Friday, April 21, 2017

Redneck nation? Or Victorian?

This is from 14 years ago. It's from an interview with Michael Graham about his book Redneck Nation. Graham's argument, partly serious, partly comic, is that "Northern Liberals" (we'd say "Coastal Elites" nowadays) have picked up redneck attitudes.
When I talk about redneckery in Redneck Nation, I’m not talking about the Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. I’m writing about the ideology: What did a typical white southern “redneck” believe at the beginning of the civil-rights movement 50 years ago?
  • He believed that race mattered, that race was determinant.
  • He believed that free speech was dangerous, spread by “outside agitators” who never learned the southern speech code: “If you can’t say something nice…drink.”
  • He believed that all women were either delicate creatures in need of special social protections, or they were roadhouse trailer trash who would spank you and call you “Daddy.”
  • He believed that the more irrational and ridiculous your religion, the more fervently you believed in God.
  • He believed the most entertaining way to spend a Saturday night was to watch something get “blowed up real good.”
 I'm not convinced he really wants to avoid Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. If he did, he wouldn't talk about "roadhouse trailer trash" or about watching something get "blowed up real good". It's not that those things don't exist in the south. The problem is that they aren't, and never were, particular or definitive of the south. You can find trashy women, and trashy men, anywhere. Similarly, there are boys and men everywhere who like watching stuff get destroyed.

So let's strip that stuff out and see what's left. What's left is pretty much what any good, progressive thinker from the Victorian era believed:

  • Eugenics: the belief that people can't transcend their genetics and, consequently, the people at the top of the socio-economic ladder belong there.
  • That free speech is dangerous in the hands of people who don't know the rules.
  • That women need to be protected in order to flourish.
  • That the historical and rational basis of religion has been destroyed so all that is left is spirituality.

That is the real ideology of the contemporary left. And that explains this:
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for? 
If you're wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book. 
What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton. 
The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.
And they can no longer explain themselves because their real motives are exactly the ones above and they don't want to admit that, not even to themselves. As a consequence—and I'm hardly the first to say this—the contemporary left is reduced to saying whatever looks like it will win. They have no beliefs of their own they're willing to admit to so they can only viciously attack.

I'm not sure what anybody can do about it. Sometimes I think the best thing would be for the parties of the left to get blowed up real good. That prospect strikes all my lefty friends, and most of my friends are lefties, as terrifying. I'm sure it would be for a while. Very soon, however, I think they'd find it liberating.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Woody Allen has made some questionable decisions in his personal life, and his recent films have not been great. But I know of no modern filmmaker who would be so willing to indict himself as thoroughly as Allen does in Annie Hall.
I'll buy that. To a point.

Have you ever been around someone who lacerates themselves for their moral failings but smiles as they do it? I've seen it. I've done it myself.

The Last Psychiatrist talks about this somewhere. He talks about how easy it is to say, "I'm a narcissist." Unless you actually plan to do something about it, it's meaningless.

And, if you really mean to do something about it, why do you need to say it? Is declaring that you have a problem going to make you more accountable?

The answer to all those questions is easy: look how it worked out for Woody.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Other girls will judge them."

It's important to pay attention to what actually happens and to pay attention to what actually gets said. The quote above comes from a CBC story about a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends. Let me repeat that, "a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends"; a boy shared pictures she sent to him with other boys and yet the damaging consequence was that "other girls" judged her.

Isn't moral psychology interesting?

Here's the way the CBC sets up the story:
When she sent selfies of her partially naked body, she thought only her boyfriend would see the images. 
The teenager never imagined one of the sexually explicit photos would end up being shared with five other boys in a Dropbox account.
"Partially naked body" means she sent him a picture of her breasts. The CBC is worried you'll enjoy it too much if they're upfront (if you'll pardon the expression) about this.

Here's how she explains how the boy convinced her to send photos:
"Basically [he] threatened to break up with me if I didn't send him pictures. I was young and naive and just sent them, and then that's what he did with it," she said. "I just think he's a pig."
There's a lot of equivocation in that quote. "Basically" here means that he did things that she now interprets as manipulative threats. Just how explicit these threats were is not clear. We also don't know how she interpreted them at the time.

 Here's the moral lesson she has drawn from her experience:
"Other girls will judge them, make them feel bad about themselves, make them feel like a slut for sending the picture, for trusting the person. It hurts self-esteem and it makes it hard for people to trust each other."
She wants it to be possible for people "to trust each other." That is to say, she wants to live in a  world where it's safe for girls to send nude selfies. (By the way, we should notice that while her identity is kept from us, as it should be, one of the consequences of this case being reported in the media is that every single kid at her high school knows who she is. I suspect almost everybody in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia knows who she is. She has two choices: leave town or be stuck with the identity this has given her for the rest of her life. As offensive as this thought will be to some, she'd be better of if the five boys had gotten away with it. That's why kids don't tell their parents about things like this.)

Many (but not all) teenage girls fantasize about someone seeing them naked and a surprising number will arrange to have it happen. They want to have it happen but they don't want it to be their responsibility. Boys, meanwhile, will try to trick or pressure girls into letting them see them naked. The two desires tend to play into one another. The fact that the boys are trying to manipulate the girls into doing this makes it easier for the girls to believe it's not really their responsibility when this happens. It also makes it easier for everyone involved to limit how far things go—most teenagers want to play with fire.

That neither surprises nor depresses me. I still have fond memories of Barb who, at age 17, walked into the room where her brother and I were talking and accidentally-on-purpose let her terrycloth robe fall open. She did this not because she was interested in me; she probably held me in contempt. It would have felt like riding a roller coaster to her—like something that was calculated-to-scare-her-but-was-actually-very-safe. And it was.

If you want to get depressed, stop and think a bit about how this instinct that so many teenage girls have would have worked out for most of human history.

So, what's the lesson here? That we should stop trusting others? To some extent, yes, that is the lesson. That said, living in a world where there is no trust would be horrible. The better lesson is that trust is only possible within strict limits. To use the current jargon, you have to set boundaries. What that current jargon leaves out is that you have to set boundaries on yourself as well as others. To use the old and better jargon, good fences make good neighbours. My fence keeps your livestock away from my garden but it also keeps my livestock out of yours.

(If the only reason you set boundaries is to protect yourself from others, you're a narcissist. And if you advise others to set boundaries only as a way of protecting themselves by controlling others, you're teaching them to be narcissists. The boundary game only works if both sides have an interest in it.)

Notice that the girl quoted by the CBC doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her. She blames the boy, as she should. She doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her because she sees that as a consequence of his betrayal more than something that is the judging-girls' fault.

She may be just a naive teenager but she has a deep understanding of the praxis of high school life. Mean girls slut-shame girls who are willing to go further sexually than they are. She's willing to live with that and most other girls will also go along with the mean girls. It's a way girls can vote girls who threaten them by going too far off the island. The same thing happens to the most prudish girls on the other end of the scale. Every high school girl recognizes that there have to be limits and every high school girl also recognizes that no one is going to be able to have any fun at all if adults get to set the limits. At the same time, it takes someone brave and strong to step up into the role of setting limits and most high school students aren't brave and strong. The only people willing to do that are bullies, enter the mean girls. Crazy as it may seem to us, most teenagers trust bullies to make important moral decisions for them. (Note to busybodies: this is why anti-bullying campaigns will always fail.)

But this girl also wants something else. She wants a secret space she can sneak away to and interact with boys. She wasn't really surprised to find out this boy was, in her words, "a pig". She was counting on that. What really surprised her was that the shame of being such a pig as to ask her for these photos wasn't enough to make him keep the secret to himself. She thought of it as a secret they shared—the basis of the trust she sought was that both of them would be equally afraid of "their" secret getting out.

The key point here is that when she says she wants "people to trust each other" (for that is the implicit message she is sending), what she really wants is to have enclaves where the ordinary rules don't apply and yet remain safe; places where people can sneak away and do things that they will be so ashamed of they will keep these things forever secret. At heart, she's a Victorian.

What's taken that Victorian world away from her is that everyone now has a camera in their pocket. Before that, there was plausible deniability. If I'd been a heel and gone back to school the next day and told everyone that Barb had flashed me, she could have denied it and just about everyone would have believed her.

Notice the subject header again. It's dangerous in teen eyes because the whole world might find out. At the same time, the risk is what makes it fun. Every kid who ever jumped off a roof into a swimming pool knew it was dangerous but none of of them ever thought they were going to end up in a wheelchair. Let's not kid ourselves, tens of thousands of girls and women will send erotic selfies today. Most will never suffer any consequences. Most of those women are also smart enough to realize that it's a virtual certainty that other men and women than the person they sent it to will get to see those pictures.  They can live with that because the risk of being publicly shamed, that "other girls will judge them", is very small.

What to do about it? There is nothing you could do.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hmmm, is logic just a social construct now

Ann Althouse has a nice catch on hypocrisy at the New York Times. I particularly liked the contradictory thinking in this paragraph from the piece she is criticizing:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
I take it you see the problem? If "facts are made up" , then "evidence" is just something spoken from a particular standpoint.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

When members of the same family do not talk with each other

This came up in my Facebook feed yesterday.

As of now, more than 400 people have typed "yes" or clicked on "like", thereby revealing more about themselves than they realize.

Before we get to that, notice two things about that message. It uses every trick in the passive-aggressive handbook. It starts with something that looks like sorrow but very quickly changes gear to shame its target with the suggestion that "the children" are suffering because of you. Then it brands the conflict as imaginary. That alone is sufficient grounds to dismiss it. Some conflicts are imaginary but most are not. Most conflicts are real.

Some people do, of course, take offence for trivial or imagined reasons. A lot of others, however, don't stop talking to family members because of a conflict. It may happen after a conflict but it is not that conflict alone that causes someone to stop talking to their siblings, parents or children.

I was curious about the page that would share such things. When I visited it the top posting was this:

There is a certain tension in finding both those memes on the same page.

By responding positively to the first post, more than 400 people have outed themselves. They've told us that they have a family member not speaking to them. This clearly bothers them. So they've decided to respond by using passive aggression, by calling attention to a post on Facebook where they hope the person who is not speaking with them will see it. How very nice vile of them!

When a family member stops speaking with you they are telling you that they no longer believe your behaviour is acceptable. They may be right or wrong in this judgment but it is very unlikely that they are being impulsive. They're doing this not on the basis of one thing but on the basis of long-established behavioural traits of yours. They are not nurturing resentment about the last conflict so much as they are adjusting their behaviour based on their 100 certainty that there will be more such conflicts in the future if they maintain contact with you. As I say, they may be wrong; if, however, you were inclined to type "yes" in response to the message at the top of this post, you can be pretty certain that you, and not they, are the problem.

It's Easter today—the ultimate feast of reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, is not simply a matter of getting together again. It requires making amends and attempting to sin no more. And sometimes, reconciliation is not possible in this life. Sometimes people feel they've been burned so often that they aren't willing to risk being burned again. If someone has decided to stop speaking with you there isn't much you can do about it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Not a religious song

A few years ago some poor Christian shared his love for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on some social media I was reading at the time. He was promptly shat upon by also sorts of people who assured him that the song was not a religious song but a love song.

I think they're wrong. I think it and many other Paul Simon's songs are religious songs. That's the key to his success—that he writes religious songs for an era that loves religious music but doesn't want this music to be too on the nose. Simon sometimes puts overt religion in the music while leaving ambivalence and existential angst in the lyrics. It works surprisingly well. When I was a kid and folk masses were in vogue his "Sounds of Silence" was a popular choice and it worked surprisingly well.

It worked because it has no theology about it. Leonard Cohen songs, as has been noted here previously, don't work in Christian liturgy precisely because they come with their own theology and that theology clashes with ours. But "Sound of Silence" has so little theology it may as well have none. It works like a psalm, expressing a yearning for something the singer himself doesn't grasp, probably because he doesn't, Simon's efforts to explain what the song is about are confused and confusing, little wonder that many people concluded it was a young person struggling to talk with God.

The purely musical "religion" in "Sound of Silence" consists in its being very hymn-like; it's in a minor key like many Jewish hymns and it has irresistible call to sing along. The musical connection is much more obvious in "Bridge Over Troubled Water, with its gospel influence, and "American Tune" above, which notoriously borrows its melody from Bach's famous chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. When I first figured this out as a teenager it got me wondering about the line, "We come in the age’s most uncertain hour." On the one hand, Paul Simon obviously didn't mean Christ's crucifixion when he wrote "the age's most uncertain hour." On the other hand, once you've made that connection, it's impossible not to hear it that way ever after.

So ... what?

Well, that's the nature, and the limitation, os so many pop songs. Robert Christgau wrote once about a teenage girl who thought that the Beatles song, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," was about how life was an "eerie, perverted circus." He was quite certain that wasn't what it was about for the Beatles, and it wasn't, but who is to tell a teenage girl it isn't about life being an "eerie, perverted circus for her?

But here's a challenge, try thinking hard about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite". You can sorta see the "eerie, perverted circus" aspect of it in the music. You can see it most clearly in the weird circusy interlude, which is a straight steal from the Doors version of Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song", released just a few months before the Beatles began recording Sergeant Pepper. But what about the lyrics? What can you here in theme? As is the case with just about all John Lennon's lyrics, what you here is nothing at all. As others have noted before me, Lennon specialized in a kind of easy going nihilism. The more closely you pay attention to his lyrics, the less meaning they have.

That's not true of Paul Simon. Many of his songs walk up to the precipice of nihilism but there is a spiritual yearning in them, a craving for God that is there whether he means it to be or not. The teenager who heard an "eerie, perverted circus" in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was just projecting teenage angst. Paul Simon was doing something more.

And it still resonates today. As a political ad, the following is empty. Literally empty. I defy you to find any coherent message in it.

But read it as a psalmist crying out for something lost, and you'll start to see possibilities. Possibilities that Bernie Sanders is scared to actually say out loud. For starters, this has to be the whitest political ad ever made. The first non-white person to appear in it is going down a line of white people giving them all the high five! As if the only reason they included her was so she could celebrate whiteness. The imagery, moreover, is all white America. The non-whites are there only to add colour. Bernie grasped, as Paul Simon grasped years before him, that White, Christian America was slipping away. Why? Big question. Too big for here. The important thing is that you could feel it toppling and people were forming sides between those who wanted to try and prop it up and those who wanted to rush around the other side and push it over faster.

If you're one of those who wants to try and save or regain America, and I'll come out of the closet as one myself, the thing you cannot escape is that there was a religious element to America. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Indifference is the greatest protector of our privacy

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
For my parents generation, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" was a great protest song. Anyone who takes the time to actually read the lyrics will see that it isn't. The point of the song is rather that the human condition never changes. Wealth is generated, diseases are cured, technology is developed but the we ourselves and the universe we live in remain mysteries.

Lately, that bitter impatience that led my parents' generation, also known as "the silent generation" to protest against the human condition has come back with a vengeance. One sign of this is the concern with privacy.

Here's the thing: you don't have any privacy. None. Research and writing has been a part of my job for forty some years now and if I took a whim to dig into you and your secrets, I could find out an immense amount about you. The only thing that saves most of us from having our most embarrassing secrets trotted out for our humiliation is that no one particularly cares. If you ever did something to motivate people against you—such as running for office or being charged with a crime—they'd find things that you think no one knows about and they'd use them to hurt you so fast it would stagger you.

And so could anyone else who really wanted to know your secrets.

The thing that saves you is that they don't care enough to bother.

You're just not that important. This has been said here before, but it's worth repeating, your purchasing habits, your web-surfacing history, your occasional porn-viewing habits are of no interest or value to corporations. Companies collecting data on online users don't care about you. There is no money in you. What's valuable to them is what large groups of people do. Knowing what value sets motivate women who care about fashion to self-select into identifiable taste groups is knowledge worth billions of dollars. Knowing that you have secrets is probably of no economic value to anyone.

There are nasty little people who would like to know your secrets, ranging from gossips to identity theft artists, but they aren't the ones people worry about. There is also very good reason not to want governments to collect a lot of information about their citizens but the people who pretend to worry about large corporations collecting data actually promote more and more government invasion of our privacy. (That's because "privacy" is just a smokescreen for their real interest which is more government control of the economy.)

There are also those people who shared your secrets and could, in theory, divulge them any time they took a dislike to you. Assuming they remember, which they probably don't as they neither love you nor hate you enough to remember these things for very long.

The bottom line, though, is that should anyone decide it was worth their while to ferret out your secrets they'd have a very good chance of succeeding. If powerful people in the press decided to do so, they'd have an even better chance. If your government ever turns on you, you're doomed.

Final thought: What about the secrets about yourself that you're keeping from yourself? There are some. And they're important secrets or else you wouldn't bother lying to yourself.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Disrupting the narrative

One of my better lents was two years ago. I had decided to construct a chronology of my life. That is to say, I had decided to go look for independently verifiable events from my life and set them down in chronological order. What I discovered, and what you'll discover too if you try it, is that some of the key events in my personal narrative happened a lot sooner than I thought they had, some had happened a lot later than I thought they had and some of them didn't happen at all.

Now just saying that raises a problem. For another way of saying things happened earlier or later or not at all "in my personal narrative" is to say that my personal narrative was just wrong, that it wasn't true. That, in case you're wondering, is what made it a lenten sacrifice. And I undertook the thing precisely because I knew that assembling such a chronology was going to blow up the narrative. I knew this because I knew that chronologies have a tendency to disrupt narratives. What I didn't know was exactly how it would do it.

I'm so addicted to narratives that I must have expected that I was going to jump from one narrative to another. Maybe from one narrative to its mirror image. I've been conditioned to think this way all my life (and so have you) by something called the hermeneutics of suspicion. That is a tendency to think that the narratives we tell ourselves hide dark secrets. That's a credible claim because sometimes they do. The problem with the hermeneutics of suspicion is that it operates on the assumption that there is always a dark and unflattering truth lingering behind the narrative.

When Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she meant that we tell ourselves stories in order to conceal bleak, horrible facts from ourselves. When I set out to do my chronology, I expected to find bleak, horrible facts about myself. I expected to find proof that I'd been telling myself a story to hide from myself the ugly truth that my life had been made up of chaotic and disconnected moments driven by my selfish drive for power and sex.

Before moving on, pause and notice that that too is a kind of narrative. "People tell themselves stories to hide from themselves just how meaningless and unflattering their lives really are," is a kind of narrative. Not only that but it's a brutally simplistic narrative that cannot be true. It's the sort of thing a narcissist would cling to as a last point of refuge so they didn't have to give up their belief that they are very special. If I can't be a very good person, I can be a complete failure. (There's a a theory that some murderers kill as away to bestow a kind of meaning on their lives after a long series of personal failures.)

What I found when I did my chronology was not an alternative narrative. I did indeed find that a lot of things I do were done in pursuit of sex. That's what men do and it isn't evil. More importantly, I found was that there were a number of cases where I'd believed I'd behaved badly when I'd actually behaved pretty well. And I discovered that there were certain people in my life who'd consistently told me things about myself that weren't true. These were people very close to me who'd told me over and over again that I was a bad person whose judgment was no good. They hadn't told me I was evil. What they'd told me over and over again was that I needed to be brought down a peg or two for my own good. As a consequence, I'd grown up to be a man who doubted his own instincts believing that these always concealed baser motives that I was hiding from myself.

Okay, but how do I know I've finally gotten it right? Couldn't all this be just another illusion? It might be but "might be" doesn't mean "is". To believe, as Joan Didion appears to believe a lot of the time, that we just shift from one false narrative to another is to embrace a profound form of skepticism with all that comes with that. If someone says, "You just think you've found the truth but this is just your irrational desires masking the dark truths you know to be true," the obvious response is, "How do you know that doesn't apply to what you've just said? How do you know that your persistent skepticism isn't a way of masking the dark truth that you aren't the smartest person in the room, that you aren't the only one who can see the bleak truth that everyone else is trying to avoid?"

Monday, April 3, 2017

A silly quiz gets it (sorta) right

You're subconsciously a dancing Jew! Deep down you're energetic, passionate and one of a kind. Your subconscious spirituality is rooted in experiencing the Divine in every day life. You're eternally the optimist with profound inner joy, no matter how much you've struggled and suffered in life.  
Judaism is one of the world's oldest religions. It's a monotheistic faith based on the ancient Hebrew scriptures.
The quiz promised to tell me what my "actual religion according to my subconscious" is.

Two qualifications:

  1. I struck out the second line because it's obvious flattery. The person whose Facebook post led me to the quiz had "Deep down, you're openminded, fair, principled and justice oriented" as the second line of his profile. I'm not going to take the time to check but I suspect that the second line of every single assessment is blatant flattery.
  2. I'm not a Jew, though it is an honour just to be nominated.

Otherwise it seems accurate enough to me. I'm not joking. If you don't experience the Divine in everyday life, you won't be able to experience it in church either.

And Catholic Christianity is also based on the ancient Hebrew scriptures. You might say it's not exclusively based on the ancient Hebrew scriptures, and you'd be right, but neither is any form of Judaism celebrated anywhere in the world the last 2000 years.

Okay, I hear someone saying, but this quiz is bullshit. Yes it is in the sense that the subconscious in the sense imagined here is nonsense. Yes, we do things unconsciously, but that doesn't imply that something called the subconscious exists. Freudianism is a pseudo religion. But there is a sense in which it is true because the truth or untruth of the claims above depends on my will. Truth and untruth applies to verifiable facts. It would not be true to say I'm wearing purple shoes because I'm not. Being an eternal optimist with profound inner joy is a choice that I can make. And that I have made.

I think of spoken here before of the choice I made at an early age to always find joy in the first snowfall. I did a chronology of my life a while ago and figured out that I must have made that vow either the year I was nine or the year I was ten. The fiftieth anniversary of that vow is coming. I'll have to find a way to commemorate it.

If you feel like being flattered by an algorithm, you can find the quiz here.