Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Controversial notions that aren't

Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.
That's Tyler Cowen's Bloomberg column. He says, "We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that's not necessarily the case." Why not? Well, because the statue is like a sentinel challenging you and, as noted in the quote above, it was widely expected that people would change, that they would assimilate, by adopting the ideal of liberty when coming to the USA. It's telling that this absolutely reasonable expectation has come to be seen as contrary to national ideals.

The book Cowen refers to is Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty by Francesca Lidia Viano

Monday, July 16, 2018

Populism: duelling definitions

Last post, I quoted a definition from Jeffrey Bell.
“Populism,” Jeff wrote,“is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives.
Today, the Acton blog has another definition.
Simply defined, populism is the rebellion of the common man against the outsiders. This vague definition reflects the reality that there are populists of numerous different political persuasions; at its heart, populism is a strategy, not an ideology. Populism is dangerous because its antagonistic framework prevents proper dialogue between different groups; to compromise allows a morally inferior group to force its views on the people.
That's a bit tricky because the definition isn't what it my first seem to be. The point the writer wants to make is that  "populism is a strategy, not an ideology". Populism, to flesh it out, is a strategy that stirs people up to think that they are being exploited by an elite group. And you can go with that if you want. It has consequences, though.

The first consequence is that there is, on that definition, no good populism. All populism is bad. The second problem is that there is already a perfectly good word that does what we're told "populism" is and that word is demagoguery. Of course, that is a much harsher word. No one calls themselves a "demagogue" while they might call themselves a "populist". The Acton definition, then, is just a move, a dishonest move, to start a hit job.

I quite like the Acton Institute and read their stuff regularly. I was a little disappointed to seem them stoop to this sort of writing. At the same time, I wasn't surprised. This is a Catholic organization and such organizations have very little optimism in people's ability to make decisions about their lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Catholicism and populism

Some days I read articles that catch my interest haphazardly and then notice a theme running through them. Today was one of those days. I started reading an article at the National Review site and then clicked on a "recommended" link that came up at the bottom of the page. The paragraph that struck me was this one:
“Populism,” Jeff wrote,“is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making ability of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people.”
The article is by Matthew Continetti and "Jeff" refers to the late Jeffrey Bell.

 A little later I was reading a piece about Flannery O'Connor and I was struck by this quote,
“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic,” O’Connor said. She added that these religions are “full of unconscious pride that leads to all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments.”
And, just a few moments ago, I came across an article in First Things that included these paragraphs,
Human happiness depends not on maximizing individual rights and liberty, important as both are, but on ensuring complementarity among persons—achieved by a lengthy and sometimes arduous process. We conceive of that process as culminating in a shape, and as similar to the folding of a flat sheet of paper into three dimensions. Thus, this essay’s guiding metaphor is of a folding process that shapes us into persons who “fit with,” mutually support, and depend on one another.
We argue that this folding process can take place only in hierarchy; markets cannot direct it. When markets encroach on hierarchies and reallocate resources away from them, society suffers. When hierarchies are properly protected and empowered, society flourishes.

I think we can see here the split that currently haunts both conservatism in general and Catholic conservatism.

To return to the NR piece about Jeffrey Bell,
The reluctance of Republican leaders to take up social conservatism, formulate an economic policy that addressed the monetary roots of stagnation, and forthrightly advocate the doctrine of morality in foreign policy bothered Jeff, even if it did not surprise him. 
If you'd started there, you'd think that conservative Catholics would be a good match with populists.  The first point, social conservatism, and the last, a forthright declaration of morality in foreign policy, are both natural fits for conservative Catholics. And these have been rallying points for Catholics and, for example, evangelicals in the past few years. But there is also a tension and it's a big one. Conservative Catholics have very little "optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives." It can look like Catholic social conservatism is compatible with the American ideal for a while but, inevitably, conservative Catholics will fail to go to wall for the cause because it isn't their cause. They're elitists.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Dawson's: The Bostonians

It's pure soap opera, assuming "pure" is a word that can be applied to that genre. Joey says those words at the end of Season Four and then she and Dawson kiss and, with that, we dial everything back to Season One. Actually, the first kiss starts Season Two but that's the basic issue.

That comes out in a revealing way at the start of the episode. The professor reads the story of the "first kiss' out loud to the class. And then he praises Joey and gives her a C. When she asks why, he tells her that her story ends where it should begin. And here we have one of those meta-moments the show is so famous for (or infamous for if you aren't a fan). The show's creators know they are stringing us along and we know we are being strung along and everyone is fine with this because the show can't move past that kiss without ending. There would be no story left to tell.

As a short story, it seems to me there is nothing wrong with ending the story here.  If F. Scott Fitzgerald had submitted chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby to Professor David Wilder the fact that there is plainly more to be told would not be just grounds for giving it a C.

Of course, Professor David Wilder's comment is really more of a plot device. It is meant to get the story back on track. That's ironical in retrospect because we know that the show's creator will ultimately change his mind and decide that Joey was wrong about seasons three and four being "pure soap opera" and that the love with Pacey was the real story all along. (The right choice if you ask me.)

To get back to Gatsby, there are obvious Gatsby undertones in Joey's story and that is perhaps the most significant thing about the series. The big surprise is not that Joey ultimately picks Pacey over Dawson. The big surprise is that the story is really about Joey. She is the major character. With this episode, Dawson and Pacey both become minor characters and could easily have been dispensed with, only the name of the series stands in the way.

The introduction of Busy Phillips as Audrey Liddell underlines the point. Several women have told me of more or less similar encounters on their arrival on campus. There doesn't have to be a literally Audrey character but any woman arriving on campus will see that her choices are a possibility and the question is not, "Why?" but "Why not?"

And that's about it. Jack's story isn't interesting. This is mostly because Jack's story should be Dawson's story. If there is a character who is gay, it's Dawson. Jen is boring. Pacey is ... absent.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

National Bikini Day and moral theology

Yes, it's today. This is the anniversary of the day in 1948 when a model (actually an exotic dancer because no real model was willing) wore one in public for the first time. Now they are everywhere.

What distinguished the bikini was that it bared the navel. There were lots of two-piece suits before it came along. Contrary to what most people think (including most women), it's easier to wear a bikini with a less than ideal body than most tank suits. If you're conscious of what you perceive to be body flaws, a simple tank is the worst choice. (There are certain tricks that can be done to make the tank more flattering and some companies specialize in these.)

The exposed navel is the key to understanding the bikini's mystique. Like the sundress, it gives a woman an opportunity/excuse to go out in public feeling almost naked. And this is a turn-on for some women. How many? Hard to say. A lot. But it's also the case that a lot of women wear them because they feel they have to. If other women stopped, they'd stop too but peer pressure and need to respond to competition from other women keeps them going. My guess is that far more women wear them because they like it than feel pressured into it but there is no way to measure that.

Covet or curious?

Now for some moral theology. Why is it wrong to covet? To covet is not to take. It's just to ... well, to covet. Figuring out exactly what the word means is a bit tricky.

Here's an attempt to improve our grasp on what's wrong with coveting: "to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others: to covet another's property." The work here is being done with modifiers and, as usual, that doesn't help much. If we can desire wrongfully then it must also be possible to desire rightfully and a bunch of adverbs don't help us to see where the line between the two is.

In moral theology it is sometimes argued that that what is wrong is the kind of desire that obliterates the will of the other person. The last qualification above gets close to this, "without due regard for the rights of others." That's tricky though because to covet is not to steal. I can look at your car in a way that shows no regard for your rights but not steal it because I fear prosecution. "I'd rob you if I thought I could get away with it but I don't think I can."

That's a very powerful argument when we consider sexual assault. There is always a minority of men, indeed, a large minority of men, who would commit sexual assault if they thought they could get away with it. That is something that deserves condemnation; it's a sin.

Or, consider the border issue that isn't assault but is definitely something the woman wouldn't want. A girl in a bikini gets on the diving board and a bunch of guys sitting around the pool start thinking they wouldn't mind if her top came off when she hits the water. It's not assault. It's not even agency—we have no control over what will happen and there is a credible argument that the risk of her bathing suit accidentally coming off is something she is responsible for. Still, for all that we are hoping for something she doesn't want and that she may find humiliating if it does.

That last part is where the sting is. Coveting is wrong even if I never carry through because I have mentally made the move to not caring about the other person.

But we can't stop there. What if some guy sitting at pool side thinks, "I'd like to have sex with her if she were willing"? Leave aside other reasons this might be wrong here because the question is, "What is wrong with coveting" and not what is wrong with, say, adultery.

What makes it super tricky is that we all pretend not to know stuff we really do know. The woman who wears very little on a hot day is not concerned only with comfort. This goes double for the woman who wears very little on a day when it's still a little cool. We live in a world where women openly encourage other people's sexual curiosity. And there is a tacit agreement to all pretend we don't know what's happening when we all know exactly what's going on. As the lemon girl once said to me, "When a man compliments a woman on her shirt, he really means her breasts." The world we live in is one in which some women openly encourage us to be sexually curious about them without acknowledging that is what they are doing. As a consequence, we can never know where she would think is too far.

A lot of sexual morality works like that. We all know what is happening but we tacitly pretend not to know. In that world, which is, after all, the real world, the only world, the world we live in, what are the limits. A woman is dressed in a way that is designed to encourage our sexual curiosity, how far can I let my curiosity lead me before it's too far. I have no trouble thinking of examples that are too far. But I can also think of lots of borderline cases

Summer Man (5): The Arrangements

"I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."

That's not from "The Arrangements" but from "The Mountain King" from season 2. That's not Don if you ask me. Yeah, he says the words and all and who am I to tell the people who created him that they don't understand their own creation. It just doesn't feel like him.

And yet, that's the Donald Draper we get for all of season 3. Except, that is, for the very end. In the last two episodes—"The Grown-Ups" and "Shut the Door, Have a Seat". In those Don (and Roger) take control by taking responsibility and they take action. You get a marvelous display of manly men doing what many men do.

But that can't be. So, instead, we get Don spouting lines that don't sound like him: "I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."

Thus, we get a painful scene in which Don and Grandpa Gene talk right past one another. Gene has Bobby out and shows him a Prussian helmet he brought home for the first war. He shows Bobby the hole where the bullet went. Bobby asks if he shot him and Gene says yes ... and then he qualifies it by saying he thinks he did. Why would he say that? Probably because he didn't. Unless he was a sniper, he just fired and hoped, or maybe he didn't. They had a tough time getting infantrymen to fire low in WW1. Too often they fired high out of fear of killing someone.

Gene's war experience is not that different from Don's. He has a helmet he isn't sure he deserves.

And there is something else. When Gene is telling Sally about her grandmother working as a draftsperson he lets slip a line about an engineer whom, he hastens to add, was no threat.

So we have two men who should be able connect not connecting.

And then there is the sleeping beauty twist. The sleeping beauty story is one of a girl who is left vulnerable to evil because her parents tried to protect her from it and left her helpless. It's an oft-retold tale and Betty seems like the latest iteration. Except that, she's a monster.

That's an interesting twist and one that is very apt today when we have a whole bunch of over-protected snowflakes who are, quite simply, monsters who unhesitatingly destroy lives to get what they want. Betty prefigures the type.

But what of Don?

One theory that has been discussed often here is that the best reading of Mad Men is an esoteric one. Now, "esoteric" can mean all sorts of things. What I mean is simply that the text does not mean what it appears to mean on the surface. Usually, when people talk about esoteric writings (or esoteric TV shows) they mean that the creators have intentionally hidden a real meaning under the apparently obvious surface reading. I don't think that is what happened here.

In this case, I think the creators started with two things: 1) a great character and 2) their interpretation of who the character was and what he needed to do to be happy. The problem is that they were just wrong on the second point. This created a tension that runs through the whole series. The great character demanded certain things in order to seem alive and compelling in the story that conflicted with the interpretation of the character the creators favoured.

I'm not the only one to see this. Here are some tweets about the finale culled from a contemporary newspaper article.

The first tweet recognizes that the finale was not a convincing whole. The second tries to get by that by reducing the whole thing to a cynical exercise in promoting Coke. The last blunders into the truth.

Here I make a weird digression to Ignatius of Loyola. While he was in the hospital recovering from a war would, Ignatius entertained two kinds of daydreams.. In the first, he dreamed of being a great lover in the chivalrous tradition. In the second type, he dreamed of being a saint. Bot daydreams gave him pleasure. The difference was that the second lingered while he quickly forgot about the first.

Dick Whitman doesn't really steal the real Don Draper's identity. He takes his name and his legal identity but he uses these to become someone new. He has a bunch of daydreams and some of them take root and others don't. The real Dick Whitman really is Don Draper, not the name or legal identity, but the one he created through his actions.

The end of man is action, and not thought, though it be of the noblest. Thomas Carlyle

Monday, July 2, 2018

Swingin' with Dean!

He peered out at the audience at the Aladdin, spotted Dean Martin at a front table—and suddenly experienced what he would call "my nightclub epiphany."
That's from an old article about Richard Pryor on City Journal. How old? Nine years old. Old enough that Bill Cosby's opinions were still taken seriously.

Anyway, here's what Pryor thought looking at Dean Martin looking at him.
I asked myself, “Who’s he looking at, Rich?”

I couldn’t say.

I imagined what I looked like and got disgusted. I gasped for clarity as if it was oxygen. The fog rolled in. In a burst of inspiration, I finally spoke to the sold-out crowd: “What am I doing here?”

Then I turned and walked off the stage.
That's pretty impressive. Pryor doesn't unfairly attribute any racism to Martin as a modern social justice warrior would do. It's actually a straight reaction. He implicitly respects Martin. It bothers him that such a man as Dean Martin would see him in a way that he, Richard Pryor, knows to be false.

I knew I had some Dean in my collection. A quick search came up with 6 albums featuring him. Four were Christmas music and a fifth being a collection of cool, swingin' vocalists. The sixth was this one:

This Time I'm Swingin'!

That's courtesy of Allmusic. The review says, " This Time I'm Swingin'! was a good, confident set by an artist who had figured out how to make competent albums without expending a lot of effort, which was a key to his charm."That's about right but it's an odd thing to say about an artist. Martin became a star because of his persona and not his talent and not because of his artistic vision, whatever that might have been. He was, and remained, a comedian, a great straight man, who happened to have a beautiful singing voice. That's who Richard Pryor saw.

This was not a man who was going to judge Pryor. He was cool with him. "You be what you want to be and I'll laugh because you're funny." Pryor reacted the way he did because he realized that he, Pryor, was unhappy with the who he was being for the crowd at the Aladdin.

I was one year old when that record came out. I think my parents owned a Dean Martin record but it wasn't that one. I'm sure they would have liked that one. The sort of effortless grace that stars Dean projected  in the 1950s was very much the style they aspired to. Here's my mother and me out in front of where we lived in Ottawa's Glebe that year.

"The Glebe" probably doesn't mean much to people from outside Ottawa. For years, it was the neighbourhood for people who aspired to be upper middle class in a cool way, as opposed to people who wanted to be part of the establishment. An insult from the time called people like my parents, people who came to the political capital to do good and stayed to do well. And there is something to that. They were young liberals who meant to change society in ways they thought for the better but they also some themselves as people who were among life's winners; they would end up, not rich, but comfortably well off.

That we lived where we did that year shows a rather brash confidence. Economically speaking, we didn't belong in the Glebe at the time. My parents were renting that year and probably paying more than they could afford. But they knew they belonged here. If they had been in a nightclub where Dean Martin was performing and he looked at them, their answer to Pryor's question, "Who's he looking at?" would have been positive. They wouldn't have been fully satisfied with what they would have imagined but they wouldn't have cringed either.

The next fifty years weren't easy but the overall trend was always up. After retiring, they moved to the east coast and there was an ocean view from every floor of their last house, even from the basement. They were never rich but they got to comfortably well off. They did well.

Neither was a terribly giving person. I don't blame them for that. They, in turn, had parents who were not very giving. That's understandable; they came from families that had climbed out of hardscrabble existence to become middle-class professionals. Much like the stars who created the cool style they emulated, there was actually a whole lot of hard work behind the outward "effortlessness" they projected. They'd learned to swim by being thrown in at the deep end and they had the contradictory goals of seeing their children achieve the same kind of success while sparing us from the trauma they had experienced. I'm tempted to say, "that didn't work" because looking at people I grew up with there is a lot of failure, especially marital failure. On the other hand, most of us ended up better off than our parents were at our age.

Something important has been lost. I can't imagine a rising comic looking at an aging pop star from the 1990s and having the sort of epiphany Richard Pryor had looking at Dean Martin looking at him happening today. The difference is not that Dean Martin was a great human human being and 1990s popstars weren't. Nor is it that the culture Martin came from was superior to that the 90s stars came from in every way. Look at a list of popstars from the 90s and you'll be struck by how many of them are women. But there was something about it that we've lost and would be worth getting back.

What is that something? I think the answer lies in the word, "swinging". Nowadays, that word means married people who live a lifestyle that involves having sex outside marriage. Back in the day, it meant a style of performance. More on that to come.