Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bookbag: Thomas Hauser's The Black Lights

"I believe in boxing," says Jimmy Glenn. "A tough kid goes into the gym and finds out he can't lick everyone. All of a sudden he isn' so tough anymore. Then he starts to admit his shortcomings, and tries to improve in other areas as well. After a while that young man has a sense of responsibility and confidence he never had before. But don't take my word for it," Glenn continues. "Walk into any gym You'll get more respect, see more hard work and discipline coming from youngsters than you would anywhere else in the world. Young men who have fought the system all their lives go into a gym, and all of a sudden they're willing to live and abide by the rules."

Bettie Page and Other Guilty Pleasures

My tribute to Bettie Page is up at Culture11.

Its publication is as good an excuse as I'm likely to get to post these passages from Coming to Power: Writings on Lesbian S & M, so I'll take advantage of unusual circumstances and throw up some Susan Farr. Stand warned that the first passage starts out unappealingly Marx-y but gets progressively truer:
Our society tolerates and advocates both indiscriminate and systematic violence where consent is absent (woman-battering, rape war), but issues strict taboos against consenting adults exploring the complexities of power and sexuality within highly controlled situations. I believe that this apparent paradox is due to our society's wishing to withhold experience with and knowledge about power from most people so that abuses of power by elites can be protected. Power is not an invention of men, to be wished out of existence in a new women's society. Power is the capacity to make things happen—power is energy—and we would do well to know as much as we can about it.

. . . I would much prefer that Rae come after me with a whip for some infraction than that she punish me emotionally. The former has rules, the most important being my consent, while the latter is a potentially damaging free-for-all.

. . . I cannot accomplish the same catharsis by talking ("I think I feel kind of hurt by all this") or shouting ("Goddamn it, I'm angry!"). A sensible talk leaves me still feeling strangled, and a shouting match leaves me simply stirred up. When I am ready really to let go of my anger or jealousy, and when Rae is ready really to let go of her guilt (or vice versa), then a physical encounter can accomplish the expiatory ritual that both parties need.

. . . I like to express affection openly, but always kissing and saying "I love you" is certainly repetitive, often lacking in imagination, and can become cloying. A cuff says "I love you" too, but in a sharper way.
Those who are wondering what a nice girl like me is doing with a raunchy club like Samois should know that I checked out their book in the course of chasing down this Farr quote. My nice girl cred remains unimpeachable.

No, Brer Fox, don't throw me in the Roxbury briar patch!

I am trying to be grateful to the kind souls who sent me books from my Amazon wish list, but whoever sent me The Boston Irish: A Political History must have known that his gift amounted to first-degree drug trafficking through the public mails. I remain, as ever, a slave to my obsessions:
"I think that there's got to be in every ward somebody that any bloke can come to—no matter what he's done—and get help," Martin Lomasney is reported to have told the writer and social critic Lincoln Steffens in the course of his research into the plight of American cities. "Help, you understand," said the ward boss, emphasizing the particularistic nature of the ethnic philosophy, "none of your law and justice, but help."
The ethic of the Boston machine was "Justice is for strangers" with an Irish accent; this much we knew already. What I hadn't known before reading O'Connor's book is that the story of Boston politics offers further support for my theory that the federal government is responsible for every bad thing that happens, ever:
In the past, the lifeblood of any political organization had been the ability of the boss to deliver the greatest number of favors—jobs, cash, housing, medical care, legal assistance—in the shortest amount of time, to the greatest number of friends and supporters. With the passage of New Deal legislation such as social security, unemployment insurance, and workmen's compensation, followed after World War II by the wide-ranging benefits of the GI Bill, including temporary employment, housing loans, professional training, and educational benefits, there was little reason for anyone to go to the local ward boss for help...
...which, insofar as help from a ward boss came with responsibilities and help from Uncle Sam never does, was bad.

I understand that Blagojevich season is hardly the time to take a stand in favor of municipal machines, but it's perfectly consistent to endorse the system without endorsing its every manifestation. After all, John Lydon loved a Manchester/Arsenal brawl as much as anyone when he was coming up and yet regards the modern culture of football hooliganism as dangerous and destructive. The difference? Modern brawlers use weapons. If the switch from fists to knives can be the Godfather of Punk's deal-breaker, then surely I can make a deal-breaker of the difference between honest and dishonest graft.

The punchline of my Beantown-centric reading list, of course, is that it has made me more pro-immigration than I can possibly admit among respectable paleocons. Take this for an iron law: Where immigrants are, there shall urban machines develop.
*I don't mean to suggest that machines had no power after the New Deal. They were, for example, effective at nixing urban renewal programs that threatened their neighborhoods in the late 60's: "It was hardly a coincidence that Mayor Collins and Edward Logue scheduled no major urban renewal projects for the larger and more heavily populated wards with strong representations in the city council—certainly not for the Italian districts of East Boston or the North End, with councillors Freddie Langone and Chris Ianella on the alert. Plans for extensive urban renewal in Irish South Boston were called off in the face of bitter opposition from city councillors Bill Foley and Johnny Kerrigan against professional reformers and idealistic do-gooders who went into working-class neighborhoods and tried to tell people how to live, how to fix up their homes, and how to run their schools."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bookbag: Speaking of being untethered...

I can't remember which of his books it's in, but P. J. O'Rourke wrote that society could be cleared of much liberal cant if everyone came to accept this basic fact: a thing can never be "worth" more than what someone is willing to pay for it. In that straightforward spirit, then, this from Owen Bradley's A Modern Maistre: The Social and Political Thought of Joseph de Maistre:
The first service of religion is to show to man, "isolated in the universe and unable to compare himself to anything," "how much he cost." The sacrifice of the god himself demonstrates "the enormity of the crime that demanded such an expiation; the inconceivable grandeur of the being that could have committed it; the infinite price of the victim who said here I am."

The inconceivable grandeur of man that required to redeem it an infinite price is emphasized all the more when Maistre cites Aeschylus's Prometheus: "Look at me, it is a God who has made a God die."

Philip K. Dick: Freaks, Meet Geeks.

Philip K. Dick leaves me feeling untethered—his intention, I think—but I can generally counteract this disorientation in the usual way: by putting things in boxes. I am a human being. My computer is a machine. The Ramones are punk. Blondie is New Wave. Dalton Trumbo was a Communist. E. M. Forster was gayer than a picnic basket. And so on.

Unfortunately, Dick is unlike most freaks: he actually resists boxing in. There's a lot that argues for putting Dick next to Hunter S. Thompson on the shelf of uncategorizables: they were roughly contemporaneous; both wrote science fiction (ibogaine?); both entertained, then discarded, the delusion that hippiedom and mind-expansion would save us all. Thompson thought politics was better than sex; Dick felt the same way about theology. Most interestingly, both had late-in-life marriages to relationships with much younger fans; psychologize that as you will.

While I'm comparing him to other writers, I'll set him alongside William Hazlitt, with whom he shared a physiological sensitivity to language. Take this story from David Bromwich's Hazlitt: Mind of a Critic:
On his way to the Neate-Hickman fight, Hazlitt—as he reminds us obliquely—had been brooding on Sarah Walker's rejection of him; until the "tall English yeoman" he found at an inn, "making a prodigious noise about rents and taxes, and the price of corn now and formerly," dismissed someone who wanted to call off a bet, saying, "Confound it, man, don't be insipid!"—at which, from the blackness of self-sorrows Hazlitt was roused. "Thinks I, that is a good phrase."
Compare it to Dick's habit of getting sentences stuck in his head:
"Doctor, the FBI is putting something in my food to make me paranoid!"

. . . Another time, someone told him about the death of a mutual friend. The person who came with the bad news didn't say, "Gloria killed herself," but instead, "Gloria killed herself today." As though it had been bound to happen, the only question being when.

. . . One of the "squares" who lived next door asked if someone could come over and kill a giant insect that had gotten into her kitchen. When the insect was dead, she said, "If I had known that it was harmless, I would have killed it myself!" Members of Dick's circle repeated this to themselves for weeks.

. . . A schizoid speed freak would never say, "I need to take amphetamines in order to hold a conversation with someone," but rather would say, as Dick remembered once thinking to himself, "I am receiving signals from nearby organisms, but I cannot produce my own signals unless my batteries are recharged."
Thinks I, those are good phrases. It's a small quirk, but one I've found that many writers share. (Aaron Sorkin talks about getting lines stuck in his head, too, in his case ones from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which he saw at an impressionable age.)

In any case, I enjoyed Carrère's biography and will recommend it, in exchange for recommendations of which Dick to read now. I don't know the man's canon as well as I (now) know his life, so, if you've got a favorite, throw it out in comments.

Bookbag: Whit Stillman's Barcelona and Mutual Incomprehension

This comparison between the final scenes of Barcelona and The Graduate goes out to Nick and Priyanko, whose favorite movies those are:
Ted explains the advantages of life with a European. "You see, that's one of the great things about getting involved with someone from another country—you can't take it personally. What's really terrific is that when we act in ways that might objectively be considered incredibly obnoxious or annoying, they don't get upset at all. They just assume it's some national characteristic." Fred assents: "Cosa de gringos."

[In The Graduate,] as Hoffman and Ross sit down in the back of the bus, excited by her escape from a conventional marriage, they find they have nothing to say to one another. They stare forward as Simon and Garfunkel sing "The Sounds of Silence." Their marriage will be as mired in silent incomprehension as their parents' marriages, the fate they are running away from...

In Barcelona's last shot, the European women are inside enjoying their hamburgers and fantasizing about their American mates' sexual peculiarities. The American men are outside, sipping beer and appreciating "what's really terrific" about mutual incomprehension, nodding silently as music starts to play.
From Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman.

UPDATE: From the same, Laura Weiner on the inherent conservatism of irony:
In short, the best ironists in Metropolitan are the hyper-conventional members of the SFRP; the least effective ironist is the intellectual radical and outsider, Tom.
And Mary P. Nichols on manners and civility:
As to Tom's declaration of his crush on Serena Slocum and his lack of interest in anyone else, events prove that Tom, for all his intended honesty, was far from understanding his real feelings. The strictures on excessive candor may not be "just a social convention," as Cynthia insists, or even a prudent response to an awareness that the truth may hurt, as Audrey realizes, but a recognition that the truth may not be so simple a matter that it emerges with mere "honesty and openness."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Oscar Wilde is alive and well and living in Finland?

This photo from Hel-Looks is uncanny:


What do you get the traditionalist who has everything?

I can only speak for myself, but all I want for Christmas is the ability to talk about Joseph de Maistre in polite company.

Maistre has gotten a bad rap as a proto-fascist, none of which is deserved, and as a throne-and-altar absolutist, not all of which is. The best way to put it might be to say that there are conservatives today who could be characterized as throne-and-altar types, and Maistre would not necessarily have much good to say about any of them.

As to his off-putting zeal for the executioner's office, I would clarify that Georges Bataille wrote about blood and sacrifice because he thought they were sexy ideas; Maistre wrote about them because he believed that a society lacking a ritualized expression of its violent and sacrificial tendencies would inevitably come to express them in more destructive ways. For Maistre, the measure of a ritual sacrifice was how well it dampened and tamed mankind's natural bloodlust; he was less enthusiastic about suffering than I am.

Reading Owen Bradley's A Modern Maistre, I find myself wishing that he could find a place next to Burke in the conservative canon. For one thing, he often says in a sentence what took Burke much longer. On the importance of unwritten political habits over written law:
As there is something in music it is impossible to annotate, there is something in all governments it is impossible to write.
On symbolic authority, sounding very Wildean:
If it is our first duty to be just, our second is to appear so.
Another musical metaphor:
He who is still blind and dumb . . . like the uninitiated at the mysteries, or the unmusical at dances, not being yet pure and worthy of the pure truth but still discordant and disordered and material [I assume he means libertarians—CSB], must stand outside the divine choir. Plato thought it not lawful for the impure to touch the pure. Thence the prophecies and oracles are spoken in enigmas, and the mysteries are not exhibited uncontinently to all and sundry, but only after certain purifications and previous instructions.
But, more than that, he fused cosmopolitanism with traditionalism in a way that Burke never did. Many conservatives think that the advantage of living in traditional communities is that it gives its members a shared set of values and assumptions; traditional communities are good because they are, in important ways, homogenous. I've always thought the opposite: unchosen communities are better than chosen or contractual ones because they force us to put up with people we don't like. Maistre gets this*; I'm not sure Burke does.

I am pleased to note that Maistre's magnanimity toward a society's outliers extended even to people outside the community: "Unhappily, every stranger is an enemy when one has need of victims; this horrible public law is only too well known." Bradley explains:
He shows that the foreigner's threat to the in-group's fundamental values is not a fact but a representation produced by an overly zealous social order; the transition from difference to antagonism is not the work of the stranger.

Embedded in this analysis seems to be an inherent criticism of the identification of group unity with the good and of the newcomer with the bad or dangerous. Scapegoating, the victimization of difference, will be a primary object of Maistre's political criticism; it is always the result of a sacred economy gone haywire, whether it is a matter of the Aztecs or Marat.
I take it back: All I really want for Christmas is an end to the victimization of difference.

*Owen Bradley on Maistre and cosmopolitanism:
Baldensperger estimates the number of émigrés departing France between 1789 and 1797 and returning between 1797 and 1815 at 180,000, among them the majority of the previous French elite. These men and women, cosmopolitans in spite of themselves, developed "dispositions more docile to the diversity of the world" through contact with other national traditions whose untaintedness by the French Enlightenment, now blamed for the Revolution, impressed upon the émigrés the value of local customs and traditions, so-called superstitions and anachronisms. The very disarray of the émigrés in their new surroundings made their experience of cultural difference far more dramatic and often more fertile than that of the Napoleonic armies, bearers of a triumphant Enlightenment universalism...

Maistre himself emphasizes [this]: "I never think without admiration of that political whirlwind which has uprooted from their places thousands of men destined never to know one another, to make them swirl together like the chaff of the fields... We are painfully and justly pulverized; but, if miserable eyes like my own are worthy to glimpse divine secrets, we are only pulverized to be mixed."

Bookbag: Ghosts in the (Boston Municipal) Machine

Supplemental material from Jack Beatty's biography of James Michael Curley, first on the failure of "clean government" platforms:
The cry of reform had elected Andrew Peters. Business priorities now dictated city spending. Whereas Curley had not increased the budget of the paving department—good roads were businesses' chief demand—Peters increased it by 56%. Curley had added an eighty-bed wing to the City Hospital and sharply increased spending for the poor; Peters stopped all hospital expansion and, in the midst of the postwar recession, cut the number of poor receiving aid by a third. Peters opposed the granting of city pensions, broke the union in the city's printing department, and refused wage increases to the poorly paid library employees. And his mulishness in the face of the reasonable demands of the police led to the disaster of the police strike. [Coolidge worshippers take note. —CSB] Nor did his administration write a lustrous chapter in the history of clean government. Personally honest, Peters was too preoccupied with the pursuit of ancestral leisure (sailing, gold) and debauchery (Starr Faithfull) to monitor his appointees, who sold jobs and promotions as if they owned them. His administration gave reform a bad name.
Second, the conservative side of Curley's "welfare" system:
They were citizens, and the benefits they derived were contingent on their political participation. How different are things today. The objects of a niggardly—$60 a month is the food stamp allotment for a single person—bureaucratic pity, our dependent poor are not citizens; they get their benefits by formula, not according to their behavior. They have "rights" to these "entitlements," but no responsibilities.
Lastly, a touching story:
When St. Patrick's was being built, the men of the parish had had to patrol the construction site carrying muskets with fixed bayonets to discourage raids by Protestant mobs. On St. Patrick's fiftieth anniversary, in 1885, a neighborhood paper recalled that "nearly every man of the parish took his night in turn to perform the work of the literal soldier of the cross." Curley would thus have been reminded of the ordeal of his faith and people in Boston every time he entered St. Patrick's.

Liberalism and Loyalty Revisited

I caught a little guff a while back for saying, in so many words, that liberals don't understand loyalty. I'll cop to that being an overly-sweeping statement, but I'd like to throw up some evidence on each side of the argument before deciding how far I want to walk it back.

First, take this bit from Naomi Wolf's Onion interview in which she offers up the military (and, for that matter, Christian) virtue of obedience for shock value:
I asked Colonel [David] Antoon—who is an Air Force colonel, he's a very patriotic, very heroic military man, now retired—I asked him, "What happens if the president tells the First Brigade to shoot at civilians?" And his answer was, "They have to do it." I asked, "Can the First Brigade arrest Congress?" He said, "They have to if they're given orders by the president." "What happens to Congress then?" "They're at the mercy of military men." And I asked, "What if other military speak up and tell people to rebuke the order?" His answer was, "They'd get arrested."

When a leader has deployed a private army, that is one definition of a police state.
This story from J. P. Diggins sees liberalism digging its anti-fealty hole, jumps in, and keeps on digging. (Certainly, one may be inclined to discount his comparison on the logic that any theory of obedience has to recognize an Italian Exception.)
In the mid-1970's, I was asked to give a talk at the University of Florence on the subject of American radicalism. Italian students and professors, many of them Marxists and feminists, seemed to appreciate my account of a student phenomenon that could never successfully reach beyond the campus. Then came a question from the audience. What did I think was the biggest mistake the American New Left made? I replied that if young radicals desired to reach the "masses," they should have refrained from abusing the symbols of American patriotism. The New Left was almost unique in turning against America's own patriotic heroes and traditions. In Italy, Antonio Gramsci, who loved his country as much as his cause, was both a radical socialist and an ardent nationalist, a Marxist and a Mazzinian. My remarks were received more with respect than with rancor.

Yet shortly afterward, in Philadelphia at a historian's conference, I made the same reply in response to a similar question regarding the failure of the New Left. This time my remarks about patriotism were greeted with hisses, and I was told that no one could love a country that tried to carry out genocide in Asia.
Obviously, there exist liberals who believe that a man's loyalty to an institution extends exactly and only as far as his agreement with it. And yet there exists also Aaron Sorkin:
We're bleeding here, Mark.


We're bleeding here, for God's sake. You can work with us or you can be ignored by a Republican President, but those are your choices.

How bad is it?

Buckland's coming after us. He’s been meeting with Victor Campos.

And while you guys are defending yourselves against special prosecutors and Jack Buckland, what happens to the people who got you here?

Who are you talking to, Mark? We're not gonna forget about failing schools in central cities. We're not gonna forget about after-school care, health care for uninsured kids. We're not gonna forget about drug treatment, or urban redevelopment, or community policing!


But you gotta not forget that we're bleeding!
There's also Noah, of "special snowflake"-gate, and also every Boston Irish Democrat ever, but before I let Beantown walk away with my argument, never to return (that's how they roll up there), I'll pull a page from its political history. In the days of James Michael Curley, my political hero, Boston politics were not so much dominated by left and right as by machine and reform. From Jack Beatty's biography of Curley:
An archetypal Boston story illustrates the resulting clash of political cultures. A Beacon Hill lady once went ringing doorbells in Irish South Boston on behalf of a high-minded candidate for the School Committee. At one house, an Irish housewife listened politely to the lady's pitch for her paladin, and then asked, "But doesn't he have a sister who works for the schools or who has something to do with the school system?" The Beacon Hill lady was shocked at what she took to be a suggestion of patronage. "I assure you, madam," she said, "he is not the kind of man who would ever use his position to advance the interests of his sister!"

To which the South Boston Irish housewife responded, "Well, if the son-of-a-bitch won't help his own sister, why should I vote for him?"
The elite vs. the working class; Brahmin vs. Irish; Unitarian vs. Catholic; reform vs. magnanimity. I'm not sure which is code for which—was Boston politics a class struggle masquerading as cultural clash or vice versa?—but ideological progressivism (abolitionism, women's suffrage, temperance) seemed always to find its home with the Unitarians and not the Irish. (Beatty blames Irish Catholicism's spirit of resignation: "To the Irish, pessimists by history and religion alike, such meliorism was impious, a prideful tinkering with a Creation that it was the task of humankind to accept, not to set right.")

Someone whose only point of reference was early twentieth century Boston might formulate the following rule: If your liberalism means putting the poor and disadvantaged first, you'll have a deep appreciation for political loyalty; if your liberalism looks more like a system of high-minded reforms, you won't. (If you reframe the difference as liberal particularism vs. liberal universalism, the rule becomes intuitive.) Obviously, this doesn't hold all the time, but it generally did there/then.

So, having looked at both sides of the question, results are inconclusive; at the end of the day, lots of people think loyalty and obedience are just excuses not to think for oneself. I suppose all I really want to do is point out that, if you are a liberal who wants your side to take the virtue of loyalty seriously, there are parts of your intellectual inheritance that you'll have to push against, whereas I'm not sure that's true for the right.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bookbag: The Perils and Pitfalls of Genre Fiction

From I am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick:
Of course, writing science fiction meant playing the game—working fast and cheap and putting up with editorial interference, inane titles, and garish illustrations of little green men with bulbous eyes. Terry Carr, the Ace paperback editor, used to joke that if the Bible had been published as science fiction, it would have had to be cut down to two volumes of twenty-thousand words each; the Old Testament would have been retitled "Master of Chaos," and the New Testament "The Thing with Three Souls."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Offered without comment

Edmund Burke:
Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty. Blushing has little less power; and modesty in general—which is a tacit allowance of imperfection—is itself considered as an amiable quality, and certainly heightens every other that is so.

I know it is in everybody's mouth that we ought to love perfection. This is to me sufficient proof that it is not the proper object of love. Who ever said we ought to love a fine woman, or even any of these beautiful animals which please us?

The basis for a new trad/libertarian alliance

From Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History:
Reagan, our Emersonian president, was carrying out the poet's wish when he aimed to rid us not only of govenment but of guilt itself, not realizing that without a bad conscience we can only have big government.

"Philosphy is preparation for death; in this it resembles all other human endeavors."

Writing for three different blogs is, in part, a manifestation of my fragmented personality. The Helen who is addressing you at the moment is the big softie—I'm gonna die, and so is everyone that anyone has ever loved, but damn, girl, do you have to be so cavalier about it? If I may be permitted to move from schizophrenia to meta-schizophrenia, I'll try to explain why I am rhetorically reckless about death even to the point of naming this blog after a habit that might kill me and, second, why I'm not as rhetorically reckless about death as you think I am.

The first shard of your broken teakettle, then: There's no one culprit for my belief that all time is plague time, not even my misspent existentialist youth; every philosophy I've ever been attracted to has glorified fortitude, and fortitude depends upon an indifference to death. It's a hard virtue to develop—smoking helps, and so does having the sister I do (to the extent that coming to terms with her profound disability resembles grieving). But a love of courage—or, to put it less charitably, an eagerness to err on the side of recklessness rather than timidity—is a philosophical thread I've never lost track of. ("If philosophy is preparation for death, then anything that prepares for death is philosophical": a new maxim to corrupt the youth?)

But there never was a one-handed blogger, and if, as I write this post, I have a cigarette in my left hand, my more charitable hand holds a copy of J. G. A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment. Pocock was tailor-made for pomocons: he explains the conservative attitude toward death in terms of loyalty to the universal versus loyalty to the particular. A universalist, he explains, is a man who cannot understand why any good thing should ever have to end; the particularist realizes that embracing contingent, time-bound, and finite things requires embracing their finitude. I will love America until it dies, and, when it dies, I will love its death as an appropriate ending to the story. (For those who take their philosophy with a twist of eschatology: Atheists have a tough time understanding how Christians can believe that it will be good when this world is replaced by a better one and yet also believe that it is good, for the moment, that this world continue to exist. That's why the conflict between particularism and Christianity has never bothered me; the other side has a worse case of the universalism bug than we do.)

Being a traditionalist means loving the particular; loving the particular means loving the finite; accepting finitude means accepting that sometimes it's good when good things come to an end, lives no less than republics. This is not to say that death should not be the occasion for grief. (Indeed, a special sensitivity to premature death depends upon some idea of mature death.) My only intention here is to assure anyone put off by tobacco apologetics that my willingness to taunt the Reaper is (partly but) not exclusively a function of youth's delusions of invincibility.

Bookbag: Convergent Truth Edition

J. P. Diggins gets his James C. Scott on:
As in Russia and Eastern Europe, the communist regimes [in the Third World] that overturned their autocratic predecessors turned out to be more repressive. Traditional autocracies do not penetrate every aspect of society, whereas communism organizes society from top to bottom, leaving no space for civil society, economic initiative, or political rights.
From Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History.

UPDATE: A correspondent writes that the autocracy/totalitarianism distinction "has more to do with private property and some degree of pluralism than it does with, say, making fun of the tribal elders when their backs are turned. Besides, there was plenty of that sort of thing in the Eastern Bloc." Maybe we should all go back and read "Dictatorships and Double Standards" again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The children are our future, God help us!

Ross Douthat has pointed out that many college conservatives are monarchists, which is a polite way of saying that they're completely daft. However, back at Yale we wore the badge of insanity with pride; we knew it produced results. For those who are curious about what College Republicans are up to these days, here are a few telling quotes.

They're theologically sophisticated:
“Is pistol-whipping a priest a felony or a misdemeanor?”
“In a criminal or ecclesiastical court?”
They're patriotic:
“States are arbitrary units.”
“No, they’re not. They have anthems.”
They defy the odds:
“It ain’t easy turning an octaroon-raised-in-China, sexually deviant, drug-using, computer-hacking, transhumanist Nietzschean into a conservative.”
They prefer small government:
“The chip in my passport doesn’t work. Will that be a problem when we go to South Africa?”
“I’m not sure. What happened to it?”
“My anarchist ex-boyfriend microwaved it to free me from the state.”
They're chivalrous:
“Fuck you both. No, fuck you twice, because I can’t do that to her."
They're committed to the Socratic process:
“I wonder if the gentleman isn’t using philosophy like Prozac, and whether Prozac wouldn’t be more helpful.”
They know how to have fun:
“I want to play dirty mind games with someone!”
“We have Boggle.”
And not a little hard-livin':
“What time is it?”
“Well, it’s dark, which means we’re awake.”
The bottom line:
“So what did you learn in your five years with the Party of the Right?”
“I learned two ways to pronounce coitus.”
In all seriousness, the conservatives I knew in college—lo these seven months ago!—drank harder, smoked more, and enjoyed life more fully than their counterparts on the political left, which makes me think that David Frum's bellyaches about the GOP's losses in the 18-25 cohort are overblown. Obama captured them two-to-one this time around, but the young conservatives of today, like the young liberals of the sixties, regard the young-and-single lifestyle as an opportunity for heroism. That's non-negligible cause for hope.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bookbag: Edward Abbey cracks me up

From Black Sun:
"If you Indians are better than white men, why do you drink so much?"
"Because we are very happy that we are not white men."

Conservatism: The Gayest Science

There's a midnight Mass at St. Malachy's that all the show people go to . . .
Reihan Salam managed to get through an entire post about the conservative wing of the gay rights movement without using the term homocon, but I don't have his powers of restraint. Blame James Poulos; when they write "The Ballad of Twenty-First Century Conservatism," they're gonna need something that rhymes with "pomocon."

Reihan's point, which Freddie disputes, is that the overlap between gay liberation and libertarianism should be self-evident:
Faced with ferociously hostile police and the constant threat of public disgrace, it makes perfect sense that lesbians and gay men in the 1950s and 1960s would have been instinctive libertarians, leery of further empowering an already overweening, overly intrusive state.
I can't fault Reihan for coming to such an intuitive conclusion, but it ignores a fact of history: for the last century or so, the gay Right has belonged not to libertarians but to old-fashioned conservatives.

You can blame the snobs if you want. There's no denying that any gay man in the market for a public persona both socially acceptable and acceptably queer will find the Fey Aristocrat archetype close at hand, which may explain why Noel Coward said things like this:
I am becoming almight sick of the Welfare State, sick of general "commonness," sick of ugly voices, sick of bad manners and teenagers and debased values.
But it can hardly explain his patriotism:
The reason that I didn't come back to America was that in this moment of crisis [World War Two] I wanted to be here experiencing what all the people I know and all the millions of people I don't know are experiencing. This is because I happen to be English and Scots and I happen to believe and know that, if I ran away and refused to have anything to do with the War and lived comfortably in Hollywood, as so many of my actor friends have done, I should be ashamed to the end of my days.
Things look a bit thinner on the Sapphic side—the men, at least, have the original Brideshead set (Evelyn Waugh, Brian Howard, and Harold Acton, bohemian reactionaries all) and the Catholic Decadents (John Gray, André Raffalovich, and Oscar Wilde, ditto)—but ur-lesbian Radclyffe Hall was so Tory that she nearly went straight for Mussolini and Gertrude Stein loved gender roles almost as much as she hated Franklin Roosevelt. And, of course, there's always Florence King:
Girltalk is thought to be rambling and repetitive, but it pales beside the speech code concocted by Donna Shalala when she was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. Sounding like a Roget rolling brakeless downhill, she barred insensitive speech about "race, color, nationality, origin, ancestry, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and age." She forgot "personal appearance," but then she's such a humanitarian that she never thinks of herself.
I've omitted Andrew Sullivan from this list because the sort of gay conservative I'm interested in opposes assimilationism, or, better yet, damns it to Hell—my own GBFF (a conservative) never stops saying, in crowded places,"To Hell with the assimiliationists!" He can't understand why a gay man would want a white picket fence; leave that bourgeois stuff to the breeders! There's something a little too cavalier about his line, but it squares very nicely with the aristocratic strain in the gay tradition. ("Gay men have an instinct for hierarchy unparalleled in contemporary culture, outside of Roman Catholicism.") My other notable omission, Allan Bloom, is left out for having been closeted.

None of this is to say that gay men and women should be conservatives, only that many of them have been (more than have been politically libertarian), which means that aspiring gay reactionaries have a long tradition upon which to draw.
And if you don't know what a friend of Dorothy is, ask a policeman—or one in five Tory MP's . . .

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The problem with Conor Friedersdorf's Top Ten Rock Songs

His list:
1.) Like a Rolling Stone
2.) Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
3.) Johnny B. Goode
4.) The Dock of the Bay
5.) Baba O’Reilly
6.) Sympathy for the Devil
7.) The Sultans of Swing
Of the seven songs on this list, five of them clock in longer than 5:00. It's not quite prog-level bloat, but it's close.

So, in the spirit of saying your piece and shutting up, the top 11 rock songs under two minutes:
"This Ain't No Picnic," the Minutemen
"The Imposter," Elvis Costello
"Tell Her No," The Zombies
"Please Let Me Get What I Want," the Smiths
"Shape of Things to Come, Max Frost & the Troopers
"Rockin' Bones," Ronnie Dawson
"The Letter," the Box Tops
"Fell in Love with a Girl," the White Stripes
"Whistle Bait" the Collins Kids
"Voodoo Voodoo," LaVern Baker
"(Let's Get, Let's Get) Tammy Wynette," the Maggots
"Three Girl Rumba," Wire
There are a lot of winners on this list; just something to keep in mind when you hunker down for "American Pie."

Asceticism and Saint Friedrich of the Broken Spine

I don't think James Poulos is a madman, but, if he is, it's the madness of a prophet. How else could he so consistently come up with crypto-cryptic nuggets like this one?
I am really satisfied to discover that this post accidentally hints that Nietzsche’s main concern was how to be alone without being an ascetic.
That's what stand-up comedians would call a soaker*, but rather than leave you to get it on the drive home, I'll try to bludgeon James's sentence until it gives up the secret of postmodern conservatism.

I have written before that the contradiction that animates postmodern conservatism, at least for me, is the tension between Christian traditionalism and postmodern audacity. Dan McCarthy describes postmodern audacity as "an obsession with theory, a keen interest in power relationships, and a yen for the transgressive." Paul Gottfried calls it "an iconoclastic exuberance . . . more Nietzschean than neo-Thomistic." Back in the Party of the Right, we just called it the will to badass. Alas, it doesn't quite jive with Christian meekness, and I don't like the "heroic Christianity" that looks like being really, really meek.

Asceticism, defined (a little loosely) as the cultivation of self-discipline at the expense of ordinary pleasure, seems like the best way to fulfill both of my contradictory ambitions, which is where Poulos's sentence comes in: Nietzsche tried to come up with a way for man to be alone in a room with himself besides asceticism, but he failed. ("The ability to be alone in a room with yourself," by the way, means being in touch with the you that stands behind all your public faces; not Helen-at-work, not Helen-at-blog, not even Helen-at-prayer, but simply Helen. If it sounds like something a person can take for granted, think harder; there's nothing automatic about it.)

Crispin Sartwell says that he goes to the gym because "I need, first of all, to feel myself as a person who is capable of making things hapen, but even more, I think, to feel myself to be a person who is incapable of making things happen." It is psychologically impossible to have an honest picture of oneself without knowing where one's limits are. (That's why asceticism is different from stoicism: the latter, inasmuch as it depends upon the fiction that a man can control his experience of life, is about denying human limits.) Spiritual exercises (which might include anything from fasting to anger management to learning how to love your hangover) keep a man strong, but they also keep him honest.

The problem with Nietzsche's recipe for cultivated excellence is that it relies too much on other people. The relationship between a bully and his victims is a sickly dependence that runs both ways, no matter how narcissistic the bully is. Asceticism, on the other hand, is an internal struggle, one that demands "we let ourselves be changed, in our point of view, attitudes, and convictions. This means that we must dialogue with ourselves, and hence we must do battle with ourselves" (Pierre Hadot).

I probably haven't said anything controversial yet—everybody's in favor of excellence, and almost everybody acknowledges that self-discipline is an important kind of excellence. How is this picture of asceticism different from "You should embody as many kinds of awesome as you can?" Well, a good way to make an idea controversial is to bring Christianity into it, so I'll let Virginia Burrus be provocative on my behalf:
The act of confession is, then, at once assertive and yielding, a willful appropriation of the (divine) power of judgment that is at the same time a deliberately mortifying submission of will and self to judgment, and thus also—perhaps—to mercy. It is neither simply coerced nor simply voluntary but rather sits necessarily on the border of what is coerced and what is offered freely. This is why it continues to make trouble for legal systems committed to distinguishing between forced and voluntary confession. One must want, at least a little, to be broken, to be exposed, or the confession is sterile.
Nietzsche reveled in being powerful, Therese of Lisieux in being powerless; asceticism is the revelation that fortitude, like confession, means being both at the same time.

I've written before about this quote from Susan Farr in the context of explaining the fine line between "ascetic" and "ecstatic," but it's exactly the note I want to end on here, too:
I am a person who trusts her body and its sensations more than her mind and its thoughts. This is a difficult discovery after years of formal schooling designed, presumably, to make my mind a well-trained, highly reliable tool. Still, my body serves me better... For one thing, thoughts are censored: some things are unthinkable, but a body that is freed to do whatever feels right will do the undoable.
Cut the antinomian sketchiness of "whatever feels right" and you've got an endorsement of asceticism that Saint Anthony, Friedrich Nietzsche, and I could all sign onto.

*Yale professor Karsten Harries does the same thing. "Isn't Nietzsche's eternal recurrence rather like the eucharist?" "What?" Then, two days later, at three AM . . .

Bookbag: Nietzscheans for Christ?

I have a post brewing about asceticism as the perfect intersection of Nietzsche and Christianity, but, since Nietzschean Christianity is a weird thing to talk about, I thought I'd soften the ground with a couple of quotes, beginning with this one from gay sadomasochist Guy Baldwin:
Christ was reportedly a guy who was a sensitive renegade, set himself up to be on the receiving end of some very serious suffering, and taught that submission to a higher authority was the key to salvation. Who could be surprised that I turned out to be a lifelong gay sadomasochist with Christ as my role model?
Second, I offer these bullet points from a manifesto for "closeted Nietzscheans" that a friend of mine started to write. (I should mention that he would be mortified to appear alongside the above quote.)
At our weddings we will quote Corinthians and toast that love which is patient and humble; but later we will revel in that love which is power and domination.

During the day we say it is a virtue to be cheerful; but we secretely love those who have great contempt, for they truly have great reverence, arrows of longing for a further shore.
And finally, two bits from America's greatest ascetic, Emily Dickinson:
Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—don't you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

You are like God. We pray to Him, and He answers "No." Then we pray to Him to rescind the "no," and He don't answer at all, yet "Seek and ye shall find" is the boon of faith.
Unlike my closeted Nietzschean friend, I don't think she'd mind appearing next to Guy Baldwin's blasphemy—"Cupid taught Jehovah to many an untutored mind..."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"It's not your heart I want to break."

When it comes to untrustworthy feelings, there's always sadism. Anyone whose ethical system depends on people knowing (or even being able to figure out) what they want is going to run into the thorny problem of schadenfreude sooner or later; people, it must be said, want some pretty sick stuff, including public hangings and the scapegoating of sacrificial innocents. (Yes, I've been associating with a lot of utilitarians lately, why do you ask?) Or, as Eve put it, you can't base your morality on doing what some person ("Lisa," say) wants, because "Lisa can definitely surprise you—and, if you indulge her every will, she's likely to surprise you in some unpleasant ways!"

To get a better feeling for how natural sadism is, read this paragraph from a review of Cruel Delight: Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman:
. . . the facts of cruelty—of the taking of pleasure in the spectacle of the suffering of humans and animals—presented a deep and ultimately insuperable problem for a naturalistic eighteenth-century ethic based on sympathy. Such an ethic had immense cultural power at this time, sustained by its imbrication with a dominant physiology and aesthetics of sensibility. But if not everyone is spontaneously moved to pity the dying lamb and the starving shepherd—if on the contrary there are those who delight in inflicting pain—then how can it be contended that a largely utilitarian morality of promoting pleasure and minimizing pain has a natural basis? Pity would have to be a universal response, or overridden only in specific circumstances, as for example when contemplating the punishment of a brutal murderer. Steintrager contends that a "solution" to this problem was to label those who delighted in cruelty as "inhuman." So pity was a human universal. But such a solution is in fact no solution at all: it is a trick, a tautology which dodges the issue.
Or you could stick with the Poulos nutshell of same:
Maybe sentimental ethics can't survive the death of humanism. But if humanism can survive the death of sentimental ethics, why does the conversation keep turning to de Sade?

Ideology is the ultimate aphrodisiac?

A story in three acts: Richad Posner bashes ideology
For myself, I would be happy to see conservatism exit from the political scene—provided it takes liberalism with it. I would like to see us enter a post-ideological era in which policies are based on pragmatic considerations rather than on conformity to a set of preconceptions rooted in a rapidly vanishing past.
Reihan brings conservatism into it—
At its best, I think conservatism is Posnerism — a skeptical but mildly meliorist approach that draws on insights from market liberalism, inherited tradition, etc. As the gap between conservatism and Posnerism has grown, conservatism has been the worse for it.
Henry Kissinger slaps them both on the back of the head, Three Stooges style—
When they proclaim the end of ideology, it's like an old man proclaiming the end of sex. Because he doesn't feel it anymore, he thinks it has disappeared.
The man who scrubs ideology out of politics hobbles his ability to argue for or against anything. Pragmatic measures move us toward one goal or another, but we have to settle on the goal first. Do we want freedom (whose freedom?), virtue (which virtue?), happiness, stability, liquor...?

I can anticipate one counterargument: People have desires, and, given that politics is pretty bad at convincing people to change their desires ("You flapper girls don't really want to get junked on gin, do you?"), it should content itself with satisfying them, within the limits of prudence, fairness, justice, etc. Citizens want what they want, and the state has to play the hand it's been dealt.

The rebuttal to that rebuttal is that people don't just want what they want. Lots of desires are inauthentic: advertising creates desires that are, in important ways, false and can be (should be?) ignored or transcended. Bleeding-heart pathos creates a feeling of humanistic goodwill that's equally false. (Translation of that last sentence: Is there really much of a difference between a hit of crack and a picture of a kitten? Both create happiness, and both kinds of happiness are cheap and should be rejected. Politicians usually present pictures of poor people or oppressed victims of foreign regimes rather than kittens, but the difference is cosmetic.)

Most ideologies designate some kind of "safe space" where men can trust their desires. Utilitarians say "My moral, aesthetic, and religious intuitions are kinda screwy, but I can always tell what makes me happy." Libertarians say "People talk a lot of nonsense; the only way to find out what they really think is to watch where they put their money." Liberals say "Religion, consumption, employment, and politics are awash in false consciousness and hegemonic manipulation, but I know I can trust my emotions." (Rainer Werner Fassbinder made weepy melodramas in order to disprove that last one—the fact that you shed real tears at the preposterously melodramatic climax of All That Heaven Allows shows that your feelings are deeply unreliable.) In each case, the trust in desire is misplaced.

There's no way to tell trustworthy desires from untrustworthy ones—you'll never really know whether you want that hot new thing because you want it or because you've been told to want it. The only way out of this quagmire is to ignore what people want (or say they want) and focus on what they should want, which puts us back in the realm of philosophical and theological debate, which means I still have a job. So it all works out in the end.

The triumphant return of the Cigarette Smoking Blog

I'm back!

It turns out that, in present circumstances, I produce an embarrassment of bloggable thoughts that cannot be adequately expressed in either my Pomocon voice (erudite) or my Ladyblog voice (snarkily traditional). Consequently, I've decided to revive CSB, while still keeping the fire alive at Culture 11. Start your engines, hide the horses, drink a toast to absent friends, and Katie, bar the door: the Cigarette Smoking Blog has returned.

Coming soon: shame, humility, New Urbanism, violence, female impersonation, Emily Dickinson, James Michael Curley, asceticism, Abraham Lincoln, and more bookbag than you can digest in one sitting.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All of My Heroes are Sad Little Girls

I am in the latest issue of Doublethink talking about Jezebel and the future of feminism.

Because, apparently, women named Helen just can't help themselves from talking about date rape.

UPDATE: Link fixed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Packing it in.

Five-hundred posts ago, I started the Cigarette Smoking Blog on a drunken dare with myself. Nearly a year later, it's time to put the site on extended hiatus as I move to Postmodern Conservative full-time. Please update your blogrolls and follow me as I make this exciting transition. (I can also be found at here and here with decent regularity.)

Curious new-comers, nostalgic old-timers, and browsers who got here by Googling my name may be interested in an at-a-glance guide to CSB's greatest hits; please consult the Table of Contents.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be Pomocon was very heaven.

I am Not Done with Woody Allen Yet

Shmuel Ben-Gad has posted a provocative diary titled "Are Woody Allen's Films Vile?" No prizes for guessing his conclusion:
. . . Mr. Allen's films, I think, fall far short of excellent satire because such satire requires, at least implicitly, an alternative to that which it scorns. But the idea of another way of life, of making the choice to be faithful to someone and exercising self-restraint to honor that commitment, does not seem a living option to these people or, ultimately, I daresay, to Mr. Allen.

One is not demanding that Woody Allen show a sentimentalized married couple to "balance" the anarchic sexual lives he depicts. (I have no use for sentimentality.) What is strange and (to use the word again) sad, is that he seems unable to depict, amongst his casts of characters through many films, characters who seriously try to lead honorable, faithful married lives. I cannot help but suspect that Mr Allen sees no point. He seems to think we have no choice but to be overwhelmed by our passions. I am not sure that his failure to recognize a better way is vile, but it is, I think, morally stunted. And so are his films.
I think he's right that none of Woody Allen's characters are terribly likable or well-intentioned, at least in his late seventies and early eighties New York movies. But that's the point.

Take Husbands and Wives, which has the difficult thesis that any given divorce might be perfectly wise, but a culture of divorce, like the one that existed at that place and time, is more emotionally disastrous than the sum of its parts. From Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis's point of view, their separation made perfect sense. In fact, it made perfect sense from anyone's point of view, at least in terms of everyone's short- and long-term happiness. Still, something about the instability of the situation makes them miserable. (Like the cumulative magic of self-interest in capitalism, but for unhappiness.) If Husbands and Wives is about cultural evils rather than human ones, then everyone has to be equally trapped in the same pathologies. Putting a heart of gold in the cast makes it seem more like Pollack and Davis crash and burn because they're bad people rather than because they're good people trapped in a system that forces them to be bad.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A funny story about chastity (as if there were any other kind)

Check one off the bucket list: Last night I had the chance to ask a sex columnist what she thought of vows of life-long chastity. "And the answer I'm looking for sounds less like 'If that's what makes them happy then they should go for it,' and more like 'No, Emily Dickinson would totally have written better poetry if she'd been getting some.'"

She responded that Emily Dickinson would have written different poetry had she been sexually active, but not necessarily worse. "Maybe she would have written erotic poetry."

That's the punchline of the story, of course; as we know from the last chapter of Sexual Personae, Emily Dickinson did.

UPDATE: Can't believe I forgot this ED quote on chastity:
Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer--don't you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Change is Gonna Come

[Pomocon]: I Found It Out in a Book (And She was Such a Pretty Dictionary).
[Pomocon]: If Sophistry is the Game, Two Can Play.
[Pomocon]: Postmodern Conservatism: Rum, Socrates, and the Lasch.
[Pomocon]: Today, We are All Blind Korean Masseurs.

As some of you have already noticed, I have new digs. James has invited me to join the intimidatingly illustrious squadron of bloggers at the new Postmodern Conservative, giving me the undeserved privilege of being spoken of in the same breath as Peter Augustine Lawler, Ivan Kenneally, and conservatism's metalhead-in-chief Shawn Macomber. Will's gonna be there, too; come join us. As a consequence, posting here may slow to a crawl. Hang on to your hats in this exciting time.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Political Narrative Grows in Brooklyn

For those in the New York area, two events worth hitting this Sunday: a panel at the Brooklyn Museum on "The American Hero and the American Dream: Reflections on Our Contemporary Political Narratives" in the afternoon, and this month's Lolita Bar debate, "Is Modern Sex Good or Evil?," in the evening. Courtney Martin of Feministing will moderate the former, Anna Broadway of Sexless in the City will speak at the latter. I'll be making a nuisance of myself at both.

Headline of the Week

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What Gives This Mess Some Grace Unless It's Fictions?

I've always said that there's something rabbinic about the way the my favorite undergraduate organization operates. In the Talmud, a verse like Ecclesiastes 10:8 (He who breaks a fence will be bitten by a snake) is sometimes deployed as honest advice about keeping safe by staying within the Law. Other times it's a punchline. (Consider my favorite use of the verse: A Christian offers to heal Rabbi Eleazar ben Damma, who has been bitten by an actual snake, but another rabbi tells him not to accept a miracle at the hands of a heretic because "he who breaks down a fence will be bitten by a snake!")

In much the same way, there are certain sayings that get passed down from generation to generation in the POR (i.e. "Justice is for strangers," which is about mercy and loyalty, the expression "pursued by furies," which denotes some combination of smart and interesting and crazy, or "wear a mask long enough and it will sink into the skin," which is just true) that serve a multitude of situations.* One of my favorites is "I have sometimes doubted that my life has meaning; I have never doubted that Hamlet has meaning."

I tried unpacking that statement a long time ago, and I bring it up again because it makes the perfect rebuttal to Freddie's rebuttal of me:
By declaring that trying to be authentic is the closest we can ever come to being authentic, conceptual art sets its own trap. It tells us that the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify — that the only thing we can tell each other honestly is that we're trying to tell us something.

Ah, well, here's the shame of it. I don't think the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify. I think the responsibility of the modern artist is to recognize the inability of symbols to signify.
"The inability of symbols to signify"—this is exactly the sentiment that bothers me so much, and exactly the sentiment that the above line about Hamlet is meant to devastate.

It might make more sense if I put it in musical rather than literary terms: To believe in "the inability of symbols to signify" is to say that a Beethoven symphony might have meaning to a given person, but has no inherent meaning. Our attitude towards a symphony is the same as an existentialist's attitude towards his life: the only meaning it has is the meaning I put there myself. Freddie's right that taking such an attitude isn't the end of art. It leaves plenty of room for strong emotional and mind-expanding reactions. But it's still wrong. The statement "There is no essential difference between 4'33" and a Bach concerto; both have no meaning but what the listener projects onto it" is more obviously false than "Life has no meaning but what a man projects onto it"—of course there's a difference between John Cage and Beethoven: one has stuff in it already!—but both statements are ultimately just as false.

I'd like to corner Freddie into endorsing the (self-evidently false) statement "A Beethoven symphony, like John Cage's 4'33", has no meaning but what the listener projects onto it," not because I don't like him personally but because I think his position requires him to, and I want him to realize it.
*There are other similarly persistent but far less illuminating bits of inherited dialogue: "You, Mr. Jeffries, are a horrible person." "And you, Mr. Wiley, are drunk, but in the morning I will still be a horrible person, and you will no longer be drunk."

"I can get you photographs of Dwight MacDonald reading..."

What was I thinking, posting on the way female intellectuals are fetishized without throwing up a link to Woody Allen's "Whore of Mensa?"Allow me to correct the error:
"Hi, I'm Sherry." They really knew how to appeal to your fantasies. Long, straight hair, leather bag, silver earrings, no make-up.

"I'm surprised you weren't stopped, walking into the hotel dressed like that," I said. "The house dick can usually spot an intellectual."

"A five-spot cools him."

"Shall we begin?" I said, motioning her to the couch. She lit a cigarette and got right to it. "I think we could start by approaching Billy Budd as Melville´s justification of the ways of God to man, n'est-ce pas?"

. . .

Dude Looks Like a Ladyblog

Hadley Arkes, You are My Stephen A. Douglas.

It's only fair for me to flip my cards at the very beginning: I have the utmost respect for Hadley Arkes as a serious Catholic thinker and, moreover, a man of great heart and geniality. That being said, he has no love at all for the Yale Political Union, an institution to which I was, for four years including six months as its speaker, gay married. (The Union is obviously a dame.) I don't think that my disagreement with his latest column has anything to do with an impulse to protect my lady's honor, but I think it's good baseball to mention it.

The upshot of his column is that abortion is the defining issue of our time in the way that slavery was the defining issue of the mid-nineteenth century. Lincoln and Douglas spoke as if slavery were the only issue that mattered, and that was correct for them; Catholics who vote on the single issue of life/choice are also correct.

There is, in the world of politics, such an animal as the defining issue, a question which cannot be answered in isolation but which necessarily defines the terms we use to talk about every other matter. Abortion may or may not be such a thing—I tend to think not—but slavery definitely wasn't. Allow me to toss it to Gene Genovese:
Orthodox theologians demonstrated that neither the Old nor the New Testament condemned slavery as sinful. The abolitionists, displaying no small amount of intellectual dishonesty, never succeeded in making the Word say what they said it did, and eventually they had to spurn the Word for the Spirit. In consequence, they virtually reduced the Holy Spirit to the spirit (the conscience) of individuals. I do not say that an antislavery Christian theology remains an impossibility...[b]ut, as a historian, I do insist that the abolitionists failed to construct one and that, so far as I know, no one has yet improved on their performance.
The question "Is the black slave a man?" was answered in the affirmative by everyone who mattered. It is the follow-up question—"Is he nevertheless fit to be enslaved?"—that Arkes hold up as inescapably fundamental. However, the question only rates first priority if it is theological, but the question is not theological but moral; a matter of Spirit, not Word. That's a little unclear, so let me put it plainer: If someone disagrees with me on who counts as a human being, I can't really have a productive conversation with him, much less vote for him; if he disagrees with me on how to organize labor in our society, that's no kind of deal-breaker.

I am filled with uncharacteristic optimism about the human race when I think that everyone in America looks back on the debate over slavery and thinks that the answer should have been obvious. Truly it should have been. Still, it's wrong for Arkes to invoke it as the classic example of a simple, clear-cut controversy; there was much more to it than "Who's 'people?'" (Furthermore, his claim that slavery and Christian morality can't coexist is flatly false. I refer you to Adrian Thatcher, Dale Martin, or, better yet, the Epistles.) The question was far more complicated, and pro-slavery side far more sophisticated, than his telling of it lets on. Let that affect your reading of his abortion argument accordingly.

Hat-tip on the Arkes piece to Touchstone's Mere Comments.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Brief, Ill-Advised Defense of That McDonald's Coffee Ad

Bill Deresiewicz (who, to my great delight, is everywhere) once said in lecture, "Put away any dreams you have of being a writer, and replace them with dreams of writing." The easy defense of the much-ridiculed ad for the new upscale coffee menu at McDonald's is to say, very simply, that the ad doesn't ridicule female intellectuals but female faux-intellectuals. "I like television! I don't know where Paraguay is!" This doesn't say women shouldn't be smart, only that women shouldn't pretend to be smart, and that's an easy case to make; no one should! But it's not that simple.

There's a tendency to fetishize female intellectuals. I used to think that intellectual debate could shift seamlessly into flirtation. After all, the two genres have a lot in common. Later I discovered that men who weren't interested in me romantically could engage with my ideas on their merits, but men who were tended not to care whether my reading of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was original; the fact that I had one at all was original enough, I guess. That's what being a fetish feels like: it doesn't matter whether or not I'm a good or interesting intellectual (or Asian, or Frenchwoman, or whatever), only that I am one.

The McDonalds ad (of which there is, I know, a male version) depicts women stuck fulfilling the bluestocking role, and it suggests that cheap, jazz-free lattes will be liberating for women who aren't really intellectuals. That's great; I'm interested in the ways in which it will liberate women who are intellectuals but are tired of having to act like intellectuals. (Like that West Wing line: "You're a good father. You don't have to act like it. You're a good man. You don't have to act like it.") I'm generally all for roles, but "being a writer" vs. actually writing is one place where roleplaying obscures rather than enhances the task in question. (Whereas "acting like" a woman tends to make it easier to be a woman, etc. etc.) Which is why I like the McDonald's ad that everyone else hates.

Lastly: I'm not sure where McDonalds' ad men got the idea that jazz-listening Derrida-quoting coffee house chicks don't show their knees. Everybody knows Starbucks girls are easy.

Self-Promotion (II)

[Ladyblog]: Top Ten Conservative Pop Songs.

Join me as I take High Fidelity Tuesdays to Ladyblog.

The UNDP's Vitamin D Deficiency: A Problem We Can Live With?

Stories of corruption at the United Nations are usually so many dogs biting men, but Nicole Kurakawa and Matthew Lee have both seen fit to give the matter some attention this week, and Kurakawa in particular has raised an interesting question: if everyone knows that corruption at the UN is a huge problem, why did the UN Development Program's executive board take steps last week to make their programs less transparent? She explains at AFF:
An internal audit of the UNDP program in North Korea uncovered rampant waste, fraud, and abuse; it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that these problems might be repeated elsewhere. Presently, these internal audits are kept confidential even from the governing executive board, and efforts are underway to keep it that way.

In a statement by China and the G-77 to the UNDP in January:
. . . the Group believes that UNDP and UNPFA should not disclose information contained in their internal audit reports, particularly country programme-related audit reports, without the permission of the Executive Board. Such requests should first be based on a justifiable need for disclosure and put to the Executive Board for its consideration. There should also be means of insuring that the requester of such confidential information can be held accountable.
At this point, the UN has punted on the transparency issue, lumping this into a larger ethics package. Meanwhile, political maneuvering has stalled the process further. The only reason this issue is even being discussed right now? If the U.S. State Dept determines the program isn’t sufficiently transparent, U.S. financial support will be cut back by congressional mandate.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think shrouding programs in secrecy looks a little dubious — especially coming from a body that claims to value the rule of law. And hiding behind procedural rules to avoid public accountability looks a lot like corruption and cowardice.
Matthew Lee's straightforward account on Bloggingheads lays out the facts: audits are often ineffective, but the regulations coming out of the UNDP's board meeting this week might make it harder to request an audit in the first place, requiring anyone who wants one—even a UNDP funder—to run their reasons by the board and the country in question.

Why this resistance to sunshine, given the UNDP's record of graft and mismanagement? Isn't everyone against corruption? First of all, one needs to notice the growing power of Russia and China within the UN (as Norman Geras has pointed out), and the coincident backlash against the US. The audit in Pyongyang turned up all kinds of dirt, but no one has forgotten that it was the US that requested the audit in the first place. When China says things like "requests should first be based on a justifiable need for disclosure," it's not because they hate audits; it's because they don't want the US to continue politicizing audits, using them as a back-door way to punish countries they don't like.

For all my concern about UN waste and mismanagement, I'm sympathetic to calls for depoliticizing aid. The US should not be able to call for an audit of UNDP programs in the DPRK (as opposed to other places with similarly corrupt UN programs) simply because we're trying to play hardball on the nuclear question. If taking that illegitimate card off the table means moving away from transparency, that's an entirely live-with-able sacrifice.

More from Matthew Lee and Inner City Press here.


Please check out my Culture 11 piece on Damien Hirst: "Hanging's Too Good for Him."

Monday, September 22, 2008

Reading Recommendation: Vincent Rossmeier on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

No, really: "If Seinfeld was about nothing, It's Always is about nothingness—the void created when individuals give in completely to their most solipsistic desires." More.

What do you mean Sorkin-esque patter doesn't fly in Red States? Haven't these people seen Sports Night?

The most interesting line from Aaron Sorkin's NYT piece:
The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.
Too much has already been said about bicoastal elites and the Real Americans who love to hate them, but that's a sentence I want to unpack, partly because I want to offer a helpful answer to an unhelpful question, but also because it breaks my heart to see Sorkin, a man who obviously delights in wordplay, completely write off a subculture so rich in his bread and butter. Never mind Hee Haw and bad puns. Hicks turn phrases.

If it seems like redneck chauvinism to hold up a parade of countrypolitan wordsmiths as evidence that Red Staters are witty, too, it isn't. It has considerable bearing on the question of whether Republicans hate blue elites because they find them smug and contemptuous or whether they resent them because they're just smarter.

I think it would be helpful to put to rest once and for all the idea that Red State conservatives have contempt for book-learning as such. For one thing, they seem to be fine with articulate language as long as it's delivered in a Southern accent. I'm not sure that Freddie could look me in the eye and say that there's not a self-evident love of language and its possibilities on display in lyrics like "I'm the only Hell my momma ever raised" and "She's acting single and I'm drinking doubles." Liberals of a more postmodern bent will appreciate that country music has been self-referential since before Deleuze met Guattari (see "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life," "Crank the Hank and Crack the Jack," and "Jones on the Jukebox, You on My Mind").

More importantly, let's take some notice of the fact that Mississippi, which ain't no Research Triangle Park, still adores its literary native sons. William Faulkner and Eudora Welty were regarded as eccentrics during their lifetimes, but I'd be surprised to hear a Southerner speak ill of either. NASCAR dads might not get what Faulkner's about, but they respect him. We should also remember that every state in the South broke for Carter four years after they all went for Nixon and four years before every one but Georgia went for Reagan. In the world of fiction, the archetypal "Southern gentleman" is many things; well-spoken is one.

Lastly, I'll bring up a story about Sorkin himself. He's said in interviews that he came up with the idea of doing a sitcom about an ESPN-style sports show because he watched SportsCenter when he was holed up in a hotel writing A Few Good Men, and found himself bowled over by the quality of the show's writing. I'd like to ask Sorkin who he imagined was watching Sports Night (the show within the show, not the two-season sitcom itself); the anchors were Ivy-educated, but it was a sports show.

This is all a moot point insofar as saying that one side hates the other only because they feel hated by them raises the unanswerable question of who shot first. Besides, questions of someone's real psychological motivation are always tough to answer. That aside, I feel confident enough in my psychological reading of the electorate to tell Conor Friedersdorf that he's just wrong when he says that antipathy towards illegal immigrants the political issue of illegal immigration has as much to with the fact that they're illegal as with the fact that they're brown and speak a different language, and I feel just as confident telling Sorkin that he's just wrong when he says that being self-evidently well-educated is a turn-off for the half of the country he disagrees with.

Between the end of the Chatterley ban and Yeasayer's first LP?

Joseph Knippenberg asks the perennial question about kids today:
. . . I learned a long time ago—I’m old, you see—that the original great exponent of youth politics was Niccolo Machiavelli, who was the first to celebrate the political daring and audacity of the young. Audacity is a virtue, in the Machiavellian sense.

Whether or not he’s read Machiavelli, Barack Obama gets that. It’s an old assertion, but those who don’t pay attention to old things don’t know that. It’s also a radical assertion, intended to turn the “old” world on its head, to emphasize action at the expense of contemplation, practice at the expense of theory, the restless activity of the young at the expense of the contemplative repose of the old.

I’m not arguing that Barack Obama is a self-conscious Machiavellian, but he is a politician made for the world that Machiavelli has made, a world in which “we are the change we have been waiting for” makes a certain kind of sense.

That line also makes sense as a kind of appeal to youthful identity politics: we are young and new, intended to replace what is just plain old.
And so on.

I may not be old enough to rent a car, but I'm the wrong person to ask about the inner workings of the 18-25 cohort. (To illustrate: I wasted [redacted from embarrassment] minutes last night arguing over which slogan is the more widely accepted archetype of sixties subway graffiti, "Frodo lives" or "Clapton is God.") That being said, Knippenberg's subject is something I care about, and I was disappointed that he emphasized the aspect of youth identity politics that I find most benign, deemphasized the aspect that bothers me most, and sidestepped entirely the desperately interesting dilemma on which I haven't yet made up my mind.

Old folks think; young folks act. 'Twas ever thus. Hamlet's impotence wouldn't be half so tragic in a character twice his age. Lay that same logic on Lear or Macbeth, flip it, reverse it. This isn't to say that being young is the same as having the right to act, only that age has a duty to act as a check on youth's impetuosity. And youth has a duty to push back against age's inertia. It's the same kind of balancing act that takes place between justice and mercy. They're both right, and they're both wrong; the best we can hope for is a good, clean fight.

On the other hand, Knippenberg breezes past the kind of change that "out with the old, in with the young" usually implies, which is pernicious in a way that mere "change" isn't. What are we sweeping away? Outmoded prejudices. Why? Because we are so much more open-minded. The Whig who thinks of history as one grand march of progress and the liberal who thinks of history as a gradual erosion of prejudices are two distinct kinds of damned fool. The great danger of the latter—the kind of self-consciously young person who draws a straight line from Benson to Ellen to Isis and wonders who's next in line for mainstream acceptance—is that he doesn't feel the need to make a case for his position. Arguments from tradition are beneath his attention. He needs only to wait for the old and prejudiced to die.

If you believe that all truths can be justified through argument, then none of this should bother you. If, on the other hand, there are still some prejudices you would like younger generations to take on faith (and if you've ever tried to persuade—ha!—a five-year-old into thinking that it's nice to share, there are), then this model of youth superseding age should seem dangerous. (I make a longer argument for salutary prejudice here; I cite John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, if that's any enticement.)

So young people should be understood as a political class of their own, not, as is often thought, because they are so much more open-minded than everyone else but because they have so much more energy. (I'd put idealism in the plus column, too, but one doesn't have to.) There remains a question of whether or not it makes sense for a young, politically active person to call himself a conservative. Everyone knows Churchill's thoughts on the subject, but Peter Viereck's take is almost as memorable. He says of William F. Buckley:
Has a young St. Paul emerged form the Yale class of 1950 to bring us the long awaited Good Tidings of a New Conservatism and Old Morality? The trumpets of national publicity imply it. But this Paul-in-a-Hurry skips the prerequisite of first being a rebel Saul. The difference between a shallow and profound conservatism is the difference between an easy, booster-ish yea-saying to the old order and a hard-won tragic yea-saying.
I've said that a give-and-take between activity and intertia is the natural state of affairs between youth and age; Viereck has put forward a give-and-take between liberalism and conservatism. The thirty-second argument against that position is that submitting to some compelling, sublime authority is the beginning of individual self-discovery, not the end. (Again, see this old post.) Young people don't have the same instinctual attachment to authoritative prejudices that their elders do, but that doesn't mean that they're right and their elders are wrong. Sometimes it means that young people need to embrace these authoritative institutions and allow those authorities to shape them, not because these authorities can present good arguments but because they're aesthetically, emotionally, or intellectually compelling. That's what young conservatives are for. The thirty-minute version of this argument is the Kinks' We are the Village Green Preservation Society.

As a last swipe at Viereck, to counterbalance Dan McCarthy's kind words: whose yea-saying is more charmingly tragic, the old curmudgeon's or the Paul-in-a-hurry's?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

If Thorstein Veblen were here, he'd tell you the same thing.

Just as I begin to hear that there might be good news from Whit Stillman someday soon, I come across Whit Stillman's bad news for me:
ALICE: It's odd that he knew I drank vodka tonics. I never told him.
DES: It's uncanny.
ALICE: You mean it's a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics, or something like that?
DES: Well, maybe.
That does it. I'm switching to old-fashioneds.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Carthage Didn't Burn Hot Enough"

I've been following the career of Karmen MacKendrick for a while, mostly because she and I both hold the unpopular opinion that, in the words of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, "life would be quite unbearable without suffering." It turns out that those of us who walked away from Counterpleasures wanting more will not have to wait for the November release of Fragmentation and Memory: Meditations on Christian Doctrine to get our next dose, because MacKendrick's essay "Carthage Didn't Burn Hot Enough: Saint Augustine's Divine Seduction" is available online:
I want to suggest that Augustine stays in love with love—more exactly, that he seeks a constant and potent seduction of and by his God, and that the Confessions is mutually illuminating when read with contemporary theory on seduction. Only seduction will allow Augustine to retain his love of the created world as good while refusing to immerse and gratify himself in its beauty. Augustine's relation to God exemplifies at least three characteristics of seduction: the manipulation of the will beyond a simple opposition of consent and coercion; the persistence of the elusively promising within the representational and discursive; and relatedly, the necessary incompletion of both meaning and desire. The fires of worldly lust are too easily quenched for one who wants to be seduced...

"It's a documentary about weird Southern music, weird Southern religion, and how they're indistinguishable."

Speaking of theologically interesting premises, I recently came across this minute-long Youtube clip from the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which I have posted on before. The transcript doesn't do justice to the man's Appalachian accent:
"Why can't flesh go there? Why can't flesh see spiritual things? Why did there have to be a new way made?" Flesh wants to control. Flesh wants to hold on, it wants to dominate. It wants pride. The apostle Paul said that every time I go to do good, evil is present with me... You'll listen to these songs and start going backward in time or forward in time, because the spirit is just trying to get your flesh confused so it can talk to you. Flesh cannot go to these places.
I was taking Socrates' side in the Crito against a friend of mine three years ago when he pointed to the drink in my hand. I had been trying to argue that one may break laws that demand injustice but must follow those that make unjust demands. At that moment, faced with a choice between retracting my position or making drunkenness a moral imperatve, I wish I'd had this clip handy.

Deconstructing Fallen Angels, and Other Postmodern Conservative Pastimes

When I finished Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God," I thought I would have a hard time coming up with enough of an angle on it to justify a post. "Hey Catholics, here's a short story with a theologically interesting premise" isn't much of a hook. All praises to God for casual Google searches! Chiang isn't even a Christian. Well, stranger things have happened than inadvertent orthodoxy.

In the world of the story, God's existence has been proven. Angelic visitations are reported on the nightly news with statistics on the aftermath: how many miraculous cures, how many deaths and injuries, how many souls saved. Sometimes windows open up through which one can see souls in Hell, not in torment but simply walking around in a Godless dimension.

Our main character is not a devout man. He believes in God but doesn't love Him, knowing himself to be Hellbound but not really minding, given what Hell is like: "Of course, everyone knew that Heaven was incomparably superior, but to Neil it had always seemed too remote to consider, like wealth or fame or glamour." When his wife is killed by flying glass during a miracle, he realizes that the only way to rejoin her is to learn to love God, which introduces the dilemma of having to love God for a worldly reason:
This paradox confronted several people in the support group. One of the attendees, a man named Phil Soames, correctly pointed out that thinking of it as a condition to be met would guarantee failure. You couldn't love God as a means to an end, you had to love Him for Himself. If your ultimate goal in loving God was a reunion with your spouse, you weren't demonstrating true devotion at all.

A woman in the support group named Valerie Tommasino said they shouldn't even try. She'd been reading a book published by the humanist movement; its members considered it wrong to love a God who inflicted such pain, and advocated that people act according to their own moral sense instead of being guided by the carrot and the stick. These were people who, when they died, descended to Hell in proud defiance of God.

Neil himself had read a pamphlet of the humanist movement; what he most remembered was that it had quoted the fallen angels. Visitations of fallen angels were infrequent, and caused neither good fortune nor bad; they weren't acting under God's direction, but just passing through the mortal plane as they went about their unimaginable business. On the occasions they appeared, people would ask them questions: Did they know God's intentions? Why had they rebelled? The fallen angels' reply was always the same: Decide for yourselves. That is what we did. We advise you to do the same.
Chiang has said that, "as I grew older, it seemed to me that the idea of God didn’t explain anything that couldn’t be explained otherwise, so I’m currently an atheist," but a Catholic might say the same thing minus the last clause. Belief in God doesn't solve any metaphysical problems: even if he presented himself, I still wouldn't understand; even having understood, I still wouldn't love; without love, I still wouldn't be saved. His interviewer here calls "Hell is the Absence of God" a story with "a judgmental view of the Almighty," but only because the interviewer doesn't grasp that, when it comes to the uselessness of belief in God, atheists and Christians agree.

I'll give Chiang the last word on the question of whether the story is ultimately pro- or anti-God:
I wanted to explore the idea of a universe in which religion doesn’t require faith. In our world, religion relies on faith because definitive proof is unavailable. As a result, some people choose their religion based on which one makes them feel better, e.g. “I don’t like the judgmental god of Religion A, so I’m going to worship the kind and gentle god of Religion B.” That option exists because neither deity is unambiguously present, but if a particular god were here right now, we’d have to deal with him whether we liked him or not.
Later in the interview, he mentions that the key to unlocking another of his stories is this sentence from an unspecified feminist essay: "Allowing beautiful women their beauty may turn out to be one of the most difficult aspects of personal liberation." Apparently, the story revolves around a young woman who starts a treatment (made mandatory on college campuses) that disables aesthetic reactions to human appearance, then stops taking it in order to learn more about the world. I don't know about you, but I'll be saying a prayer for Chiang's salvation; as for his vocation, he seems to have found it already.

H/T on the story to Leah.