Sunday, February 25, 2018

No, that doesn't sound like narcissism at all

The person who wrote this meant to praise the people he was writing about.
Millennials want to buy products from brands that uphold their own ideal self-image, and this often means aligning oneself with issues and causes that matter to them. This goes from proudly posting a selfie while wearing Patagonia outerwear to carrying The New Yorker totes that are taking over NYC streets and subway platforms. Millennials want people to see them and immediately know what they care about.
You could reasonably ask whether this is a fair portrayal of millenials. What you can't deny is that a whole lot of left-leaning people are encouraging young people to act this way. 

The best part? That the article in question is called "Your Brand Needs a Conscience". Seriously, on what planet does buying "products from brands that uphold their own ideal self-image" qualify as having a moral conscience?

Friday, February 23, 2018

A club for mutual improvement

In 1727 Franklin organized a club for mutual improvement which he and his friends called the "Junto". The purpose of this club was to meet on a regular basis to discuss topics of mutual interest. In such meetings, each could benefit from the knowledge and experience of the others. The club was quite successful and had a very important influence on Franklin's life.
That's from Benjamin Franklin's The Art of Virtue: His Formula Successful Living edited by George L. Rogers. It's both hard to imagine doing such a thing and easy to wish that we could do such a thing today.

 Franklin would have been twenty-one years old in 1727.

One of those moments

My beard, once black has gone increasingly white over the years. It was salt and pepper two years ago but now is almost entirely white except in the sideburns. I really like it in its new, white garb. Last weekend I saw an old friend, one of those people whom you stop seeing and sometimes wonder why you don't see them anymore. On seeing me, his first remark was, "Wow, your beard has really gone white!" And I replied, "Yeah, isn't it great!" In response to which he got a hurt look on his face.

I guess that's why I don't see him much anymore.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Nancy Drew goes solo

In contrast to Nancy Drew, who typically solves her cases alone (and is almost always featured alone on the covers of her books), the Hardy boys rarely single-handedly solve their mysteries. Instead, the brothers team up not only with each other, but with their father and their friends, operating in what has been the basic unit of male sociality since time immemorial: the all-male gang.
 That's Brett McKay in a great  piece called "9 Things a Grown Man Can Learn from the Hardy Boys". I'm using it to as a launching pad to write about Nancy Drew. He's right. Nancy does work alone.

The Nancy books are as close as anything the Statemeyer Syndicate produced comes to Freudian. Wriiten by Mildred Wirt Benson, the series kills off Nancy's mother without remorse. In the first book in the series, the subject gets introduced as follows.
Carson Drew, a widower, showered a great deal of affection upon his daughter; it was his secret boast that he had taught her to think for herself and to think logically.
That's on page 6. The subject comes up again 6 more pages in. Watch for the grammatical mistake as you read this.
After her father left, Nancy Drew finished her breakfast and then went to consult with Hannah, the maid, concerning the work of the day. Although only sixteen, Nancy was unusually capable, and under her skillful direction everything ran smoothly in the Drew household.
On the death of her mother six year before, she had taken over the the entire management of the establishment.
The original really does read "six year before".  I think that's a clue. I suspect the manuscript originally read "one year before". Someone, probably Edward Stratemeyer himself, noticed and thought that was a little harsh, and revised it up to six but forgot to make the noun agree in number. Later editors shifted the death even earlier so that Nancy's mother died when she was only three.

Nancy was created, after an outline prepared by Stratemeyer, by Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson. Wirt Benson was a serious badass who broke with expected norms of womanly behaviour in the 1920s when it was  a lot harder to do than it is today. We can find more clues of how Wirth Benson thought  if we look at the other heroines she create. She killed off all their mothers! The most striking example is Wirt Benson's favourite Penny Parker.
Her eyes sparkled with the joy of youth and it was easy for her to smile. She was an only child, the daughter of Anthony Parker, editor and publisher of the Riverview Star, and her mother had died when she was very young.
Straighten out the clauses and those two sentences tell you that Penny finds it easy to smile because her mother is dead. By the time she wrote Penny, nine years after Nancy, Wirt Benson had learned to hide the brutal way she felt about mothers.

She seems to have had similar feelings about other girls. The girls Nancy and Penny encounter are mostly nasty pieces of work or kind-but-ineffectual. And, as Brett McKay rightly notes, Nancy can't wait to get away by herself to solve mysteries. Penny is no different.

The thing that really strikes me about McKay's observation is that it runs counter to what you most often find in real life. Girls form gangs naturally and easily. It's a struggle for boys. We do it, we just don't do it as easily.

This was partly Stratemeyer's genius.  He reversed a lot of standard elements of children's literature. His heroes and heroines were independent and distrustful of authority. When his daughters took over the syndicate, they fixed that. His books weren't didactic. And, I would suggest, they dumped the male loner and the collaborative female who is such a big part of most literature aimed at kids. And good for him! But the two original ghostwriters for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Wirt Benson and Leslie McFarlane respectively, were the ones who made them feisty.*

The other people we should credit are the boys and girls who kept the books in print decade after decade. My speculation is this: in the modern world boys often find themselves alone and wishing they were part of a gang while girls find themselves defined by the women around them and wishing they could break free and be individualists. And this rooted in an inescapable fact about modern childhood.

Tyler Durden famously said, “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” That's true but it never occurred to me that the same is true for women. Every normal woman must be tempted, at times, to spit upon her hands, hoist the black flag, and begin cutting other women out of her life. Nancy Drew's immense popularity testifies to this.
As Bobbie Ann Mason points out in her excellent 1975 history, “The Girl Sleuth,” Nancy Drew is a paradox—which may be why feminists can laud her as a formative “girl power” icon and conservatives can love her well-scrubbed middle-class values.
 That's from an informative but misguided New Yorker article, misguided because it does not give Wirt Benson due credit for the creation of Nancy Drew. That's important in this context because its Wirt Benson who created just that paradox. We could also reasonably ask whether the paradox lies with Nancy or whether it lies with contemporary feminism and conservatism. Feminism tends to encourage women to be who they want to be but then contradicts that by it's collectivist politics. Modern conservatism, meanwhile, has a social conservative side and a strongly libertarian side living cheek by jowl and neither side is entirely comfortable with the other.

Nancy Drew, I would argue, is the one who is free from paradox and tens of millions of girls get that. They go from mothers at home to female teachers at school and university and they yearn to break free from them sometimes as Nancy does.

* The books where these two authors and Edward Stratemeyer had the most influence are the best. That is the first five Nancy Drew mysteries and the first ten Hardy Boys. You want pre-1959 editions as they were gelded after that. Pictured are my copies of a series of facsimile editions produced by the very good folks at Applewood Books. If you're a reader they are an even better deal than the originals as they are printed on better paper. Alas, they are out of print so you'll have to find used copies.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Something that jumped out at me while reading about Merle Haggard on Wikipedia

While in prison, [Merle] Haggard learned that his wife was expecting another man's child, which pressed him psychologically. He was fired from a series of prison jobs, and planned to escape along with another inmate nicknamed "Rabbit," but was convinced not to escape by fellow inmates.
Good for them.

A gender equality paradox

The following link comes from Tyler Cowen who suggests that the last sentence is the most important.
The underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a continual concern for social scientists and policymakers. Using an international database on adolescent achievement in science, mathematics, and reading (N = 472,242), we showed that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled. Paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality. The gap between boys’ science achievement and girls’ reading achievement relative to their mean academic performance was near universal. These sex differences in academic strengths and attitudes toward science correlated with the STEM graduation gap. A mediation analysis suggested that life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects.
There are a number of things worthy of comment.

First excerpt:
...we showed that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries ...
That should be qualified with "at school".  Girls do better at school than boys. As a consequence, they tend to do better in subjects while at school. That doesn't necessarily tell us they will continue to do better at those subjects in real life.

Second excerpt,
Paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality.  
That's the supposed paradox. But is there really anything paradoxical about it? It seems to me that it is telling us something pretty straightforward and something that should be pretty obvious to anyone who pays attention to common sex characteristics. That is that most girls don't want to do science or technology. When they are given a choice, they drop out.

Now we can get to that last sentence.
A mediation analysis suggested that life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects.
Here is how I'd say that: when life is hard, when there is less opportunity for women to get ahead, they are more likely to consider working in a field that does not appeal to them.

Cowen concludes with a question: "So what is the implied prediction for our future?" That skips another question though. Do you want to force women to do things they don't want to do "for their own good"?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

David Brooks versus Jordan Peterson (2)

I'm pretty certain Jordan Peterson is a liberal. That doesn't mean much. What is liberal is pretty fluid and yesterday's mainstream liberal stance often turns out to be today's hate speech. Which is pretty much what happened when Peterson took a stance against legally enforced speech.

It is not for that reason alone that Peterson is liked on the right. He also advocates what David Brooks, discussed in a previous post, calls "strength of will, the bootstrap, the calls to toughness and self-respect" [NB: New York Times link] and that is a conservative attitude today. It wasn't always. It used to be liberals who advocated that approach with conservatives taking more of a noblesse oblige attitude. Sir Winston Churchill's father Randolph and Winston himself, especially in his younger days, took such a stand.

Liberalism had begun to shift to a more paternalistic rather than individualistic tone by 1870 but the larger shift didn't happen until the 1930s when the Democrats in the USA and the Labour Party in Britain began actively seeking the votes of poorer people. Before that the Republicans and the Liberal Party in Britain had been the parties representing the oppressed but they had done so from the perspective of those looking down.

It's important to stop and consider the irony. Politics became more paternalistic in form as it became less paternalistic in attitude. You could not find a movement more paternalistic that modern progressivism.

The truth is that people don't always want what is best for them. Just out of university I was deeply in debt. What I wanted was for my debts to be forgiven. No one was willing to do that so I paid them off instead. And thank God I did. The self-discipline I learned in those days has turned out to be worth many times more than what the dollar value of forgiving the loans would have been.

I doubt I would have seen this at the time. No one offered to forgive my debts but if someone had shown up and said, "Let me help you out, here's a cheque for the full amount," I would have jumped at it. It was only when I realized I had no choice but to work hard to get out of the situation I was in and, more importantly, started to actually work hard, that I realized the advantages of bootstrapping. Which brings me back to David Brooks. He describes the call to "strength of will, the bootstrap, the calls to toughness and self-respect" as a need that young men have. As a "need". That's a telling word choice.

David Brooks is more of an old-fashioned conservative, driven by a paternalistic noblesse oblige. He does identify with or much like the people he'd like to help out. You can feel the disdain when he describes what he imagines to be the their situation: "constantly outperformed and humiliated by women, haunted by pain and self-contempt." It never occurs to Brooks that these men might be motivated by what Petsreon says because they have already begun to grasp that hard work and sacrifice works whereas what people like Brooks say, that " he lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice," is foolish paternalistic nonsense.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

What is this photo selling?

I'll grant that this one is not subtle. But I've come here to make a serious point and not to sneer. Iron X Fitness are a small, local company in a very competitive market. I don't know anything about them but I'm pretty certain they don't have huge amounts of money to spend on advertising and they have to reach a divergent audience with that limited advertising. They aren't communications experts and they don't have the deep pockets it takes to hire that sort of expertise. I think they've done a pretty good job.

"It's all about balance!" And "building a strong, natural and healthy body." They don't mention being able to spread your legs really wide but they hardly have to given that photo. If you check the company's web page, pole fitness is far and away their most popular offering and their clients are overwhelmingly women. There is a market for this stuff.

That it's about sex is pretty obvious but it isn't about sex the way you might think it is. Let's clear out some more of the obvious stuff. Everybody knows that pole fitness has its origins in pole dancing and that pole dancing is what strippers do. And you don't need to look at a lot of photos of women doing pole exercises to figure out that it's all about erotic display. Oh, and did I mention that its called Pole Fitness? But it isn't about getting sex. Fitness and appearance for women is rarely about getting sex. Most women know what they have to do if they want to get sex.

But suppose you asked a different question. Suppose a woman was perfectly happy with the sex she's getting and who she's getting it with but she'd like to think that she could, if she wanted to, get some guy of fairly high status to pursue her and, once she was in bed with him, really blow his mind. She almost certainly she won't actually do it but ... . That's not a question about sex; its a question about sexual status. In that case, you'd maybe sign up for pole fitness.

Some people will get angry at this, but a lot of the meaning of life for women comes from being sexually desirable. It's a good thing that there are companies like Iron X Fitness offering the opportunity to work on this in a safe, comfortable environment. And all sorts of good things come from this. You couldn't begin to tally up all the positive physical and mental benefits that come from the exercise these women will do.

PS: I was very fit in my twenties but I never could do what she does in that photo. In the unlikely event I'd managed to get myself into that pose, I wouldn't have been able to hold it for long and I certainly wouldn't have been able to smile while doing it.

Friday, February 2, 2018


Today, is the Feast of the Presentation of The Lord for Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and some Lutherans. It is also known as Candlemas and, more importantly for this discussion, "The purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary". Why did she need purification? Because the antique Jewish faith required purification anytime you touched blood or semen and Mary had given birth some forty days before. Forty was a number that signified completion. We will shortly begin forty days of Lent for our purification.
At the same time, this is one of many Christian feasts that were intended to replace a pre-existing pagan feast, so the Roman feast of purification Februa/Lupercallia, becomes the Purification of Mary. As a believing Catholic and a married man fond of ritual and domesticity, I still can’t help feeling that something has been lost here, that swapping a warlike Juno for meek little Mary, and that’s the the way we celebrate her today, was a bad deal. 
The photo at the top is a piece of driftwood from Pocologan, New Brunswick. I think it looks like, or can be seen as if you prefer, a pagan wolf.

David Brooks versus Jordan Peterson (1)

A week or so ago now, David Brooks confronted "The Jordan Peterson Moment". [NB: That's a New York Times link.] That headline tells you a lot. The person who writes a story is typically not around when a headline is written so, although it is conceivable that Brooks gets headline approval, we shouldn't hold him responsible for this headline. That said, it reflects something we find in the column. For Brooks and his audience, Jordan Peterson is a weird and unexpected thing, something foreign and threatening.

Brooks' discomfort is evident right from the opening line. He acknowledges a claim made by Tyler Cowen that Peterson "is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now." The thing you need to know to grasp what is happening here is that Brooks would love to be a public intellectual but is not. He got close with his first book but he is mostly a newspaper columnist. His books are well-received and reviewed inside a certain narrow social sphere but he will never reach the audience Peterson is reaching. Another way of putting this would be to say that Brooks is an establishment figure. No other kind gets to write for the New York Times.

As an establishment figure, Brooks spends a lot of time papering over the cracks in conventional thinking. This column is interesting because he is confronted with the biggest crack, the San Andreas fault that underlies modern progressive thought that all good progressives try not to think about in the hopes that it won't cause any problems in their lifetimes at least. It can be stated this way: every liberal society in the world has decidedly non-liberal foundations. You can make an authoritarian society into a liberal one but what you can't do is take a situation where no society exists and make a liberal society out of chaos. Brooks wants to deny that. He wants to believe that you can start out with love.
Much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhortatory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.
 Brooks admits more than he realizes when he writes "sounds to me". He is admitting that he can't prove his side of the argument. Ultimately, progressivism rests on something like religious faith.

If you grew up in the west, you might share that faith. Alternatively, you may think as Peterson does. Want to find out what you really believe? Open your eyes and look around, do you see a universe full of  "benevolence, beauty, attachment and love"? I'm sure you see some of that, especially if you live in the west. But do you think that is the natural state of things or do you think it's something that was created at the cost of sacrifice and self-denial? Those aren't rhetorical questions.

They aren't rhetorical because I know that some readers, perhaps most, are going to want to answer that order is the natural state of things. Others, like me, are going to want to answer that chaos is. That isn't just Brooks fundamental dispute with Peterson, it's a fundamental question that has driven western political thought since at least Thomas Hobbes.

All I'll say for now is that it's a lot easier to believe that the world is full of benevolence, beauty and love from inside a functioning liberal society. Go outside and watch a little animal predation—watch an eagle kill and eat a really cute puppy, for example—and your confidence will be shaken. I would say rightly shaken.