Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Lost time

Emma Garland describes herself as "a so-called writer" and who specializes in "music, being mad and shagging". She has a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing, which is nothing special, but is working as a writer and that is a lot better than most people with her education manage.

We might sneer at her but I'm not inclined to. Yes, she writes about trivial things in a trivial way but so did Proust for most of his career.

She'll be 10 years out of university this year, which makes her one of those writers who've made a career out of not growing up. That's a much harder trick to pull off than you might be inclined to think. She writes mostly for Vice UK, where she is features editor.

I mention her here because she has written a piece called "An A-Z of Things the 2010s Killed." It's mostly snark, as these things always are, so let's not blame her for that either. What struck me (and others) was the entry for he letter Y, which is titled "you". Here is what she says on the subject,
I don’t know a single person who has made it through the decade without losing something vital (their chill, their general faith in humanity, their dignity to a skater who runs a meme account and ghosts you after giving you chlamydia etc), so shout out you for enduring one of the most stressful decades in history.
Okay, chill, faith in humanity and dignity are all things you can get back—to lose them is not to lose "you"—but let's keep practicing charity, unlike some others I won't name. I suspect that we are seeing an example of accidental self-revelation here. Someone violated Emma's dignity. That's got to be at least partly her fault but it still really hurts when that happens.

So what? I know, I know, doesn't something like this happen to absolutely everyone in absolutely every decade? Well, not quite everyone, but I think most people have something like this happen to us. I know it happened to me and I know that it hurt more than anything else I've been through. Yes, "one of the most stressful decades in history" is silly but the last few years of it were possibly were the most stressful in Emma Garland's history.

And I suspect it's going to get worse before it gets better, if it does get better and it doesn't get better for an awful lot of people. She probably isn't making much money and it is even less likely that she's saving much. I don't get the sense that there is a lot of emotional stability in her life either. I doubt she has spent much time worrying about either but that is starting to change, which is the source of all the stress.

Which is why a very good decade looks so awful to her. Don't sneer, it must be bloody awful to be Emma Garland. She can get her chill back pretty easily. I doubt she'll even miss her faith in humanity. Her dignity will be much harder to recover but it can be done. The ability and willingness to be vulnerable again, on the other hand, will take a heroic effort. I hope she succeeds.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Playboy: really about a girl

The notion that women really drive popular culture is a notion I've experimented with before. I say "experimented with" because it's not something you can prove. I think it's true.

If you want to understand what's going on right now—the new puritanism, cancel culture, virtue signalling—you need to look at young women. They're not happy and they feel they should be. They, or rather enough of them to carry the day for now, think the problem can be solved by controlling others and that's only going to make it worse. And that's probably all I will say on the subject. It's their problem after all and I doubt being lectured at by me would help even of I did know better than them and I don't.

But let's look back a century to another generation of young women. Our story begins with nineteen-year-old Eleanor Borton. Eleanor was around that age in 1919, which makes her roughly the same age as my grandmother.

She was dancing with a man named Edward S. "Ned" Jordan who had started a car manufacturing company. She was at the party in the first place because her father was one of the people financing Ned's company. And she said to him,
Mr. Jordan, why don’t you build a car for the girl who loves to swim, paddle and shoot and for the boy who loves the roar of a cut out?
I'm not sure I know what a "cut out" is. I suspect it was a term for roaring away in your car. My source for this the Hemmings Classic automobile auction company. They have a wonderful write-up about the Jordan Playboy, the car he was inspired to create as a consequence.

I'm inclined to wonder if the lovely Eleanor ever said those words. I think she may have said something like them or it may simply be that Ned liked the thought of those words coming out of her mouth so he put them there himself.

Ned was a really good writer and, by coincidence, those very words showed up in the first advertisement he wrote for the new car.
What shall it profit a car to gain complete mechanical excellence if it must sulk under a drab and sombre body?
Though it have the best chassis in the world, with unlimited power, and though it be properly designed and balanced so as to give maximum performance—and has a dowdy commonplace body it is as nothing among the motor wise.
It goes on at quite some length after that. Far too long, really. But that's okay because he was working out the concept.

It's rather impertinent writing, taking words of Jesus and using them to sell sex. And make no mistake, selling sex is what it's all about. Any nineteen-year-old girl contemplating her marriage prospects in the exciting new world of 1919 would have caught the full significance of "sulk under a drab and sombre body".

Here's the full ad.

The paragraph about dogs barking, chickens scattering, old folks storming and so forth was written 24 years before "The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top".

Hemmings says, and I'm sure they are right, that the Jordan Playboy was a triumph of style over substance, "behind the colors, athleticism, rebellion and exuberance was a real–even rather ordinary–means of transportation."Okay, fair enough, but what strikes me is the appeal to women. "Colors, athleticism, rebellion and exuberance," perfectly describes the female heroines that Mildred Wirt Benson created in Nancy Drew, Penny Parker and Madge Sterling. 

In 1923, this magnificent ad appeared.

 That's a woman driving and a man chasing her on the horse. That's important.
Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I'm talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that's a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and cation whe he's going high, wide and handsome.
If that first paragraph were the opening of a novel, I'd have read the whole thing before going to sleep even if nothing after it lived up to that promise. And sex! A "cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits." Whoa!

No man would aim to be that. It's at once too intimidating and too restricting. The car doesn't deliver that either, nor would a girl really want it. It's to be the girl who knows what he's talking about and if you need that explained to you, well, then you don't.

Don't feel bad, others didn't know either so Ned filled her out a bit.

She's still driving and the man is still chasing her. You can already see decline, though. Compromises are being made. "She loves the cross between the wild and the tame," and "It's a brawny thing—yet a graceful thing for the sweep o' the avenue."

And the full rot is in with this ad.

I get the point. I want to be that man in that car, driving past that pine tree. The text is still aimed at a woman, she is in the one in "earmine". But she's letting the man drive and that's wrong.

Ah well, nothing good lasts forever. In the ad below we are decidedly east of Laramie.

The car is speaking in this one and yet ... .

That is, after all, a woman at the wheel.

It's also a woman on the horse. We can tell, alas, because she's riding side saddle. Bronco-busting, steer-roping girls west of Laramie didn't ride side saddle. Girls who know about a cross between lightning and the place where it hits, don't ride side saddle.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A decade of blogging

Yes, it's been a whole decade as of today. Here is the first post again:

Strength is a virtue

I was rereading Alasdair MacIntyre the other day and something that had never seemed terribly significant or controversial jumped out at me. This:

At least some of the items in a homeric list of the aretai would clearly not be counted by most of us as virtues at all, physical strength being the most obvious example. (After Virtue p181)
I should preface this by saying that MacIntyre is surpassed by only Jane Austen in my personal pantheon of moral thinkers.

That said, I still think he is wrong. Physical strength isn't the most significant virtue but I think it is a virtue and I think we all know it is. You can see it quite clearly where I live, and where we got a big dump of snow yesterday. A man or woman who is incapable of helping push a car out of the snow or of shoveling a driveway is morally deficient. Yes, there are legitimate excuses, old age and serious spinal injuries for example, but failing some such excuse it is a moral requirement to have a certain amount of physical strength.

This is not to say that physical strength is the most important virtue and it matters a whole lot what you use that strength to do but a virtue it is.

This comes out very clearly when I need help. If I go ask Dennis, who is much stronger than me, to help me push my car out of a snow bank, I have to treat his strength as a virtue if I am to show any moral consistency at all. If I think, “Well, you’re just a stupid bonehead Dennis but I really need your help so I am going to pretend to admire you just to get the help,” then I am treating Dennis as just a means and not as an end.

Added: I still rate MacIntyre highly but not quite so high as I did a decade ago. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Half a century ago, a certain social set really had its priorities in order. Life’s pursuits ran something like this: Jazz, tennis, newspapers, Yankees vs. Red Socks, Newport and Nantucket, sailing, contemporary literature, prize fights, prep schools and the Ivy League, cigarettes and cocktails, college football, Broadway shows, and New York parties that blended socialites with beatniks.
That's from a tribute to the Andover Shop's Charlie Davidson, who died this past Monday. I grew up in New Brunswick in a family whose roots were Québecois and famine Irish and yet that list largely describes the values my father and mother sought to instill in me. Prep schools were out of our financial reach, although a number of my aunts and uncles had made it to Ivy League schools (on scholarships) and were endlessly praised for having done so. Broadway shows were admired although we didn't get a chance to see them and had to wait for film adaptations. Parties that blended socialites with beatniks were more a subject for humor than admiration. But the rest of it: jazz, tennis, newspapers, Newport and Nantucket, sailing, contemporary literature, prize fights, cigarettes and cocktails and college football was endorsed. To which should be added: the style of dress Charlie Davidson and the Andover shop promoted.

None of those things were verbally endorsed! No one ever sat us down and said, these are the things you should value. We were taught by example. My father was a Hi Fi buff and the records he bought were jazz records. They all played tennis and when we visited cousins, tennis was always one of the activities. We had a sailing club membership and a racing dinghy and no one complained when I spent hours sailing or playing tennis. There were modern novels on the bookshelves and there were bookshelves in every room of the house. Men talked about the prize fights and every single adult male in the family had some experience in the ring. Cigarettes and cocktails were a prominent part of my parents entertaining. And we went to college football games.

And yet, it was all slipping away as I grew up.

Prize fights had already started to lose their luster before I started Grade 1. For most men of my father's generation, the second Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston fight stunk horribly. It was to them what the Epstein "suicide" is to men in their twenties and thirties today. Even if it wasn't actually fixed, everything about it left a bad taste.

The next things to go were jazz and Broadway shows. There were still jazz records my father had purchased in the 1950s and 1960s in the house when I hit my teen years but I was the only one who still listened to them. I remember my mother going to New York in 1977 and coming back with the report that the only one of the new shows she had liked was Annie. She was so disappointed, she never went back again.

Cigarettes and cocktails tapered out. By the early 1970s, any adult who still smoked did so shamefully. Cocktails were still consumed but less and less effort was put into preparing them. Women drank Bloody Marys and G&Ts. Men increasingly just drank scotch. The elegant glasses they were served in and the equally elegant clothes people put on to socialize slowly disappeared. Only a few men even bothered to have special glasses for their scotch.

Literature ebbed away without anyone acknowledging it. I remember visiting family friends in the late 1970s. While the adults talked, I slipped away into the library of the house and found my sister already there. She'd noticed something interesting. Our hosts had purchased every single Pulitzer, Booker and Nobel prize winning novel since some time early 1970s. That they had shifted from actively taking an interest in literary culture to reading only prize-winning books was significant in itself. What my sister had noticed, though, was that all of the books had stiff spines and a book mark somewhere in the first third. These books had been purchased out of a sense of duty and never finished.

Attitudes towards newspapers followed a similar pattern. Instead of reading the whole paper, my parents only read a few favourite columnists.

Tennis and sailing were done in by technology. Never cheap sports, they became ridiculously expensive. One-design racing boats became as expensive as cruising class, so people bought larger boats they could drink beer on or just stopped sailing altogether. Both sports were now administered by government-funded organizations instead of volunteer bodies and these tended to emphasize the interest of elite athletes and cared little or not all for ordinary people who played out of love.

College sports still mattered until the 1980s. But then it became political. It used to be that fans of rival schools could sit in the same room and put down one another's schools and teams in  good-natured way. By 1990, there were people who regarded Duke university as the moral equivalent of the Klan.

For young men my age, that culture that was ebbing away was not our culture. We'd grown up on Led Zeppelin, shopping malls and television. And yet it wasn't our parents culture anymore either. It was something they had abandoned and some of us resented their having done so. When it came time to leave childish things behind, which, for me, was sometime in the 1980s, a lot of us gravitated towards the things our fathers had loved in the 1950s.

Thursday, November 28, 2019


My vote for the most deliciously transgressive moment in the entire YA canon:
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.
She is Penny Parker created by Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson. The sentences don't quite say that it's easy for her to smile because her mother had died when she was very young but they walk right up to the edge of the thought and urge you to finish it for yourself. Killing off parents is an old practice in YA literature. Even when they are not outright killed, they are usually gotten offstage as quickly as possible. Benson, however, killed off mothers with a vengeance. She created four YA series—Nancy Drew, Penny Parker, Madge Sterling and Ruth Darrow—and in each and every one of them the Heroines mother is dead. To lose one mother might be regarded as misfortune, to lose four begins to look deliberate.

Let the gratitude begin.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Sentimental tripe passing as biblical exegesis

I wake up this morning to find a guy I know, a nice guy, shared the following.
Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point: Never mind what you’ve done, just come home.
This is attributed to Scott Hahn. 

Now that message is not antithetical to the message Jesus meant to convey but it’s not the reason he told the story. 

The story of the prodigal son is framed by two parallel stories. The first story is built on this conflict,
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.
The second story is built on a very similar conflict,
But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 
But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.
Here is why he told the story—to convey to us that he came to love and celebrate people that we’d rather not be loved and celebrated by him. The key line is when the elder tells refers to his brother as “this son of yours” when talking to his father. The point is not that Jesus will welcome back repentant sinners, although he will, but that we should welcome back repentant sinners for they are our brothers.

Notice how different this sentiment is from the self-serving sentimental tripe the quote attributed to Scott Hahn above peddles. (I’m holding out hope that Hahn, whom I respect, didn’t actually say this.)

BTW: Facebook, where this quote was originally shared, tends to bring this sort of sentimental tripe out in us. It doesn’t create. It’s our fault but Facebook definitely facilitates it.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

“Got this black narcissist off my back ...”

“ ...
She couldn't care less, and I never cared more
So there's no more to say about that
Except hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have
Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman with my past.”
There’s a question lingering here that is near and dear to my heart. Lana Del Rey is a persona created by Elizabeth Woolridge Grant. Does “woman with my past” refer to Lana or Elizabeth? Which past is it? The imagined one dripping in Americana or Elizabeth the recovering alcoholic. I put it to you that you could listen to this album a thousand times, analyze the lyrics for hours and listen to hundreds of interviews looking for clues and still not be entirely certain how to answer that question.

I lost interest in Lana Del Rey fairly early. “Video games” was a revelation but the rest of Born to Die was gimmicky crap. Then there was a brief flurry of hope with the Paradise EP. I loved “Ride” and “Cola”, the latter, alas, she disavowed after the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I mean, I can see why. If anything proved that everyone knew it was that Lana Del Rey was able to write a song in which she imagined what it was like to be one of Weinstein’s willing accomplices 5 years!!! before the scandal broke. Everyone knew and no one did anything about until it seemed like it might be a useful political weapon. Worse, “Cola” reminds us that Weinstein had lots of willing female accomplices and that doesn’t fit the narrative.

But Lana knows when and how to play ball with the Hollywood establishment. Case in point, the American flag. Here is the first sentence of a glowing review of her latest album at a site called Pitchfork:
In 2017, Lana Del Rey stopped performing in front of the American flag. Where the singer-songwriter born Elizabeth Grant had once stood onstage before a wavering projection of stars and stripes, charged by a brash apple-pie and blue-jeans patriotism, she now deemed the flag “inappropriate,” preferring a screen of static instead.
What makes this kind of funny is that the sentence is right underneath an image of the cover of the album they are praising. Blogger won’t let me post graphics using iPad so I can’t show you the album cover but go look it up and you’ll get the joke.

Why, there she is—performing in front of the American flag. Could they really be that stupid? Why, yes, they could. “Screen of static” indeed.

Here’s a couple of verses from the song “Venice Bitch” for your consideration,
You're in the yard, I light the fire
And as the summer fades away
Nothing gold can stay
You write, I tour, we make it work
You're beautiful and I'm insane
We're American-made

Give me Hallmark
One dream, one life, one lover
Paint me happy and blue
Norman Rockwell
No hype under our covers
It's just me and you
I suspect a lot of people comfort themselves with the thought that she is being ironic. But is she?

The only thing we can say for certain is that the reference to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Our House”—“I Light a Fire” is genuine. We know that because the album is littered with references to Crosby, Stills and Nash. But even there we find some subtle trickery. In the CSN original it is the man who promises something, “I’ll light the fire” whereas LDR simply declares that she delivers. And that’s important because the man sure isn’t.
Here are the very first words of the very first track on the album. “God Damn, man child.” Later in the same song, she sings, “You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two.”

The second best song on the album is “Mariner’s Apartment Complex”. Here’s a fun little quote (courtesy of Wikipedia about why she wrote it:
The song is about this time I took a walk late at night with a guy I was seeing, and we stopped in front his friend's apartment complex, and he put his hand around my shoulder, and he said "I think we are together because we're both similar, like we're both really messed up" and I thought it was the saddest thing I'd ever heard. And I said, "I'm not sad, I didn't know that's why you thought you were relating to me on that level, I'm actually doing pretty good". And he was upset, and that's when I wrote the song. I thought, I had to do so many times, where you know like I had to sort of step on that role where I was showing the way and I was sort of being the brighter light.
We spend a lot of time wrapped up in our own problems—so much so that it doesn’t occur to us that other people have their own problems. Here’s the surprising thing: the simple act of pulling your head out of your own ass will make you one of the strongest people in the room.

Okay, Lana/Elizabeth. I’m interested again.

Friday, August 30, 2019

What I suspect drives hatred of “populism”

I meet people who tell me they hate “populism”, Trump, Brexit and the like every day. That they really hate is undeniable but their attempts to explain what it is they hate and fear about these things are always incoherent. I’ve long suspected that “populism”, whatever that is supposed to mean, is just a symptom of something else, the passing of a way of life.

A friend of mine shared this on Facebook this morning:
"The purpose of an education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the LOGOI, of creation, which the ancient Christian Pythagorean tradition (right through the medieval period) understood in terms of number and cosmic harmony." — Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth's Sake

Now that might strike you as a little odd. How many people are committed to the “ancient Christian Pythagorean tradition”? Very few, to answer my own question. But what is at risk is the notion of using education as a way of indoctrinating people into a value set, a way of life. Slowly and by degrees, the government has been taking over higher education and, not surprisingly, it has been insisting that it serve its purposes, which are to train future workers and managers. That’s not necessarily an unalloyed good. But education used to be something different. It used to be an elitist institution whereby the young of a privileged class were indoctrinated into it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A rude question I ask myself

Any time I see an activity or group that, to put it the way an existentialist might express it, proposes itself to me I ask myself, “Do the people engaged in this activity look like life’s winners?” Is that shallow of me? Perhaps. Jesus said he came for sinners—tax collectors and prostitutes.

On the other hand, there is a difference between choosing your religion and choosing your pastimes.

For example, marijuana use has been made legal in Canada. Dispensaries where people can acquire dope had sprung up in town even before it was officially legal. When I walk by those dispensaries I cannot help but notice that they are packed with losers. Losers whom Jesus tells us we should love. But I don’t think love implies being like them or acting in the way they do.

Another example, someone I know takes part on rather elite trivia events, gatherings of people who take this stuff very seriously. As typically happens, people tend to get good at what they take very seriously; these people can answer trivia questions correctly much more often than the rest of us. They are, in a sense, winners. But just to look at their group picture is to see people who are marginal. Deserving love but not emulation. (I know some people would insist that is impossible but I think it is possible.)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Walt Whitman controversy

Sarah Ruden, who has also done a good translation of Augustine’s Confessions has a piece up at National Review “Walt Whitman Isn’t America’s Greatest Poet”. It’s causing great consternation over there and, as near as I can tell, almost nowhere else in the known universe.

I’m not qualified to judge Whitman as a poet. I’m not qualified because I’ve never read much of the guy. I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass on my shelves at home but, despite many attempts, I have never been able to read it. Not because it’s not good, possibly even great, poetry. The problem is that it fails to excite me. I just don’t care enough to keep reading.

And there, I think, is where Ruden strikes home. If we take it that there is a difference between “America’s Greatest Poet” and the “Greatest Poet Who is an American” it becomes possible to say that, whether he is a great poet or not, there is nothing about Whitman that speaks to America.

I’ve made similar points about James Joyce. Joyce may be a great writer but he hasn’t touched anyone outside the academic world. He’s read outside the academic world but only as a duty. Compare Joyce with Proust and we see that, there too, we have a writer revered by the academic world and read out of duty outside it but with a crucial difference: there are readers who dutifully slog  through Proust only to get enraptured by him. I know of no one who reads Joyce or Whitman and has that experience.

Instead, we have a writer who is read because he is “important” and continues to be affirmed as “important” because, damnit, he’s “important”. Most of the rejoinders at NR have that circular quality.

I have nothing against orthodoxy per se. I think there is a difference, however, between people who defend an orthodoxy because they love what we might call the content of that orthodoxy and people who defend it because it gives them a secure sense of identity to be aligned with an orthodoxy. I read Kevin Williamson’s rejoinder to Ruden, for example, and I find the usual good writing and sound argument I’ve come to expect from him. What is missing is any sense of genuine enthusiasm for Whitman.

Years ago, a Quebecois separatist whose name escapes me at the moment caused great outrage among defenders of PierreTrudeau by saying that Trudeau wasn’t an intellectual. When challenged, the separatist said, “Show me a time when Trudeau uses a quote that isn’t in Bartlett and I’ll concede. This stirred up even more outrage. As a teenager, what really struck me was that no one took up the challenge. For it should have been an easy matter, where Trudeau a genuine intellectual, to cite many examples of his having actually read the authors he cited in depth.

Similarly, if Whitman is America’s Greatest Poet, it should be possible to cite poetry that speaks to America. We haven’t seen that. All we have is a bunch of angry gesturing.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Frankfurt School on Religion

This commentary is on an essay by Jurgen Habermas titled "La verbalisation du sacré" from Parcours 2. An English version is also available under the book title of Postmetaphysical Thinking.

The form of the argument

The essay is divided up into sections designated by Roman Numerals. The first two consist largely of stage setting. The real action begins with section III.

The most important part of the stage setting for our purposes is his claim, I would argue correct claim, that a ritual does not depend on an antecedent meaning. You do not need to have a pre-existing mythical narrative in order to explain a rite. (There might be such a mythical narrative; the point is that there doesn't have to be one.) Habermas rejects the dichotomy that myths are representation and rites are performative. Rather there is a sacred compound of meaning and action that exists in the performing of the rite.

Rites seem to do two things for Habermas. They reassure us as to things that we feel vulnerable in the face of such as, "Will the sunshine return after solstice?" "Will there be spring this year?" "Rain?" Secondly, they reassure as to our collective identity.

It is this second purpose, not surprisingly, that most interests Habermas. His hypothesis is that in the genesis of our collective modes of life and associated forms of communication out of an egocentric, or self-referential understanding, ritual fills a blank space. That is to say we are naturally “narcissistic” [see note marked with * below] as it were, we treat our world as something to be manipulated to achieve our ends. Consequently, our understanding of language is self-referential. What is this thing to me? What is needed is a move that gets us from that to a position where I can talk to someone else about something that is not defined as how it figures according to my purposes but rather that has a meaning apart from me that I must recognize. Not just recognize as a definition but recognize in terms that impose standards on me.

Ritual, he will argue, plays a unique role in achieving this transition. It is important, I think, to understand the kind of argument he is making. He does not go so far as to say that, for example, it was logically required to bridge this gap the way that a cosmologist would say that certain highly unstable Helium molecules must exist because that is the only way Carbon could be formed. Nor does he agree that there is or could be empirical evidence such as archeological findings that ritual did play this role as a matter of historical fact. Rather he rather tentatively suggests that it could fill the gap and that there are no alternatives.

I would argue that the argument he does make is comparable to the argument for evolution. Evolution predicts but not in a testable way because there is no non-trivial difference between the survival of the fittest and the survival of the survivors. Why do I believe that evolution is true then? Because there is no alternative explanation that is even remotely credible.

To return to the text

Beginning at section III, Habermas argues, following Durkheim, that a ritual such as a dance or an exchange of gifts does not require an antecedent mythology. We do not have to imagine these behaviours as, for example, appeasing spirits or gods. All the meaning necessary is inherent in the practice. And there exists in these rites the potential for normative standards. This is how you do the dance.

If I might digress, this points to a deep problem in Liberalism. Anyone who has bashed their way through Leviathan will remember the interminable section where Hobbes tries to come up with a rational reason to surrender their weapons and enter into a social contract. I think every child reproduces that step: Two children agree to put down their water ballons. Then one says to the other, “You first!.” On the one hand, it is in boh heir interest not to ge wet. On the other hand, if one child can fool he oher ino puting down their wtare ballon firts hey can soak he oher wih impunity.

Arguing on the base of self-interest, which is Hobbes’s goal, never gets off the ground. In 2011 Habermas presented this paper at Georgetown University and in an aside he made a similar comparison with Rousseau. In order to enter into the Social Contract, Rousseau’s free individuals must renounce themselves.

In line with this, Habermas cites the issue of adopting a new status. He draws on Arnold van Gennep for this as he drew on Durkheim for the previous bit. He gives the example of a child going through a rite of passage boyhood to manliness. Figuratively speaking, the boy must die to one status before adopting the other. There is an odd limbo where he exists in a kind of no-man’s land where he cannot draw on his old identity and where he cannot yet begin to assume the new one. The rite, whatever it, Bar Mitzvah for example, must be gone through. That, and only that, gets the person out of his status-less state and beginning the development of his new life as adult. Habermas gives this a sort of metaphor for the socialization process. There has to be a self-renunciation and, although he doesn’t put it in these terms, that will put the person making any such transition in a very vulnerable position. Then, there needs to be a rite that establishes the new identity, the new status.

That metaphor established, he moves to an extended discussion of primates versus humans. Primates he argues are trapped in a self-referential viewpoint, an egocentric position. To move beyond this human beings need to be able to achieve two types of intentional relations.

The first he classifies as horizontal: two people who reciprocally take the perspective of the other. He doesn’t use this example but we can play a role-playing game with children with dolls. An adult acts out a drama where one doll hides something in a trunk while another doll is out of the room. The second doll is brought back and the child is asked to role play the second doll looking for the hidden object. The doll that was out of the room cannot know that he object is in the trunk and must therefore look around. To have the doll go directly to the trunk and pull it out is to fail the test. The vast majority of five-year olds figure this out and do the role play correctly. They will also pass a battery of similar tests. Neither Washo the signing chimp nor Koko the signing gorilla could do anything like that.

The second intentional relation Habermas classifies as an intentional attitude towards something in the world. The ability to believe that the yogurt I left in the fridge when I left home this morning will still be there barring some unusual circumstance such as someone else eating it before I get home. Again animals cannot do this with any consistency.

The ability to do these two things requires us to make a cognitive leap that is not explainable in terms of simple evolutionary adaptiveness. Human beings have a monopoly on this.

Interestingly, a mastery of language is not necessary to do these things.

At the same time, other requirements are fairly stringent. It wouldn’t be enough, in Habermas’s terms, for us only to figure out how to operate in cooperation based on symbolic mediation. That wouldn’t explain the deontic normativity that grows out of ritual. I can break off a game at relatively little cost. To break off a normative ritual in which the entire community is united is another thing altogether. That sense of duty is what meets the horizontal requirement.

The vertical requirement is met by the nature of ritual as well. If we are all making abeyance to the sacred microphone in the middle of this room it requires our all accepting something about the microphone that cannot be seen, that is its sacredness. But nothing that you can see about the sacred microphone distinguishes it from other microphones. I once saw women at a bachelorette party make reverence towards the plastic phallus. I doubt any of them thought the phallus was sacred. It was a bit of acting out, binding blasphemy. They recognized the importance of something they were transgression against and they implicitly agreed it was a real something even they could not see it. All they could see was a plastic novelty item. No one needed to tell the others not to go home and tell their grandmothers or their boyfriends about this. (You can't be blasphemous unless you recognize sacredness.)

I don’t think, as I note above, that Habermas makes a strong claim of proof. Ritual practice offers itself as a plausible candidate for this normativity and there isn’t any readily available plausible alternative. [I might mention Gadamer in Truth and Method and the connection between word and meaning. The only possible explanation is convention but Gadamer has set the matter up such that he needs something stronger. The meanings cannot be endlessly malleable. ]

There is, of course, a tension in any society between the meaning my momentary self-interest attaches to something and societal cohesion. "Yes, that really is my friend's donut but he’s not here and I’m hungry." I don’t think Habermas is claiming that ritual establishes a fixed set of normative standards that can never change. This is not his terminology but there is a degree of stickiness obtained through shared ritual that mere self-interested cooperation such as game playing could not achieve.

He goes on to say, and this I will conclude on, that in modernity many people live such that they do not make recourse to ritual. As a consequence, religious people have access to a kind of experience that others do not. He doesn’t quite come down and say it is a necessary experience but it is something that secular society simply does not have.

* Habermas does not use the term "narcissistic". That is my choice. He might object to it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

You may laught at Marianne Williamson ...

This inspired by a piece up at The Federalist that, correctly, notes that there are millions of people who think like Marianne Williamson. And that's true enough but consider the quote below. I'd argue that it's every bit as looney as anything she's said.
That love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
That's John Lennon.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Frankfurt School on Religion

Habermas says that Adorno had only a negative dialectic. That's true enough. As I've noted before any true adherent of Marx could only have a negative dialectic. (Full disclosure: I'm not entirely convinced dialectic is a "thing". If we used to think one way and now we think another way does it necessarily follow that there was some process that took place?)

I suggested in the first class that the critique if Weber, an almost obsessive critique, we find in Habermas and in Alasdair MacIntyre serves as a way to mask something. That is, it helps these thinkers hide from themselves that they have broken with Marx. Up until someone might reasonably have said, that’s all very interesting but what has it to do with the subject matter of this course?

Moving very quickly. For Marx, the reification of consciousness was a purely negative matter. A false consciousness, that’s Engel’s term, arose when ideology provided a hermeneutic that masked the real, and less admirable materialist motives that underlay power structures. A revolutionary ideology could have no direct access to truth, that is to a hermeneutic that would describe reality as it was. This would only available after a revolution lead by a class of people, the proletariat, who had been stripped of all potential for this false consciousness by capitalism.

We forget but, for Marx, capitalism’s destructive force was ultimately a positive thing: 

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
And it’s worth nothing that Marx shares this position with both the liberal Pope Francis and anti-liberal Catholics such as Patrick Deneen. That is to say, they all agree that capitalism in a liberal democracy will result in the profaning of all that is holy. The difference is that Marx thinks this is a good result and Francis and Deneen think it a bad thing.

Marx remained firmly committed to praxis, the philosophy of the deed. Its as only when a class so freed by this destructive force that it was free of ideology came and then set up a new state based on nothing but its interests as a class, that a new ideology could come along. The

For Marx the goal was obliteration of religion. For Habermas, the goal seems to be the transforming of religion with something that resembles it in some key ways. Thus his belief in some sort of positive dialectic.

What is gained by calling the activity of discussing issues, changing our minds, coming up with new ideas a dialectic? 

Think of the starting point of Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic. There is conflict between two people. One submits and the other makes him their slave. But why does this happen? The weaker person could have chosen to fight to the death. The stronger could elect to always kill those he conquers. Why does a relationship get established? Is there a philosophical answer to this?

The same is true of any relationship. Two people are on a bus. They might or might not start a conversation. They might or might not agree to continue it once they get off the bus. They might or might not agree to meet at a future date. Why do they choose one and not another option? Is there any reason to believe that there is actually an answer to these issues.

Habermas says, “Mead offers only a vague description of the evolutionary point at which symbolically mediated interaction appears.” That doesn't surprise me. What surprises me is that Habermas seems to believe that anything more might be possible.

The sacred

 A few years ago there was a news story about a teenage girl who had a great love for big cats. Hoping to eventually have a career working with them she had started a job where she cared for them. She loved the cats and they seemed to trust her. One day, however, one of them (I think a tiger) killed her. 

The large cats showed the same behaviour pattern towards this girl that they do towards the young of other prey. If a young antelope wanders in amongst lions, the lions will ignore it until they are hungry. Then they kill it an eat it. The young are easy to kill so there is no need to act immediately.

The large cats don't reason this through. That said, what they do makes rational sense. Cats need protein. Teenage girls are a good source of protein and they are easy to kill if you're a large cat.

We humans, on the other hand, are appalled.  For us this is a horrific event. Something that shouldn't have happened.

That seems to me a good example of what the sacred does for someone like Durkheim/Habermas. It establishes a line where no logical reason for there to be a line. Friends aren't food even though, strictly speaking, they meet all the biological requirements to be food and a tiger, where she present, might well demonstrate this to us in terms we would never forget.

Thus the sacred provides a  binary distinction: you never eat other human beings because they are sacred. There is no rational ground for this. It would make more sense to say this is the rational ground for everything else.

I was puzzled, however, that Habermas quoted Durkheim to the effect that an absolute separation of sacred and profane as required. That seems dubious at best. The whole point of a sacred is to transform the profane. Profane comes from "fanum" meaning a sanctuary temple. To be pro-fanum literally means to be in front of the temple. 

There are people who act as if he sacred needs to be protected. Indeed, some people who regard themselves as traditionalist Catholics act as if Jesus needs constant protection. They are, to be blunt, wrong. 

In any case, Durkheim, assuming Habermas has read him correctly, seems to be operating on a rather impoverished understanding of sacredness.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Frankfurt School on religion

Habermas doesn't set forth his own view so much as he teases it out by criticizing the views of others. At first glance we might think he is dismissing Weber, Durkheim and Mead but, in truth, he is building his views on theirs. They are more than a foundation of his view, they constitute a significant portion of the superstructure as well. There are other philosophers whom he does use in a foundational role and these might escape our notice for they get relatively little notice. At the same time, they get little or no critical appraisal from Habermas. Does this mean that he largely accepts their views as authoritative? I don't think so.

We might roughly classify the way Habermas uses other philosophers into two streams. The largest of these streams is his analysis of what we might call analytic strategies. Last time we saw him read Weber as a source of analytic strategies and he evaluated these in terms of their coherence and effectiveness. There is, however, another use of other philosophers and that is more as the ground. Habermas is working in a post-Kantian mode. He doesn’t say much about this. The ground, after all, tends to be there and we are usually more interested in the structures built upon it.

A key figure in this ground is Charles Sanders Peirce. Habermas doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Peirce but his name keeps cropping up at key moments. He comes up twice in Volume one and five times in Volume 2 three of those five times in Volume 2 occur in the section where Habermas identifies where the analytic strategy of Mead is inadequate before moving on to Durkheim. And it is precisely here where religion enters the discussion.

What is Post-Kantian about Peirce? In rough terms, I would explain it as follows. Peirce accepts the Kantian notion that there are percepts and precepts and uses them in similar fashion. However, for Kant, reason is one thing. He can write a book and call it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The key point being that “religion” is singular. If we set out to understand religion within the limits of reason alone, everyone should come up with the same answer. If we ask whether there is a religion possible within the limits of reason alone, there is, for Kant, only two possible answers: 1) That there is none or 2) that there is one.

(What of Peirce? The answer there is complicated. His colleague William James thought it was possible to have several, possibly even many, religions that satisfied the requirements of reason. Peirce should be willing to accept that but he argued that ultimately our views should converge. On what grounds he argued that I have never been able to figure out. It seems a statement of faith to me.)

To return to the question of Peirce as post-Kantian, Peirce looked at non-Euclidian geometry and realized that Kant's assumption that the dictates of reason were universal would no longer do. The precepts that we have are not given and universal. They have to be invented and applied. Which precepts get applied will, as a consequence, be determined by how well they work. Peirce’s contemporary, Ernst Mach, argued that Newton’s Euclidean notions of space could not be generalized to subsume the notions of space from Non Euclidean geometry. And then Einstein came along and proved them both right.

And yet, when we drive a car, we are much better off operating in a Euclidean world.

And that raises a problem for these precepts tend to be normative. We acquire them socially. For example, in Ontario where I live, doctors as a child of 18 months to identify body parts. A child is expected to be able to point at and name two. Mothers teach this to children by singing a song called head and shoulders. The song is sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down and she touches her head, shoulders, knees, toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose while singing. At first, the child imitates the pattern along with her. The child has not known all along that she has knees and is just now learning the name for them. She is just learning a pattern. The business of attaching names to things comes well don the line. The first step is learn the pattern and that pattern is normative. If I point at my elbow when the song says ears, then I am wrong. Likewise, if I distinguish green and blue in different ways from everybody else in this room, that proves that I am green-blue colour blind. It does not establish that I see green and blue in different ways. A mother teaches these names with absolute authority. There is no question that she might be wrong.

Habermas says there is a kind of “social control” that serves “to integrate the individual and his action with reference to the organized social process of experience and behaviour in which he is implicated.” And that is fine so far as it goes. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? But there is a chicken and egg problem: How does an “organized social process of experience and behaviour” arise?
As I have emphasized, Mead reconstructs this developmental step only from the ontogenetic perspective of the growing child …” and he adds, “This methodological restriction is legitimate so long as he is dealing with the genesis of the self.” That’s not going to be enough because society precedes the individual.”The genetic primacy of society in relation to socialized individuals follows from the basic assumptions of the theory of socialization developed by Mead.
Here is how Habermas spells out the circle: “Oddly, Mead uses the generalized other, the phylogensis of which is to be explained, only in the role of explanans … Mead is moving in a circle: in order to explain the phylogenetic transition from symbolically mediated to normatively guided interactions. he resorts to something that figured in ontogenesis, even though the “ontogensis” of this "generalized other" cannot be explained without recourse to phylogenesis.

Religion, before we bring in Durkheim, is a thing that exists. A child can be raised and taught right and wrong in terms of this thing. A convert can enter into it. But we have no explanation of how it can be evaluated against other forms of “social control” that serves “to integrate the individual and his action with reference to the organized social process of experience and behaviour.” Inside the form of life, there is room for a critical stance but it’s not clear how we would work between forms of life.

I don't mean that we cannot criticize forms of life. That we do so is empirical fact. We might make a distinction between types of criticism. If I play a melody from Chopin I might be criticized for getting the notes wrong. In that case, the person making the criticism might point at the score and showing that, for example, I played F natural where I should have played F sharp. A second type of criticism might acknowledge that I followed the score correctly but still argue that I played it "wrong". The difference between the two is that there is no external authority that everyone accepts that can be pointed at.

This a problem that springs up over and over again in contemporary philosophy. Consider Sartre’s famous question of the young man who wants to choose between joining the resistance or staying how to care for his widowed mother. Sartre says, just choose. And it is true that once you have chosen one or the other a whole raft of norms come along. But there is this weird, friction-less universe outside the two choices where it feels like you are just leaping across a void. Sartre seems to have thought that place was where true freedom lived and pretty much nobody was convinced by that suggestion.

Still, we have to give the devil his due. When it comes to choosing between forms of life, there don’t seem to be any authoritative norms. There are authoritative people, much as the mother is an authority to the child. Further, these people are following a norm. The mother's effectiveness teaching depends on her using the same terms for body parts every time, There is no final authority, however, as to what language she should choose.

Wittgenstein had an answer to this that I accept but many others don't. That answer is in two steps: the first is to say that “explanations must come to an end somewhere.” That is to say, there is no ground for anything where it is not possible to ask how that ground is to be grounded. The second step is to point at human activities and say, “look around, this is what human beings are like.”

I’ll finish up for now by returning to the distinction between Peirce and William James I discussed at the top. For Peirce there was a real convergence on truth. As the slogan from the X Files had it, the truth is out there. We choose between different precepts based on whether they work and ultimately this working will converge on the truth. James, famously or infamously, said that we choose based on what works and that is the end of it. The truth may be out there or it may not but we have no way of knowing. Ultimately, I think Wittgenstein and James agree on this. Beginning with Bertrand Russel, that answer has scandalized philosophers and, I would note, Catholic theologians. In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II wrote the following, “the dangers of relativism, pragmatism and positivism.” Them is cusswords!

All of these rest on a claim that there is not, to put it in religious terms, a non-trivial difference between acting as if something were true and acting on the belief that it is true. Ultimately, Habermas is going to attribute a Peircean, as opposed a Frege-James-Wittgenstein account of truth.

If we go to Volume one p. 276
The idea of truth can get from the concept of normative validity only the impersonality—supratemporal—of an idealized agreement, of an intersubjectivity related to an ideal communication community. This moment of a “harmony of minds” is added to that of a “harmony with the nature of things.” The authority standing behind knowledge does not coincide with moral authority. Rather, the concept of truth combines the objectivity of experience with a claim to the inter-subjective validity of a corresponding descriptive statement, the idea of a correspondence of sentences to facts with the concept of an idealized consensus. It is only from this combination that we get the concept of a criticizable validity claim.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Objective truth?

What do I really believe? Shouldn't I just know? No. Our mind doesn't work that way. We have tod discover our own beliefs just as e discover the beliefs of others. Often we only think we believe what are really a set of tribal  beliefs we pick up from others around us.

And then we read something that sticks in our mental esophagus and refuses to budge:
These films portray fundamental conservative values that make America great. They promote liberty, objective truth, family, patriotism, and the recognition that evil exists and must be fought.
I understand how people come to say and believe those things.  That said, I think there are mistakes in that position.

Conservatism vs liberalism

The first is that it is fundamental liberal values or, more accurately, an outgrowth of Whig values that made America great. American conservatism is a recent phenomena.

The problem is that both "liberalism" and "conservatism" are a slippery concepts. I was just reading an essay of Ronald Dworkin's from 1978 in which he discussed a new kind of liberalism that he thought was coming into being at that time. what is interesting is not what Dworkin thought was new liberalism in 1978 but what he thought was old liberalism.
Liberals were for greater economic equality, for internationalism, for freedom of speech and against censorship, for greater equality between the races and against segregation, for a sharp separation of church and state, for greater procedural protection for accused criminals, for decriminalization of 'morals' offenses, particularly drug offenses and consensual sexual offenses involving only adults, and for an aggressive use of central government power to achieve all these goals.
To which one can only say, Yikes!

It's telling, if not downright terrifying, that the word "liberty" appears nowhere in that definition. The first value Dworkin lists is "equality" and it shows up again and again in the list. That combined with "internationalism" shows just how successful efforts to quietly infiltrate and subordinate liberalism to socialist goals had been.

The next issue is that modifier "sharp". It should be enough to say, "for separation of church and state." Somewhere along the line that had become using the state to crush religion by shrinking its field of operation to something purely private.

Finally, there is the terrifying, "an aggressive use of central government power to achieve all these goals." There is nothing even vaguely liberal about that. Any real liberal would instantly recognize that as opening the door to incremental authoritarianism and loudly denounce it.

From the late 1950s, when it first came into existence, up until the 1990s, American conservatism was about opposing those pseudo-liberal developments.

"Objective truth"

This, of course, comes from Ayn Rand. It's an attempt to turn the clock back to a time before Kant. Again, it's easy to see why this notion can seem appealing but it's not an American value.

"Evil exists and must be fought"

On level, yes, this is true. But there are real problems with thinking of life as a battle between stark choices of good or evil. There are a whole lot of gradations of good and bad out there.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Frankfurt School on Religion cont'd

More than a month has gone by since my preliminary post on the subject.

My principal concern then was "What is criticism good for?" Another way of asking the question is to ask how far did the Frankfurt School get from Enlightenment rationality? Drastically simplified, the Frankfurt School worried that Enlightenment rationality reduced rationality to functionality and tended, as a consequence, to be exploitative. If politics, for example, is about what works then how is that different from controlling people?

That's a fine and understandable point. However, the thing about Enlightenment rationality is that it tends to focus on what is measurable. That is to say, it connects criticism with consistent results. Criticism, on the other hand, focuses on the internal logic of what is criticized. From that perspective, it would seem to follow that because an existing practice has internal tensions it must be possible to create a new one that is better. I'm not sure that is true.

What I propose to do in this post is to look at an approach to irrationality, to systemic bias, in Marx and map it onto the concepts of ideal validity and empirical validity that Habermas identifies in Weber. Why I am doing this will, I hope become clear as I go along.

In Marx’s account of ideology we find a very profound analysis of the problems of systemic bias. Indeed, I would argue that Marx clearly identified a problem that many others have failed to recognize. The problem is that irrationality, and bias is a form of irrationality, cannot be overcome by rationality. I can overcome error by being careful in my reasoning or submitting it to others to criticize as I am doing now. But we can’t overcome systemic bias that way. Marx famously states the problem in the Theses on Feuerbach with the question, “Who will teach the teachers?” If we are all subject to a systemic bias, then the teacher is every  bit as much biased as the student. And what applies to the classroom will apply equally to individual psychology. There is no stance I can take that will allow me to criticize my own beliefs. There is no meta-language that won’t also be subject to the same system bias.

If we live then in a world where our political, moral and, most importantly for this course, religious language is merely ideology that conceals the real material nature of human relationships, how can there be a genuine revolution? The question was raised last class, wouldn’t any revolution reflect only the biased views of the people leading the revolution? And that was Marx’s critique of the English, American and French revolutions. These were bourgeois revolutions and succeeded only in replacing a distorted ideology that favoured the aristocracy with a distorted ideology that favoured the bourgeoisie.

Why would a communist revolution be any different? The answer to that, for Marx, was that capitalism put the proletariat into a special situation. That their condition was so alienating that they were in a  position to see matters clearly. Not so clearly, and this is vital, not so clearly that they could conceive of a new system that could replace capitalism. Rather, they might come to be in a position where they could see that they shared interests as a class and then, as a class, they might foment revolution and following the revolution, create the conditions that would make it possible to construct a new social order. Not construct the order immediately, but merely create the conditions where it would finally be possible to see clearly, to see without systemic bias and, therefore, construct a just society. I’ll come back to this.

This is sometimes described as a conditional prediction. Marx would be guilty of determinism if he had said revolution were inevitable. But, the argument goes, he did not. Much as I might say that this paper will catch fire if if is raised to a certain temperature in the presence of oxygen, Marx outlined a series of conditions under which revolution might follow. Roughly there were three: 1) that capitalism would be subject to continued crises, 2) that the proletariat would become poorer in absolute terms and finally, 3) that the proletariat would develop class consciousness, that is begin to think of themselves as a class with shared interests rather than as an aggregate of individuals who just happened to earn their livings by selling their labour. For some left socialists in 1920s Germany, it looked like the first two conditions had been met but the third wasn’t. At their peak the left socialist parties didn’t quite get fifteen percent of the vote. And that was at their peak.

Marx writes about a "revolutionary ideology". How does that work given the limits to rationality he has recognized? What I’d like to suggest is that it fits under the category of ideal validity that Habermas finds in Weber but that it is limited in a  way that is not the case for Habermas/Weber. That limitation is that, for Marx, those who would seek to encourage revolution, or to encourage class consciousness in the proletariat, cannot point at any post-revolution social justice for system bias will only reproduce sublimated forms of the current moral ideology, that is to say another religion in the same sense that Feuerbach criticized the Christian Holy Family as a magnification and projection of actual families into the heavens thus setting up a standard that real families cannot meet and, because their own value is taken from them and projected into this sphere, impoverishing actual families. (I'm a Catholic Christian but I acknowledge that there is something profoundly correct about Feuerbach's critique.)

A revolutionary ideology, therefore, could only highlight contradictions within the existing bourgeois ideology.

What, then, would correspond to empirical validity? There is something in Marx but it’s an anticipatory validity. The proletariat cannot see what is beyond the veil. Their special clarity regards what is wrong with the current ideology. As I mentioned above, the new order cannot follow directly from the revolution. There has to be an intervening stage called the dictatorship of the proletariat where that class, pursuing its own interests zealously and without regard for anything but its own self-interest as a class will create the conditions where a new social order could be constructed that would be free from distortion by ideology.

Now, there are two big points to make here. The first, as I noted above, is that this empirical validity is only anticipated. And that is quite a jump, to say that because we can point out tensions, contradictions and injustices, even brutal injustices, in the current system that there must be an alternative that does not suffer from these shortcomings. That is a religious claim, not an empirical one. We hear it often enough, I think every progressive politician has said at some that, “there must be a better way!” But there is no reason that follows. Not empirically. If, like Simone Weil and Raymond Aron, we are going to suggest that Marxism the opiate of the intellectuals, this is where we will aim our artillery. There is something mystical, religious even about this promise. It is a view not unlike what we find in the First letter of John:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
As I read him, Habermas sees more than this strictly negative role for ideal validation in the rationalization of society. He is working towards a notion of rationality that can create the conditions for a legitimate social order and not just a distorted ideology. As a consequence, his view of religion will also change for religion, even an illusory religion has a role to play on the side of ideal validation. This opens the possibilities for religion that simply do not exist in Marx.

A final remark 

As I understand them, both Adorno and Marcuse denied that the objective conditions for revolution existed in the 1920s and they certainly didn’t think they existed in 1968. Therefore, for them, what needed to explained was not why the proletariat had failed to do what it was supposed to do. What needed to be explained was why the socialists of the 1920s and the students of 1968 falsely came to believe that revolutions possible when to quote Marcuse, it was not only no a revolutionary situation, it was not even a pre-revolutionary situation.

Monday, June 3, 2019

"... whatever works best to get the outcome they want."

That telling phrase shows up in Ann Althouse's discussion of Clarence Thomas. She's responding to a Ross Douthat piece that argues that "in any other area" the left would argue that a general trend that led to a consistent pattern favouring white births and disfavouring black births was racist.

Try to forget what side of the argument you are on for a moment. That's what Althouse does. She tries to consider only the dynamics of the argument.

She opens her analysis with three sentences that I'm not sure I understand. Individually, I understand them well enough. It's what they do together that puzzles me.

Here is the first:
There is this idea in constitutional law that you need to pick one approach to interpretation and use it consistently, across all the issues, and that's what keeps you deciding cases according to law and not policy preferences.
"There is this idea," I take to mean, there is a position that some people argue and it goes like this. By phrasing it that way, I think Althouse is signalling that this is not her position. I now expect her to take a critical position in the next sentence, which is as follows:
An argument can sound completely cogent, but if it's not the kind of argument you always make, it's a lawyer's argument, not a judge's reasoning. 
And that is followed by this key argument:
Of course "the left" are political actors, entitled to make their lawyer's arguments, and they may not be embarrassed to find themselves switching approaches to constitutional law to use whatever works best to get the outcome they want.
So systemic racism just a lawyer's argument. Ponder that.

The phrase "they may not be embarrassed" is concealing a lot here. Let's try to spell out what is being concealed.

Lawyers argue on behalf of clients. They don't have ends of their own beyond representing their client as well as best they can.  Philosophically speaking, this is a Weberian universe where reason is used to decide means and not the choice of ends. A certain kind of liberalism follows from that: a liberalism that, as Ronald Dworkin, insists the state not take a position as to what constitutes the good life. The state will take a position about actions of individuals that might impinge on the right of individuals to pursue the good life as they see fit.

Okay, now let us consider systemic racism. A systemic position that affects actual, living people is then racist. This remains true even if none of the individuals involve are conscious of acting with racist motives or conscious of being acted upon in a racist manner. The left accepts that as a legitimate argument. Why wouldn't they accept it with regards to abortion?

One possibility, and it's the one Althouse suggests, is that they just don't care whether they are being consistent. They just want what they want. The problem here is that this suggests they don't actually have an argument for what they want, that the political ends they choose are merely tribal. And maybe they are.

But circle back to racism for a moment. The left's insistence on eliminating systemic racism has always been that this is an end worth pursuing. They typically do not admit to be using this as a strategy to achieve other ends. The implication of Althouse's argument is that this is what they are indeed doing. And if that is true it is also reasonable to infer from their response to Clarence Thomas that they do not particularly care about system racism. They only care about these other ends; ends that are, not incidentally, unstated.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

"Beta male" is the wrong term

I've written about this before. It seems to me that people are pointing at something real and important when they use the term "Beta Male" witness the pathetic display of Moby in recent days.

But the expression "beta male" is awful. There can only be one alpha in any group. To engage in that sort of language is to trap yourself in a  zero sum game that you are almost certain to lose. It also precludes cooperation.

I much prefer Robert Glover's condemnation of making moral decisions by committee. You want to be a man who decides what is right and does it and not a man who farms out his moral decisions to the community around him. Glover called the sort of man who does that a "nice guy". That term is less offensive but, perhaps precisely because it is that, it is also less useful.

Monday, May 27, 2019


A couple of shots I took while out tonight.

From the clubhouse at The Royal Ottawa Golf Club. 

Trees silhouetted against a neighbour's window.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Progressivism and puritanism

This is a quote from an article deploring a boycott of Morrissey. I've always found Morrissey too irritating to keep informed of what he does so I have no idea if what he has or has not done is defensible. But this specific claim intrigues me (emphasis added):
Only this boycott isn’t organised by uptight Bible-bashers, Mary Whitehouse-style loathers of punk, or racist posh women, who think a young black man saying ‘Fuck tha police’ is the end of civilisation as we know it. No, the boycotters this time are progressives. Or at least that’s how they’d describe themselves, somewhat inaccurately.
There are two assumptions behind that. The first is that progressives are good people and the second is that moral puritanism isn't typical of progressives.  I'm inclined to believe the first one; I think most progressives mean well even though they often produce negative outcomes. The second, though, I don't believe. If anything, it seems to me that puritanical moral attitudes and progressivism go hand in hand. Not all puritans are progressive but all progressives become puritanical.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Rebel Preppy

 Ralph Lauren Magazine has a piece up with a subhead that reads, "Why preppy style was always about breaking the rules—not following them." That's not crazy talk. There is something right about it. As I was writing yesterday, wearing boat shoes without socks was a kind of rebellion. But is Ralph Lauren selling rebellion today?

If you look at the picture that accompanies that accompanies that article, you'll notice what might be taken for anarchy. Here is the central figure:

It looks like he is breaking rules all over the place. He's wearing a Madras jacket with patchwork jeans along with a tennis sweater over a striped shirt with a tie and suspenders over the sweater. That should be chaos. If you owned similar items and just put them on, the result would be chaos. It's not chaos in that picture because skilled designers have worked very hard to pick colours and patterns that would complement one another. Notice how gold, blue and burgundy repeat throughout and how the patchwork jeans echo the patch-like effect of the madras. That may look like a bunch of items a prep kid might have pulled out of his closet but it's actually the furthest you could get from the preppy spirit. There are only two ways to get that look: 1) either you invest a lot of time in learning design rules and following them or 2) you buy all those pieces from Ralph Lauren where designers who understand the rules. A look that was created by kids rebelling against parents has become a look designed to make you childishly dependent on Ralph Lauren.

Let's consider some Thomas Aquinas for he is obviously germane to the issue of prep.
We must now consider the vices opposed to prudence. For Augustine says (Contra Julian. iv, 3): "There are vices opposed to every virtue, not only vices that are in manifest opposition to virtue, as temerity is opposed to prudence, but also vices which have a kind of kinship and not a true but a spurious likeness to virtue; thus in opposition to prudence we have craftiness.
The key issue  is the bit I've highlighted. Leaving prudence aside for the moment, it seems to me that you could not come up with a better description of the relation between Ralph Lauren and preppy than to say, RL has a kind of kinship that is not a true but a spurious likeness to preppy; thus in opposition to preppy we have identity. I want to be a "rebel prep" so I go to RL and buy rebel clothes.

"Identity" is a tricky thing. At first glance, you'd think that identity is a source of security. This identity, whatever it might be, is something I own and therefore have a right to. Look around a bit, however, and you will see people desperately fighting to defend their identity. No matter how certain you feel about your identity, you need other people to assent to it. Thus all the concern about pronouns in the trans debate.

Preppy, to begin with, was just the way upper middle class people on the Atlantic coast dressed when they were on vacation. It was the face you put forward for your inner group. Back in the 1970s there were regular Thanksgiving gatherings of my mother's family in Cape Cod, Prince Edward Island or Notre-Dame du Portage. The location shifted back and forth between where her various sisters were summering. About thirty of my cousins would gather and  there was an undeniable family resemblance in both the people and the clothes they wore. Then we'd go back to school and all feel a little odd because those clothes we wore weren't quite right. We stood out. And not in a good way. There was nothing glamorous about us.

Ralph Lauren was a Jewish kid who grew up in the Bronx. He craved glamour. He studied it and made a lot of money selling what he took to be glamour to others. He didn't just sell clothes, he sold a set of rules about how to dress to get the look. This is not rebellion but high-school-style peer pressure applied through advertising.

Those of us who dressed "prep" before it had a label in the 1970s represented a way of life that seemed like it was on the way out. Everybody seemed to agree about that. Every night television news showed a new world taking over. It's hard to imagine now but every hair stylist and clothing store had a sign in the window that said "unisex". I remember reading a column by Robert Fulford in this period where he predicted that art would replace religion and clearly delineated differences between men and women would disappear. The notion was that men and women would  have their haircut the same way and wear the same kinds of clothes. It was complete nonsense, of course, in very short order women figured out that wearing the same jeans their boyfriends wore wasn't flattering and men figured out that getting the same haircut their girlfriend had was bloody expensive and required a whole lot of maintenance to no real end. On the other hand, girls at my high school figured out that the jeans could be fairly flattering if only you wore them tight enough. They also figured out that they could wear the same T-shirt as all the guys but make it very clear they were girls by not wearing a bra.

For the people pushing this revolution it didn't matter so much whether the new thing worked. What they wanted was the destruction of the old. All they succeeded in doing, however, was to create a backlash. The backlash had no unifying principle. The late 1970s saw the rise of punk rock, lingerie stores, nerd culture and preppy. The only thing they had in common was that they had no intention of being swept aside.

So, yes, preppy was always about breaking rules. In practice, however, breaking rules is really a matter of choosing a different set of rules. Contrary to the cultural elite who favored a world where the rules were constantly changing, a world that, not incidentally, favors the cultural elite, preppy rebels wanted rules that suggested a certain permanence.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Historical irony concerning boat shoes

Muffy Aldrich, whom I'm inclined to like because of the people who hate her, had a discussion on her blog about boat shoes. Her readers chipped in on various subjects including whether it is okay to wear them with socks. Spoiler: it is!

It struck me that there is an interesting historical irony here. The practice of wearing boat shoes without socks initially sprang up as a form of rebellion among upper-middle-class teenagers. I know this because I was one of them. I'm not sure when it began. It was well-established by the time I came along in the last-half of the 1970s.

"Rebellion" is a relative term. Upper-middle-class kids in those days did not buy their own clothes. They went shopping with mommy (or, if you were Canadian as I was, went shopping with "mummy"). We wore more or less what we were told to wear. Rebellion, then, could only mean wearing what you were told to wear with a certain flair. Thus boat shoes and loafers were often worn without socks.

This information got published in The Preppy Handbook and it became a style to copy. Ironically, what was initially a rebellion became a rule. And now there are people who insist you can't wear socks with boat shoes.

Worse, there are people who will advocate wearing those horrid little sockettes that won't show. Nothing could be further from the preppy spirit. The right choice is a rough wool sock. (Why wool? Because it's still warm when wet.)

Monday, May 20, 2019

"I'm in front of the camera and not behind it"

Here's a video that a lot of people will be familiar with and a lot more people will have never heard of.

As often happens with me, the only reason I know about this bit of pop culture is because Ann Althouse commented on it. She says in her post comment that, "Something very big or very small appears to have happened." And that catches the spirit of the thing. This is like watching the head mean girl from your high school explaining why she felt the need to crush some other kid, destroy them, in front of everyone else. Only this isn't a high school student, Tati Westbrook is married woman in her thirties who has the emotional and moral intelligence of a 17-year-old. That has a lot to do with her success. The beauty and entertainment industry has long been dominated by people who are older than the audience they appeal to; it has long been dominated by people who are driven by a desperate need for love in the form of fame.

The quote in the header to this post appears at about the 40 minute mark. And I get her point: she's 37 years old and she's a beauty icon. That's unusual but not unheard of. On the other hand, the notion that a woman would be big in the beauty industry by working in front of the camera is not exactly revolutionary. You could argue that the teen-aged boy she is slapping down is far more revolutionary in being a gay man in front of the camera although even that is not nearly as new as people like to pretend.

(Doris Day, who died last week, achieved her greatest fame in the years from 37 to 46. And she was a cultural giant who dwarfs all these YouTubers put together.) 

Bottom line: everything we see in this video is the height of conventionality: it's a feud between an ambitious and manipulative woman and an equally ambitious and manipulative gay man who have teamed up to promote unrealistic expectations for young women to motivate them to spend billions of dollars on products that promise more than they deliver. That describes the beauty industry from 1870 to 2019.


What really struck me though was a Vox article Althouse linked to that takes sides in the feud under the guise of explaining it. More precisely, I was intrigued by the way the article used the concept of authenticity.

Authenticity is a weird notion and it's especially odd to find it coming up in this context for authentic is not what Tati Westbrook is. She doesn't even fake it as the old entertainment business joke goes. Everything about her is a performance. I don't criticize her for that. Authenticity isn't what she's aiming for. So why is the word being used?

Here is how Vox brings it up.
But the Charles-Westbrook feud is also as good a look as any into the lucrative ways YouTube works. The platform may reward authenticity and encourage gurus like Charles to open up about their personal lives as well as their work. Yet the YouTube audience can just as easily flip the script and turn on their favorite personality — and decimate not just their public image but their entire livelihood.
The platform rewards authenticity? What the hell are they talking about? That's a serious question because they are talking about something. It just isn't authenticity.

If we look at the quote, authenticity appears to be about opening up about your personal life. Well, you can see Westbrook do that above. Except that she's performing. And she's not hiding the fact that she's performing. She's overacting to a degree that is staggering. That's not opening up.

The second aspect of "authenticity" as Vox sees it is that it's tenuous. The audience could flip on you and turn against you. But authenticity, whatever it is, is said to be a quality about you. Impressions can be wrong and they can, indeed, flip in a second. But if authenticity means anything at all, it has to mean something stable about the person who has it.

The word shows up three times in the article. The second and third are in one paragraph.
BeauTubers’ authority is born out of a perception of authenticity, and many gurus underline this authenticity by opening up about their personal lives onscreen. They reveal their darkest secrets, talk about their miscarriages, or detail their plastic surgery. They continually reassure their subscribers that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.
I've left all the links in that just in case you have a desire to see people spill their darkest secrets in a terribly conceited way as part of a pathetic struggle for fame. If we look past that, we see an interesting shift. It's not authenticity that YouTube rewards but "a perception of authenticity". And the stars of the medium "underline this authenticity by opening up about their personal lives onscreen."

Suppose you woke up decided you wanted to be authentic. Would opening up about your personal life in a public forum be a good way to do that? I would think not. I can't imagine a better to way to ensure that you'd lie and lie and lie than doing that. Just the pretense that you'd make yourself vulnerable to people who don't know you in that way seems nonsensical.

I say "seems" because there are clearly people who believe it. Reading about these YouTube stars inspires pity. Someday we will be reading about deaths by suicide. Or, more likely, not as their being completely forgotten will be a factor in those suicides.

Authenticity is a very slippery notion.