Friday, May 30, 2008

Michael Oakeshott: A really boring uniter, not a really boring divider.

From Paul Franco's Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction:
It is interesting to note that no don at Cambridge lectured on Marx until Oakeshott did so in 1938.

Oh, the shame!, part two

Well, that was fast. Let me take the comments on shame culture one by one, with Dave first:
What about the downside of shame? After all, guilt seems to be based in some sort of objective fact-seeking process. Shame, by contrast, rests primarily in community consensus.

"Good!" you might say, as we are sort of conservative and thus sort of love communities. As does Barack Obama. But isn't the flip side of feeling shame for things you're connected to, making people feel shame for things they did(n't) do that _weren't wrong_ just because the community says so? And yes, this is always somewhat arbitrary, but do we really want to embrace a culture founded upon that?
A couple of things: finding of fact is never perfect, and I take comfort in the fact that shame is external. I am inclined to be forgiving of my own faults, more so than I ought to be. The last thing that needs to happen is for me to be the ultimate arbiter of my own emotional punishment; when that happens, I always get punished less than I deserve.

Secondly, I'm (usually) jazzed about people suffering humiliation for things that aren't wrong; it breeds humility in a way that nothing else can. Humiliation is to humility as suffering is to character. Think of Paul Scofield as Saint Thomas More; he wants to find a loophole in King Henry's loyalty pledge that will allow him to sign it, even though it would make the English public suspect him of being Anglican rather than Catholic. His freedom of conscience is important here, but so is his willingness to suffer at the hands of rumor.

This tough line needs to be mitigated, certainly; for instance, one's family should never be agents of shame. To look to pop culture again, think of Dana telling her brother "What do you say I be the one person in your life that isn't pissed at you right now?" And we should be vigilant about making sure that we're not systematically shaming people for moral acts, or shaming people just because they're different, all of which argues for good honor culture, not no honor culture. I am sure you'll understand where I'm coming from after you watch The Winslow Boy, Dave. (I assume you've seen A Man for All Seasons and Sports Night.)

X.: Haven't read the Nussbaum, but I'll get back to you on it.

I'm really unconvinced that just because we prefer guilt to shame, guilt can become a matter of pride. In a nonconfessional culture, guilt would become a much more corrosive and damaging thing--in fact, on issues we collectively don't wish to address it already is (Holocaust, etc.) It seems to me that the better answer is to bring down the culture of oversharing.
I think the fruitful comparison here is between German guilt over World War Two and British colonial guilt, but I know that Kate is cooking something up on that, so I'll toss it to her.

Aren't the problems you identify with "guilt culture" actually problems with Christian culture? This is building off of Dara's point on oversharing. It seems like we overshare, particularly in the political sphere, because the act of confessing brings virtue (for reasons unclear to me). All you have to do is say "sorry."
I agree with everything you've said, except that I would replace "Christian" with "damnfool Protestant."

Housemate TKB:
So I'd originally thought the most meaningful difference between guilt and shame was how it was expressed: communicating our guilt relieves, communicating our shame humiliates. The distinction comes from the way we anticipate others' reactions, not from some inherent emotional difference.

I cheat on my boyfriend: guilt, because the action itself is only bad because of the circumstances- if I hadn't had a boyfriend, making out with some guy is perfectly fine.

I cheat on my boyfriend with a really ugly ten dollar gigolo: shame, because doing anything with a really ugly ten dollar gigolo is never acceptable, regardless of context.
Yes! And this assumption that other people will be sympathetic is exactly the problem with guilt.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Oh, the shame!

As promised, a post on shame culture versus guilt culture. Ross and Ta-Nehisi have pitched one in my wheelhouse by bringing it up, and Ross gets double points for connecting it to conservatism:
One provisional answer would be to say no to guilt, and yes to shame: I think they're different emotions, and that shame's connection to "dishonor" rather than "culpability" makes it a more appropriate response to sins that you yourself are only complicit in indirectly, through the ties of blood or citizenship or ideological fellow-travelership. But shame, in turn, only makes sense in relation to communities that you wish to associate yourself with, or that you can't disassociate yourself from even if you tried. So where race and racism are concerned, I feel much more ashamed as an American than I do as a twenty-first century conservative, because I feel a stronger loyalty to the America of the 1950's (or the 1850's) than I do to the conservative movement of the 1950's. I'm sure I would have subscribed to the early National Review and felt philosophical affinities with many of its writers, but I'm also pretty sure - allowing for the faint absurdity of any such hypothetical - that I wouldn't have self-identified a Buckleyite right-winger during the Civil Rights Era, and I don't think it makes sense to feel shame over the decades-old conduct of people you wouldn't have agreed with at the time just because the shifting currents of American politics eventually landed you in the same political camp.
Leaving aside the idea that the connection between Conservatism Then and Conservatism Now is simply a matter of "the shifting currents of American politics eventually landing you in the same political camp," I agree with Ross. Shame trumps guilt: it's more aristocratic without being substantially more elitist; it eliminates all hemming and hawing about the (often unanswerable) question of culpability; it stops in its tracks the deeply irritating liberal habit of psychologizing public wrongdoing. To understand all is not to forgive all—this is true whether you use the language of guilt or the language of shame, but when we talk about dishonor it's more obviously true. Remember that time that Foucault railed against confession, and especially the psychotherapeutic "breakthrough," as the most reliable path to truth? Remember how right he was?

More than that, though, I'm worried that guilt—liberal guilt in particular—is something a person can be proud of. It takes a strong man to own up to something, we say, and that's fine, except when it becomes congratulatory (or self-congratulatory). There's no humility without humiliation, and guilt is not humiliating. Consider sex scandals: Bill Clinton was guilty, John Profumo was shamed. Who prefers the former?

All of that being said, I'm still a fan of genred guilt, especially the Catholic and Southern kinds, and honor culture can, of course, go wrong. (If, for instance, I were to get huffed about Kathy G.'s insulting post about conservatism and challenge her to a duel...) But guilt culture's problems aren't exceptions, they're systematic—just ask any politician whose ever gone through the post-scandal podium ritual.

Hallelujah, he was a bum.

This blog's relationship with unions is ambiguous, but its relationship with union music is not (and, no matter what David says, there's a difference) (sort of). Utah Phillips passed away this week: fine retrospectives here and here; my favorite of his two albums with Ani DiFranco here.

"If smoking didn't kill you, no one would do it?"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Proud of the glory, stare down the shame, the duality of the conservative thing..."

To those fortunate few who have managed to escape reading George Packer's take-down of the conservative movement, may I suggest Kevin Mattson's Bookforum piece as an alternative? He's tough . . .
There’s a danger in treating the right in an insular manner, the way historians of the conservative moment often have to. The work of Collins should be read alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the American dream and equality. Goldwater’s speech about “liberty” and “vigilance” needs to be placed next to LBJ’s speeches in favor of civil rights and the Great Society. When we do that, it’s hard not to conclude that no matter how potent, no matter how much infrastructure and organizational weight stood behind it, conservatism fit only partly within the moral boundaries of the American creed. The right had passion, organization, and legitimate fears about federal bureaucracy. But it’s impossible to envision a resolution to the conflict over civil rights that would have ensured full equality for African Americans and mollified conservatives’ fear about “a federal police force of mammoth proportions.” Collins might have omitted or toned down the racist element in legitimating the South’s fight, but should we do likewise in interpreting his legacy? Understanding the fullness of American history requires us not to pluck the idea out but to put it back into our overall story and ask some questions that relate to our moral imagination.
. . . but fair:
. . . Modern conservatism is a machine that will keep grinding on. Whether it will continue to attract charismatic leaders who can make it appeal beyond its base is a question historical books and memoirs can’t answer. But one thing’s for sure: We can’t go back to that old narrative I mastered in graduate school. Conservatism is much more than backlash or reaction. It’s been a vanguard movement through much of our modern history. It has always had passionate activists ready at the helm. As these histories show—in their myriad ways—that’s what ensures conservatism a future in America. And that’s why we should no longer believe that a liberal consensus, or perhaps a consensus of any kind, ever did rule America or ever will again. We’re not a white Protestant nation and never will be one, no matter how much some organizationally savvy ideologues in our midst long to make it so.
Mattson is no conservative, which is why I'm surprised to see him put forward (not quite uncritically) a more charitable explanation than simply racism for why the South's movement conservatism runs so deep: more than any other region, the South had been hurt and humiliated by federal bureaucracy, hence its homegrown libertarianism, hence its ambitions to redeem America by being truer to her spirit than any non-Southern American could be. He summarizes this strategy as "depict[ing] the South as 'the most American region,' because federal bureaucrats had tried to beat it up and humiliate it," and attributes it to George Wallace. Well, Wallace was no conservative, and those of his heirs who are have moved on since then. (It's a little about some rebels, but it ain't about the past...) But it's still nice to see a liberal sympathize with conservative weariness at the "States' rights and Southern pride are always code for racism" line.

But at the end of the day, you don't need any better reason to read Mattson's article than the fact that his forthcoming book is called Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America and includes a chapter on postmodern conservatism.

Hit pundit, win steak.

Ross misses the real reason to root for the Rays this season: their Triple-A is the best in the country, and not just because they used to be called the Durham Tobacconists.

Marxism Round-Up

David has gone to the source, Savage Minds wonders whether it makes sense for Indiana Jones to be a fan of Marxist archaeology (I mean, I'm a "die-hard anticommunist" and there are still some Marxists I like), and James has Yale Leftists and Leftist-symps all aflutter by promising to explain "the internet as a brilliant postmodern Marxist social welfare program."

Marxism is fun (and I don't just mean for target practice), but all would do well to remember Noah's very sage maxim:
As with all Marx, you must run far far away from anything he actually concludes. But as the raw materials for your own thinking, so wonderful.

Marx is like flour. You can't eat it raw. That would taste bad and be very messy. On the other hand, you can make cupcakes with it. Also, this sometimes happens with Marx.
For myself, I'm certain that false consciousness theory has a lot to say about the present controversy over low art, pedagogy, and cock-fighting.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Your search "preferential option for the autistic" did not match any documents.

New York has a piece on the "neurodiversity" wing of the autism rights movement (analogous to Mad Pride), published hot on the heels of this NYT piece. Matt Zeitlin is ambivalent:
Where the neurodiversity folks get it wrong, I feel, is in their (sometime) categorical objection to seeing any objective component to autism-as-disability. Oftentimes, their tributes to the benefits of autism can fall on the deaf ears of parents who spend massive sums and huge amounts of time just trying to get their kid not to have self-destructive tantrums or potty trained. To those parents, it’s hard to say that their kid is merely approaching cognition in a different way, he’s disabled (if the term is to mean anything at all).

I see no reason why we can’t come to some sort of compromise as outlined by Temple Grandin:
Grandin argues that both the autistic person and society have to make accommodations. “I won’t do all the neurotypicals want, but you have to go halfway,” she says. “We had manners pounded into us. We had fancy dinners at my grandmother’s, and I was expected to sit at Granny’s table for twenty minutes and I couldn’t monopolize the conversation. You can’t degeekify the geeks, but you can be a polite geek. Autism is a continuum from genius to extremely handicapped. If you got rid of all the autism genetics, you’d get rid of scientists, musicians, mathematicians. Some guy with high-functioning Asperger’s developed the first stone spear; it wasn’t developed by the social ones yakking around the campfire. The problem is, you talk to parents with a low-functioning kid, who’ve got a teenager who still goes to the bathroom in his pants and who’s biting himself all the time. This guy destroys the house, and he’s not typing, no matter what keyboards you make available. His life is miserable. It would be nice if you could prevent the most severe forms of nonverbal autism.”"
The problem with Grandin's compromise isn't that she throws too many symptoms of autism on the difference-not-disability side of the spectrum (although I certainly think she's done so), but rather that she looks at someone whose symptoms can't be spun as endearing quirks and concludes that his life must be miserable.

From what I've seen of the disabled community through Martha (old photo of us here; photo credit presumably to our mother?), my guess is that Ari Ne'eman's is the more popular point of view:
As a public-relations point, it’s nice to point to people like Vernon Smith, a guy with Asperger’s who won the Nobel Prize in economics, or Tim Page, who has Asperger’s and won a Pulitzer. But it would be a mistake to say that people carry worth and should have their differences respected only if they can deliver some sort of special talent.
Zeitlin and Grandin both seem to want to limit the range of autistic behavior that we consider truly disabling and I'm on board with them as far as that goes, but it's more important to make sure that no kind of autism, not even the most severe, is considered catastrophic.

How can we tell that someone has crossed the line from "Having a child with autism is a drag" to "Having a child with autism is a disaster?" It isn't always as obvious as whether they say things like "His life is miserable" (although apprently it can be). To take one example, though, parents who spend their autistic son's youth going from one experimental treatment to the next display an unseemly zeal for curing him that necessarily implies not just disappointment but a deep dissatisfaction; they cross a meaningful line.

It's a tough distinction to put your finger on, but if your attitude towards autism sounds like what Jim Sinclair is describing here, you're probably on the wrong side:
In his seminal invective, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” from 1993, [Sinclair] wrote, “It is not possible to separate the autism from the person. Therefore, when parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’ Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”
The disability-as-disaster mentality isn't just hurtful to the autistic; it's bad for the rest of us. I don't want to instrumentalize the disabled and say that they're only blessings insofar as they offer the rest of us valuable learning experiences, but it's clear that really internalizing the statement "And the last shall be first" can be quite beautiful, and it can't be done without making your attitude towards disability look less like Zeitlin and Grandin's and more like Ne'eman and Sinclair's.

If a cure for autism fell from the sky tomorrow, I wouldn't have a problem with any parent who wanted to use it. (My take on cochlear implants is different, as is my take on the declining Down Syndrome birthrate, but those are other posts.) It's the frenzied scramble for a cure that I object to, and the subway ad scare tactics.

And, as a last comment on Temple Grandin's compromise: it's a strange set of priorities that leads you to say, "Your inability to form human relationships isn't important to me, but your bad manners are a real problem."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Besides, if we discount low art, we can kiss Southern culture goodbye.

Nick has pitted me against Michael Stipe, which I don't think is quite fair:
I don't doubt, for example, that one can approach The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, etc etc and come away with an appreciation of Humphrey Bogart and, by extension, existentialism. But it doesn't strike me as a necessary result of having watched them: otherwise America in the 1940s should've looked like a postwar Le Deux Magots on a Friday night. As Michael Stipe reminds us, deep aesthetic contemplation is one possible outcome of art, but so is having something to listen to while washing dishes. [...] That is to say, the ability to pull a certain deeper meaning out of a work arises only in part from that work, where multiple layers of meaning might be available (or perhaps only one); it depends more on the disposition of the person approaching the work.
Well, yes and no. When Roland Barthes unpacks the symbolic meaning of everyday things, or Clifford Geertz talks about what's really going on in a Balinese cockfight, or feminist film critics say that screwball comedy is inherently sexist, they're not pointing out possible interpretations; they're calling attention to messages we've already received without necessarily realizing it.

I think that Nick's right to point out a difference between viewers who approach To Have and Have Not looking for meaning and those looking to have a good time, but I don't think it's the difference between getting something deeper out of a movie or not, just whether you're aware that you've gotten it.

Will Helen ever stop talking about gay marriage?

No, she will not. For a change of pace, this one's not about gender.

All Growed Up

Didn't have much time to write during the hurry-up-and-wait of commencement weekend, but I did get a chance to read (especially during Tony Blair's address, which was, as far as I can tell, equal parts decent humor and enthusiasm for globalization). From Joanna Zylinska's On Spiders, Cyborgs, and Being Scared: The Feminine and the Sublime:
The acknowledgement of the sexual aspect of living beings is an acceptance of lack (where the recognition that "I am sexed" stands for "I am not everything"); it is a sign of both our limitation and communality. Sexual difference thus reveals that we are neither universal (i.e. sex-less) nor singular.
Gay marriage advocates—your take on this?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Resolved: A Yale degree is worth the paper it's printed on.

Me on higher ed:
Speaking as someone whose undergraduate years are not far behind her, my guess is that the real problem with demanding a B.A. of every white collar worker isn’t that it makes the intellectual demands of economic advancement too high, but that it forces too many people to undergo something that is more of a middle- and upper-class rite of passage than a real education. Still, even if higher education did exactly what it said on the tin, it would still be condescending for liberals to think that everyone is meant for the college track, and it would still be a mistake for conservatives like Murray and Douthat to imply that “not meant for college” and “too dumb to think philosophically” are synonymous.
In other news, I get my Yale diploma on Monday.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Feminist As I Wanna Be

It's inconvenient for me to have just disavowed feminism today, as I tend to follow the school of "Nobody hits my little brother but me," but, having listened to ISI's "Are We Getting It Right?: The State of Women and Gender Studies" podcast (audio and video available here), I want to give myself a day's grace period in which to tell feminists (in this case Amy Richards) how to be:
I hope that some day it [Women's and Gender Studies] won't be necessary, I hope some day that Women's Studies will not be a separate discipline but will be integrated into other forms of academia. I hope that women's colleges like Barnard can cease to exist. But I feel like in the short term of looking for inclusion and identity, it is something that we need.
I've said before that I like the idea of having Gender Studies departments, which is why I'm so discouraged that Richards thinks that the only reason to study femininity is to better equip ourselves to destroy it. It makes sense that someone who reduces the tradition of femininity to victimhood-full-stop would want to phase out women's colleges, but it's a strange way to think about the feminist agenda.
I see my generation really choosing single parenthood, really choosing not to be married, really choosing to delay marriage, because they actualy saw both the damage being done, from marriage and not-marriage. It's when you try to conform to something that it becomes so damaging, and if we're more authentically choosing what we want, then we're more likely to be happy.
Sometimes traditions fail people, but it's almost always more interesting to think about how people can fail their traditions. If Richards has no qualms about having written off that kind of tragedy completely, she is operating on a set of literary priorities with which I am not familiar.

Movement Politics: "Are You In or Are You Out?"

Noah earns his nickel's worth of credit by giving us a dime's worth of difference between feminists and anti-feminists:
What I really wanted to argue was that while David III and Helen agree (and to a lesser extent, so do I) about how gender works, the difference is more important than the similarity. Because the decision that matters most isn't what you see when you look around you, or even when you look at yourself as David III argues. It's what you do about it.

So you cannot, cannot, cannot claim to be a feminist, of any sort of prefix, and support Phyllis Schlafly. It just doesn't work. Sorry. Try again. [...] And if you think that the feminist movement is racist because, using your different mode of analysis, you figured out that it privileges problems of the white middle class (and you'd be right more often than not!), you don't get to take your ball and go home. You fight like hell and take it over. Because at the end of the day, they're on your team. [...] So really, all I'm saying is that since we aren't all special little political snowflakes, you have to pick a team. That means figuring out what similarities matter to you and which differences matter. To me, the movement matters. Are you in or are you out?
I'm in agreement with the point that the most useful way to use the word "feminism" isn't to refer to a set of ideas but a movement, and the question "Are you a feminist" has less to do with what you think about women's issues and more to do with whether or not you situate your ideas in the feminist tradition. In other words, not "Do you agree with Feministing more than 50% of the time?" but "Do you feel like you're playing on their team?"

Noah's point about feminism translates perfectly into conservatism: we can argue all day about whether or not neocons are ideologically "conservative"; what's more important is the extent to which they failed to realize that it was a movement they were crashing. It matters less to me that neocon heavyweights disagree with paleos and libertarians (which is not to say it doesn't matter at all) than that they don't treat them like members of the same team, which has to mean something more than "people with whom I have a common enemy."

I part ways with Noah's theory of movement politics inasmuch as I'm not convinced that figuring out "which team you're on" looks like figuring out which side you most agree with. When I was deciding about whether I wanted to be on the Right or the Left, it wasn't "Who do I agree with more often?" but "What context do I want for my ideas? Will situating my ideas in the tradition of conservatism yield a more interesting and effective result than situating them within the tradition of the Left?" This means looking not just at where your movement is but also where it's going, and not just who agrees with you but who will disagree with you in an interesting way.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Pinker, Patristics, and Pain

. . . nothing is worse than extreme affliction that destroys the 'I' from the outside, because after that we can no longer destroy it ourselves. Simone Weil
Steven Pinker thinks that talking theologically about bioethics will put us in a world of hurt. Well, yeah. Saint Basil, in a delicious reversal, justifies religious suffering by comparing it to medicine:
It is shameful indeed that they who are sick in body place so much confidence in physicians that, even if these cut or burn or cause distress by their bitter medicines, they look upon them as benefactors, while we do not share this attitude toward the physicians of our souls, when they secure our salvation for us by laborious discipline.
Ariel Glucklich's Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (from which I got the Basil quote) nutshells why it's a bad idea to base medical ethics on nothing more complicated than the untempered conviction that pain must be stopped:
Pain may be medicine, a test, a rite of passage, or an alchemical agent of inner transformation. Consequently religion can act as consolation, as a challenge, or as a basis for social solidarity and not only as a sword hanging over the heads of sinners.
Put that in your "retrograde superstition tied moronically to the primitive idea that God created us for the purposes of punishment" and smoke it.

To be Doc Holliday or not to be Doc Holliday

Forget Val Kilmer; it's all about Victor Mature:

Strangely, this is not the first time My Darling Clementine has come up...

Unlike my predecessor in the speakership, I have no thought experiment-related catchphrase.

Helen the queer theorist is neither queer nor theoretical; discuss.

I thought about adapting the joke from Matt's YFP headline ("Conservatism and Libertarianism: Not a Gay Marriage") for this Taki Mag post; then I didn't.

Friday, May 16, 2008

I'm pro-multiple choice!

Quick quiz: my Taki Mag piece on "fertility films" is (a) a response to this Mother Jones article; (b) part of my ongoing campaign against the "Redemptive Woman" trope; (c) a riff on this Eve-ism:
Fun is fun, sometimes. (And sometimes it isn't.) But the more I thought about why sex would be meaningful--rather than just, you know, nice--the more I suspected that sex attains its greatest philosophical and symbolic (poetic) richness when the union of lovers creates a new life. And yet our current culture seems to view things exactly the other way around, as if sex becomes less interesting, less sexy, when it makes babies. As if the kind (or less-kind) feelings of adults toward one another were more interesting than the beginning of a new human. Bizarre!
Or (d) all of the above?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Come on, Foucault, just get in the car. We're going on a road trip!"

Noah points out that while it's "fun to play with that theorist you were just reading, and can't you just take him for a spin," politics is serious business:
Feminism is deadly serious. When women were trying to integrate the New York City Fire Department, male firefighters literally left the two dozen or so women stranded in burning buildings. Read these statistics about rape. Read these statistics about domestic violence. This is what feminism is about. And you know what? It works. Feminists, not anti-feminists, solve these problems.
The cheap answer here would be to say that everyone is against violent crime and dehumanizing sexual objectification, and, insofar as feminism is about making these things go away, my prayers are with 'em.

However, calling yourself a feminist doesn't just mean that you're against things like rape and sexual bribery; it means "I'm against rape and sexual bribery and I think that there are certain misogynistic structures at work in our society that allow these things to happen and make people more tolerant of these kinds of outrages." They don't just want to prosecute incidents of sexual bribery; they want to make big structural changes to our culture so that sexual bribery doesn't happen so often.

I'm basically on board with all of this so far—the "big structural change" that got rid of the assumption that women in certain professions were sexually available (secretary, flight attendant, barmaid, etc.), for instance, was a huge step forward. (I'll also concede to Noah that we have the feminists to thank for it.)

Which brings us to where I take issue with his post: changes of that scope are squarely in the realm of theory, otherwise known as "dithering about performativity and gender roles." Noah's right that feminism is important because it affects the real pain of real people, but this doesn't mean that the solution is on such a small scale. When male firefighters leave female colleagues in a burning building, it's murder; that doesn't mean we should prosecute them as ordinary criminals and leave it at that. We need to go after the prejudices that motivated them, and that means making our case in the arena of culture. It might mean using words like "performativity"; sorry.

Once we move the fight to theoretical turf, the question becomes whether the traditionalists or the feminists have a better picture of how these cultural structures should look. If Noah wants to say that the most important criterion should be which one results in the fewest incidences of degradation, rape, abuse, injustice, and death, that sounds like the decent thing to say. We probably disagree about what constitutes "degradation" and "injustice" (theory strikes again!), but, more importantly, assuming some compromise definitions of these words, it's clear to me that the conservative model comes out on top.

The case for conservatism as the ideology that's best for women (rather than "best for cultural stability" or "most in line with philosophical abstracts") is one that still needs to be made (I'm here all week...), but I'm alarmed that Noah might think that retro-feminists like myself aren't interested in making it.

Oulipo: Saints of Constraint

Broockman, who is interested in both poetry and constraints, would love the Oulipo school, who are such connoisseurs of poetic constraint that the modest limits of the sonnet scarcely clear their bar; a sonnet written only of pangrams would, maybe. I love them primarily because the tantalizing possibility of having a constraint named after oneself is too much to resist, but also because of this blurb from the back of Writings for the Oulipo:
When presented with a constraint, two things can happen: either the constraint is easy, in which case Ian yawns and goes to sleep. Or else it is difficult. He then wakes up and gets to work. The more the constraint is difficult, the more the work is excellent. —Jacques Roubaud
The lion's share of Oulipian poetry is simply awful, but the best of it confirms one of the Five Things I Know But Cannot Prove: constraints make highs higher and lows lower. An excellent sonnet is better than the best free verse poem; some of the Clash's punk stuff is worse than the genre-less "Train in Vain," but the best of it is much better; I'd rather be "a real woman" than "a real human being."

One of the highest Oulipian highs is this six-piece cycle, in which Ian Monk takes the vowels one at a time. The entry for O:
To do or not to do: Gods, how to opt?
For who knows good from wrong, or wrong from good;
who'd follow forlorn lords, bow down to clods,
stoop to Sodom, boom songs of so long loss,
or dog coxcombs, hobnob to hollow loons;
who'd down hootch, long for boons Gods know not of;
who'd drool onto dons, for whom tomfools blot
drops onto books, or low words (how now brown cow?);
who'd smooth wrongs, mock worlds from top to bottom,
or crow to crowds for blood; who'd doctor horrors,
or woo doom's pogroms, Lot's loss, Bloom's sorrows,
or woof of wolf or woof of Clotho's loom?
So do not! Good's soon wrong, wrong's soon good for
tomorrow, tomorrow, for tomorrow.
You can give the U one a miss (it's called "Ur-Tush"), but don't skip A ("As, last March at an Arkansas bar... FLASHBACK!"). Taken as a whole, "Homage to Georges Perec: An Entertainment in Six Univocalisms" gives the impression that Monk isn't working within this particular constraint merely because he wants to show off, but because he's interested in vowels and what's up with them.

Another example: Monk writes a review of the English translation of Perec's La Disparition (a novel written without the letter e; the English version is called A Void) keeping the lipogrammatic constraint.
I must say that I found it an amusing work in its own right but, as a translation, frankly disappointing. I should point out straight away that, in my opinion, writing without any particular symbol in this British idiom of ours is not, in fact, that hard. Anybody with an inch of wit can do it...
On one hand, he's just having fun. On the other, he's simultaneously amplifying his contempt and making it playful and unserious. I wouldn't want to recommend the rigors of Oulipo to most poets, nor do I want to recommend comparably rigorous traditions, gender roles, and identities to anyone, but it pays to see what an enthusiasm for constraints looks like when taken to extremes: not half bad.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Every woman needs a little mystery; this is mine.

Am I a feminist or an anti-feminist? No one knows for sure.

Best. Urbanism. Quote. Ever.

I neglected to link to this when Noah posted it, but I repeated it to Dave yesterday and he busted a gut:
Watching this video a second time, I realized why in the 1970's they kept building these ugly concrete structures that made unwalkable spaces. It's that they weren't for walking by, they were for dancing on!

Oscar Wilde's Life among the Deathworks

. . . [Wilde] intruded deeply into a struggle of son against father—Bosie Douglas against the Marquess of Queensberry—without realizing what it was about. More important, Wilde may have been led into the fatal step of prosecuting Queensberry for slander (the Marquess was naive enough at first to accuse Wilde merely of posing as a homosexual with his son) by his own sense of guilt. —Philip Rieff, The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses, and Modernity
By all rights, I should have only good things to say about Philip Rieff, but in "The Impossible Culture: Wilde as a Modern Prophet," it's enough my turf that I feel okay about calling him out on something.

It's not that it's wrong to call Queenberry naive for accusing Wilde of merely posing as a sodomite, more that it's insufficiently interesting. Consider this letter, sent from Queensberry to Douglas in the months before the trial:
Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try and analyse this intimacy, and I make no charge; but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it. With my own eyes I saw you in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship, as expressed by your manner and expression. Never in my experience have I seen such a sight as that in your horrible features. No wonder people are talking as they are. Also I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you not know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him on sight.
"To pose as a thing is as bad as to be it?" A very Wildean sentiment—certainly not something an unsophisticated naif would say. Thinking of Queensberry as Wilde's foil rather than as a mere philistine is a perspective that has its limits, but I've found profit in doing so.

Pop's Authenticity Hang-Up: Who's to blame, progressives or reactionaries?

I've been disposed to agree with Yuval Taylor (from yesterday) since reading Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, but I'm a little taken aback that he wants to blame pop's preoccupation with authenticity on conservatism:
My poker buddy Mark Weinberg turned me onto this quote from New Republic cultural honcho Leon Wieseltier:
Authenticity is a paltry standard by which to appraise an idea or a work of art or a politics. Authenticity is a measure of provenance, and provenance has nothing to do with substance. An idea may be ours and still be false. A work of art may be ours and still be ugly. A politics may be ours and still be evil.

Authenticity is a reactionary ideal. And speaking strictly, it is an anti-ideal. It says: what has been is what must be. It is the idolatry of origins.
While I think Wieseltier is mostly right, he's wrong about a few things. First, provenance does inform substance. You cannot divorce substance from provenance, or else you end up with free-floating substance—an idea that has its attractions (remember the New Criticism?), but involves decontextualizing things from their origins. Second, authenticity is a conservative ideal, but not a reactionary one. The real reactionaries out there may pay lip service to authenticity, but their ideologies usually depend on deliberately manufactured untruths—or inauthenticities, to coin a word. Reactionaries are motivated by ideals, and, as Wieseltier rightly points out, authenticity is an anti-ideal.

I would modify Wieseltier's thought as follows:

Authenticity is only one of several standards by which to appraise an idea or a work of art or a politics, and should not be the beginning and end of any such appraisal. It is at heart a conservative notion, one opposed to ideology, for it says: what has been, or what really is, is what should be. It is the idolatry of origins.
Yes, but: bubblegum, which as we know is the most reactionary genre of all time, is also the most unapologetically inauthentic.

For another thing, cultural authenticity may be a conservative value (see: Southern rock), but personal authenticity is much more liberal. (Taylor explains the difference here.) The Left has a powerful attachment to "being true to yourself"; that's why they're skeptical of imposed cultural structures that diminish personal authenticity, i.e. gender roles, strict religious observance, etc. So don't blame the Right for the impossible rules of punk rock. ("The only winning move is not to play...")

By a vote of five to two, this post's witty title will be . . .

. . . Socrates spoke as if political science regarded the inhabitants of the city as either "public craftsmen" or as "private persons, women and men." If the architectonic art were to come into operation, it would leave no room for the public life of "citizens" or "gentlemen." All important tasks would be directed by expert specialists, governed by the expert of experts—the practitioner of political science. —Thomas L. Pangle, The Roots of Political Philosophy
This has been a rock 'n' roll themed weekend of posting, which is why I can start a post on Poulos's Society article (Yale's journal subscriptions: so key) with the Iron Law of Supergroups: there will never be a good one, because creativity by commitee is not a thing.

This rule gets complicated when your own identity starts looking less like a unified self and more like a committee of identities. Take it away, James:
. . . This meta-self is rational only insofar as it understands that the psychic angst of choosing disappears when choices are not permanent. The therapeutic use of rationality is in keeping the individual always open to change, hedged in contingency against any commitment... If the self is irrevocably divided in its freedom from the perverse expectation of unity in a world built for diverse diversity, why not expect—indeed, encourage and respect—a reflection of diverse diversity within each individual? In this fashion, the individual ceases to be coextensive with merely one self. Within each individual thrive a contingent population of selves. The social individual is born.
What happens when having an identity starts to feel like (ugh!) management? For one thing, it makes selfhood a matter of technical expertise. For another, it locates all inspiration—which, even after we toss Romanticism out a tenth floor window, is still something that only an individual can have—in the managing meta-self, essentially killing it.

Also: any manager who thinks the road of teamwork leads to the palace of creativity needs to sit down and read the Phaedrus; I'm not sure what a communal "flash of inspiration" would look like, but it sounds unlikely.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Talmud Envy: Adultery Edition

Pamela Druckerman's Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee takes up sex and adultery among the Hasidim:
Once they're married, Hasidic couples (as well as some other ultra-Orthodox Jews) don't touch, hand each other objects, or use terms of endearment while the wife is menstruating, and then for another protective week after that... The Talmud's more than twelve thousand pages of arguments, stories, and teachings on Jewish law contain rich discussions of sex. An entire book is devoted to the sotah, a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery because she's been seen entering an "enclosed space" with a man other than her husband. (Confirmed adulterers are handled in another section.) Talmudic rabbis debate, for instance, how long the woman and man must have been sequestered in order to presume they had sex. Their arguments suggest that in ancient times the preferred encounter may have been the "quickie." One rabbi says it's the amount of time it takes to circle a date tree, while another says it's the time it takes a woman to remove a wood chip from her teeth (there's an additional debate about how deeply said wood chip was wedged). The scholars at least have the good sense to dismiss the position of Ben Azzai, a second-century commentator who says that coitus lasts the time it takes to roast an egg. They point out that Ben Azzai himself never married and therefore wouldn't (or shouldn't) be acquainted with such matters.
That first thing is called niddah; it's explained in this excellent book, which is called I don't care if you have to finish it for class tomorrow, Helen, this isn't a good book to read while trying to look flirtatious in a coffee shop.

Sotah is exactly what Druckerman says it is (a trial-by-ordeal for suspected adulteresses based on Numbers 5), but she leaves out the thrilling details: the woman is called before the community, ritually humiliated (clothes ripped, hair mussed, etc.), and made to drink a sickening potion; if she explodes, she was an adulteress, and, if she doesn't, it may be that she's innocent or it may be that she's guilty but her "merit" has delayed her punishment one to three years (depending on how much merit she has). The description of the ordeal is unusually graphic, but the historical record suggests that the sotah ordeal was never performed in the rabbinic period.

For contrast with Druckerman, this was my take on tractate Sotah (because if Nicki can quote from her final papers on Iqra'i, surely I can get away with it here) (also because Noah asked):
The obsolescence of the sotah ritual, as well as the strict limits placed on the circumstances in which a husband might demand it, place the ordeal in the realm of imagination rather than reality. While it may not have been practical for husbands to enact the spectacle that Sotah describes, they could certainly picture it in detail. The ceremony of bitter water described in Numbers is not explicitly public; the public humiliation emphasized in the Talmudic account is entirely the contribution of the rabbis. Given the rabbis’ interest in preventing jealousy from showing itself in action—either in forcing isolation on one’s wife, divorcing her with little cause, in asking her to spit in a rabbi’s eye, or in any other way—it makes sense for them to have made the established psychological outlets for jealousy as satisfying as possible...
It's not about punishing adultery, or even discouraging it; it's about managing it when it happens through some cocktail of schadenfreude plus cultural scripts! Sotah is to the Bavli as the cheatin' song is to country music! Or is not everything about my preoccupations?

". . . with a minor in Collegial Insularity."

Within an hour of posting on localism in pop music, I picked up the latest issue of Volume ("Yale's Only Music Magazine") and found an article titled "New World Order: Think Globally, Rock Locally." Neat.

Yale's music scene is nothing to write home about (the art scene speaks for itself), but the undergraduate music/culture/film criticism community is solid; of all movie reviews not written by Anthony Lane, this might be my favorite.

Pop Localism Redux: "And how do we get to Detroit?"

You base your love on credit and when your loving days are done
Checks you signed with love and kisses later come back marked "Insufficient Funds" . . .

Pop Matters has published a piece by Yuval Taylor (of the blog Faking It) on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain:
. . . In the early 1970s, Detroit was the fifth-largest American city (now it is 11th), and it was, by almost any measure, the worst. Even the chairman of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce admitted that “Detroit is the city of problems. If they exist, we’ve probably got them.” Because of labor conditions, unrest was at its peak: In 1970, one quarter of Ford’s assembly-line workers quit, and on any given day, a full five percent of General Motors’ workers would be missing without an excuse, a figure that would rise to 10 percent on Mondays and Fridays. Public transit was practically nonexistent, the school system was on the verge of bankruptcy, thousands of homes were deserted because of corruption in lending institutions, the police department resisted segregation and created secret elite units, racism pervaded all aspects of life, and Motor City became Murder City.

But at the same time, Detroit was the site of one of the nation’s most revolutionary black liberation movements. In response to the riots, a group of black workers combined Black Power with the more radical elements of the labor movement to formulate a new vision and a new social movement, one that directly confronted the establishment. At the vanguard were three revolutionary organizations: the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which organized wildcat strikes and published widely read newspapers; the Black United Front, which encompassed sixty organizations ranging from black churches to a black policemen’s group to DRUM itself; and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, whose name speaks for itself. . .
Apparently I lied; a sizeable chunk of the piece is actually about pop music and localism.

Taylor says the thing that Funkadelic, the MC5, the Stooges, and Ted Nugent had in common was "a balls-to-the-walls aesthetic—loud guitars; fierce and steady rhythms; shouted-out lyrics about sex, drugs, and rebellion; songs that could go on for half an hour; flamboyant and violent onstage gestures; and an implicit menace, an unstated—or occasionally baldly stated—threat." Not surprising, given that it was Detroit, and it was the 1970's.

Another reason why "the [blank] music scene" should mean a place and not just a sound: all politics are local. America rarely has a political mood as coherent as seventies Detroit (anger), sixties Memphis (the "Southern dream of freedom"), or eighties Manchester (despair), and capturing such a mood is an interesting kind of political statement. Besides, how many protest songs about national politics are there, besides war songs? And could they possibly be better than "Motor City is Burning," or even "Charlie and the MTA?"

Friday, May 9, 2008


Finals are over. Posting resumes after I take a nap.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

". . . it strikes me that a little humane graft is a good thing."

Richard Sennett offers an interesting solution to unemployment among the disabled:
. . . As the work of Robert Lane has so incisively shown, the political competence of working-class people, white as well as black, lies in forging personal relationships and affiliations as a means for exercising power. The lower half of the city's population is, in a drive for rational reform, deprived of what it knows and understands about getting things done: the little deal, the contractor who cuts in his friends, the ward politician who calls a friend in city hall to repair a street or find a disabled constituent a nonessential job. Thus the polarization of contact groups and the congruent growth of the intimate home and the defined routines outside it create a power vacuum; the little guys in the city are deprived of a region in which to fight or cajole for what they need for themselves.

I do not intend to argue that we ought to increase graft anew, though it strikes me that a little humane graft is a good thing. But we ought to look at why machine politics came into power in the past, and salvage the good mixed in with the greed and viciousness of those regimes.
From The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (1970).

Then again, if they didn't subsidize disability, who would risk playing Human Tetris?

Noah has a post up on disability policies in the US and Japan:
. . . In Japan, the government mandates that each employer hire a certain portion of disabled workers and then fines those who do not. The government recognizes that firms where this is actually an undue hardship will pay the fine rather than hire disabled workers and the fines are set accordingly. The revenue from those fines is used to pay firms who do hire disabled workers the difference between the going wage rate and the productivity of the disabled workers, so they suffer no costs.

From a pure efficiency standpoint, Japan wins hands down. There is far higher employment and lower poverty rates among Japan's disabled workers than among America's (holding all else constant, however economists do such things). In fact, passing the ADA actually did nothing to help the average disabled person economically.

Both of these policies also have significant effects on the social standing of disabled persons. The ADA is basically an anti-discrimination law. It says "Look, these people aren't very good at working, but don't make fun of them because of it. If it'll hurt your business, you don't have to hire them, but if it won't, put in a ramp and some Braille." The state tells us that it is alright to judge people based on their disabilities, but not their status as disabled persons.

. . . Helen criticizes the Left for wanting to "make disability essentially invisible." Well, yes and no. Insofar as disabilities generally do exclude the 2% of Americans disabled enough that the market will employ them from almost every other sphere of society, that's bad. That exclusion is the reason deaf activists are so insistent on the preservation of deaf culture - you really do become an outcast from most of American society, not just aural life. Treating people with disabilities as people requires doing everything possible to get society to recognize their basic personhood. If that doesn't mean making disability invisible, it at least means making it irrelevant.
I'm still chewing on this one (go, RTWT), but one thing that jumps out at me is that making disability "irrelevant" isn't much better than making it invisible. There are certain spheres in which class (or race or sexual orientation) should be irrelevant, but if class became completely irrelevant it would cease to exist, or become entirely parodic, i.e. instead of upper class, working class, and middle class cultures, we have one big blah culture and the upper classes take long weekends playing redneck or co-op farmer, depending on their politics. In the case of class, sexual orientation, and race, we've managed to make them irrelevant in some areas without making them irrelevant in all areas.

Gender, on the other hand, affects practically every aspect of a person's life, and so any attempt to make it irrelevant in one sphere has more wide-ranging effects than an analogous attempt for some less pervasive kind of identity, because the threads are more tangled. Just look at the trajectory of American feminism.

Put another way: Should someone's ethnicity be irrelevant to whether they get hired for a given job? Yes. Should it be completely irrelevant to that person? No; there lies alienation. Can I compartmentalize my life such that I can basically forget about my ethnicity when I'm at work but have it remain an important part of other areas of my life? Basically, yeah.

The aftermath of feminism has shown us that if you replace "ethnicity" with "gender" in the above three sentences, the answers go from Yes-No-Yes to Yes-No-Definitely Not. The question, then, is whether disability is more like gender or more like ethnicity. The answer might be different for different kinds of disability, and there almost certainly are contexts in which disability should be visible-but-irrelevant, but, like gender, I'd prefer to err on the side of keeping it relevant, and not just because it's awfully hard to turn back the clock on that kind of thing.

Having said all of this, I'm not sure if I find anything especially wrong with the Japanese system; I certainly like it far better than America's anti-discrimination law model. I did forget to take my libertarianism pills this morning, though; check back with me tomorrow.

UPDATE: A correspondent asks, basically, "Assume that we do make disability irrelevant at work and then this sense of irrelevance spreads: what's the worst that could happen?" I'm not sure that the Japanese system tries to make disability irrelevant or even seem to be so (which might be one of the reasons I want to like it?), but to answer the question: career women who abandon femininity lock, stock, and barrell become alienated from their bodies and themselves—I tend to think that sexual promiscuity is a woman's attempt to resolve this alienation in the same way that Fight Club is a man's, but that's another post—and I think the same kind of alienation and disembodiment would start afflicting the handicapped if society tried to pretend that disabilities don't/shouldn't ever really matter.

Monday, May 5, 2008

I also hate fluffly bunnies, chocolate hearts, and the sun.

Who hates international law designed to help adults and children with disabilities? I do, at least when it does so in a way that telegraphs modernity's pathological insecurity about human frailty.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

James Agee weighs in on parenting

I thought I remembered James Agee writing something interesting about child-rearing in a movie review, and I've found it:
Lost Angel undertakes one of the few dramatic subjects worth a second thought: the bringing-up of a child. The child, who is, with occasional skids, very poignantly played by Margaret O'Brien, is a foundling whom a set of psychologists adopt, name Alpha, and do their worst with. By the time she is six she is an air-conditioned genius. Then a newspaper reporter flicks a wild card into her deck. For the first time she hears of, and experiences, the possibilities of the irrational, the irregular, the inexplicable, the magical. For the first time she becomes aware of love, and suffers it. Moral: Never trust your own, or anybody's, intelligence about a child; love is all that really matters.

There are grimly misleading and mismanaged things about this picture. Much as I mistrust the run of child-psychologists and progressive educators, I don't like to see it implied, even in myth, that they are unaware of the indispensable importance, to a child, of parental love or the best available substitute. They are likely to militate against and fruitful love far more frighteningly through the antiseptic, utilitarian, neo-pietistic quality of their recognition than through ignorance. It is unlikely, too, that a child under their seal would see the city, or meet another child, for the first time only after running away from them. Rather, the child would be so hermetically "well-adjusted," so thoroughly anaesthetized, to both that a naked realization of either would be one of its gravest difficulties.

...And I don't like at all such needless complications as the gunman who is tossed in for New Yorkerish laughs, or the general unimaginativeness through which "magic" is shown the child by means of the remarkable things of a city street at night—sandwichmen with neon shirtfronts, etc.—rather than the unremarkable. Almost anything, in such contexts of childhood, can seem miraculous; and through the child's eyes and mind the wonder of a city, which is intrinsic in a well-used camera anyhow, could have been shown many people, instead of the easily glamorous mist, a pipe-smoking dog, some Chinese, a night club, and similar easy outs; and could have become one of the most beautiful sequences I can imagine. But barring a brief examination of a popcorn machine, that chance is forfeited. —January 15, 1944

Saturday, May 3, 2008

When you believe in things you don't understand, then you suffer/Oh, superstitious thick identities ain't the way...

Most libertarians admit that children, like national defense, are an exception that proves the ideology, but libertarianism's inability to deal with children demands more of an explanation than simply that. After all, every grown man acts like a child sometimes, and children need to be raised with an eye to the fact that one day they will be adults with adult decisions to make. Will Wilkinson addresses the latter problem by condemning parents who "attempt to reproduce their ideologies and prejudices in their children":
Liberals who worry about religious home schooling are not wrong to worry. I defend home schooling not because parents have a moral right to indoctrinate their children. Indeed, parents have a moral obligation not to. They just have a political right to not be stopped, within bounds. Many parents, though they intend the opposite, are in fact guilty of wrongful disregard for the development of their children’s psychological freedom. They deserve condemnation and ostracism, not interference from the state. I defend their political right to potentially behave immorally—to harm their children’s capacity for the full exercise of their rightful freedom—in part because I appreciate how accommodating pluralism reduces social conflict. But, perhaps more importantly, because I think that full-fledged competitive diversity in education will help erode superstitious thick identities, that it will help fosters a sense of contingency in inherited identities that make it easier to slough them off, or at least easier to wear lightly.
James Poulos's response that "wearing your thick (i.e. unelective) identity lightly is a really humane and apt vision" sounds about right, but it doesn't answer practical questions like "Should I insist that my children adopt my own religion?", "Should I mitigate their religious and ethical instruction with lots of 'But that's just my opinion; you should decide for yourself?'", and "While it's obvious that I should make my children keep going to church if their reason for not wanting to go is that they'd rather spend Sunday mornings playing stickball, what if they decide that they just don't believe in God?"

If the goal is to raise children who are neither completely unmoored nor completely uncritical—and James is right that whether you can play around with your unelective identities is a good way to tell if you're striking the right balace between independence from and investment in—the answers to the above questions are "Yes," "No," and "Almost always." John Darnielle is actually talking about grandeur in heavy metal here, but his basic idea is universal:
You have two choices confronted with something like The Headless Children: you can make fun of it, which is what most people will do; it will be noted that I can't really resist the urge to do so, either. But the braver choice, and the one I end up making by time I've been listening for a few songs is to let it take you up; to give yourself over to it and see how it feels... To get to that light, you need to be willing to invoke big concepts — evil, death, history, all that jazz. But invoking is enough; go any further, and you're a boring blowhard like your present correspondent, trying to "say something" instead of just letting some images and names loose for the sake of an effect. But an effect — a vibe — a sheen — is a bigger thing than we think it is, because it's looser and consequently more useful. A big idea coherently stated and well-defended leaves no room for play; the same idea clumsily deployed and gleefully exploited lets the listener keep it for himself. It belongs to the listener, and its truth is non-different from the truth he gets from it. That's what W.A.S.P. were about, whether they thought so or not: making the big gesture and letting it go, and giving to the listeners the gift of their own imagination.
Wilkinson suggests that parents should only teach their children those things they can explain and prove. This is bound to make a child's universe very small, not just because it cuts him off from "superstitions" like faith and family honor, but because, as Darnielle says, defining concepts with exact precision limits a child's ability to breathe life into them and make them his own. He can play around with a tradition in a way that he can't with a "big idea coherently stated and well-defended." It's also true that a person can only play around with a tradition if he takes it seriously, which leaves us with a picture of parenting that looks like imposing the trappings of unelective identities on your children until they reach maturity and move out, at which point they can decide for themselves.

I don't buy the idea that imposing a tradition on a child will make him any less capable of making decisions for himself later on. Eve explains why "the idea that authority and individuality are at odds is just, you know, wrong" (and the idea that "there’s more agreement between Nietzsche’s concept of becoming who you are and MacIntyre’s than either would care to admit" is just, you know, right):
Submission to authority always involves a degree of awe; thus it approaches the sublime. And an encounter with the sublime will necessarily draw people out of our usual submission to culture and to whim; it will change us and, under certain circumstances (such as a philosophical debating society that demanded personal integrity and rigorous self-examination), it will make us more our own than we could ever have been without that awe.
There is still a danger that parents will treat child-rearing as an exercise in propaganda rather than education, but the migration to Wilkinson's end of the spectrum is a problem, too, and, I think, a much more common one.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Woodrow Wilson, the South, Neoconservatism and Lincoln Bashing

Grant Havers, Daniel Larison and Paul Gottfried all seem to agree that, while they can see where someone like Henry Jaffa is coming from, it is still essentially wrongheaded to claim Lincoln as the father of Wilsonianism or neoconservatism. Something Gottfried mentioned but didn't explain is that, far from likening Wilson to Lincoln, the early twentieth century South identified American involvement in World War I with the legacy of the Confederacy.

Wilson, son of a Confederate chaplain, had the enthusiastic endorsements of Southern preachers and politicians—and songwriters, as these lyrics make clear:
What a legacy to carry to the battle fields of France!
O Virginia, old Virginia, let your shadows point the way
To immortal paths of honor for the children of the gray
The cause of Lee and Jackson, though 'twas trampled in the dust
By overwhelming odds, has risen, commanding world-wide trust;
'Tis now the cause of Pershing and our brave boys o'er the sea,
The cause upheld by Dixie's knights with Jackson and with Lee.
Charles Reagan Wilson's Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 throws out an interesting explanation for why the South embraced Wilsonianism so eagerly:
. . . World War I also vindicated the Lost Cause, the ministers said, because American participation in it had validated the same principles the Confederacy had fought for: belief in liberty and democracy. The Southern churches and preachers committed themselves to Woodrow Wilson's definition of the war as a holy crusade. "This is not a war of conquest or retaliation," said the Baptist Standard. "It is a conflict between liberty and autocracy—between democracy and monarchism, a protest against the spirit of despotism and militarism."
Identifying the Southern cause with "making the world safe for democracy" is odd (although it might make sense in the context of the shift from aristocratic to populist agrarianism), but, whether attributable to their desire to repudiate technological materialism or to redeem the Lost Cause, Southerners rallied behind Wilson and voted out politicians like Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi and House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin of North Carolina who did not. It might be cold comfort, but paleoconservatives who are baffled at the warm welcome neoconservative foreign policy has received in the South should remember that this wouldn't be the first time.


Gone to Carolina in my lungs

Dara has already pointed out Dayo Olopade on David Sedaris on cigarettes, but in case you missed it:
David Sedaris has penned a lovely ode to his smoking years (inhale, exhale) in this week's New Yorker. With wicked precision, he ruminates on just what it is about cigarettes that allows one to be both self-debasing (the cough) and self-promoting (the cool) at once. He extols the many means of self-identification offered by cigarette consumption, pitting Newports v. Pall Malls v. Virginia Slims...
It was, I later thought, as if I’d been carrying a bouquet and he’d asked me for a single daisy. He loved flowers, I loved flowers, and wasn’t it beautiful that our mutual appreciation could transcend our various differences, and somehow bring us together?
I believe anthropologists call this "gifting." And it's an all-too undervalued part of human intercourse.
Dara took Olopade to task for that last line—I suppose anthropologists would call that a "gift," in the same way they would call "London Calling" "the lead track from the Clash album of the same name"—and, if I can pile on, the most interesting thing about the Smoker's Code isn't that it involves gifts but that it involves ritual. The best line in the Sedaris piece nails it: It was as if my life were a play, and the prop mistress had finally showed up. Suddenly there were packs to unwrap, matches to strike, ashtrays to fill and then empty. "Hold fast to your Mauss?" Hold fast to your Turner!

Lastly, the answer to what Sedaris, urbanist extraordinaire Ryan Avent and I have in common: all three of us hail from Raleigh, NC. Go Eagles!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Smoke Break Over

Astute readers will notice that I disappeared around this time last semester. Same reason this week.

Posts in the next couple of days shoud include a real Elvis Costello primer; a conservative take on disability policy (liberal one here); the South and Woodrow Wilson; an attempt to unravel "Some Enchanted Bureaucracy" while standing atop a pile of selves; what David Sedaris, Ryan Avent and I have in common; and, as always, what's the matter with kids today. In the meantime, read Jeff Martin on me on my "Daily Themes" professor.