Monday, October 28, 2013

Scott Adams' enlightenment

There are few human ventures that failed quite like the Enlightenment failed. This should be self-evident but apparently isn't. Thus we have a sort of neo-Enlightenment going in our time right now featuring such figures as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Scott Adams.

Before going on, a bit of necessary background. One fascinating thing about Enlightenment thinking is that it is just rife with mythology. You've almost certainly been exposed to some of these. The myth that the Medieval world believed that the world was flat, for example.

One of the most important bits of the Enlightenment mythology, probably the central belief of the Enlightenment faith, is that before the Enlightenment human beings imagined that they were the centre of the universe. The belief goes that people used to imagine that they lived in a cozy little universe that had been designed by God just for them. As comforting as this belief may have been, the story continues, it stood in the way of science. Then brave scientists willing to discard this warm and comforting illusion came along. By seeing the universe as a collection of impersonal events, these scientists brought about a revolution in human life that made everything better for everyone.

The claimed gains aren't just scientific but also moral. Freed from superstition, the Enlightenment also claimed that human beings were able to approach moral issues in a calm, rational way and work out rules that were better suited to our real needs and wants. This is where the self-evident failure aspect ought to come in.

Anyway, Scott Adams has trotted the Enlightenment mythology out in a piece called "Does God Have a Personality?" Go read the whole thing if you are so inclined.


The thing I hope you noticed is that Adams spends more time proving that you don't have a personality than he does on God's. He wants you to believe that everything you think of as distinctively you—your strengths, weaknesses, your hard-won achievements, your most troubling failures—is really just a series of mistakes.
The problem with the idea that God has a human-like personality is that human personalities are nothing but weaknesses and defects that we romanticize. For example, I might be kind to others because I want them to be nice to me, or perhaps I simply feel guilty when I'm not nice. God wouldn't have feelings of guilt and he wouldn't need a strategy just to be loved. He would have everything he needed all the time. Logically, God couldn't have a personality in the sense that humans do because our personalities are expressions of our defects and our DNA and our neediness.

For example, if you're ambitious, that's a romantic way of saying you're afraid of failure, or you're greedy, or you want to impress someone. God would not need any of that. Pick any human personality trait and it is either trivial or it is based on some sort of human limitation.

Even your sense of humor is based on a brain limitation. As a professional humorist, I make my living by writing thoughts that the normal human brain can't process without a hiccup that triggers a laugh response. God wouldn't have a sense of humor because he always knows how the joke ends, and no idea gives him a hiccup when processing a thought.

You can pick any personality trait and find the human defect that is behind it. Are you a highly social person? It probably means you have a fear of being alone, or you're so needy that you have to have the approval of others to feel right. 
I could go on but I won't. I leave you with this: Notice how Adams starts off trying to diminish God from having being to being merely a collection of physical laws but ends up diminishing human life. Does anything about that strike you as morally improving? The challenge for Enlightenment morality is usually described as being a matter of figuring out how we can be good without God. But that only brushes the surface. The real problem is not figuring out whether we can be good but figuring out why we would bother even trying.

PS: Notice how narcissistic Adams understanding of humour is? He understands it as being the thing that makes you laugh at his jokes.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Another image: What is it selling?

Unclear expression is sometimes the product of poor execution. Most of the time, though, the problem is that the thinking behind the execution is confused. Again, sometimes, all we need to do is revisit our thinking and straighten out the concept. Other times, and these other times happen humiliatingly often, we revisit your thinking and discover that the reason it is confused is because we were intellectually dishonest or morally lazy in the way we approached the issue in the first place. That is what went wrong with the ad campaign above.

This is the most recent in a series of ads that have appeared on local buses. This one was strategically placed on one of the buses that serves one of the four universities here in town. It's dishonest in the way that most anti-rape campaigns are in that it assumes the problem is men in general (one of the lines accompanying the image is, "Don't be that guy"), as opposed to specifically rapists, but it has other problems as well.

We can get at the deeper problems if we ask ourselves what difference does it make that she is wasted? What is going on in the picture is obviously assault and would still be assault even if she were sober. In fact, the very same picture could be used more credibly (although no more effectively) for a campaign against violent rape. Drunk or sober, the woman is clearly unhappy and unwilling.

And the guys ... well, there are two of them for starters. And they are using force.

Here is the other slogan that goes with the ad:

Sex with someone unable to consent = sexual assault

And that's the problem right there. If you were unclear about what it means for someone to be unable to consent before seeing that ad, you wouldn't be any better off after seeing it. That image tells you that aggressive predators find it easier to overpower a woman when she is drunk, which is true enough, but it tells you nothing about why being drunk might render her unable to consent.

The point would be clearer if the woman was passed out and a guy was moving in on her clearly intent on doing something sexual. I'm not sure how you could make that clear in an image and that is a big part of the problem here: an image is simply not a good choice for conveying a message about consent. To use words instead of an image might have helped in that it would also have forced the people behind the ad to think the concept through more carefully. (You would think, by the way, that the limitations of using an image in a campaign like this would be obvious to the people who tell us over and over again that men should explicitly ask women for verbal consent because her behaviour or dress cannot be taken as consent.)

But, again, the case of a passed out person wouldn't help us understand why consent would be an issue because a passed out person too obviously does not consent—a passed out person cannot act or speak. The message that needs to be put across is that there are some times when we should refrain from having sex even though the person we are interested in having sex with says things and acts in ways that normally could be taken as consent.

Let me take you back seventy three years to the movie The Philadelphia Story to see how they handled the issue. Tracy Lord was very drunk the night before and she is worried that she may have done something sexual and the dialogue below ensued. It was a less-enlightened age in  many ways and we see this in the way the movie treats the issue as a matter potentially to the woman's shame rather than as a potential crime on the man's part. But it is also is more enlightened in that it is willing to confront the possibility that people might agree to things drunk that they would not agree to sober.
Mike: Mr Kittredge, it may interest you to know that our so-called affair consisted of exactly two kisses and one rather late swim both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and the memory of which I wouldn't part with for anything. After which I returned here, carried her to her room, deposited her on her bed and promptly returned here which you will no doubt remember.
George Kittredge: That's all?
Mike: That's all.
Tracy: Why? Was I so cold? So forbidding?
Mike: Not at all. On the contrary but you were somewhat the worse or the better for the wine and there are rules about such things.
There are rules about such things. Well, there should be. One of the things that the writers seventy-three years ago recognized, and that we are less willing to face today, is that moral sexual behaviour requires us to recognize that we sometimes do not and cannot know what the other person really does or really does not want. And that means deliberately erring in the direction of caution; which is to say sometimes deciding not to have sex "just in case". This, by the way, is a pretty normal and unexceptional event for a man in an established relationship, a point I will return to.

Thirty years ago, the head of the women's centre on my campus told me that men are often put in a difficult position because they will be mocked by women for failing to be aggressive enough. I've never been mocked but a few women I knew in university made a point of telling me after the fact that they were disappointed that I held back from sex. The problem here is a sort of moral narcissism that tends to take hold of people when we are horny: the other person stops being an independent being with their own hopes and fears and becomes merely a bit player in our sexual adventure. For these women, I was supposed to play a certain role in the adventure as they imagined it playing out and they simply forgot that I might be full of doubts.

BUT!!!! it is essential to recognize that there is a huge difference between male and female experience here. A man faces the possibility that he might miss out on sex. Worst case scenario for a man is that he gets mocked by a woman for failing to act. For a woman in such a situation, she sometimes ends up having sex she didn't want to have! That's a deeply intimate and invasive experience.

But this is also an area where, if you'll pardon the expression, the lines are little blurred. A woman seeking experience might intentionally set out to get a little drunk to lower her inhibitions so that she will be able to have sex; "might" is understating the case as thousands in fact do every weekend. At the same time, there is a point of drunkenness where her judgment is so unbalanced that it would be wrong to have sex with her even if she clearly and unequivocally asked you to.

That's where the moral laziness comes in. The people behind campaigns of this sort are unwilling to confront certain basic facts about the college experience. These facts are not a secret and many writers are quite comfortable with them when they aren't talking about sexual assault. Consider for example, the attitude taken by Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic in an article about women who have their pubic hair waxed off:
Herbenick and Fitzpatrick both believe one demographic group has embraced the hairless-cat look more fervently than others: college students.

In theory, this should come as no surprise; The average U.S. state university actually has all the right features to act as a veritable incubator for anti-pube sentiments. Where else do youth, skimpy clothing, rampantly available pornography, and non-monogamous sexual habits all converge so gloriously? 
"Gloriously" is a telling word choice wouldn't you say?

Let's read a bit further:
And among women, Herbenick says, pubic grooming habits and preferences tend to spread among friend groups -- which leads to "clumps," she says, of women with similar grooming regimens. "Friends talk," she says. "So especially among teenagers and college students, when everyone is trying to be the same, 'the same' is what you get."

Herbenick recalls one encounter in which a popular, well-liked college student in a class she taught openly professed that he had never hooked up with a girl who had pubic hair, and would frankly be disgusted to undress a woman and discover a veil of genital fur.

"Some girls talked to me and wrote in their papers that they had always had pubic hair, and in a couple cases never did anything to their pubic hair," she said. "They never thought it was a problem. But when he said that, they went home and changed it. They really started to feel ashamed about their bodies."

Fitzpatrick, similarly, finds himself in a collegiate scene full of young women far too obsessed with the hair down there. "It becomes a compulsion," he says.
Hmm, many teenagers and college students are "trying to be the same". We used to call that peer pressure and introducing it into the equation changes things. For if we are willing to allow that thousands of women are going through the excruciatingly painful experience of having their pubic hair torn out by the roots because of pressure from men and other women, we should also ask what sort of pressure are they under to have sex?

The issue is further complicated by the pressure to have hook ups. For an established couple, nothing sexual has to happen "right now". They'll still be a couple tomorrow if either of them decides the signals they are receiving from the other are too ambiguous to act on. But someone who is under peer pressure to have sexual experiences outside of a relationship is operating under completely different conditions. If it doesn't happen with this person tonight, it's probably never going to happen with this person.

I should admit that hook up sex has low appeal for me. I did it many years ago now and repeated the experience several times even though I was deeply disappointed with the sex every time I did. That sort of sex, when it did happen, was a pale shadow of the sort of sex I have had in serious relationships and now in marriage. But I remember feeling compelled to do it once upon a time. Part of the feeling was raging hormones and part of was loneliness and part of it was the feeling that I wouldn't be a complete human being if I didn't have this sort of experience under my belt. For men and women in university, peer pressure amps this feeling up to levels where it is very difficult to resist.

Is it difficult to imagine a young woman with mixed feelings about sex also feeling like this is something she is compelled to do to get the respect of other women she knows? Is it difficult to imagine her going to a party to "see what happens" and deliberately having several drinks to lower her inhibitions? Is it difficult to imagine her willingly consenting to sex while drunk and then deeply regretting this sex the next day? I don't have to imagine it, most of the women I knew at university reported something like this happening to them at least once.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of young people flood university campuses determined to get not only an education but also the life experience that comes from living away from their parents for an extended period for the first time in their lives. Most of them enter university with little, and sometimes no, experience with sex or alcohol. And they are subjected to immense peer pressures to have sex while at university. Is that glorious?

For many, it's going to be a recipe for disaster. They are going to make choices and consent to things they are going to regret and regret deeply. Oftentimes, alcohol is going to play a part. Most students will experience this regret to some extent. A significant minority are going to regret a lot. A much smaller number are going to suffer something far worse:
... I focused on a danger that overwhelmingly affects women: rape. Because of the strong evidence that intoxication and sexual assault are linked and that a kind of predator seeks out intoxicated women, I concentrated on informing young women that avoiding incapacitation could help them stay safe. But there was extreme offense taken to the idea that women should change their behavior in any way to protect themselves. One college professor summed it up when she wrote to me, “to reiterate the old Puritan line that women need to restrain and modify their pleasure-seeking behaviors is a big step backward.” Apparently I was mistaken that it is common sense to acknowledge that part of growing up for all is recognizing dangers and learning to restrain one’s pleasure-seeking behaviors in order to better avoid them. 
That's Emily Yoffe of Slate responding to critics who thought her suggesting that women entering colleges might learn to control their drinking for their own safety. Yoffe, unlike the creators of the ad at the top of this post, is willing to honestly confront the issues involved. For example, she writes "a kind of predator seeks out intoxicated women". "Predator" is a good word choice for that is what rapists are. They are angry, anti-social men who are extremely unlikely to be influenced by ads like the above. The overwhelming majority of men are not, and never will be, that sort of predator so ads aimed at men in general will never have any impact on the incidence of sexual assault on university campuses.

Of course, that is assuming the creators of these ads had any such intention in the first place, which I doubt.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A little light culture: "But sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime"

Nothing topical about this one; the subject just jumped into my head because the song "Careless Whisper" was playing at the store when I went to buy a dehumidifier yesterday.  So I'm looking at a couple of songs by George Michael that date from a period when he was hiding some secrets. Both feature videos that aimed at giving very specific meanings to the words of the songs that accompany them.

You may say, "So what?"  Well, here's what: non-specificity is key to the success of most pop songs. It helps if the listener can imagine it applying to them. If the song is too specifically tied to the singer's love affair then millions of girls can't apply it to their real or imagined love affairs. And neither of these songs had any specific meaning until the video stamped it with one, meaning that it was a conscious decision to do so. It's not hard to figure out why: George was on the defensive about both songs on moral grounds. The thing is, it turned out that he had other things to be defensive about.

Here is the first tune. The video tries very hard (and fails miserably) to make you think the song is about heterosexual monogamy. I was in graduate school when it came out. It was on an album called Faith that was instantly infamous for it's creepiness. (Not, surprising as this may seem, because of this song.)

It was a pretty big hit at the time; mostly as a succès de scandale as you could hardly call it a great, or even a good, song.

It's interesting now because the lyrics have acquired a different feeling since it came out.

Consider, for example, these lines:
I've waited so long baby
Now that we're friends
Every man's got his patience
And here's where mine ends.
Kinda date-rapey, don't ya think? It didn't bother anybody in 1987 and, come to think of it, I haven't heard anybody complain since. If Robin Thicke (NSFW video at link) put a line like that in his song he would be publicly castrated.

The other lines that feel a little uncomfortable now are these ones:
There's things that you guess
And things that you know
There's boys you can trust
And girls that you don't
There's little things you hide
And little things that you show
Who are these boys and what secrets do you trust them with? And the problem with the girls is, strikingly, not that you "can't" trust them but that you "don't" trust them. Why not? Cause there were things that George was hiding at the time about how he felt about boys and girls. Like the fact that he liked visiting public washrooms and having anonymous sex with men he met there. Eleven years after the video above was made, featuring George's girlfriend from the time, he was arrested for gross indecency in a public washroom.

A year after that, George was out of the closet.

He claimed in retrospect that he previously had told his close friends that he was bisexual. That may even be true but it is also one of those things you can't really check up on. He also didn't say whether he included his girlfriends and female casual sex partners in the circle of close friends. OTOH, given the above, he seems to to have been peppering his lyrics with obscure references to ... something.

He also said this:
I used to sleep with women quite a lot in the Wham! days but never felt it could develop into a relationship because I knew that, emotionally, I was a gay man. I didn't want to commit to them but I was attracted to them.
Emotionally, he was a gay man!

That's interesting. Why? Because you would guess that when gay men think about being unable to bond with women they have known, emotional bonds wouldn't be issue. When scientists study "bisexuality" they hook people up to instruments that determine whether blood rushes to their genitals when they see pictures of naked men and women and not whether they feel they can really bond emotionally one or the other. George apparently had no serious problem getting enough blood to rush to his genitals to achieve an erection, penetrating these women with said erection and reaching orgasm. Sex he could do, emotionally bonding he could no dot.

Think about this way: If a man or woman spends a few years having casual sex with both men and women and then falls in love, does the sex of the partner they fall in love with determine whether they are heterosexual or not. (It's not hard to imagine a heterosexual man loving another man while repulsed by the idea of sex with him. Nor is it hard to imagine a gay man loving a heterosexual woman while being repulsed by the thought of having sex with her.)

Or think about it this way: Imagine someone you know who has been sexually active with members of the opposite sex for a while but has never fallen in love, would you say to him or her that they were gay or lesbian as a consequence?

And was George making an emotional bond with the washroom guys?

I don't know: there are things that you guess and things that you know.

You may think I'm picking on George here but I'm not. I'm quite sure he is telling the truth. And that is interesting because it suggests things about sexual orientation that don't fit the official narrative of our time.

Oh yeah, you're probably wondering which song from the same album made it instantly famous for creepiness. It's embedded immediately below but, before you watch the video, I want you to think about how you would interpret the lyrics without the pictures. (If you're really crazy, you might listen once without looking at the video and a second time while looking.)

The lyrics feature the line I quote in the subject header: "But sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime". Well, what crime?

The video clearly suggests a crime: stalking. The cab driver played by George Michael is stalking the model, played by Tania Coleridge and yes, she is directly related to that Coleridge whose name, while we're at it, has only two syllables so pronounce it that way (cole-ridge and not cole-lurr-ridge). And, if you watch the video, it all fits.

But if you didn't have that set of visuals to go with it, you would almost certainly assume the crime was due to the the age of the love object. Everything about the lyrics suggests that she is a girl not a woman.

I don't think that's a problem. In fact, I think the song is something of a minor masterpiece and easily the best song that George Michael ever did. If get ambitious, I might do a post on the all-time great creepy songs someday. This would certainly make the cut.

To return to my specificity point, consider the way the audience (the market for George Michael was mostly young women) would respond to such a song. In order to sell well, lots of of girls and women have to be able to imagine George is making a plea to let him be a father figure to them. Making a video about stalking takes that away from them. It would have been a much bigger hit with a more ambiguous video. (And don't fool yourself into thinking that the creepiness of the song would have put girls off; it certainly didn't put them off the Police's very creepy "Every Breath You Take", which also has a stalking theme but soft plays it so a girl can hear a love song if she wants to.)

Faith was pretty much the end of poor George's career. Ironically, his defensiveness in the face of criticism made it impossible for him to ever play on ambiguity or notoriety again. This effect was further amplified following his arrest. He took the position that his love had been mistaken for a crime and the media went along with his new pose of heroic victim. That more or less forced him to be sincere and, having spent his entire career excelling at milking coy ambiguity for all it was worth, he couldn't shift to a new persona convincingly. His life has gone steadily off the rails ever since and he seems determined to join the long list of pop music stars who die tragically these days.

A big call out to T, if she is reading. (She'll know who she is why this applies to her and you won't.)

PS: Frank Sinatra once wrote a letter with some very good advice in it to George Michael. If George had done what Frank suggested, he'd be a much happier man today. But I wonder if he could have? The subtext of the Sinatra letter is all about toughness and that was a virtue poor George never developed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Moving from the Madonna/whore complex to the princess/slut complex

We're living in a post-feminist la-la land. I really mean that "we". Usually, when people use the word in a sentence like the one above they mean, "Everybody but me and you dear reader". I mean all of us.

I've been reading and listening people getting upset about Miley Cyrus for a few weeks now. It's interesting in that everybody knows exactly what upset them about her performance on the music video awards right up until the moment they have to explain it.

I watched a discussion on FaceBook on the subject slowly slide into oblivion. People started off cheerfully bashing Miley but then other singers were mentioned. Rihanna for example. And that's tricky because Rihanna is black and a bunch of white liberal women always get a little queasy when it comes to criticizing women of other races and ethnic groups for doing the same things they find unacceptable in a Miley Cyrus. (If you ever find yourself in a room full of members of the VAW (violence against women) movement, ask them how they feel about issues of violence against women in Muslim or Lesbian subcultures. The squirming will be painful to watch.)

And then there was the tricky issue of Madonna, Annie Lennox and Chrissie Hynde, all of whom exploited their sexuality to move product. That was different because ... . Well because crickets chirping.

The reason the women on the FaceBook discussion I was following but not participating in were so uncomfortable was that they not only think is that it's not just okay that women "express their sexuality" in any way that appeals to them but believe that it is a sacred right for them to do so. Women should even be encouraged to do so because mean old men where preventing them in the past don't ya know. And they should be allowed to do so in any way they want (including, paradoxical as this may seem, by engaging in fantasies and role playing involving rape and submission). Except Miley Cyrus. She can't! Because ... .

I'd tell you why I think the Cyrus performance actually bothered people but I don't really know either. I live in the same la-la land that you do. I can think of three possible reasons that you have probably already figured out for yourself:
  1. Because she used to be Hannah Montana.
  2. Because she didn't even try to conceal that she was doing this as a promotional gimmick
  3. Because she did her erotic performance for a specific man, and a rather creepy man at that, rather than some purely imaginary lover.
In one way or another, all these issues come down to "authenticity", whatever that means. I do know that you can be a crazed, self-destructive addict coming apart psycholgically and physically who exploits your sexuality to an increasingly desperate way get attention (Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin) and the critics will love your authenticity. You can even be a mercenary capitalist who dresses your exploitation of your sexuality in a thin veneer of utterly artificial sexual rebellion (Madonna, Lady Gaga) and be admired, because that too is apparently a sort of "authenticity".

Because we are living in a post-feminist la la land, Miley Cyrus was disgusting but she was also "poor Miley". How did that happen? Well, the explanation went, because she and Britney are also being exploited by evil corporate handlers who are doing something akin to child porn by creating these sexualized images of unrealistic erotic readiness to move product.

It was at that moment that the argument left reality completely behind. Why do I say that? Because it is the exact opposite of what actually happened to Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. The evil corporate exploiters actually created images of unrealistic sexual wholesomeness to move product. It was when the two women went out on their own that they both selected the more erotic image.

Don't tell yourself that this is new because it isn't.  Here is a silhouette of Cassandra Austen, sister of Jane (Courtesy of Wikipedia):

That's an erotic image and it didn't get that way by accident. The silhouette was carefully framed to get what were clearly some pretty spectacular breasts "into the shot". And so too the dress was gathered by an Empire waist that we can't see to accentuate those breasts, not that they needed much help. (By modern standards, she is getting very little support from what she is wearing; the shape you see here is pretty much what you would see if you saw her naked.)

The message here is not, "good, child-bearing stock" but very much "I'm a sexual being". I don't think it was that she was a sexual being purely for the enjoyment of others but, and this is always the tricky issue, because being a sexual being for her own enjoyment requires the affirmation from others. All, without actually having sex, which remains the challenge today; women may be freer to have sex for their own pleasure but they also clearly crave public affirmation of their sexuality from people they will never have sex with.

Cassandra was probably a tiny little thing by current standards, although pretty typical by the standards of her day. Put her in a size zero dress, which she would almost certainly have fit into, and a push up bra and she'd create quite a sensation today. I suspect that had such options been the fashion of their time, the Misses Austen would have both exploited the possibilities.

No, I can't imagine Cassandra Austen twerking or pole dancing or grabbing her crotch in public but it isn't difficult to imagine her privately having the experiences of which those things are merely a simulacrum. It's a virtual certainty that she did. When Jane Austen died, her sister Cassandra destroyed hundreds of her letters, do you think the problem was that they all contained mean spirited remarks about how the vicar's wife held a fish knife when eating sole?

What has changed between then and now is not that women's sexuality is a now public thing. Even societies where women are cloistered or forced to wear burka do that, albeit in a negative way. Cassandra Austen participated in the making of that silhouette for the same reasons that so many girls now take nude or near-nude selfies with their smart-phone cameras.

So, what has changed?

A few years ago, it was popular to talk about TV shows and magazines that promoted particular interests as "porn", as in "house porn", "fishing porn", "sailing porn" or "food porn". The expression mocked the fact that these magazines took what were properly little compartments within a full life and blew them up into some crass, cheap and ridiculous the way real porn does with sex. In that sense, you could call some aspects of our culture "childhood porn" for it takes what is a small and temporary part of life—a child's real role in life is to be an adult-in-training—and glorifies it as an end in itself.

And there I think we begin to get a hint of the real problem. Contrary to what is often argued, the Madonna-Whore complex always comes about because of unrealistic portrayals on the Madonna side of the equation. And here I have to reverse some of my earlier defense of princesses, for there has been a tendency to turn the princess into a medieval virgin and this trick is done, painfully ironic as this is, by putting her through a feminist filter.

First, we should note that these girl-women are not children; Disney princesses tend to have breasts and hips. They have a sexual presence for the same reason virgin martyrs did. To get at this, think of the difference between two five-year-old kids kissing as compared to two thirteen-year-old kids. It's cute to imagine the five-year olds because we're pretty sure that they are aping the activities of older people but they don't understand the full significance of what they are doing. With the thirteen year olds, they might well start off not understanding but we worry that they will soon begin to feel something that will, left unchecked, lead to "understanding".

The old, oppressive view was that while women may be able to feel these things as early as twelve or thirteen, they should keep themselves "pure" until marriage; that they should "save themselves" for the man they are going to marry. Historically, the man she was going to marry might well have been some stranger 15 years older than her as arranged by her parents. You can see why there might be some resistance.

One option for resistance was to continue saving yourself for some even higher goal:
Even when promised in marriage to a pagan named Valerian, she remained true to her Divine Spouse. It was at Iconium that St. Paul met St. Thecla, and kindled the love of virginity in her heart. She had been promised in marriage to a young man who was rich and generous. But at the Apostle's words she died to the thought of earthly espousals; she forgot her beauty; she was deaf to her parents threats, and at the first opportunity she fled from a luxurious home and followed St. Paul. The rage of her parents and of her intended spouse followed hard upon her; and the Roman power did its worst against the virgin whom Christ had chosen for His own. She was stripped and placed in the public theatre; but her innocence shrouded her like a garment. Then the lions were let loose against her; they fell crouching at her feet, and licked them as if in veneration. Even fire could not harm her. Torment after torment was inflicted upon her without effect, till at last her Spouse spoke the word and called her to Himself, with the double crown of virginity and martyrdom on her head.
That's a fairytale. There is almost certainly a real woman, even a saintly one, behind it but the story has been put through a fantasy filter and come out as something utterly fantastic. That story has an obvious kinship with this product of a more modern fantasy filter:
In Scotland, a young Princess named Merida of the clan Dunbroch is given a longbow by her father, King Fergus, for her fifth birthday, to her mother Queen Elinor's dismay. While practicing, Merida ventures into the woods to fetch a stray arrow, where she encounters a will-o'-the-wisp. Soon afterwards, Mor'du, a giant demon-bear, attacks the family. Merida escapes on horseback with Elinor, while Fergus fights off the bear at the cost of his left leg. Eleven years later, Merida has become a free-spirited, headstrong sixteen-year-old with much younger identical triplet brothers, Hamish, Huburt, and Harris. Elinor informs her that she is to be betrothed to one of her father's allied clans, against her will. Reminding Merida of a legend about a prince who had ruined his own kingdom by pride and refusal to follow his father's wishes, Elinor warns her that failure to consent to the marriage could harm Dunbroch, but Merida is still unhappy with the arrangement.
We can pretend the second story is more "feminist" because of seeming crucial differences between it and its predecessor. We might say that Saint Thecia is a passive being to whom things happen while Merida is an active agent who actually does stuff, even though these actions often backfire on her. She is protected by a real bow that fires real arrows that can actually kill things.

Only she doesn't actually kill anything with her bow does she? This girl-women acts only when provoked and otherwise spend her time mostly enduring trials until they are ready for ... well marriage. Her extraordinary ability with a bow and arrow is a mostly decorative function just like some 18th century heroine playing her Virginal. (By the way, sorry for being such a pedant, but Merida would not have been physically strong enough to draw a longbow.)

You may be thinking that, however similar the starts of these stories are, the endings are very different. You'd be wrong about that. Both these stories are really about two things: 1) they are about how women's sexuality is always and everywhere public and 2) they are about how every society pressures young women into having sex. Properly understood, the virgin saint is just as feminist a story as Merida is. Or, if you prefer, neither story is feminist and both are how even the girl who resists the accepted sexual identities available to women in her time must do so according to socially accepted norms. The difference is that now the thing a girl must preserve is her child-like innocence as opposed to her purity. (Of course, she can now only do so as a child. "Spinster" became a term of mockery a long time ago.)

Okay, but why would such a story of preserving innocence appeal to women at all? I'm always saying that women like sex after all. Why wouldn't they embrace some counter-myth that reinforces a woman's right to be actively sexual? Because society pressures women into having sex at an age when they are still girls. That's what both the story of the virgin saint and the princess have in common. For the virgin saint, paganism stood in sex. For Merida, bears stand sex.

Shift your attention away from the heroine of Brave for a moment and consider the timeline of the "bears" in the story. The bear is a monster. Let's see what happens to it in the story (I'm borrowing a lot from the Wikipedia plot summary here because the wording is so precious.):
  • Mor'du, a giant demon-bear, attacks the family rending it assunder.
  • Merida's mother Elinor tells her the story of a prince who ruined his father's kingdom by refusing to follow his wishes.
  • Merida buys a magic cake from a witch and feeds it to her mother in the hopes of changing her mind about her getting married. It doesn't work and changes Merida's mother into a bear.
  • Merida learns that she has to repair "the bond torn by pride" and goes to the forest with her mother and there meets Mor'du.
  • Merida now is now shaken to learn that Mor'du is actually a prince whom her mother told her of.
  • "When Fergus [Merida's father] enters the bed chamber, Elinor, who is losing control of her human self, attacks him, but suddenly regains her human consciousness and races out of the castle in desperation." (Read that sentence a few times until the meaning realy sinks in!)
  • Fergus thinking the bear who actually is his wife has killed and consumed (I use the word advisedly) his wife, pursues her.
  • They all run into Mor'du and wild battle ensues. Mor'du is killed, not intentionally by Merida or anyone else, but by having a giant rock monument fall on him. (Merida remains a passive little virgin-martyr no matter how well this is disguised.)
  • This "death" frees the prince's spirit from the bear and he shows Merida how grateful he is.
The state of being a bear is obviously that of sexual arousal. Like all such metaphors, it's been used before. There was a song in the 1920s called "I'm a bear in a lady's boudoir".

Anyway, sexual arousal in the guise of a bear raises its ugly head and tears Merida's family asunder. In real life, it is only sexual arousal that makes the family possible in the first place. A society that really embraced the ideal of virginity would disappear as the Shakers did. But this is a girl's story. It's meant for her not society in general. For her, this sex is a threat. It's a threat she can't stop looking at just as prey can't stop looking into a predator's eyes as it closes in. It's a very real threat.

Because it is a girl's story, her mother's sexual arousal is just as much a threat to her as his that of young men. The mother's new bear identity becomes problematic when her father finds her in the bed chamber! It's there that the mother-bear loses control of her human side and allows her animal side to attack her husband. Could Disney be any less subtle about this? This is most emphatically not the way a man would imagine an interaction with a woman who loses control of her "animal" instincts!

The mother is, of course, a double threat in that she is a bear-demon after Merida's father and she is the one who wants to force Merida herself into having sex. (The most famous medieval virgin-martyr myth was that of Saint Ursula, whose name means "she bear". That story metaphorically makes the she-bear into the virgin.)

Merida runs around trying to stop disaster but ultimately the solution is by divine intervention. The rock falls on the prince killing his bear-demon that is sexual arousal but freeing his rather harmless spirit so that spirit can connect with Merida in a non-sexual way. He thanks her for having done so.

Now read the way the folks at EWTN tell the story opf Saint Cecilia (not Saint Thecia, although you could be forgiven for wondering) and you can see that it is a variation on the earlier story, even to the point of using the same name for the unwanted spouse:
Even when promised in marriage to a pagan named Valerian, she remained true to her Divine Spouse. On the evening of their wedding day, Cecilia told Valerian that she had an angel guarding her virginity — an angel that would cause him suffering if he was to violate her. Being of good will Valerian said "Show me this angel ... if he be of God, I will refrain as you wish." Ever the evangelizer, Cecilia, stated that her husband would only see the angel if he was enlightened and illumined by the Sacrament of Baptism. Pope Urban I administered the Sacrament, upon which Valerian saw the heavenly guardian.
Valerian is described as his being pagan but he clearly isn't. He already accepts the authority of Cecilia's God. The real problem is that he wants to have sex with her.  The solution is not anything that Cecilia does but a shockingly sacrilegious use of magic that ought to appall any Christian. The whole story, if you go read it at the link, is a superstitious mishmash of pagan nonsense and pointless violence not unlike the story of Merida. And in both cases, the net effect is the same, the sexual threat that the girl-woman saw as threatening her is magically dissipated.

(Funny, by the way, that both Saint Thecia and Saint Cecilia are women of noble background that both are betrothed to a pagan named Valerian. Well, funny until you realize that both are mythical princesses in Christian garb. In legend, that is, there may well be actual women who died for their faith hiding beneath the many layers of gloss layered over them.)

By the way, the very same story structure is inevitably subverted to serve pro-sex ends. When Merida starts masturbating, assuming she hasn't already started (she is sixteen after all), she will construct fantasies that subvert the same story structure to get the orgasm she wants while still being as passive in that rough fantasy where she gets sex as she is here in this story of being saved from sex. There is no reason a girl can't do both.

Back to life, back to reality

In medieval practice, the sticking point was that an arranged marriage is socially sanctioned rape (although a shocking number of these marriages did end up in loving relationships). It was the rare woman who held out for a love of Christ. The real point, the real feminist point, that was achieved over centuries was the autonomy to marry someone of your own choice or to not marry if you didn't want to marry. But, and this is important, if that is the real point, then the huge mythical construct exists just as something to hide behind.  (Which is why otherwise devout Catholics like the people at EWTN can trade in such horrid pagan nonsense as they do when discussing Cecilia.)

The modern girl isn't faced with an arranged marriage but these stories still have force because  she is surrounded by a sea of sex that threatens the little island that is her sense of herself. The fact that her own instincts sometimes line up with the social forces that hem her in is not a comfort. No matter how much she may enjoy exploring her new sexual identity as her body changes through her teens, she is also aware that her sexual identity is a public fact and not just what she imagines it to be. That is threatening. And there is a constant, nagging pressure to actually have sex that, while it doesn't have the legal sanction that arranged marriages did in the past, is absolutely relentless.

The modern feminist viewpoint is that virgin-martyr stories are created by men to control women but the origin of these stories is always with women themselves. These stories serve important mythological purposes for girl-women. Brave made more than half a billion dollars! Girls don't have to be forced to embrace this story structure. They crave it because, like the story of Saint Cecilia once did, it helps millions of girl-women make sense of their lives in those years when their body becomes fully sexual but they aren't ready for sex.

The feminist point is not completely groundless, however; as noted above, this mythology can be subverted for other purposes. It serves her mother and father who are painfully aware that their daughters are now sexual beings but want them suppress rather than experiment with her sexuality for a little while longer. (Which, I remind you, is the exact opposite of what Merida's mother is forcing on her.) It also serves the purposes of the narcissistic man who doesn't like to think that his girlfriend or wife has any sexual existence outside of his enjoyment of her. (And the over-protective mother and father have more in common with the narcissistic boyfriend than they are likely to want to admit.) But that isn't the reason that girl-women spend billions of dollars on Princess merchandise every year.

At the same time, the girl is expected to become a sexual being someday. And she sees other girls around her and she knows she is in competition with them. The girl who has already started having sex looks down on her virgin friends the same way the married woman in an 19th century novel looked down on her unmarried friends.

Where things are different now is that we are more explicit. The married rival in a Jane Austen story was probably just as aware of the fact that to be sexual means to be fully sexual, as opposed to lying back and thinking of England, but the conventions of the time were such that these things were only alluded to. And, however the challenge was met, it was worked out (or not) between a wife and her husband in the marital bed. A woman's sexuality may have been public but her sexual performance was not. Nowadays, everyone is explicitly aware of the kinds of thing a woman might be in bed and the competition from other women is such that every woman who wants to be taken seriously as fully a woman has imagine herself and, to some extent, present herself as a fully sexual being. I won't go on about it but if people around you can't imagine you being that, then they won't see you as a complete woman.

This true for every woman but the issue is acute with former child stars because their corporate handlers create an image for them in which are heroic in being sexually attractive while not having actual sex for idealistic reasons and this image lingers in the public mind. If they later want to become adult stars, they have to compensate or even over-compensate the other way.

And it's not just child stars, Meg Ryan had to do it too. In fact, every woman who initially becomes a success playing some clean and wholesome princess, seems to be obliged to turn around and release her inner slut to be treated seriously in other roles nowadays. In fact, I'd go so far as to say every woman has to make the transition at some point in her life. If she doesn't, she'll live a life that may be satisfactory but will never seem complete. The price of failure is high but most women make the attempt because they all have to.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I'm changing the way I blog

Up until now, I've made an effort to post something every single week day. It was a useful discipline. It also has kept a several hundred people coming to the site semi-regularly. I'm glad I did it.

But things have changed. I have a serious writing project underway that I want to devote more time and energy to.  I also find that I am more interested in longer blog items than short ones. I plan to do fewer and longer entries. I will commit to one post per week minimum and that may well become the standard.

That will almost certainly be bad for readership as many of you will probably now turn to other more reliable sites to read. If you do, that's fine and thank you to everyone who did me the honour of reading my stuff.

See you next week.

"Haunted by Thomas Merton"

This is a post that will probably only interest me as I ramble on about myself for a while. All I can say is that it is my blog after all.

There was a piece with that title linked on Real Clear Religion today. (RCR is a great site, by the way, I strongly recommend bookmarking it. It's my second page view every morning.)

My father and his closest friends all read Seven Storey Mountain when they were at Saint Patrick's College in the 1950s and it changed their lives. One of those friends went into the priesthood and another became a Trappist Monk. Even those friends of my father's who didn't find a religious vocation would tell me over and over again over the years that reading Seven Storey Mountain had been the formative experience of their adolescence.

I too was haunted by Merton in the sense that he and his most famous work hung over my head like a sword. It sat on the bookshelf at home and it seemed to say, "Someday, you're going to have to read me."

I tried for the first time when I was seventeen. I got in about thirty or forty pages and then put it down and never picked t up again. One day my mother picked it up off my bedroom floor and put it back on the shelf. I tried it again every year or so right through university. I just couldn't read it. Nothing about the book captured my attention.

I read some of his later stuff. I beat my way all through Disputed Questions, which my father gave me for my 18th birthday, probably in the hopes that it would be like an intellectual Toga virilis. I was able to read it but wasn't much impressed. I don't think Merton's heart was much in it and wasn't surprised to find out that the Trappists treated Merton as a bit of a cash cow and that he felt pressured to keep cranking out books. The collected essays that make up Disputed Questions feels very much like the work someone writing out of duty rather than love.

In university, I met a guy who told me that he'd had the exact same experience with his father (who was a professor of Greek Classics). He suggested to me that Merton played a role something like the Beats for very Catholic boys. It was the story of this wild journey into mysticism that a boy could read and feel like he was doing it without leaving the comfort of his bedroom and, particularly important for his father and mine, not leave the comfort of Catholic orthodoxy that a frank appreciation of Jack Kerouac might require. 

That made more sense to me than my friend intended. He was reading a lot of Charles Bukowski in those days.

That poem sounds like complaint but it's actually wish fulfillment literature. It's a lot like Hooper's hope to see just enough military action to say he's been in it but nothing more. I don't say that Bukowski meant it that way. Perhaps he really meant the words as he wrote them, but a twenty-something male reads those words and imagines some rough experience he might have, not for it's own sake, but to be able to look back on.

In the end, I found my formative book when I found read Brideshead Revisited. I think a tiny bit of the intense enjoyment I took in reading the book was the relief that came from realizing that I coukd now give up on trying to read Seven Storey Mountain ever again.

Brideshead was formative in that it allowed me to make sense of what had been a rather chaotic life up until that point. It did so even though my life does not resemble that of any Brideshead character, although there are some strong similarities between my character and that of Rex Mottram. 

(For what it's worth, I think Anthony Powell's Dickie Umfraville is the fictional character who most resembles me. Unlike Umfraville, I have only been married once and never divorced but I share a lot of his weaknesses and, at the risk of being vain, his charm and ease with women. On the other hand, the choice of Mottram and Umfraville may strike some as very humble. I don't think so and think that both stories could be told in ways that make them highly charismatic and even admirable in some ways without changing the basic facts of either life.)

Over the years, my father's little gang talked about Merton less and less. By the time he'd hit his sixties, my father expressed puzzlement that the book had ever been so important to him. He'd say these things in the same sort of tone that I have since heard men use to describe a young woman who haunted their generation's erotic fantasies years ago and while they can still see that she was beautiful they can't quite figure exactly what it was about her that made her so much more special than all other women at the time. (For my generation, that would be Jennifer O'Neil.)

The man who became a priest and the man who joined the Trappists both dropped out in the 1970s. The former priest married. The former Trappist did not and, outwardly anyway, showed no signs of any sort of active sex life. That may not mean much for, as Hugh Moreland repeatedly observes in The Dance to the Music of Time, the person whose outward persona seems so decidedly not sexual that you can't imagine them having any sex life will often turn out to have had an extensive, wild and fulfilling erotic life. (He does not go on to say, perhaps because it would hit to close to home, but it is no less true that people, especially beautiful and sexy women people, who seem to be the sort who ought to have full and satisfying sex lives are often complete duds sexually.) In any case, this former monk joined the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s and ran a farm west of town here using no power machinery.

I remember helping him collect maple sap by hand one winter. We spent hours doing this hard work in the cold and dark and afterward, while huddling over stove that was his sole source of heat, he told me that he had found the Trappist life too hard. Given the life he didn't find to hard as a basis for comparison, that made me wonder.

Merton felt more and more distant from the book that made him famous over the years. He also felt more and more distant from Catholic Christianity. Monasticism was more important to him than any particular creed. By the end of his life his writing suggested that he would have been just as happy in a Buddhist monastery as a Catholic one.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Althouse Rule spotting

First a quick reminder, the Althouse Rule states that, "If you do scientific research into the differences between men and women, you must portray whatever you find to be true of women as superior." In pointing it out, Ann Althouse is making a sociological observation and not endorsing the rule.

And here is the study I want to highlight today:
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed 700 million words and phrases from the Facebook messages of 75,000 volunteers. The resulting word clouds show the extent to which our use of language is influenced by our personality, age, and sex.
And now read the description of how language is influenced by male and female sexuality:
Men tend to use the possessive 'my' when mentioning their wife or girlfriend more than women use 'my' with 'husband' or 'boyfriend.' Males also use more profanity and object references (e.g. "xbox").

Women use more emotion words, like 'excited,' first-person singulars, while using more psychological and social terms, like "love you" and the heart emoticon: "<3".
The article calls these results "disturbingly predictable". The commenters at the bottom of the article at the link, on the other hand, quickly point out a big logical mistake. For how is it possible to talk about your wife, or husband for that matter, without using the possessive?

Assuming it really is true that women don't use the possessive before words like husband, hubby or boyfriend, then it must be that they are more likely to use these words when describing men that other women, possibly celebrities, are in a relationship with. The obvious corollary, then, is that women are less likely to mention men they have some sort of relationship than men are to mention women they are in a relationship with when using social media.

As I've mentioned before, when couples break up, women are responsible for ending 80 percent of non-married breakups and two thirds of divorces. The results above, viewed objectively, tend to confirm the thesis that women are less committed to their loving relationships with men than vice versa.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Another image: What are they selling

I've been following a series of ads that a local shopping centre has been using to build interest during a facelift. The Rideau Centre has dumped stodgy old Sears and Fairweather and is bringing in exciting Nordstrom's and Simons.

They have had an interesting series of ads to go with it

First there was the woman cheating right under the nose her pathetically adoring boyfriend:

Then we had the woman in the midst of an angry fight with her ineffectual boyfriend:

Then we had the woman holding hands with her narcissistic boyfriend but clearly looking elsewhere:

And now we have a woman cruising for, and getting, attention from a slightly creepy looking guy:

That's the same two models used throughout and, I have to admit, that's rather brilliant. If you've been playing close attention, the way they make them look like different people each time is bound to impress. I also have to admit that the first ad works better in the larger context than I thought when I analyzed it in isolation.

I'm also thinking that the stores who were suddenly told a year ago now that their leases were not being renewed can identify with the men in those shots. The men are all powerless and the women are all powerful. In the first three shots the woman has freedom and independence that the man does not. The message is not that she will leave these men but that she could because (shot one) she has more sexual power than he does, (shot two) he is sniveling little moral weakling, and (shot three) he is so self-involved that he is oblivious to her wandering gaze.

In shot four, our heroine is out alone and seeking (successfully) the gaze of a man. She may or may not be single but that clearly isn't meant to be her regular partner. It also has to be significant that this shot is clearly meant to be inside the mall. Shopping is an erotic activity. The construction is coming to an end and, if you are looking for a little fun, then ... . If you are a female customer that is. These ads are not aimed at men. (Not intentionally, anyway.)

I don't think the intention was to blow up second-wave feminist theory but it tends to do that too. The notion that the woman is necessarily captured or loses her freedom by being subject to the male gaze just isn't plausible given these images.

A little less comforting for women is the way the ads present shopping as a kind of erotic distraction. The women aren't actually going to leave their guys. They fantasize about independence but what they do is go shopping.

And is anybody willing to bet good money on the proposition that this sort of approach doesn't work? (The question is rhetorical, this sort of ad works just as effectively on women as ads that associate certain products with erotic success do on men.)

A final note: I did argue when analyzing the first image, that one (unintended) audience for these images (especially the first and fourth) would be guys who have cuckold fantasies. That is a subject that might be interesting to explore in its own right some day but I don't think men with cuckold fantasies look at these ads and thing, "I want to go shopping." Perhaps if I do a post called, "What are they selling without realizing it."

Friday, October 4, 2013

A little light culture: Possible Farrow- Sinatra love child

For years now there have been stories around about how badly Frank Sinatra treated Mia Farrow. He humiliated her, hurt her, treated her like a child.

It's entirely possible that every one of those stories are true. According to some reports he once said cruel things on stage about her while she was in the audience. Perhaps that is true.

Anyway, did you catch the story that she told Vanity Fair that one of her sons (not coincidentally, the only one she was believed to have fathered with Woody Allen) might actually be Frank Sinatra's son? I have just been peering at Allen's Wikipedia page and I think that the young man in question would be Allen's only biological child, if he is his biological child, all of which suggests one possible (and cruel) motive for Mia Farrow to be saying this.

The New York Post has a picture of the son up beside a very young Frank this is obviously meant to discourage us from believing the story. You think, it couldn't be, their facial  structure is completely different. But, you know, pick another photo of Frank and, suddenly, their facial structure is very similar. In fact, if you compare the young man on page 6 with at the photo of Frank from the cover of his Greatest Hits record and there is a creditable resemblance.

One thing is for sure, he doesn't look even remotely like Woody Allen.

Whatever we conclude (I'm leaning towards believing it myself), the inescapable fact is that Farrow and Sinatra continued being lovers and then friends long after he "humiliated" her. There is no snark in the scare quotes in the previous sentence. All I mean to establish is that the facts are not proven.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Woody Allen knew of Farrow's ongoing love affair with Sinatra or even that it played some part in Farrow's appeal for him.

The young man in question is, according the Page 6, brushing it off with humour. In fact he tweeted: Listen, we’re all *possibly* Frank Sinatra’s son". We could all also "possibly" be Boris Yeltsin's sons as well I suppose but it kind of changes the story that his mother and Sinatra had sex and my mother and Sinatra did not.

What's going on here is a non-denial denial.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Here is something you don't seem much anymore

Mr. James Lileks has a post up today that features some screen caps he did took from 1970s game shows. It's a good post, which isn't a surprise as he puts up good posts with a consistency that is really quite intimidating. Do click on the link above to pop over to his site and read the whole thing.

Looking at one of his screen caps, something jumped out at me and I hope he will not mind that I borrowed it to use here. Take a gander at this:

Mr. Lileks thinks this is a twenty year old dressing like a twelve year old but he is wrong about that:
Then there’s the uncomfortable reminder that unlike today, when 12-year old dress like 20 somethings, 20 somethings dressed liked 12 year olds.
Yes, there is something very little girlish about her appearance but her clothes wouldn't have been enough to make her look as young as she does here. There is one more item doing the real work. It's her teeth. She has an overbite, which is to say that her top teeth are fairly far in front of her lower teeth. In a perfect bite, the top teeth should be a tiny bit forward of the bottom ones but hers are way forward.

Nowadays, you just don't see that because the parents of anyone with such an overbite, and especially a girl, and even more especially a pretty girl like her, would have it fixed.

You may be thinking, "So what?" Here's what: Back in the 1960s and 1970s only a small segment of the population could afford to have an overbite corrected. And even if you could afford it, the braces of the time were very uncomfortable things. Plus a kid with braces would go through years of being mocked and taunted by her classmates. So most people didn't bother. Everywhere you went, there would be people with overbites. Walk into an office, and there would be two or three workers there with overbites. Walk into a restaurant, same thing. But not anymore. Over the next day or two, take a look around and see how many 20-to-40-year-old adults with overbites like the one in the picture you can find.

PS: It may be just an accidental effect of this still but that girl looks decidedly stoned to me.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mystical nostalgia and authenticity

Last week I gave the example of a man the Lemon Girl once knew. This man had been doing his genealogy but abandoned it when he found out he was adopted. He decided that the people who had raised him, their history and culture had nothing to do with him.

Today, I want to turn the telescope around and look at the problem from the other end.

Here's a thought experiment,
Suppose you are given a box of books that once belonged to your Aunt. One day, perhaps some considerable time later, you are leafing through one of these books and a letter falls out. It is a letter your mother wrote to her sister decades ago. In it, she confesses that she is pregnant by a man who is not your father. She names the man. You recognize him as a friend of your parents' from the early days of their marriage. You look at the date at the top of the letter and realize with a jolt that the child she conceived is you!

You know the name of the man who you now realize is your biological father. There are a few pictures of him in your family photo album and you remember a few stories in which he figures. Other than that, you don't know much about him other than that he died a few years ago.
Here is the question: Other than having passed on his DNA, what has this man to do with you? Is his life, are his dreams, his culture, his family heritage, important to you?

Some people will unhesitatingly answer, yes. Others will be more hesitant.

But it's more than an abstract question. I might immediately think this person relevant to my life but never get around to actually doing anything about it. That I do or that I don't might say something about how much I really feel that this person has something to do with me.

What do I think? Well, this is one of those rare occasions where I think Sartre is right. Your connection with this man will be important if you make something of it. If you don't, it isn't important. It's entirely up to you to choose. If you choose, then his culture becomes part of yours. If not, then not.

When I object to authenticity, it is the sense that you don't have a choice that I object to. I object to the notion that there is a certain kind of world or life experience that naturally goes with some states of life and that some sort of moral compulsion follows from this. "You're white and male, you couldn't possibly understand what we feel or experience unless we educate you," or, "As a woman you owe it to other women to be a feminist."

Downton Abbey

As an aside, there is a wild debate on an issue related to this going on between members of my extended family on Facebook right now. It was all inspired by an article from The Telegraph in which journalist Katy Rink (great name!) claims that the show is boring. If you read the article, however, you quick realize that the author's point is not so much that the show is boring but that she wants you to find it boring and stop watching it.

More importantly, she wants you to all stop identifying with it.
Let us not cling on, hopelessly to this ridiculous sentiment – this nostalgia for our great loves of the past – which sees us paddling around in the pitiful wash of the great steamer. 
And that is her real problem. She thinks that world was inauthentic and she wants everyone, especially women!, to start living what she considers authentic woman lives. A lot of women, however, keep thwarting her by choosing to identify with a past she wishes would just go away.

If it was just Downton Abbey, Katy Rink's impotent rage would seem over the top but it isn't of course. Millions of women love all sorts of period dramas from the novels of Jane Austen to Mad Men and they openly express their desire to return to these more formal times. And these women aren't stupid—they understand about the benefits of antibiotics, modern dentistry, women's rights and so forth—but they also see that something worth having back has been lost too. They want to reclaim it as theirs and, because they do, it is theirs.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Two sentences

Both of these are from articles in the latest issue of Crosstalk, the official newspaper of the local Anglican diocese.
  1. "Perhaps no other house of worship is as representative of church architecture in the 1960s as this, with its daring lines, sleek mass, contrasting surfaces of brick walls, metal uprights, shingle roof, glass window walls, and a laminated support beams inside."
  2. "Although Anglican marchers dressed more modestly than many of the participants, many seemed in touch with the theme of this year's Capital Pride Festival—'Be Loud, Be Proud'."
Both are, by any measure, bad writing. What I think makes them interesting is that the bad writing is most likely the result of the writer's discomfort with the subject they are writing about. There are things that both writers are conscious of but are at pains not to admit.

Glenn Lockwood, the writer of the first sentence, is uncomfortable because the church he is writing about is completely without architectural distinction or aesthetic value. In simpler language, his point is that this church looks like just about every other church built in the 1960s. He also knows it's ugly and that everyone else knows it too. As a church archivist, however, his job is to write cheery, encouraging little pieces about various churches in the diocese.

The sentence on the Pride parade is a little more, shall we say, complex. I'll take it as given that any readers here are familiar enough with Pride parades to know that "dressing more modestly than many participants" is not a challenge. If you dress at all, you'll probably make that grade. The problem that Art Babych is trying to squirm away from is that Anglicans fit in as well at a Pride parade as pickles in vanilla icing. The obvious question is, "What exactly are you doing here?" and there is no obvious answer.

On the same lines, I love this quote from a church official that is used in the article: "We have found this a wonderful opportunity to make clear that there are parishes in our diocese who are intentional in their welcome to the GLBT [sic] community." To find anything to match that bureaucratese you'd have to go back to the the great press releases cranked out by Communist regimes back in the mid 20th century.

More difficult is the issue of whether Anglicans really do welcome the LGBT community. There is a photo spread to accompany the article and the shots have all been carefully framed so as to exclude all other participants in the parade. Whatever the "intentional" message is, the unintentional one is that Anglicans support LGBT people in the abstract but feel kind of uncomfortable being associated with them in the flesh.