" at least one man from another woman.

But why do I bring this up at all, you ask, if I don't think it's the explanation? I mention it because I think it points at the real reason; it points at the thing that doesn't fit the feminist narrative and that is that most people want a particular kind of relationship. They want:
  1. A relationship based on trust and commitment and that implies monogamy.
  2. And they want a relationship in which the man takes the lead sexually.
I know, I know, according to the feminist narrative they aren't supposed to want these things. But they do!

No, I can't explain it, at least not completely but I think there is lots of evidence that it is that way and I will discuss that the next two days.

The rest of this series:
Tomorrow: Why women sit around talking about the real or alleged promiscuity of other women.
Friday: Why women judge "sluts" negatively

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Quality of Mercy metacommentary

This week it's Seth Stevenson's chance to be slow coming up with the commentary at Slate. This year's batch are a major letdown compared to the crew who did it last year. They are dour, unhappy and decidedly preachy. And they are lazy about getting their work done.

Typical of the shoddy work journalists do. On the other hand, last year's crew were pretty good.

Anyway, let's start with Paul Ford.
Kenny wanting off of Chevy means that Pete sees a way onto the account. He wants to schmooze in Detroit, but is informed that he’ll be working with Bob Benson, whom Pete is convinced made a pass at him.
Pete is "convinced" that Bob made a pass at him?  I think he's pretty sure don't you? I mean everybody watching now thinks that Bob Benson is gay and how the hell would we know that unless he actually had made a pass at Pete?

The other thing we know is that Paul Ford could be Miss Utah if he was just a little bit smarter.

He is gentle on his co-conspirators, however.
Hanna, you pointed out that Bob makes a perfect Nick Carraway, but here his story is exactly Jay Gatsby’s—signing up to see the world on Dan Cody’s yacht, and transforming himself from Gatz to Gatsby by pluck and criminality. 
In other words, Hanna, you got that one completely wrong because you were too busy projecting your  smug moral views on the show to pay attention to what was going on. I mean, how much effort does it take to see a movie that is being heavily promoted everywhere you turn as the thing that explains life. Is Hanna going to start seeing everything next week in terms of Superman?

But Paul then makes it too easy for Hanna to turn around and gently make him look like an idiot by saying the following:
There’s been a lot of this sort of Bob/Pete detente this season. (Anyone have any thoughts as to the title, “The Quality of Mercy”? Is it about Pete and Bob? Is Pete the Shylock of Mad Men?) Don and Ted agreed to collaborate; Don and Sally found some sort of compromise through a closed door. If you can’t love one another you can agree not to hurt one another. 
Do tell me, if you can think of a reason, how Pete could be Shylock? Did he make a deal and is now insisting on driving it through no matter what the cost? Did he ... never mind we all know that Paul Ford wasn't really paying attention the day his Shakespeare prof went over this one.

Hanna, on the other hand, was paying attention, to both the play and the to the politically correct moral lesson she was supposed to draw from it in order to get a good mark.
It comes of course from Portia’s speech in Merchant of Venice in which she tries to convince Shylock that he should not in fact extract his due pound of flesh from her friend Antonio, that the more noble, and, in fact, the more powerful thing to do would be to have mercy. It is a beautiful compassionate Christian speech that can move you in the moment—but it’s also utterly cynical. Portia is playing Shylock for a fool; she and the whole wealthy, spoiled Venetian society that is the 16th-century version of Madison Avenue has treated Shylock with nothing but contempt and made it clear that he is beneath their Christian values. Plus Portia is about to use some clever legal maneuvering to cheat Shylock out of his rightful pound of flesh anyway. Mercy in this case is a power play; it is entirely situational and does not arise naturally from a pure heart. 
Well, Portia is playing Shylock for a fool but that's an easy thing for her to do for Shylock is a fool.  Yes, Shylock and other Jews were horribly treated in Venice and, yes, they couldn't catch a fair deal from Venetian society which considered Jews (even the ones who tried to convert) as beneath their Christian values. And, yes, Portia is motivated to save Antonio in no small part because she wants to marry him and live the rich, comfortable life she feels she is entitled to. And, yes, Antonio's greed has led him to enter a stupid contract that puts his life at risk. But that doesn't change the basic fact that Shylock has conspired to use the law of contract to kill Antonio. Shylock knows full well that Antonio will die when he removes his pound of flesh.
Thus her speech and it's a good one:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
The point here is that mercy costs you nothing. You gain from giving it as well as the person to whom you grant mercy. The point is not, as these people seem so fond of doing, that you draw parallels between the characters of Mad Men or whatever classic happens to pass under your nose this week. Everything you need to know is that quote itself. (Which doesn't mean you have to take it as Gospel. You don't have to go very far in life to find people who will accept your mercy and then turn around and stab you in the back. There are some of them in Shakespeare even.)

Of course, if you did want to be purely utilitarian about it, you might well draw a very cynical lesson about how you can exploit people to your advantage from that. And it's worth recalling what Bert Cooper says to Don by way of encouraging him to show a little mercy to Pete in season one right after Pete's attempt to expose Don backfires.
Don, fire him if you want. But I'd keep an eye on him. One never knows how loyalty is born. 
Bert, of course, understands full well that it is in Don that loyalty is being birthed at this moment and he will later use the demands of that loyalty to his advantage. Pete was like Shylock in the first season and he isn't anymore.Thus, the quality of mercy for mercy is not charity.

Tom and Lorenzo, as usual, do much better at understanding the episode and I won't do much more than refer you to their site so you can read it all. They do, however, begin by talking about what a great episode it was and I'm not at all sure about that. In previous seasons, Matt Weiner have dished out at least or six episodes of this quality every season. This year, they have given us one good and one acceptable episode and a lot of trash. And next week is the big finale.

The big question is why the show has gotten to be this lame. I think it's because they have so brutally undercut Roger and Don who were the heart and soul, respectively, of the show. You can hate them if you want, and I know lots of people do, but there was no denying the efficiency of these men. They were good, very good, at getting things done. That has changed with no good reason.

Imagine a fairytale in which a castle is guarded by two mean and very big ogres. Along comes a skinny little prince who wants to get in. He can't because the two ogres are bigger and stronger than he is. It's a fairytale so we know the little prince will succeed but don't know how. Here's the thing, there isn't a four-year-old child in the land who would be satisfied by a story that would solve the problem by having the big mean ogres suddenly turn into a couple of ineffectual losers with no explanation.

The point is this: even if you think of guys like Roger and Don as dinosaurs who had to be cleared out of the way in order for the new world to be born, you still have to take them seriously as guys whom the clearing away of would be serious, hard work and the show is cheating on that point.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mad Men: The Quality of Mercy

That was a pretty good episode. It wasn't good enough to justify all the painful "setting up" we've had to put up with this season but it was good.

For starters I'll take a victory lap on Rosemary's Baby. While everyone else was running around fantasizing about Sharon Tate, I directed you to Mia Farrow.

It was a bit heavy-handed to have Ted put Don in the place of the baby. And then the episode ends with Peggy calling Don a monster, thereby echoing what Bert Cooper said back in Season 4, and then a shot of Don curled up like a baby on his office couch. Then, and I think this is important, it fades out with the Monkees singing "The Porpoise Song". Why would that be important? Because the Monkees are the fake Beatles and "The Porpoise Song" was a fake psychedelic song written by a couple of old Tin Pan Alley hands. Just as they could make up a girls name and write a convincing love song about her, Gerry Goffin and Carole King could crank out a fake John Lennon druggie song on command (and, not incidentally, do it better than him).

The point is not to carefully study Rosemary's Baby or, God forbid such a thing, the lyrics of "The Porpoise Song" but to recognize that the creators have used these bits of popular culture from the time to launch the premise. (Although I am tempted to go back to the Season 4 launch epiosde and check for clues). Rosemary's Baby perfectly reflected the mood of a public that saw the culture going out of control in 1968, a point nicely reflected by Megan's comment that the movie was "so realistic". Of course it wasn't but it did reflect how people felt.

I like the new twist on the Bob Benson plotline. I think it's meant to tie in with Sally's experience at Miss Porter's school. That is handled accurately, by the way. Private schools gained cachet when The Preppy Handbook was published in 1980 but back in the late 1960s and 1970s, private schools was where parents sent kids they couldn't control or to get them out of the house during messy marital problems or, as often was the case, both. Anyway, I think the point that Weiner* is quietly making is that the elite of that era no longer deserved to be the elite and thus the possibility of people like Don Draper and Bob Benson rising.

Finally, until tomorrow, poor Pete saves Bob, not of mercy but of fear of "people like him" for people like Don and Bob have an antichrist like feel to a genuine insider like Pete.

Off to read the other commentary now.

*Although I could have done without the hunting accident that is clearly meant to make us think of Dick Cheney. Weiner seems to be obsessed with hating Republicans.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What is so scary about data mining? (Updated and bumped)

Update: Data mining is much in the news these days as a result of recent leaks about government collection of metadata. I'm not yet convinced that government agencies such as the National Security Agency in the U.S.A are really the threat that some make them out to be. That said, I think governments should be collecting as little information as possible on citizens and find government abuse of private information to be a more likely and far more dangerous threat than anything private companies are likely to do, provided, that is, that the private companies aren't working in close collusion with government. Nothing, however, is a greater threat to our liberty than bureaucrats using data of various sorts as an excuse to manage our lives more and more.

There is no point in arguing that it isn't scary because lots and lots of people are convinced it is scary. Dan Tynan for example, is either scared himself or convinced that he can scare enough people to attract lots of readers to his scary article about data mining.

First of all, we need to be clear about what data mining isn't. It isn't about a billboard suddenly appearing saying, Catherine spent 45 minutes watching videos at I Feel Myself yesterday. (For those who don't already know, I Feel Myself is a porn site that features amateur videos of women getting personal with themselves that attracts significantly more women than other porn sites.) That would be a legitimate fear but that isn't it.

No data mining is all about collecting all sorts of data about what people purchase and then using that data to frame the way companies present their products and services. In some ways it ought to be reassuring. The company presenting options to you doesn't need to know your name, your address, your sex or anything else to make the connections.

The problem goes the other way. Give a data miner your credit card history for the past two or three days and they can tell whether you are a man or a woman, approximately how old you are, how much education you have and what kind of neighbourhood you live in. And that is kind of intimidating. Suppose Karen goes out and buys a Jane Austen novel, some tea, some fluffy slippers, some knitting supplies and goes home and makes the tea, puts on her fluffy slippers and starts alternatively reading a  few pages and then knitting awhile and she is just loving this when her phone goes and she looks to see a text message saying, "We think you may enjoy visiting I Feel Myself."

And the really scary thing is not if they are wrong. That would just be irritating. The really scary thing is if the pitch is right. It's really scary to think that someone could figure out something that intimate about you just from fluffy slippers!

But should it be?

I'm sure you can decide for yourself but you might want to start your considerations with this question: "Who do I think I'm fooling?" Do you really think that your intimate self is this locked box that no one else can see unless you let them see?

Friday, June 14, 2013

A little heavy culture: beauty, truth and goodness

I was having tea with Eliot Girl the other day and we briefly discussed Brideshead Revisited. She disagrees with my interpretation of the book but has not said what she thinks I get wrong, probably out of a desire to avoid a long argument when she'd rather be enjoying her tea. She did say, however, that she thinks I am projecting my own views onto Brideshead.

I don't doubt that a bit. I think it is one of the marks of a truly great novel, and I think Brideshead is the truly great novel of the twentieth century, is that it inspires you to project your deepest beliefs onto it. That is what great novels do—they are a place for us to exercise our moral imagination. The best ones allow us to return to them again and again, learning a bit more from each visit.

Here is someone else doing just that, projecting things onto the novel, and more power to him. That said, he gets a couple of crucial points wrong and he gets them wrong, I think, because he misunderstands the role of beauty in Brideshead.

Let's start with facts as they are clear. Father Barron, a brilliant man, makes what may seem a small mistake but is actually huge. Here is how he describes the chapel at Brideshead (beginning about 1:25 of the video):
At the centre of it is a chapel that is a riot of Baroque decoration the presence of the Eucharist in the chapel meant nothing to Charles when he first came in, he was an agnostic, but he loved the beauty of the place.
Well, actually, no*. One of the big problems for Charles right from the beginning is that he finds the chapel quite ugly and cheap compared to Brideshead. And one of the big reasons he finds it ugly is that it was done over in an arts and crafts style that came off poorly compared to the Baroque splendour of the rest of the house. Here is how it is described in the novel.
The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts and crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give the peculiar quality of being moulded in Plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pock-marked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies.
The line where Charles attacks the artist responsible for taking a noble material like oak and carving it, "so as to give the peculiar quality of being moulded in Plasticine,"  shows us how much he disdains what he sees.

By the way, note that the last decade of the 19th century is as close to the figures of the novel as the 1970s is to us. To get an idea of how Charles felt, imagine you are visiting a beautiful Victorian home and find that the living room has been done over in 1970s style.

And it doesn't stop there. Everywhere Charles looks at Catholicism he sees drab ugliness. Nowhere is this more the case than in the morality of the Catholics he encounters. Again, Father Barron gets this backwards.
He meets Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain, who is a very devout Catholic, a very morally serious person, and from her he picks up, for the very first time, the moral demand of Catholicism, especially as it pertains to Sebastian's drinking.
Actually, he meets Lady Marchmain and discovers that she is a very manipulative woman. And he meets Bridey and discovers that he is a stiff prig incapable of human connection and Cordelia and discovers that she is a child who prays Novenas for her pet pig. None of these people, despite a whole lot of trying, manage to show Charles the logic behind the moral demand of Catholicism. It is Julia who shows him that in the last third of the novel just as Sebastian shows him the beauty in the first third.

Let's talk Evangelization

Now all this matters because Father Barron has a point to make about Evangelization
The best way to evangelize is to move to the beautiful, then to the good and then to the true.
And he goes on to say that the Catholic church is particularly well placed to do this.
The Catholic church, our genius is that we have embraced the beautiful.
That is well-meaning nonsense from a man who wants to see the good..If only it were true and wouldn't it be nice to think so. Waugh, with his gimlet eye, knew full well that the Catholic church of the 20th century had, in fact, embraced ugliness. She has been responsible for building some of the ugliest churches on the planet. The whole point of evoking the baroque was to recall a past in which the church had been very much invested in beauty.

Waugh also knew that if there was any church that was well placed to evangelize through beauty it was the Anglican church, whose buildings and liturgy were models of restraint and good taste. Waugh's central point was to ask what beauty really is and he found a remnant of it in Catholicism that was so beautiful, so true and so good that it couldn't be trampled by the ugliness of the well-intentioned fools in whose hands the church was left. The light would shine no matter how ugly the actual fixture the light is placed in and no matter how dowdy the people who worship beneath it. A point that is made on the last page of the novel.
"Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been built but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning new among the old stones."
The starting point is not just beauty for lots of things can seem beautiful. Violence is beautiful from certain perspectives.

Beauty, goodness and truth (to put them in the order they are usually presented) play a really important role in Catholic theology. They are the transcendentals; they are the things that we all desire and it is the pursuit of these desires that we can become perfect, "as your Father in heaven is perfect". Ultimately they are a unit (to pursue one is always to pursue the others as well whether we think we intend to or not) but which is the best starting point? What is the best way to draw people into the church?

I think Father Barron is absolutely right that beauty is the place to begin in our age. We live in an ugly age and, as a consequence, we all crave beauty. Despite its many ugly buildings and the appallingly slipshod way the liturgy is presented in many places, the Catholic church is, or could be with a little effort of the right sort, well-placed to evangelize through beauty. But only by turning back and rediscovering the beauties of its past. Father Barron instinctively understands this as all the examples he cites of beauty from within Catholicism are from centuries ago.

Where I think he makes his mistake is with the second move to goodness. In the novel, beauty goes not to goodness but to truth first and that is the way we should go in evangelization. The triumvirate of Lady Marchmain, Bridey and young Cordelia are well chosen for they well-represent the worst traits of modern Catholic moralizing: not a moral but a moralistic approach to life presented through manipulation, smug triumphalism and infantilism.

The last of these is the most dangerous as you can, as an older and wiser Cordelia notes, hate Lady Marchmain. You can also laugh at Bridey but the earnest, seemingly well-meaning but narcissistic morality we see in young Cordelia is much harder to see for the evil it is.

The right way to go is well presented in an old saw: Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. That is to say the law of prayer, then the law of belief and only then the law of living. The three transcendentals are all bound together but we can approach them individually for that very reason. Beauty begins with worship or prayer.

This, by the way, is one of Saint Paul's big points. You can't earn your way into heaven by good conduct. Attempts to become holy by becoming good will always result in evil. Only God's grace can redeem you. And where do you find God's grace? By observing the beauty that surrounds you. Once you become aware of that, you can become aware of the truth about God. The truth of God is not his existence. That's the easy part. Even the most hardened atheist grasps the existence, much as they deny it. They believe he exists and they hate him. The truth of God that is so hard to grasp is that he loves you and he wants you. He wants you more than you want anything. Only once you know that can you work at becoming good because how else could you possible respond to God who loves you so?

* Part of the reason he gets it wrong is clear right from the video itself. As Father Barron is speaking, we see images from Castle Howard. These are the same images used in the TV series and it misrepresents the chapel. The actual chapel that Waugh had in mind was the one at Madresfield Court and it is something else altogether, as you can see at the this site.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Speaking of "unmediated" lives ...

... this post by Ann Althouse is your must read for today:
The destruction of marriage is set to resume as soon as same-sex marriage becomes the law. We've been pretending that the traditional institution is soooo important that it's terrible to exclude gay people. But you can see the anti-traditionalists itching to move forward — ever forward — with the new!
Read the whole thing. Note, as you do, that Althouse makes her argument for marriage in terms of the value that the stay-at-home spouse contributes. That's true enough, but what of the moral consequences of being mediated by your immediate family? (And husband and wife is as immediate as immediate gets.) What happens to a society when you take that out? Even in the best of cases, you can't change just one thing and this is one very, very important thing. It's not crazy to think that this could mean the end of our culture.

To live a mediated life

Reading yesterday's post, the Lemon Girl leaned over to me and said, "What is a mediated life?"

It's a good question and a good answer would probably be a book length project. I'll give you the idealized version. A mediated life is a matter of boxes within boxes. You are a member of your immediate family, your extended family, your church, your community, your profession, your province or state, your country and, ultimately, humanity. Each of these groups defines you and imposes obligations on you. At each stage you have a role that you must play. Some of my roles are: husband, brother, Catholic Christian, writer, homeowner, taxpayer, man. Each of those words carries connotations. Even if you know nothing at all about me, you will legitimately expect that certain moral traits come along with each of those roles.

Okay, that seems obvious. What other alternative is there? (Note that "immediate" as in "immediate family" contains "mediate" within it.)

Well, that's interesting because the idea of an unmediated life has a clear political heritage and, like so many ideas that have swept the modern world, it came out of the French revolution. At one point the revolutionaries effectively banned any corporation that wasn't for making profit. You could incorporate a hardware store but not a chess club. The revolutionaries did this because they feared the power of religious corporations, of local provinces and of fraternal societies. They wanted to reduce everything to the citizen and the state.

There still are people who push such an agenda in our time (so many that you shoukld be able to come up with examples without trying). That said, the principal force for unmediated lives in our time has been, ironically, the drive for individual freedom, especially sexual freedom. The drive to marry, or not marry, and to have sex with whom you would (and not have sex with whom you wouldn't), and under the conditions you would, drives across mediation. Nineteen-year-old Jill is falling in love with twenty-seven-year-old Alistair but Jill's mother dislikes and distrusts Alistair. Jill can see why her mother thinks the way she does and she doesn't think Alistair is good husband material but dating him is fun and she has always wanted to date a guy with a certain kind of English class and charm (and the accent to go with it)  and Alistair has it right down to the ground and, besides, she just wants it. But she doesn't want to upset her mother and she just wishes she wouldn't make such a big thing of this.

Communities, any community, will necessarily impose restrictions on sexual behaviour. Spouses, for starters, usually want considerable say in whom their husband or wife has sex with: i.e. "no one but me". Open marriages don't work but even if you were stupid enough to think they might, you would be inclined to put some limits on these things, i.e. "not my sister". (Read the history of the 1960s musical group The Mamas and the Papas" if you don't believe me*.)

But what limits and how do they work? David Brooks is fundamentally wrong in his diagnosis for some sort of mediated life is inevitable. We prove this thousands of times a day on the schoolyards of the nations. Let the kids out of school and, as a consequence, free them from the mediation of the classroom, and they very quickly form into little groups that each require commitments and loyalties of different kinds.

Everything that Edward Snowden did reflected the expected morality of a nerdy geek. And it's easy to see the morality of an entitled elite at work in Brooks logic.

Which is why Glen Reynolds' (aka Instapundit) reply is so good.
 WHEN WOMEN COMPLAIN ABOUT THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHIVALRY, I’m prone to point out that chivalry was a system, one that imposed obligations of behavior on women and girls as well as on men. Likewise, when David Brooks complains that Edward Snowden is an unmediated man, I must note that in the civil society Brooks invokes, Presidents and other leaders were also mediated; they were not merely checked by Congress, courts, etc., but they were also checked by themselves, and a sense of what was proper that went beyond “how much can I get away with now?” Obama, too, is unmediated in that sense. That Brooks couldn’t see beyond his sharply-creased pants to notice that when it was apparent to keen observers even before the 2008 election is not to his credit. If the system of civil society has failed, it is in no small part because its guardians — notably including Brooks — have also failed.
One fairly standard way to put this is that you don't want to live in a society in which the authority flows up and the responsibility flows down. That is the problem Reynolds describes above. Brooks wants the authority to rest with the elite class that he is a member of but doesn't see that that requires greater responsibility from that class. He looks at Snowden and says, "The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed." He forgets that the founders were far more concerned about the unilateral decisions made by the execcutive branch than of rogue 29 year olds.

And with good reason.

But I leave you with this question for now. As I said above, some sort of mediation is inevitable but what kind is best? I'm not sure I know the answer to that question.

* Sample line from the Wikipedia write up about one of their hits:
"I Saw Her Again" was inspired by Doherty's brief affair with Michelle Phillips, then married to John Phillips, which resulted in the brief expulsion of Michelle.
There is a fascinating bit of very old-fashioned sexism here, by the way, one of the male members of the group has an affair with the wife of another male member so the kick the wife out of the group? The song sets out the sexual attitudes that drive someone towards an unmediated life perfectly:

The blonde woman who pulls up in the E-type Jaguar at the start is Michelle Phillips. John Phillips, her husband, is the first man to appear in the video and the second is Denny Doherty her lover. (Michelle looks so much like my first girlfriend Ellen, so much so it's a little jarring for me. Everything about her is reminiscent her face, her body, the way she moves and the way she dresses is pure Ellen. Not that that matters to anyone but me.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Some interesting links

A guard at Guantanamo converts to Islam:
This is fatalism, not serenity. Holdbrooks, however, raised in our aggressively secular and morally relativistic society, was unable to discern the difference.
 Reasons why pastors have affairs:
That high position of respect and responsibility can elevate a pastor to the point of isolation, Swanson said. Without trusted confidants who can listen to the pastor’s own doubts and burdens — and steer him back in line when he wavers — the megachurch pastor can be susceptible to his own impulses.
That made me think of a local Catholic pastor who developed a gambling problem and no one noticed until he'd run up huge debts.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion going on right now is one prompted by this David Brooks column about Edward Snowden.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments. 

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
 There is a typically thoughtful response from Ann Althouse:
See, that's the kind of thought pattern I suspect is developing out there in the minds of these computer technicians. Look at the contempt, the grandiosity, and the recklessness.

Obama was elected, twice, by the American people. We studied him. We listened to him. He is surrounded by advisers and checked by Congress and the press.

[It's absurd to think] that some self-appointed altruist of the computer-fixated kind is going to save us.
Althouse, tellingly, admitted to supporting Obama because she believed he was lying. She always thought he'd carry on Bush's foreign policy, including an instance when she publicly bet that Guantanamo would not be shu t down as Obama had promised.  That's interesting and I wonder, if this isn't too incorrect a thought, if there isn't something feminine about thinking that way*.

And the most penetrating comment comes from Instapundit (note that no one here defends Snowden) who, correctly, reminds us that the disrespect for institutions didn't come from people like Snowden:
WHEN WOMEN COMPLAIN ABOUT THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHIVALRY, I’m prone to point out that chivalry was a system, one that imposed obligations of behavior on women and girls as well as on men. Likewise, when David Brooks complains that Edward Snowden is an unmediated man, I must note that in the civil society Brooks invokes, Presidents and other leaders were also mediated; they were not merely checked by Congress, courts, etc., but they were also checked by themselves, and a sense of what was proper that went beyond “how much can I get away with now?” Obama, too, is unmediated in that sense. That Brooks couldn’t see beyond his sharply-creased pants to notice that when it was apparent to keen observers even before the 2008 election is not to his credit. If the system of civil society has failed, it is in no small part because its guardians — notably including Brooks — have also failed.
If anything, that understates the problem. The class from which the guardians come from didn't so much fail to make sure that they were mediated as they deliberately set out to become that way. It would be one thing if the campaign to "question authority" had been driven by powerless outsiders but it is something else altogether when the elite of a society start thinking that way.

By which I do not mean that all women do or will think that way, nor do I mean that no men will think that way, just that women are more likely to think that way than men.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Favors metacommentary: Two out of three ain't bad

Okay, I'm going to have to admit that Hana Rosin is a lot sharper than I gave her credit for. My only excuse is that I was fixated on her particular blind spots but the problem with that is that we all have blind spots. Anyway, she really hit a lot of good points this week.

Let's start here:
Seth, I think you omitted one other important reason why Don does the favor for young Mitchell Rosen: his man-crush on Arnold. Given the way Don fixates on Arnold, I often wonder whether he’s sleeping with Sylvia just to become enmeshed with the good surgeon. 
The psychological insight at work here is called mimesis.  In it we form crushes on people not because we desire them but because we desire to be like them. The most obvious example of this is a child for the parent. Mimesis creates a sort of instant tension because the one experiencing it will see the person they imitate both as an object for imitation ("I want to be like you") and rivalry ("I want to replace you").

If that is really what is at work here, and I hope it is because it would give this season some real meat and purpose, then Don is not attracted to Sylvia in her own light but because he wants to be like Arnold Rosen who is married to Sylvia. This, by the way, is a very male thing. If a man you admire is suddenly attracted to a woman you would not normally find beautiful, you can be sure that you too will suddenly find things about her that are beautiful, not because her beauty wasn't always there but because you hadn't really tried looking for it.

In the eyes of some critics, mimesis explains everything about art and culture. That's overstating it but it is a powerful, and usually neglected force in human life.

I'll carry on with the rest of the paragraph I cite above:
Similarly, at their drunken confessional dinner, Peggy accuses Pete of being in love with Ted. Of course, that’s where the episode stopped being subtle. I can’t tell you how irritated I was at the Benson knee press. It’s always such a letdown when a mystery is solved and the answer is … He’s gay, even if Internet rumors have long abounded. How much more satisfying if the answer had been … nothing, as you wished for last week, Paul, and Benson had remained his thoroughly inscrutable shiny self for the whole of the season. Although I suppose we should have guessed it, since the vibe between Bob and Joan was more Elton John and Marilyn Monroe than Don and Sylvia.
Yesss!!!!! (Not incidentally, how much more satisfactory the drama will be if the root causes of Don Draper turn out to be ... nothing.)

As I was saying last time, the really irritating thing about Bob Benson's sexuality is how it's wrapped up in a nice guy motive and it isn't really, you know, sexual. This was the problem with the sexual roles women used to be offered: whore or the female equivalent of Bob Benson as gay man. I think Rosin would have been able to make her point more forcefully if Benson had been a woman for then the fundamental injustice of it all would have jumped out: all the other male characters on the show are allowed to have raw sexual desire and this guy has to be this neatly dressed, super-polite and thoughtful eunuch who just wants love. That is the way wives and mothers used to be portrayed and it is one of the great victories in a show such as Mad Men that female characters are show to be driven by irrational sexual passions just as men have always been. Why not gay men too?

As I hinted yesterday, I think a gay Pete makes much more sense. He acts like a man denying something about himself to himself would do. I knew a gay guy just like him in the 1980s who similarly overcompensated to the point of getting married and having children.

There were some who saw Bob Benson as a Don-like character and that makes sense if we think of the episode wherein the history of Don's relationship with Roger is revealed and how Don ingratiated himself with Roger. But the problem with that is that it's too narrow. To paraphrase Cary Grant: the force driving Mad Men is that everyone wants to be Don Draper, including Don Draper (a point I will return to).

Okay, now I want to trouble you with a thought that may make you uncomfortable. Here is what Rosin has to say about Don encouraging Sally to become a party to his lies:
As for what Don said, it was surely bad parenting—Sally knows what she saw—but there is something profound about asking a child to collude with you in an obvious lie. (Marjorie Williams addressed this question in her beautiful essay about Santa Claus and dying of cancer.) Contrast Don’s decision to lie with Pete’s to bully his way into what he sees as the truth about his mother and Manolo. Pete refuses to see that “it’s complicated,” as Don tells Sally, so he winds up in a cruel place where he robs his mother of her only comfort, fires Manolo, and sneers at Bob Benson. Sometimes we need our lies—something an ad man understands better than anyone.
That's a good, and very, very profound, point. I know, I know, this particular secret seems and odious one but we need our secrets and having secrets requires lying. For it is complicated especially when we bond especially close to someone. That is obviously going to be true of sexual relationships but also of child-parent ones. Think of the difference between the adult who is still capable of loving their father or mother and the one who hates him or her. The secret to loving her is not to be blind to your parents' sins but to be aware of them and grasp that it is complicated and, therefore, to collude with their lies to some extent. It is the adult or teen who really hates their mother or father who wants to drag every last ugly sin out into the daylight.

Hold that thought, and consider this brilliant insight that gets two thirds of the way home:
Lately I’ve begun to think of the show as operating on two very different planes. One is full of fairytale conflict and Jungian archetypes and Biblical-level dramas. This is the plane on which Don and most of the characters from earlier seasons are trapped. The plot twist that led Sally into her worst Freudian nightmare was straight out of a 17th century play: a purloined letter. (In classic French farce characters are always eavesdropping behind doors and screens.) Meanwhile the original spirit of the show—rooted in a particular moment in American history and moving along with the decade—resides with the newer characters.
That's so true. The worst episodes this season have been the ones that explore the supposedly deep psychological roots of Don's behaviour.  (I'll leave aside the biblical issues for a moment.)

Meanwhile, however, there is the "original spirit of the show". Rosin gets this wrong and does so in a way that is typical of her and her generation. But go back to the first season and you will clearly see that the original spirit of the show is indeed a particular moment in history that has been lost. The show is driven by nostalgia for a particular kind of manliness and, although to a lesser extent and less lovingly, for a certain sort of womanliness.

And here we get to the point that separates people. As I said above, even Don Draper isn't Don Draper but he wants to be. There is an entrenched line of criticism that says that is his great moral failure and that he should embrace authenticity instead. But Don Draper is not an unusual creation. A whole generation of men and women left behind their rural and ethnic roots to become something like him. Think just of actors and singers:
Archie Leach became Cary Grant
Doris Kapplehoff became Doris Day
Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis
Ann-Margret Olsson became simply Ann Margret
Anita Belle Colton became Anita O'Day
Dino Paul Crocetti became Dean Martin
Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe
Allen Stuart Konisberg became Woody Allen
I won't go on but I could. Nowadays performers still change their names but most do so to seem more exotic than their given names would suggest. Al those people above changed their names so as to seem less exotic and to conform to a sort of ideal of all-American virtue. And it wasn't just a new name they sought but a new personality to go with that image. Don Draper too didn't want to be a dick anymore.

Final thought for now: in the opening season, Weiner dropped some heavy biblical hints about Don Draper as a sort of Moses character. Now, if we step back to Rosin again. For her, the most important thing about the show is its portrayal of a moment of historical "progress".
Meanwhile the original spirit of the show—rooted in a particular moment in American history and moving along with the decade—resides with the newer characters.
She cares about where the thing is going. But no one would have watched a show that featured only those newer characters and their progress.  The entire appeal of the show for five seasons was in Don, Roger and Joan. At the same time, we all knew they had to get swept off the stage at some point. And thus the nostalgia: something was gained but something was lost when characters like them disappeared from American life. And one way to handle that dramatically would be to have Don Draper be a sort of Moses character who leads us to the promised land but cannot enter into it because of his own sins.

Unlike Rosin, I miss characters like Don and Roger and think a lot of our current cultural problems would be solved if men were encouraged to adopt characters like theirs again. And I'd have put Bob Benson in with them until he became the rather sad character he became last Sunday night. The central lesson of the show, as I've said many times before, is that who and what you are trying to become is more important than being or trying to be the person you "really are".