Thursday, December 10, 2020

Loving Darkness

"In an era of diabolical inversion, should the enlightened man adopt the ways of the Devil? In other words, when navigating an upside-down world, it may be necessary to take an upside-down orientation, so as to forge a path that is rightside-up." Christian Chenswold

“Love destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves. It goes where it is led, not where it ought to go. Love gives birth to desire, it bursts into flame and that fire draws it to seek forbidden things. What more is there to say?” Saint Peter Chrysologus

The Chrysologus quote is from today's Divine Office. He means that as commendation for love. This is what he thinks love of God should be like.

I've read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe during the lockdown, especially the poetry.

A couple of weeks ago I ran into a woman I know and she told me she was dismayed at her two teenage daughters who have been devoting themselves to becoming as hot as possible. I said I thought it was one of the more intelligent responses to the lockdown I'd heard of.

Being perversely contrarian, I find myself intuitively rejecting lockdown spirit. Part of it is based on evidence; there is nothing quite like seeing someone you’ve known to be a selfish, narcissistic jerk all their life their life tweeting “We’re all in this together.” Said the pirhanna to the minnow. Mostly, though it’s just perverse and I am not ashamed of that. Where everyone else has been seeking comfort, community and conformity, I’ve been exporing the dark side and loving it.

Esotercism is nonsense, of course, but it is what Wittgenstein called “important nonsense”. What is called “primordial tradition” was invented in Late Antiquity. That said, It’s managed to last and to be reborn in countless forms since then. It’s a form of nonsense that is oddly reassuring, not least because it doesn’t require me to put faith in “experts.” It's also fun.

Tomorrow is abdication day, (which I read someone calling Rexit) think of something important to shirk!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

"Brideshead Revisited changed my life"

 That's a search string. I typed it in looking for a particular article that I found a while ago and wanted to comment on again. I did find it but I also found a whole lot of other links on the same theme. That shouldn't surprise as it changed my life too. I think I actually saw it first in the winter of 1982. Anyway, that's another post for another day.

The article that caught my attention was, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ changed my life. Can it work its magic on the ‘Downton Abbey’ generation? It appears in the Jesuit publication America. Alas, there is nothing particularly Jesuitical about it anymore; perhaps not surprising as there isn't much Jesuitical about the Jesuits anymore either.

Luckily, the article is written by a Protestant, not a Jesuit, and it features the following brilliant insight:

A key thread of the novel is the Augustinian insight that our cravings for the delicious, fleeting experiences of the world—the things we feel, in our youth particularly, as love or pleasure—may lead us to sin, to excess or to addiction; but these seemingly superficial delights are signifiers of, even gateways to, the deeper felicities of creation.

That's right. Waugh was very much out of the decadent tradition. Is that really an Augustinian insight. Well, it's neo-Augustinian for sure and that's good enough for me. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

"a sort of wholemeal stoneground pornography"

 I was reminded of a post I put up five years ago about Leonard Cohen and David Hamilton this week. I was thinking about it because it was important to me. It probably doesn't matter to anyone else.

My parents had moved us to west Quebec and we lived on the boundary of the Gatineau Park. You could ski out our backyard and into the park. As you traveled up along the boundary there were a whole lot of people living in cottages. The people who lived in these cottages were bohemians. We did not live in a cottage and we were not bohemians. We lived in what was called "an executive home" in the 1970s. This was a very long and low house with what was considered massive amounts of window at the time. If you traveled the other direction, into town, you'd come upon a rather poor section of town and, in the middle of it, St. Joseph Boulevard, which was the strip. There were at least a dozen discos and half that many porn theatres within ten minutes walk of our house.

I was thinking about it because that experience—we lived there from Grade 7 until I finished university—had a profound effect on my moral development. There are certain things that instantly bring those days back to me and Leonard Cohen and David Hamilton unfailingly do.

In the original post, I said something about the many people who had accused Hamilton of being just a cheap pornographer and, worse, a pornographer of girls under the legal age of consent. I was non-committal on the point. Well, things have happened since then.

On October 22, 2016, Hamilton was accused of rape. The alleged rape was said to have happened in 1987. I don't know if it was forced rape. Given the alleged victim's age at the time, I think it would have been rape even if she had consented. The incident is apparently fictionalized in a novel that she, Flavie Flament, wrote. Hamilton denied the charge and accused Flament of seeking publicity. There were other accusations, although these were anonymous. Hamilton continued his denials, threatened to sue and then committed suicide. His body was found on November 25, 2016.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't mean Hamilton himself but rather of my own experience. I was introduced to Hamilton's pictures in the 1970s, when I was a high school student. This is an odd thing to say but, compared to the portrayals of sex I saw around me at the time, Hamilton's soft focus photos seemed innocent. The very early ones that I saw were mostly made up of shots of girls in flowing Indian cotton clothing that was occasionally backlit such that you could see through or gaped open so as to give a glimpse. The girls were also posed with fairly obvious homoerotic implications, as if to illustrate a Colette short story. That's hardly innocent but it was a long way from porn films such as Misty Beethoven, which were all easily available to me in those days.

Of course, the girls in the Hamilton photographs were teenagers but so was I. Although there was far less revealed in them, they had a far more profound effect on me. Just leafing through one of his books at a bookstore or when I was left alone in a room with a book while visiting one of our bohemian neighbours would have me hyperventilating with excitement. And this excitement was precisely because nothing happened in the photos just as nothing happened in my life. The daughters of my bohemian neighbours, girls my own age, dressed just like the girls in David Hamilton photographs. You got an inkling of what they looked like without those clothes but only that. The photographs provided just a shade more detail. 

My part was ... not innocent, I couldn't honestly say that but it wasn't culpable either. But now everything around it appears in a different light.

The quote that appears as the title of this post is criticism of Hamilton by photographer Euan Duff. I don't know anything about him. I found the quote on the Wikipedia page about Hamilton. It really resoanted with me because it sums up what the 1970s were for me.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

"The age's most uncertain hour"

Paul Simon has a knack for writing deeply Christian songs as if by accident. I Some people get really angry about this; I've seen people both figuratively and literally pound the table while insisting that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is not a religious song. What they actually mean is that Paul Simon didn't intend it as a Christian song but as a love song and they're right about that but the end result is about as solidly Christian a song as you could hope for. (And Paul Simon not only didn't object but praised the Aretha Franklin version which is overtly Christian.)

No one I know has called his “American Tune” a Christian song but it also is.

It's Christian for two reasons. First of all because that melody comes straight from the Saint Matthew Passion; which Josh Turner has brilliantly underlined here by using Bach's harmony. The Christian heritage of that melody carries an association that will assert itself as much as the gospel music heritage of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Second, it's a Christian song because of the line, “The age's most uncertain hour.”

Paul Simon actually was responding to the election of Richard Nixon when he wrote it. That he was unhappy at that event is understandable even if you happened to disagree with him. That he would regard it as the age's most uncertain hour is crazy. The only thing worse than to have your side lose an election would be to live in a country where the other side never won. And yet that is what Paul Simon wanted when he wrote this.

Anyway and who cares he wrote it an it's wonderful.

It's the perfect song for Holy Saturday. The first Holy Saturday really was the age's most uncertain hour.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Woody Allen

Here's a random sentence to ponder, “I don’t see anything wrong with noting the sex appeal of particular actors, but it’s really tasteless for a man of Woody Allen’s age to talk in this way.”


Rod Dreher wrote that sentence.  Woody Allen is 84. Dreher must be in his early fifties.

Like Dreher, I also read the Allen memoir Apropos of Nothing. And I did it for the same reason: I was angry at the people who want to cancel Allen. There are accusations against Allen but they are not just unproven but doubtful at best and the source of the accusations is a person strongly motivated to want to hurt Allen.

That said, the main reason to cancel him is exactly what Dreher complains about. How dare this aging man be gross enough to be interested in younger women sexually? The actual evidence doesn't matter.

The biography, by the way, is mixed. Allen spends too much time defending himself. He also goes for one liners too often. That last criticism needs to be tempered. Allen is better at one-liners than just about anyone else still alive and he hasn't lost the touch.

Mostly, though, I found it charming. Allen as more or less the same age as my father and reading his book was like having the conversation I always wanted to have with  my father but couldn't because he was always too busy being in father mode.

By the way, the example of Allen talking “this way” that Dreher found tasteless: “It’s one thing to hear an elderly comedian wax the memories of his youthful kumquats; it’s another to listen to grandpa gas on about how “sexually radioactive” Scarlett Johansson is.” Sexually radioactive? It's not like he said, she's go an amazing set of ... .

"Kumquat" is a great word. It sounds vulgar but isn't.

Luxury beliefs: “Emotional labour”

When I first started hearing and reading the term “emotional labour” my reaction was that the people who complained about doing emotional labour it were probably the ones least-qualified to do it. I should begin, then, by saying that it has an almost respectable pedigree. But you have to do a little excavation to get back to what it originally meant to find it because it was hijacked.

By the time the term made it's way into public discourse it had come to mean taking the time to understand and respond to other people's emotions. Which is just another way of saying being a decent human. And it should go without saying, but it doesn't, that if you think of being a decent human being as labour, then you aren't one. Anyway, the usual whiners latched onto it and that is all you need to know. The correct response is to tune out.

But the original concept is interesting. It means managing your emotions in order to function in a particular setting. The first setting was at the office but it later got expanded to mean any particular setting.

It's not a new idea; it goes all the way back to ancient Greece.

The really important thing to note about emotional labour, however, is that it's good for you. Managing your feelings is good for you. Complaining about all the “emotional labour” you do is bad for you.

Friday, April 3, 2020

A curious graph and the future of New York

That's from National Review and the credit tells us that the author of the piece it is attached to, Daniel Tenreiro, is responsible for it. Before discussing the problem I have with it, let's first read the paragraph that introduces it:
Yesterday, more than 1,000 Americans died of coronavirus, the highest daily death toll yet recorded. The number of confirmed cases is above 215,000 in the U.S., with serious outbreaks across a number of states. While New York and New Jersey remain the domestic epicenters of the outbreak, Michigan, Louisiana, and Massachusetts are all seeing their per capita case numbers skyrocket. Florida governor Ron Desantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order yesterday.
Now go back to the graph and have a look at the markings on the vertical axis. Weird! I don't know what Tenreiro intended but if you set out to design a graph to misrepresent the data to make it look like all these states are on the same path, that's what you'd do.

In fact, the numbers for New York State are far worse than the others and the difference is almost entirely because of New York City. An honest would show huge differences.

As has been discussed here in the past, cities like New York, London, Paris and Berlin no longer make sense. This disease is highlighting one kind of problem but there is far worse. There is no longer any sane economic or cultural basis for metropolitan areas.

There is, however, a massive political base in these cities and it has a huge influence on elections.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"... authenticity has travelled so far from its roots that it has become its opposite ...

"The notion of authenticity that emerged during the Enlightenment was a ‘close twin’ of moral autonomy. To think and act for oneself, and therefore to develop a truer, more authentic expression of the self, required one to be independent of the judgement of others. But in its modern, politicised form, authenticity has been institutionalised as a ‘social aspiration’ – something that people are expected to cultivate, and which therefore depends on validation by others. ‘[T]his new form of dependency, generated by the ethic of authenticity, has another name: narcissism’,"
That's from an interesting piece at Spiked.

“Authenticity” has long troubled me. Once upon a time I thought the concept morally useless. I'd no longer say that. I think that it has a place but that it is of limited use. It is one of a number of concepts—purity, sincerity and truth are other examples—that seem terribly important for morality but turn out to do very little real work.

Or, to put another way, I suspect the contention that authenticity has traveled so far from what it was originally meant to mean that it now means something like its opposite is true but the real problem was trying to make too much of the concept in the first place. It's a perfect example of Wittgenstein's dictum that you cannot pack more meaning into a word just as you cannot make a teacup hold more than a teacup-full by pouring a gallon of water over it.

Friday, March 20, 2020

“The feeling increasingly is that experts and the media are all part of this elite class ...

" ... that is self-dealing and is looking down on less-educated and less-fortunate people, and [that] they can’t be trusted to tell the truth.” He adds, “That dynamic … has been reinforced” by the emergence of the “conservative media ecosystem,” which unstintingly presents “elites” as a threat to viewers."

I'll plead guilty on that. That's exactly what I believe. The only thing I'd add is that many of these elites are not particularly elite.

This week, the state broadcaster, CBC, published a piece about how to communicate about COVID-19 on social media without causing panic. That is stunning in its lack of self-awareness.

The local test centre is at the Brewer Arena that is a half-block from my house. Access to the arena is through Bronson Avenue but you can also cut through my neighbourhood to get there. There are barriers set up at the end of my street to stop people from doing that. As I walked t he god this morning I watched a man drive around the barrier and park and walk over to the arena. I looked him right in the eyes and he guiltily looked away.

This sort of thing makes me angry. It's easy to follow the rules, just do it unless there is a damn good reason not to. Your personal convenience  is not a damn good reason. If you live in a government city like Ottawa, you get to seeing this sort of abuse. The very people who spend their days thinking of new ways to regulate other people's lives, cheerfully ignore or circumvent regulations because they're special or something.

All my life I've angered people I know with my lacking of respect for authorities. That lack of respect pisses them off. I think we need a lot less respect for authority and a lot more respect for rules.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Self Reliance

I am preparing a seminar on Thomas Aquinas for this afternoon. I decided that I would scandalize my fellow Catholics by, approvingly, quoting Emerson. (This is not the first time I do this.) I love Emerson.

The following is not the quote I plan to use. It's just an old favourite that I noticed because it's underlined with an exclamation point beside it in my copy.
Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done in apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself, and not for spectacle.
For four of five generations before me, every boy educated in the Northeast read that essay. They read it. They were called upon to read it aloud at public gatherings. And they were made to write precis and responses to it. It was in my high school reader but my teachers hated it and only called attention to it to tell us how horrible they thought it was. By the end of the 1970s it had disappeared from textbooks.

It's a shame because it's very good advice. Virtue is about becoming the person you want to be. And live your virtues, don't talk about them. That means DON'T EXPLAIN THEM! Yes, you might discuss them quietly with a trusted friend whom you can be vulnerable with to see how well they hold up. Otherwise, just live them.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Americana: From "Jack and Diane" to "American Kids"

Very few people would qualify this as Americana and that is their loss for this is not only Americana, it's about as good as Americana gets. Sometimes "Americana" can feel like the genre for people who love country music but hate its fans.

Which brings me to John Mellencamp. If you were alive in the 1980s you will remember that he became the lightning rod for music fans who loved traditional American music but hated traditional America. Ironically, he was seen as an inauthentic Bruce Springsteen wannabee. Why is that ironic? This is why: “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something about which he has had absolutely no personal experience,” Bruce Springsteen. Mellencamp, on the other hand, was the real thing and he wrote about a life he had real experience of such as, "A little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin' up in the heartland."

Later, Mellencamp would claim that the song was really about an inter-racial couple. That might be true but I don't believe it. I think that was what he said when he finally gained some respect from the cool kids who used to hate him. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because a song only succeeds to the extent that you can apply it to your life. That means both people in the interracial couple and the same race couple have to be able to imagine its about them.

Or, to be more accurate, that it is about the person they used to be because the whole thing is hindsight. It's about having grown up too fast.

Which brings me to Kenny Chesney, who was 14 years old the summer Jack and Diane was on top. You couldn't avoid it that summer. Chesney  didn't write "American Kids" but it speaks to that experience. It's a song that says, we were that generation and we turned out okay. Which generation exactly? It probably doesn't matter. Any generation from back then.

There are two John Mellencamp shout-outs in the song. There is the title and the line, "Growin' up in little pink houses, makin' out on living room couches." Kant famously said that he understood Plato better than Plato understood himself, Chesney can make the same claim about Mellencamp.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Americana: Gentle on My Mind

John Hartford was born in New York City. You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching that video. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, though, and says his musical tastes where formed by listening to Earl Scruggs.

Through a series of connections that I won't bother making that brings up the thorny issue of origins. There is a whole lot that might be said but I think the important thing is this: neither Earl Scruggs nor John Hartford were folk musicians although both are folky.

For the record, I think folk is all fakesong. There is no such thing. Fake or not, tough, there are people who think they are folk. Not Hartford; there is something, well, something what? It's not authenticity. Everything about that performance is scripted, including the folksiness. It starts with the dialogue, as if they hadn't decided what song to do next.

Hartford wrote "Gentle on my mind" after seeing Dr. Zhivago. He said it wasn't anything particular about the movie. It just gave him a feeling and he wrote the song. He was asked about the song over and over again for the rest of his life and, God bless him, was always gracious about answering questions he must have heard a hundred times before. In one of those turns he said the movie gave him a "lonesome, traveling feeling".

That was a rather convenient thing for a man about to write a bluegrass song to have for lonesome feelings is something bluegrass is rather good at.

But there is something new too. Something you can hear in these lines,
And it's knowing I'm not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line
Whoever she  was, she gave him sex without marriage. Not just once but lots of it. But he's long gone now. And no matter how bluegrass "Gentle on my mind" is, Bill Monroe wouldn't have sung that.

The important thing about the song is that it's not a song about the woman. It's a male fantasy. Not a sex fantasy, although there is sex in it. There are a lot of songs like that. The thing that tells you it's fantasy is the line about the sleeping bag stashed behind your couch. What, she doesn't have a bed?

Funny thing about it, and my last thought for today, is that the song works better when women sing it. There is an interesting challenge when a woman sings a song written for a man or vice versa. The challenge is how much do you reverse? Consider these four lines:
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman's cryin' to her mother
'Cause she turned and I was gone
The obvious thing to do is to change the last two lines to,
And some other man is cryin' to his mother
'Cause he turned and I was gone 
Krauss doesn't do that even though she fully assumes the narrator's role in the song. The temptation is to say it's morally more acceptable because it's no longer some guy bragging about all the women he's had along the road but I don't think that works. It's something else. The song is still a male fantasy that Krauss validates by assuring us she remembers us fondly even though ... . The important thing about the song is that it's about an experience, an American experience. And that is where Americana starts.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Americana: Why not Canadiana?

A fairly obvious question, and therefore one I should deal with sooner or later, is why I, a Canadian, am so interested in Americana? Why not Canadiana? There is a such a word, although it doesn't have much "content". The Wikipedia entry on the subject is just a stub.

The short answer is simply that, like most Canadians, I've always found Americana much more interesting.  The longer answer is more complicated.

A good place to start the longer answer is to point at an column by David Solway called "Canada: A Dead Country Walking". It's an incoherent little piece in that it begins by saying that Canada never really has had a core identity and then concludes that bad people are tearing apart that core identity; you know, the one that doesn't actually exist in the first place. And then Solway goes on to laud Pierre Trudeau for having invoked the War Measures Act to crush a terrorist movement in 1970s, lamenting that Pierre's son Justin, "has neither the political smarts nor the strength of character to act decisively against those who are busy reducing an already patchwork country into a heap of shards and rubble." And that tells you a lot—that Pierre Trudeau gets lauded as a great defender of a national identity that doesn't exist because he used brutal and dictatorial methods to do so. That, my friends, is what insecurity looks like.

Twenty-four years ago, then Premier of Quebec Lucien Bouchard stirred up a hornet's nest in the rest of Canada by saying, “Canada is divisible because Canada is not a real country.” The anger wasn't at the "divisible" part of the claim. Very few Canadians even noted it at the time and even those who remember the incident now tend to misquote Bouchard, thinking that he only said "Canada is not a real country." And it takes very little effort to understand why—and Solway makes the point at some length—Canada is divisible in a way that the USA is not. The point neither he nor anyone else seems to be able to make is why it should not be.

Ultimately, of course, the USA is divisible. Any country can be dismembered and that is probably the inevitable fate of all countries eventually. The problem with Canada is that there is nothing approaching the sort of argument Lincoln made for the union in Canada's case. Lincoln could, and did, argue that breaking up the union would have meant the destruction of a founding idea, conceived in Liberty, that all men are created equal. Canada was created as an exercise of power and, in the end, whether Canada holds together is a simple question of power.

More than that, the USA was created by people who understood that power was a problem. They understood that power dispensed to a bureaucracy to administer a law such as the Stamp Act would create a faction that had an active interest in destroying liberty for that faction's continued existence would defend absolutely not only on its holding onto to that power but on the continual extension of that power. Sir John A. Macdonald, on the other hand, pursued confederation precisely so he could get his hands on that power—the control of patronage appointments. That, and not any identity or any set of beliefs about the dignity of human beings created by God, is the principle upon which Canada is founded. There were people who had different ideas about what Canada might be founded on but it was Macdonald and his lust for power that won out.

As Solway grudgingly notes, there is a Québecois identity. It's an identity whose future is uncertain but it exists and if one wanted to put together a list of "Quebecana" it would be ridiculously easy to do. You could do likewise with Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Alberta albeit in a way that would seem piddle compared to the rich cultural identity of the USA and Quebec. You should be able to do it with Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia, although in an even more reduced form, because most residents of those provinces have been taught to hate the their cultural heritage.

And here's the really telling thing: the USA is a much more diverse country, culturally speaking, than Canada is. The claim I'm making here is not that Canada isn't diverse but rather that diversity pales compared to what you see in the USA.

There is a sense in which Bouchard's claim is ludicrous. Of course Canada is a real country. The problem arises when you start to find something real beyond the fact that it's a government that has a country. If you go looking for Canadiana, you'll find some, but it's pretty thin gruel.

Americana: Bernie Sanders

At this point, I don't how the Democratic Party establishment can respond to Bernie without committing suicide. There are one hell of a lot of young idealists lining up for Bernie. I doubt very much that the majority of young people (A term that nowadays means people under 35) have much desire for Bernie. There are a core of young people who deeply believe and a lot more who are swept up in the moment. But, however shallow Bernie's support may be, if he doesn't win it will unleash an astonishing bitterness towards the party.

But let's leave that aside and ask how those of us who aren't in the roughly 25% of the population that forms the core of Democrat support should respond. One possibility that I see a lot on the right is to brand Bernie as a socialist and, therefore, not really American. And I can see why; it seems like a no-brainer. Bernie has declared support for socialism in the past and socialism really is the opposite of what America is about. But I'd like to put another option on the table and that is that Bernie isn't really a socialist. Indeed, most Americans who call themselves "socialist" at one time or another aren't really socialists*.

What Bernie is is where he sits and he sits at the intersection of two deeply embedded American traditions: progressivism and toryism. These are outsider movements, mostly because they have suffered serious defeats in the past. Progressivism's big defeat was the 21st Amendment. Toryism's big defeat was the passage of the Suffolk Resolves. Neither ideology has ever fully recovered from those defeats but neither has gone away either. Combined, they make for a potent mix of moralism and elitist rent-seeking that, left unchecked, will sweep us all into servitude.

Or, to put it another way, he represents something undesirable but not something foreign. The bad things that would come with a Bernie victory are not some funny little foreign dictator we can caricature. No, Bernie represents the sort of injuries we inflict on ourselves.

* Others really are and they are cheerfully willing to exploit useful idiots like Bernie and his supporters but that's another issue.

Monday, February 24, 2020

My Americana

This is the only Lyle Lovett song I listen to much anymore.

That's not particularly notable for anyone but me.

I used to listen to Lyle all the time. In the late 1980s he was my guy. In retrospect, it isn't hard to figure out why.

I grew up in New Brunswick. The local radio station played rock and roll for only two hours a day—between 8 and 10 pm. And that was only six days a week. On Sunday night we got Billy Graham from 8 til 9 and no rock music at all. The rest of the time they played country.

I loved rock and roll at the time. Every Sunday I'd go through the same deception. I'd get into my bedroom and pull out my Holiday 8 Transistor radio and turn it on expecting the music I craved and get Billy Graham instead. Here's the thing, though, I never turned off Billy Graham. And every year I'd watch the Daytona 500. I was a hard core Richard Petty fan. And I listened to the country music that played all the time. I loved Buck Owens.

I had good instincts as a kid. Later, when I was in Ottawa to go to university, I listened to the music all my friends professed to like—mostly David Bowie, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, B52s and The Clash—but I also loved the music I grew up on. There was rock music that was partly or largely disguised country music such as the Rolling Stones, The Band and John Mellencamp. There was also country music it was respectable to like: I had a copy of Ray Charles's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music which all my friends at least tolerated; to do otherwise would have been "raaaacist". The same album by a white artist they would have despised.

And then came Lyle. The great thing about Lyle was the irony. It was country but it really wasn't. His tongue was always in his cheek. And I loved that.

Only I can't listen to it much anymore. The song above is an exception. There is no irony in it. It tells a story that a lot of men (and not a few women) can identify with. What it feels like when the woman you love and who still loves you wants out and nothing is going to change her mind. It's a straightforward story this song tells. It's not simple—a lot of artistry went into this song. But a lot of artistry went into almost everything Lyle did. For me, in any case, most of what he did hasn't aged well.

Joshua Judges Ruth, the album this song came from was the last Lyle Lovett album I ever bought. I didn't consciously reject him. He just no longer captured my imagination after that. It was just time to move on.

I said at the top that it isn't hard to figure out why Lyle was my guy. The reason is that he gave me an excuse to love the music I had always loved but was ashamed to admit in front of the cool kids. Lyle was not-really-but-kinda-sorta country. Over time, it was precisely that irony that became troublesome. Looking back, it's interesting (for me) to notice that I started to get tired of the irony in the early 1990s—that is to say years before 9/11.

And I can understand why that happened. I had just gotten out of a relationship that had been about fun but, as so often happens, had come to be love. And there are few things more damaging to the soul than to fall deeply in love with the wrong woman. I got out of that and into a relationship with a woman who valued the same things I did. One of the ironies (in the historical sense of the word this time) was that the friend who invited me to the occasion where I met Amy had done so with some trepidation because she worried that Amy and I would hate one another. Nora figured that I'd fit in with everyone else who'd be present but was worried that Amy and I would immediately clash and ruin everything for everyone. It didn't happen.

It was my fault that Nora thought that. I'd been lying about myself for years. Not surprisingly, my friends had started to believe my lies because, no matter how odious the source for this maxim, it is true that a lie constantly repeated tends to get accepted. Even by me. After 12 years of lying to myself and everyone else about who I was, I was finally ready to be honest.

Anyway, enough rambling. This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about Americana because Americana played a huge role in defining me. That's a troublesome statement because neither term—both "Americana" and "me"—is terribly well defined. I don't expect anyone else to care about me but others might be interested in the Americana issue.

Friday, February 21, 2020

No thank you

Tyler Cowen describes this paragraph as "Very good sentences"
Nearly all of the biggest challenges in America are, at some level, a housing problem. Rising home costs are a major driver of segregation, inequality, and racial and generational wealth gaps. You can’t talk about education or the shrinking middle class without talking about how much it costs to live near good schools and high-paying jobs. Transportation accounts for about a third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, so there’s no serious plan for climate change that doesn’t begin with a conversation about how to alter the urban landscape so that people can live closer to work.
I immediately thought  of two possible meanings for "sentence":
  1. A grammatical unit that is syntactically independent and has a subject that is expressed or, as in imperative sentences, understood and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb.
  2. The penalty imposed by a law court or other authority upon someone found guilty of a crime or other offense.
And then I thought, No! Just no! You can't impose your idea of the good life on us. And no matter how well-meaning Cowen thinks he is, that is what this is about. Just leave us alone and stop meddling. The above looks more like the second meaning of "sentence" to me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

More on current Toryism

I have a week of semi-relaxation—nothing to do but catch up on all the things I'm behind on—and it got me thinking of the last post on toryism.

One thing that has always struck me is the similarity of the division between tories and the revolution in ten American colonies in the late 18th century and the current split between blue and red America. 

Here's a quote from a well-known and respected source:
The American writers were profoundly reasonable people. Their pamphlets convey scorn, anger and indignation; but rarely blind hate, rarely panic fear. They sought to convince their opponents, not, like the English pamphleteers of the eighteenth century to annihilate them.
The source is Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. It comes after a fairly longish discussion of the poor literary quality of the pamphlets.

The obvious comparison here—so obvious that many people have already made it—is to compare the advent of the Internet, blogs and social media, to the pamphlet writing that preceded the revolution. A revolution that was sometimes characterized as a civil war at the time.

And now we go to a really famous quote (and one Bailyn uses as an epigraph for his opening chapter):
What do we mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington. The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning  the authority of Parliament over the colonies.
That, of course, is John Adams writing to Jefferson. There is a lot there that we might miss for the material is too familiar. Notice, for example, that for Adams the problem was not the British Crown but the British Parliament. No tory, Adams doesn't trust institutions, not even Parliament. Adams is also certain, a little more certain than was warranted, that it was simply a matter of enlightening and informing the people.

Not only at the start, but well through the war itself, the people need to be convinced. There must have lots of people who clung to the tory position or sat on the fence because they thought it would prevail and not because they wanted it to win. They wouldn't necessarily have supported the other side either. Thy had lives to live and they wanted their government to be stable.

But Adams is right  on the fundamental point: the Revolution was not the war.

If you're fan of the notion that the Revolution is an ongoing thing, we might also argue that the war was not necessary. Or rather, that Parliament made it necessary. The same might be said of the current struggle. There need not be a civil war. Whether there is is up to Tory elite. They don't have to conceded defeat, all they have to do is stop trying to annihilate their opponents.

Thursday, February 13, 2020


A few years ago, before Donald Trump came along and drove David Frum (and establishment conservatives generally) crazy, he made a sound distinction between conservatism and toryism.

Tories can look a lot like conservatives, and often work in alliance with them, but they differ in that they are cynical about human beings whereas conservatives are cynical about reformers and their projects to make life better for everyone. Tories tend to put great faith in institutions because they think these will keep the people in bounds.

A case in point would be Kevin Williamson.
Populists and pseudo-populists Left and Right sniff at the idea of political parties, at the idea that there should be some mediating layer — they call it “the Establishment” — standing between the People and power. From time to time, there are calls to abolish the parties or to supplant them with “nonpartisan” procedures, for example the “nonpartisan” primary rules in California that help to ensure no Republican ever wins an election west of Barstow.
There is a legitimate point here. The United States is not a democracy and that is a good thing. It is a republic. Canada is a constitutional monarchy that works an awful lot like a republic.

Williamson goes on to make the point that the US needs functioning political parties. That's true enough but notice why this is important to him: 'bitch all you like about “the Establishment,” a Democratic party with a functioning leadership would not let Bernie Sanders get within smelling distance of the presidential nomination, not least because he is not a member of the Democratic Party'. Notice the 'not least'. For Bernie could easily join the party. Williamson would want the party to stop him even if he were a member.

And he wanted the same as regards Trump.

Here is Frum back in more sensible days on the subject of Daniel Moniyhan:
At its best, Toryism teaches us the limits of public policy — and that’s the Toryism of Moynihan the thinker. At its worst, Toryism sinks into a cynical defense of political evils, because (it believes) the alternative can only be worse. That, sad to say, is often the Toryism of Moynihan the politician.
 And that is where Never Trumpers now reside. For some, I'm thinking of Ramesh Ponnuru here, were already there long before Trump arrived on the scene.

Yes, we need functioning political parties but the responsibility for making them such lies with the parties themselves. If they fail, then they deserve to die. There is no guarantee they will be replaced by anything better. Everything could fall apart—the natural state of the world is chaos, not order, and it is only constant effort that keeps a civilization from crumbling to dust. The people have the right to tear down the parties they don't like. It is up to aspiring leaders to build something that works; it is not up to the people to support a corrupt establishment just because the alternative might be worse.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Billie Eilish phenomenon

I say "phenomenon" because I don't find Eilish herself very interesting. I can see why some teenagers are very attracted to her. What I don't get is adults who obsess about pop music. Which brings me to a bit from the New York Times (I found it, as I often find source material for my posts, at Ann Althouse's blog).

Here's the first bit.
The enthusiasm of Ms. Eilish’s devotees denotes a striking turnabout, a new generation’s rejection of the flirty babe aesthetic embodied by contemporary idols like Ariana Grande in favor of something more crazily improvised and less strenuously sexual. 
There is a lot of wishful thinking in that sentence. For starters, it's not even close to true. Eilish is the woman who wrote, "Bruises on both my knees for you; Don't say thank you or please, I do what I want when I'm wanting to." If that isn't strenuously sexual, I don't know what is. Meanwhile, Ruth La Ferla, the author of the piece, has made her living for four decades now writing about fashion—do you believe her when she writes about rejecting an "aesthetic"?

Notice also the leap from "Eilish's devotees" to "a new generation". The likelihood of that being true is very small. If you go back to the 1960s, when pop music had much deeper cultural penetration than it does now, no pop star represented an entire generation. In today's highly fragmented music market, even a big star such as Eilish will only each a small fraction of the new generation.

Which brings me to the wishful thinking: we're reading an older woman who would like to see younger women reject the "flirty babe aesthetic." Yeah, that will happen.
Let's read some more.
At 18, [Billie] Eilish, who often goes without makeup, favors a pastiche of outsize 1980s and ’90s hip-hop and skater looks. That look speaks assertively to a Gen Z crowd chary of artifice and aggressive displays of sensuality. 'Her look is not about vanity,' said Lucie Greene, a trend forecaster and brand strategist. 'She is flipping the idea of beauty to something surreal, something influenced by gaming and the cyberculture. These are not the filtered images of millennials' ...
Ah yes, a "trend forecaster". But at least we are getting closer to the truth here: it's not sexuality that bothers these women. It's the aggressive display of sexuality they want to stop. (It's telling how often it is the case that attempts to control women's sexuality are actually the work of other women. It shouldn't be surprising, women have a much stronger interest in controlling other women's sexual display than men do so, of course, they try. It's only necessary to point it out because several decades of feminist rhetoric has tried to pin most of the blame on men.)

There is also something noteworthy hidden in plain sight here.  Eilish, we are told, "favors a pastiche of outsize 1980s and ’90s hip-hop and skater looks." Do you see it? This new phenom is actually pushing a look that was around two decades before she was born. The issue here is not just that she's dressing in a way some people have always dressed but that she is doing so for the same reasons: to flip "the idea of beauty to something surreal". If you were around in the 1980s that will be very familiar.

in that regard, she is very reminiscent of Boy George, another star who took his looks from a counterculture that had been around for decades and pushed it very hard to become a star. Like Eilish, Boy George also, one the one hand, wrote lyrics that spoke of his vulnerability and fear of being hurt and, on the other hand, wrote other lyrics about his desire to take risks. Unfortunately, another quality that Eilish shares with Boy George is that neither her music nor her lyrics shown much depth and that was a huge problem for him for, once had achieved great fame, he couldn't do much with it. That, of course, is true of most pop stars, but in some, and I fear Eilish will go down this road, that failure is followed by public self destruction.

Is it true that, "Her look is not about vanity"?  While it is true that she sometimes goes without makeup, she often wears a whole lot of it. What Eilish really, really doesn't like is being judged. Her makeup is a mask. I understand the desire not to be judged according to the flirty babe aesthetic. It creates winners and losers and it's no fun being a loser. But Eilish is not an accidental star. She worked very hard to be famous and she clearly loves being famous. She wants to be in the spotlight and be loved but she doesn't want to be judged. One of her songs is about her fear committing suicide and no one caring.

I think what a lot of older people, both men and women, find tiresome about the flirty babe aesthetic is that it's about getting attention and not about getting sex. They think it would be more "honest" if these girls were trying to get laid.
Her style resonates, [Amanda Petrusich wrote in The New Yorker], 'in a cultural moment when we are all trying very hard to sort out real people from the ones who are merely savvy and ambitious enough to know the right way to curate and present an authentic-seeming vibe.
A lot of people do say that. Most of them, however, are in media. But ask yourself this question. Someone hands you the keys to a Ferrari and gives you two choices. You can either drive it slowly down main street of a tourist town on a  summer's day where hundreds of people will look at you and your very hot car or you can drive it very fast down a winding road in the country with the very real risk that you might die in a spectacular accident. Call me shallow and inauthentic but I'm driving down main street.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Did we see the same movie?

Robin Hanson has a post up comparing Parasite with Joker. I can't comment on the first movie as I have not seen it have no desire to see it. But I'm a bit puzzled by Hanson's take on Joker.

He writes that both movies are "social commentary" [the scare quotes are in the original] and comments,
That commentary is said to be about inequality and class conflict, and most critics see Parasite as more “sophisticated” than Joker. My take: Parasite is done in a setting and style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more lower class perspective. Which is partly why upper class critics prefer Parasite.
My position is that Joker is not class commentary.

Now Hanson has left himself lots of wiggle room here—first with the scare quotes and then the "is said to be". He may not think Joker is about inequality and class conflict. That said, he proceeds as if that was the case and nowhere considers any alternative.

Towards the bottom he quotes the Joker's character during his television appearance, "when he gains a public stage",
Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne, men at ease, ever think what it’s like to be a guy like me? To be anybody but themselves. 
Here's the question I have, at any time in this entire movie, does the Joker character wonder what it's like to be anyone but himself?  The answer to that question is "No!!!!" There are a couple of moments when he appears to but we later find out this is fantasy. With the possible exception of his mother, he has no real relationship with anyone.

If there is a villain in his life, that villain is his mother. If! We can't really be certain about that. When he kills her, you feel zero sympathy for her. Can we trust him, though? I'm not sure even on this point.

The movie resonates with people because we can see how easy it would be to go down that victim route. That's the social commentary. Class has nothing to do with it.

I think it's telling that academics like Hanson, whose blog is called "Overcoming Bias", don't seem to be able to see a social commentary as anything but a class commentary. [But! Note the caveat about wiggle room above.]

Further thought, what do the terms "upper class" and "lower class" mean in this context? When we read a line like this, "Parasite is done in an art-house film style, while Joker is done in a mass-market comic-book style," what does that suggest? I'll grant you that art house primarily appeals to people who consider themselves intellectuals but that's a funny way to designate upper class. Given the choice between art-house style and mass market comic-book style, which do you think Donald Trump would prefer? Some people may like to think of people like Donald Trump as lacking class but I don't think we can reasonably call him lower class.

I think we're talking not about any "upper class" but rather about a credentialed class. That is people whose status depends on credentials conferred upon them by "peers and experts" as I discussed in my last post. A credentialed class is a lot like a peacetime army. The challenge for a peacetime army is that it can't evaluate officers in actual combat. A series of other measures have to be devised. Worse, the whole system is subject to corruption because the officer class are the ones who create the measures—and while some of them may actually be experts, most are just peers.

This is speculative, but suppose that there was a credentialed class whose power base was founded upon, oh I don't know, how about  a postwar liberal consensus. And suppose that consensus was in danger of crumbling. And let's imagine that members of this credentialed class looked out and saw that something momentous was happening but, instead of seeing there was a danger that their entire world could come crashing down on them, they saw it as a conflict between economic classes—they saw it as a conflict between abstract entities. How might that work out for them?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Something to ponder

Having picked on the always-worth-reading Tyler Cowen for his travel recommendations the other day, I here praise him for calling our attention to this fascinating quote:
We examine the educational backgrounds of more than 2,900 members of the U.S. cultural elite and compare these backgrounds to a sample of nearly 4,000 business and political leaders. We find that the leading U.S. educational institutions are substantially more important for preparing future members of the cultural elite than they are for preparing future members of the business or political elite. In addition, members of the cultural elite who are recognized for outstanding achievements by peers and experts are much more likely to have obtained degrees from the leading educational institutions than are those who achieve acclaim from popular audiences.
That is from a paper titled, "Where Ivy Matters: The Educational Backgrounds of U.S. Cultural Elites". Cowen's post can be found here.

What this tells us is that an Ivy League degree is of more value as a credential than the actual education that goes with it. It is only the latest bit of evidence that suggests that these elite universities have succeeded in creating an unfair system that looks like a meritocracy on the surface but is actually based on privilege at the core.

I suspect Canadian stats would be similar. What I would like to see would be a comparison between the bureaucratic, who tend to be evaluated by "peers and experts", and elected politicians. [Last sentence edited 2020-01-27.]

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Places to go?

Tyler Cowen has shared a list of "Places to go in 2020".

Two thoughts:

1. I'm far from the only one to say this but do intellectual elites actually believe in anything anymore? Seriously, how could someone simultaneously claim to believe in anthropogenic climate change and publish a list like this? This is way beyond hypocrisy; it suggests a complete disdain for the meaning of words, a belief that the author can say whatever he wants just because he can.

2. Again, this is not a novel observation but a need to travel on that scale suggests more a desire to run away from something than towards anything. I see that list and my first thought is, "What an empty life someone must have to need this much distraction."

Friday, January 10, 2020

This candle smells like ...

If we are to trust Gwyneth Paltrow, the candle in question smells like her vagina. Could be. I'm not going to spend $75 to find out.*

The good folks at The Cut couldn't resist giving her free advertising and did an article about it. They also decided to test the proposition. Not really, they gave a number of women the opportunity to prove they could be even more narcissistic about it than Gwyneth. Way to go guys.

They didn't ask a single man for his opinion, I suspect because they couldn't count on us to be sufficiently snarky and dismissive about it. I've never know any scented candle of any variety to smell exactly like what it's meant to evoke. That said, if merely evoking that smell, rather than duplicating it, is what the candle is supposed to do, that's what every successful perfume does.

In other news, one of the most-read stories at the site suggests that Brad Pitt is offensively good looking. Yes, offensively, like it's yet another burden making life unfair for women.

* Nobody asked me but, when properly made, which it rarely is, spaghetti alla puttanesca, tastes something like it. Not like Gwyneth's in particular ...

Saturday, January 4, 2020

This is how bad it has gotten

I was sent a link recently to a four-year-old story in The Guardian.

Title: "Swallowing the Red Pill: a journey to the heart of modern misogyny"

First sentence of the article (I'm not making this up)" "How shitty are men really?"

Think for a moment of how utterly lacking in self-awareness you have to be to write something like that.

This is what happens when people stop believing in anything but the pursuit of power. Stephen Marche is everything Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil to warn us about.