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.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Identity politics in one quote

"Everyone knows how much I care about and value equality for all... I have it tattooed on me!"

That's from somebody called Willow Faith. She seems to be some sort of social media celebrity. It showed up in my Facebook feed as a sponsored item. The ellipsis is in the original, which is to say she uses it as a caesura and not to indicate that something has been left out.

The problem with identity politics should now be obvious. If everyone really knew how much she cared it wouldn't be necessary for her to tattoo it on herself. The tattoo, the identity, is just an attempt to find a shortcut to virtue.

That's the charitable reading ...

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"The situation looks bleak indeed"

Here's a sentiment we've seen before.
Yet for someone like me – a 32-year-old single Catholic – the situation looks bleak indeed.
I can talk to any young woman in my social circle and they will, one and all, say the same thing: there just aren’t any men. What we mean by this is there is a frightening scarcity of men aged 25-35 who are church-going, single and worldly-wise.
Most men I meet have two out of three of these qualities, with the latter often lacking. If they’re single church-goers, they’re usually awkward and in want of basic social awareness (a big turn-off for most women). If they’re more worldly, they’re generally not single or not religious. Even if they’re not religious, most young Australian men hold views and values that are left of centre and utterly opposed to our own.
 I'm not sure exactly when I first heard this sort of talk but it was a while ago now. It was sometime in the mid 1980s, which is to say before Anna Hitchings, who wrote the above, was born. I suspect the talk actually went back further than that. The mid-1980s was the time I hit twenty-five and, consequently, was the time some women in my cohort started talking that way.

It's not nice to bring that issue up, age I mean. That said, reality has no scruples about bringing up what the rest of us are too polite to say.

What I find interesting is the way the unhitched Ms. Hitchings immediately locates the problem outside of herself. We've seen this before. Eight years ago I commented on an article by British journalist Anna Pasternak who had written,
... when I look around at my girlfriends - bright, attractive, successful, fabulous women in their 40s who are single — I sincerely begin to wonder: Is there even one solvent, kind, desirable, heterosexual single man in his 40s left in Britain?
Notice how similar that is to,
I can talk to any young woman in my social circle and they will, one and all, say the same thing: there just aren’t any men. What we mean by this is there is a frightening scarcity of men aged 25-35 who are church-going, single and worldly-wise.
The two Annas express the same sentiment: there aren't any single men worthy of women like them. The possibility that maybe the women who find themselves still single might not be as special as they imagine themselves to be is never raised.

Hitchings raises another question: What of the church for she too is having a hard time attracting men? Again, as she sees it, the problem is not with the church but with men. Indeed, Hitchings worries that women desperate to find men will relax their unimpeachable moral standards.
The fear of being alone seems to be driving women of faith to abandon everything they believe to secure a ring on their finger. I don’t want to be single for the rest of my life any more than the next girl, but that certainly doesn’t mean I think a man is worth overthrowing all I hold dear; everything that gives me hope and meaning and purpose in life.
Note the catastrophizing going on here. Hitchings is locked in a struggle against evil.

Consequently, she has no trouble deciding that the lack of men in the church and the lack of men she would consider suitable marriage partners is the same problem.
Do we need more young men on the path to truth and goodness? Of course we do! I’m deeply grateful for the influence figures like Dr Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro are having on so many men, young and old.

We should be doing all we can to help steer men in the right direction and find truth and meaning in their lives. Men who are guided by good principles, who have purpose and direction in life, are not only deeply attractive to women, they are invaluable assets to society. Yet many women I see and talk to feel as if their chance is never going to come.
Because it couldn't be that the notions of "truth and goodness"  are the problem?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"My truth"

I ran into an old girlfriend at the Elmdale Tavern* a few years ago. I asked her how she was. She responded by talking for five minutes about why her marriage failed. It was an inappropriate response. She may have realized this or she may have not. What was plain that she felt compelled to tell me.

I get it. I feel the same compulsion. It's especially intense when we meet someone we used to be in a relationship with. There is a sense that if we can get the facts out there it will preclude the judgment we dread.

The expression "my truth" seems to come with a heavy dose of self-righteousness. It's either the self-righteous declaration of the person who uses it or it is a self-righteous condemnation of the expression by some person who feels called to defend something they call "the truth" or, even worse, "the objective truth". I don't believe it's worth getting heated up about the matter either way. As a communication strategy, however, "my truth" is useless.

The first thing to notice is that the truth can and will take care of itself. If it's really true that Noah is has treated Alyson abysmally, then it really is true . If it isn't true, then it isn't. Her declaring it to be true doesn't change a thing. Her convincing someone else that it's true also doesn't change anything. The truth is the thing that doesn't change.

As I note above, there is a sense we all have that if we can get our story out there we will prevail. It's a natural enough response as anyone who deals with children can tell you. Often times all that is needed to make a crying child feel better is to let her tell her story. She's hurt and she wants someone to listen. That same tactic works on adults too. "Works" here means that it will pacify them. But does it work for the adult?

Whether or not we use the expression "my truth" to describe what we are doing, telling your truth is a pushy thing to do. What's our justification for this? "I'm hurting and someone should be listening to me!" Ah yes, entitled victimhood, that will win them over. They don't want to hear this. They'd rather be talking about themselves but here we come and force them to listen to us talk about ourselves. That's a bad way to start.

And it only gets worse.

And think of what that does for our image in their eyes. Do we really want other people thinking of us as victims? If we're in a classroom and there is a teacher, or at home and their is a mother, then being the victim has a certain advantage. The teacher might, repeat might, step in and make things better. That's where we learn this strategy. Of course, most kids also figure out that adults can be fooled.

A few kids (and adults) might notice something else: pity isn't love. Pity is one side of a coin whose other face is contempt. Pity is more charitable than contempt but, and this is crucial, it says something about the person who feels it and not the person who it is felt for. No matter how much I pity you, my pity entails a judgment that there is something wrong with you. I expect nothing from those I pity not out of the goodness of my heart but out of hard-nosed realism. There is no point in expecting anything from such a person because they aren't capable of anything.

We can miss this because good people will listen sympathetically. They'll even respond provided it doesn't cost them too much to do so. But there is always that judgment. It doesn't have to be explicitly made. Often the person making the judgment isn't even aware they are doing it. They, like everyone else, think about themselves. They're thinking they are a good person because they are listening and caring. But the judgment is entailed.

And think what that judgment is! Really, look into the Nietzschean abyss. It's not very pretty is it? The complete judgment the sympathetic listener makes is us will be something on the lines of, "I'm a good and caring person because I'm listening to this sad person tell a story that others don't have time for." And little wonder they don't have time for it because it's rather boring. There isn't anything new or interesting about victimhood. It's the same as everyone else's story. Including me, now that I think of it, I faced similar challenges and dealt with them and didn't make a pathetic spectacle out of myself the way she is. Aren't I good!

(You may be thinking you'd rather be pitied than held in contempt. But, again, think of it from their perspective. Which attitude lets them get on with their life? It's pity. Contempt lingers, lives rent free in your brain, pity is gone the second you leave the person you pity.)

And it gets worse.

It gets worse because our truth doesn't ring true. There is a lie built into it. Our truth is deeply meaningful to us but it's not new or meaningful to anyone else. We are demanding attention: you should listen to my truth! Well, why? There are millions of people in the world and they all have a sad story. What makes us so special? The answer to that question is nothing makes us so special.

Watch any five-year-old in action and you'll see what happens next. The story gets amplified. "I felt threatened," becomes "I was threatened." If that doesn't work, then I was just threatened, I was actually attacked. I know, none of us thinks of ourselves as liars. And, hey, we wouldn't actually make up stories about being victims of crimes. Maybe. But we would exaggerate, improve on the truth. It's the sort of lie that feels like the truth: the listener isn't reacting as they should so we say something that will get the right reaction. The desired reaction is something we deserve so it doesn't matter if the "truth" we tell isn't quite true.

Again, think of how this feels for the listener. They're feeling pity, which, we should remind ourselves, is a way of feeling superior. We, on the other hand, are wrapped up in ourselves and in our vain quest to get validation. We're going to slip. Even if we don't consciously lie, we're going to be less attentive to the truth than we should be. And some not-quite-true or slightly improved "fact" that comes out of our mouth will inspire doubt in our listener. If the listener is a friend it will be more than doubt; we will say something they know not to be true. They'll do their best to hide that they've noticed it. That's what the sort of people who pity others do. But they will notice and that will affirm the judgment they're making about us.

Look into the abyss again. Think of someone who has told you their truth, their story of what happened to them and how it hurt them.  Did you think of them as capable of changing their situation? Of course not. That's why they're telling you; they can't do anything about themselves. They're that crying five-year-old. Only they're supposed to be an adult now.

If, as I said at the top, the truth is the thing that doesn't change, then what can change?

* It occurs to me that the name "Elmdale Tavern" conjures up a deceptive image of a rough, working-class tavern. It was that once upon a time but it's now in the very heart of hipster Ottawa.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Feminist cognitive dissonance?

First a caveat: there is more than one kind of feminism so this shouldn't be taken as a blanket condemnation of all feminism.

The article is in Harper's Bazaar and it's called, "Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden". It's been savagely mocked all over the place and deserves every bit of it. That said, there is something right about it. I keep meeting young men who have no male friends. Further, it's easy to see why they have none for they have no skills for making friends. There is a real problem here. But the writer, Melanie Hamlett,  contradicts herself at every step and, consequently, leaves us with no hint of where the problem might be.

Let's start with the opening sentence. "Kylie-Anne Kelly can’t remember the exact moment she became her boyfriend’s one and only, his what would I do without you, but she does remember neglecting her own needs to the point of hospitalization." See the problem? More to the point, see who actually has a problem in this set-up? Yes, it's Kylie-Anne. She neglected her own needs to the point of hospitalization and she thinks that is some one else's fault!

(Guys, can we have a word in private: If the woman in your life is so bad at managing her feelings that she ends up in hospital and if she reasons about why this happened the way Kylie-Anne Kelly does, you need to get out now. Don't argue, don't explain. Tell her she's right and that you're the problem but get out of that relationship right now!)

I think the problem is rooted in a fundamental cognitive dissonance. Millennial men are poor at making friends. They build their entire lives around relationships with women with whom they discuss their feelings. And it's not working out. Why is that causing dissonance? Because that is exactly what second-wave feminists a generation ago said they wanted men to do.

Roll back to 1982 and this article would have been complaining about men who build their lives around work, like to take part in exclusively male activities too much and never talked about their feelings with women.

Now we have a generation who were raised by women to do exactly those things and women are hating it.

Watch what you wish for.

And while we're at it, could women maybe learn to take care of themselves? If you neglect your needs to the point of hospitalization, it's your fault. It's a sign there is something seriously wrong with you.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Magic in the Moonlight

I have put up a series of posts about Woody Allen lately but not revealed why. The reason why is that I saw Magic in the Moonlight recently. I saw it three times. I loved it.

I loved it even though I saw some of the usual problems. The main character is depressed at the thought of living in a godless universe where he is doomed to death. He is desperately seeking transcendence and unable to find it until, surprise! surprise!, he finds magic in a sexual relationship with a much younger woman. It's Manhattan all over again only disguised.

In Manhattan, Isaac Davis is 25 years older than 17-year-old Tracy. We're never told how old the characters Stanley Crawford or Sophie Baker are but the actor playing Stanley, Colin Firth, is 28 years older than Emma Stone who plays Sophie. That said, Emma was 26 when the film was made and there is a world of difference between man in his fifties having a sexual relationship with a woman in her twenties and a man in his forties having such a relationship with a 17-year-old. That said, why the huge age gap?

If we can can get beyond that, and I can, there still is a problem in thinking that romantic love is a substitute for transcendence. It's trite, rather than offensive, to believe such a thing.

All that said, I love the movie. I've watched it three times and I suspect I'll watch it again. I think a big part of its charm is that it is set in the 1920s. It also works like an opera. That's a commonplace remark about film that I won't elaborate on for now. What I will say now is that I think it's true. Realism, paradoxically, doesn't work in film.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Creeping Victorianism?

We don't hear much about it anymore but just a few years ago "benevolent sexism" was a hot topic. The claim was that activities such as holding doors open for women or allowing them to get on a bus first may appear kind-hearted but are actually sexist. One argument was that men who did such things tended to see women as more fragile and therefore were sexist.

I recently had dealings with a strongly committed Social Justice Warrior. She insisted that she be treated with special respect because she was fragile. It wasn't terribly difficult to meet her requirements. She was clear about what she wanted. What struck me, though, was the coincidence of the attack on "chivalry" as benevolent sexism being accompanied by a sudden concern with trigger warnings.

No doubt this feels like a victory to the people pushing it. They'd argue that trigger warnings are not sex specific whereas chivalry was. Unfortunately, a few months on a university campus will rapidly disabuse you of this notion. While the people who insist on special treatment because of their triggers are not all women the overwhelmingly majority are.

All of this, I should add, only concerns a minority of students. SJWs are a small minority. I'd be surprised if they made up even five percent of the total student population. Other students go along; buy in because it costs them nothing. I did exactly that myself when this woman started asking me to make special allowances for her. I found her likeable and easy to talk to and her requirements not onerous. They were no harder to meet than lots of other requirements I make for all sorts of other people and have done so all my life.

I did wonder, though, whether it was good for her. As she talked about her "triggers" I found myself thinking that what she was describing sounds exactly like anxiety. Anxiety is a well-understood and treatable phenomenon. One thing we know beyond a doubt is that avoidance makes anxiety worse. It may be the only choice sometimes; if I have a crippling anxiety attack at a shopping mall, I should leave. When this happens, however, I need to get back on that horse again. Deciding instead that I will never go to public places again will make my condition steadily worse. And that is exactly what being concerned with being triggered does.

I think we might be bringing back the very worst aspects of Victorianism. We hide this from ourselves because it seems like what we are doing is progressive and caring. But that is exactly what drove the Victorians. They also thought they were being progressive and caring too.

So-called "benevolent sexism" on the other hand seems harmless. Indeed, both men and women are happier because of it. Every SJW I've ever met, on the other hand, seems fragile and sad.

Franfurt School: Approaches to Religion

What is criticism good for?

I'm doing a summer seminar on the Frankfurt School. We've had a first lecture and, before we get into the real meat of the course, I wanted to set down some of the basic questions I have going in.

Marx famously contrasted describing the world with changing it. Is criticism merely a form of description? That would be problematic for pretty much everything Marx actually did could be called criticism.
 What the Frankfurt School did from the beginning could be called a challenge to Marx's description of the world. In saying that philosophers had described the world, Marx was issuing a challenge and a praise. The challenge was "lets get on with it." But underlying that was praise: an implicit claim that the Hegelians of the Left had described the world adequately. And the specific philosopher that Marx was responding to when he wrote that famous line about changing the world was Feuerbach. Significantly, the piece that inspired Marx's Theses on Feuerbach was a critique of the Christian religion.

We have three terms: 1. Describing, 2. Criticizing, 3. Changing. Marx only speaks of describing and changing. But he himself criticizes and he labels some of his writings as "critiques." By implication, it seems that Marx takes criticism to be something valuable. And the Frankfurt School implicitly agree with him as everything they do is also criticism. Indeed, it is a commonplace charge on the left that the members of the school just dilly dally in criticism rather than engaging in revolutionary action.

Not surprisingly, defenders of the school point at the failure of 1968 to bring about revolution as proof that more criticism is necessary. But who is this criticism for? What is it supposed to do? Members of the school are presumably already convinced that the world needs to be changed. The answer is that criticism will produce widespread change in attitudes towards capitalism that will create the social conditions that will make revolution possible. We might say that criticism replaces class consciousness.

What do I mean by that? One way of looking at Marx is to say he made a conditional prediction. He said that if three things happen there will be revolution: 1. If the conditions of the working class continue to deteriorate, 2. If capitalism continues to suffer serious crises, 3. If the working class come to see themselves as members of a common class with shared interests. In 1923, when the Frankfurt School was founded, it was no longer possible to believe that economic state of the working class was deteriorating. Appearances might be saved, however, by shifting from the absolute conditions of the working class and talking about relative wealth of rich and poor. That's not a very good argument but it's an argument. The second was only all too easy to believe in Frankfurt given the post-war hyperinflation that Germany had suffered. That leaves us with the third and that was problematic to say the least. Nothing even vaguely resembling class consciousness had come to pass. Worse, the very notion of a working class was starting to disappear; today, many workers own vast amounts of capital through pension plans and virtually everyone we call middle class earns most of their income by selling their labor. The question then becomes, how is it that the vast majority of workers, many of whom are university-educated people who buy tickets for the local symphony orchestra and who attend art museums unable to see that it is in their interest to bring about a revolution?

(A question I am going to pursue is whether it really would be in their interest? I leave it aside for now for it is a question the members of the Frankfurt School never seriously entertained.)

To return to criticism, we might say that the members of the Frankfurt School began to doubt Marx's description of the world. They doubted that economics really was the bedrock that underlay politics and morality. What they didn't question, however, was the value of criticism. And that's the primary question that interests me going into this course. Criticism seems like a worthwhile thing to do but there doesn't seem to be any necessary connection between criticism and the viability of the forms of life that criticism is directed at. Marx's relentless criticism of capitalism convinced him and his many adherents that capitalism's internal tensions would eventually tear it apart. Alas, the rumours of its death were greatly exaggerated. Of socialism, on the other hand, it is the rumours of its birth that keep proving false.

One way to approach the question is to ask, as the kids say, if criticism is a thing. It certainly sounds like a thing. There is a word for it! But is it just one thing. There is a school of biblical criticism that calls itself the Historical-Critical Method. So what exactly is this method? Well, that's easy. Right? We just research the historical situation that led to the creation of scripture and then we ... criticize, whatever that means. In practice, what it has tended to mean was that people brought a series of criteria derived from some purpose and applied it. The problem is that different people had different purposes and that led to there being a number of different sets of criteria being used by a number of different people. Historical criticism was full of promise but produced little consensus because it wasn't one thing but a whole lot of different things. If the criteria used in criticism are determined by the interests of the person doing the critique, then it will always be a matter of criticisms; there is so such thing as criticism in the singular.


 "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language." Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Marxists are fond of the expression "late capitalism". That term derives from what is a popular form of bloodletting among historians: the naming and defining of periods. Again, just because we can give a name to something doesn't make it a thing. And "late capitalism" implies not only that it is a thing but that it is a thing that has been going on a while and that is far from self evident.

Consider that Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was meant to describe something new. Capitalism was not the reigning economic system when the book was published in 1776. Mercantilism was the prevailing system and capitalism was emerging. When capitalism can be said to start is a bit of a stretch but, no matter how we date it, to speak of "late capitalism" sounds more like wishful thinking than serious criticism to me.

Another way to look at it is to ask when does the Medieval period end? Many historians like to refer to the period from 1500-1800 as the Early Modern Period. Again, the term makes it seem like a thing. On the other hand, some Medieval historians argue that the middle ages don't really end until the 18th century. The basis of that argument is that the social, political and economic forms that defined the middle ages continue to dominate. There are many challenges and we can see the emerging forms of social, political and economic arrangements that will define the modern period beginning to emerge but it is not until the end of the 18th century that they begin to be firmly established. That seems plausible to me. An historical period might end with a bang but it seems more likely that it would be with a whimper. For a long time, it was argued that the Antique world ended with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Lately, however, this view has been largely replaced with a countering view that says there was an extended decline that can be called Late Antiquity and that the middle ages cannot be said to have ended until the form of life of Antiquity were effectively replaced by the new forms of government and agriculture that defined the middle ages and that took another 300 years after 410.

If we accept that argument, and I do, then we have to apply the same criteria to determining the end of Middle Ages. Although it is clearly the case that the forms of life associated with the middle ages were in decline from 1500 to 1800 I don't think it can be credible argued that they began to be effectively replaced before the 18th century. If we start thinking that way, then we might start to think of René Descartes as a late medieval thinker, as playing a role similar to what Augustine did. That is to say that while Augustine was immensely influential for the middle ages, he was still a figure from the antique world. Likewise, I would say that while Descartes has been immensely influential to the modern era, he was still a figure from the middle ages. (Descartes most famous argument has clear Augustinian roots.)

All this matters for the philosophical issues that concern me in this course for it seems that a society can survive even in the face of inner tensions. What Hobbes called the ghost of the Old Roman Empire had a very long life. Criticism in the post-Enlightenment sense has consisted at pointing at internal tensions in a form of life and asserting that we can do better. It seems, however, that internal tensions are not fatal to forms of life. For all we know, they may thrive under this tension the same way the human body tends to under training. Physical training, lifting weights, is the deliberate imposition of trauma to the muscles. Done the right way, it causes growth. There is a vast amount of evidence that says the same is true of psychological trauma. Why wouldn't it also be true of social trauma?

Depending on how we answer this question, we will define "modern" philosophy differently. We might say, and I would, that modern philosophy begins not with Descartes but with David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith. That last is a bit controversial. Even those who might accept the first two will bristle at Smith. They will do so because if Smith is a foundational philosopher of the modern period, then capitalism is a foundational form of life of the modern period.

Others might question whether Hume belongs with Kant. Kant, they will argue, is surely the giant figure and Hume deserves the still significant but lesser honour of being the catalyst who inspired Kant's more significant work. There is a lot that would have to be said but the outline of my argument would go as follows: Kant rightly saw that there are percepts and precepts but just as Galileo falsely assumed that orbits must be circular so too, Kant falsely assumed that precepts are universal. I agree with Charles Saunders Peirce in believing that the advent of Non-Euclidean geometry put paid to that notion. Thus, I would would argue that Hume's realization that notions like causality are not extracted from reality so much as applied to it should count as the beginning of modern thought. To put it in Peircean terms, organizing concepts mathematics and geometry were not abstracted from reality, they were not discovered but invented.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

If it doesn't make sense to me then it just doesn't make sense

I like Lileks. I like him a lot. And he gives quality stuff away for free and has been doing so for years. So please don't take this as an attack on him. Rather, this is just a comment on going for the easy putdown because if I can't grasp the point in two seconds then there isn't one. I'm sure I do the same myself.

Here is the photo he comments on (link here):

And here is the comment: "Interesting roof projection; seems to serve no purpose except to make sure ABSOLUTELY NO LIGHT gets into those tiny slits."There are two typos in the original, which suggests that he dashed it off. Again, that's perfectly fine.

That said, have a closer look.

You can see that the overhang carries on past the wall to the left and you can see a walkway that likely goes to an entrance that is not visible at this angle. And you can see two arrows painted on the pavement. So it does serve a purpose. It enabled wives and girlfriends to get out of the car and walk to the entrance without getting wet on rainy days.

It's a reminder of something that we've lost. When going to restaurants men used to drop women off at the entrance and then go park the car. That was considered a courtesy back in the day.

"Those tiny slits" are clerestory windows inspired by the King's Road House, built in 1925. The idea was that you put them on the North side of the house and leave the other sides for bigger windows. It lets some light in while preserving privacy or minimizing heat-losing glass on a side that wasn't going provide much light.

Here's another example from the early 1960s. This is the Gorman house in Ottawa. It was built for some friends of my parents.

That's a Google streetview shot. Right in the middle of the house you can see a yellow rectangle. That's the front door. Immediately to it's left, under an overhang, you can see a row of clerestory windows in the King's Road style. That's the north and street-facing side of the house.

If you were lucky enough to be invited into that house, the entrance hall has a low ceiling, with a stairway to the second floor on the right. As you continue back, the house opens up spectacularly. The ceiling is much higher and the entire back wall is windows. It's a wonderful house.