Saturday, June 28, 2008

A note of thanks

Thank you to James for his love for and generosity to the Crew of Worthies. As a thank-you gift: the fulfillment of a wish.

But seriously, heaps of gratitude to Mr. Poulos.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"You may not be an old fashioned girl, but you're still gonna get dated."

Trapnel has some backtalk on Albanian "sworn virgins":
I don't really see the argument here. The Sworn Virgins are a great example of how social practices evolve in ways that can rarely be *justified* by their *explanations*; their very existence calls into question the entire presumption of a necessary gender binary. You claim, basically, that they see better than we do that What Is, Must Be; but not only is this question-begging, it's in the face of the counter-example they present.

Finally, the celibacy thing. How would your theory handle activity groups dominated by same-sex attracted folks?

An alternate possibility is simply that a lot of male homosocial behavior is, at heart, petty and cruel, and the inclusion of women makes this harder to mask to the participants...
First of all: the fact that a lot of male homosocial behavior is "petty and cruel" is half the attraction! I won't deny that girls can be cruel, but I will say that female relationships don't really have scripts for "tough love." (Compare, for instance, the way Michael treats Harold in The Boys in the Band and the way Martha treats Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

He's right to say that the Virgjineshe don't prove that the "gender binary" is necessary or inevitable, but the question that interests me is not "Can/should we get rid of gender?" but "Can we have gender equality without getting rid of gender?" There are feminists who say "No, but getting rid of gender is fine by me." I don't have much to say to advocates of a genderless universe, so my arguments are meant to address those feminists who think that we can have gender equality without eliminating the gender binary altogether.

Those feminists and I are both interested in justice--we agree that a woman who likes arguing about philosophy and drinking shouldn't be prevented from doing either simply because she is a woman. However, I have some concerns about their solution. Let's stick with the Yale Political Union as our example: if the YPU achieved a fifty-fifty gender split and stopped having the cutthroat culture of a "boy's club," all of the barriers to women's success would be eliminated. On the other hand, the presence of all those women would change the nature of the organization, feminizing it. I should be clear that I'm not saying that any given woman will necessarily bring these things to the table, only that a critical mass of women always will.

The thing that's interesting about the Virgjineshe, then, is that it allows women who envy the masculine lifestyle to go out and have it while keeping the overall structure of gender roles intact. If I want hard-drinking and fast-talking women to be able to chase public lives but am skeptical about the effect that eliminating gender barriers will have (that is, if I'm not sure a middle ground of "gender matters except when it doesn't" is sustainable), then the Albanian solution proves that I can have my cake and eat it, albeit under weird circumstances.

With regards to Patti Smith, Noah points out that she makes reference to Joan of Arc in "Kimberly." I think this only proves that Patti Smith sees a difference between (1) wanting the freedom to adopt some masculine characteristics and (2) wanting to be a man, because the Joan of Arc story is all about the rejecting the former in favor of the latter. Thoughts?

"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive..."

Julian Sanchez thinks you can spot a former parliamentarian a mile away. I tend to think so, and, given the facts on the ground*, it's no surprise. The real question now: is Barney Frank part of the brotherhood?

*Jamie Kirchick's article covers the years when I was just coming up in the Yale Political Union; believe me, it's accurate. If anyone is curious as to why Yale all of a sudden decided to crash the blogosphere, it's because of what was happening in the Yale Political Union two years earlier.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Soft paternalism not working

To explore the interaction of moral sentiments and self-interest, Bowles begins with a case where six day care centers in Haifa, Israel imposed a fine on parents who picked their kids up late. The fine aimed to encourage parents to be more prompt. Instead, parents reacted to the fine by coming even later. Why? According to Bowles: "The fine seems to have undermined the parents' sense of ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as just another commodity they could purchase."
From Ronald Bailey at Reason.

Albanian "sworn virgins" revisited

The New York Times has picked up on the disappearance of Albanian sworn virgins:
Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father’s baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.

. . . She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania, with Internet dating and MTV invading after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Girls here do not want to be boys anymore. With only Ms. Keqi and some 40 others remaining, the sworn virgin is dying off.

“Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same: 12 oxen.
I didn't want to defend the Virgjineshe when I posted about them last year and I don't want to defend the practice now, but to frame its decline as a victory for the Western idea of gender equality strikes me as wrongheaded.

There is a difference between fulfilling traditionally male responsibilities and adopting a masculine manner and masculine patterns of thought, and insofar as the Virgjineshe realize that you can't do the former without also doing the latter they're smarter than, say, American feminists. The mental quirks associated with masculinity (an obsession with pride, aggression, competitiveness, etc.) developed (partly) in response to male responsibilities, and I think there's something to be said for insisting that, if you're going to play patriarch, you should go all the way with it. Gender isn't a buffet bar; be one or be the other, but pick. (Shorthand: Horses-era Patti Smith is better than Chrissie Hynde.)

Let's unpack that principle a little more. If a woman wants to infiltrate "a man's world," she could do so by arguing that it shouldn't be a man's world in the first place, in which case women will eventually become as prevalent in that sphere as men, in which case the fundamental character of that sphere will change (become feminized). An example: the Yale Political Union goes from 80% men to 50% men, and the debate floor becomes a less intimidating place, because men will humiliate another man who makes a bad speech but won't do the same thing to a woman. I think there is a place for women in a male-dominated YPU, but that's because guys can handle the cognitive dissonance of treating a few exceptional girls like one of the guys as long as there's only a handful of them, and as long as everyone involved recognizes that something weird and subversive is happening when they do so.

This article on the Virgjineshe is the best; scroll down to the quotes at the bottom:
Rabë Lajqi, 77: . . . I wanted to be a man and I was completely like a man, always. There was no love and I never regretted it. I had a gun and the men were afraid of me. Once, I was cutting trees in the forest and a guy came up demanding that I stop. He said a woman shouldn't be in the woods by herself, never mind doing man's work. I pointed my rifle at him and told him, should he ever come within 100 yards of me again, he would be a dead man. Ha! How he ran. Nobody ever bothered me again.

I'd like to marry now, but it's too late. If I was younger, I'd put on a dress, flirt with the men and find myself a husband. I am the only proper Virgjineshe in Rrugova now. Mirë is not strong like a man. She was only a shepherd. She never really worked like a proper man of Rrugova.

'Kajtaz' (Mirë Lletë) Lajçi, 64: . . . Rabë told you she is a strong man, did she? What she didn't tell you is she was engaged to a man from another village when she was a child. He died and they never met. Maybe her father, who arranged the engagement when she was born, didn't tell her anything, but the fact is she was engaged and is therefore a woman.

'Lika' (Lirie) Thera, 57: I never cared about girls' silly talk and behaviour. I was 14 when I was first caught smoking with the boys in school. I dressed like a boy and started working in the holidays because I wanted to be independent. After school, I went to study in Prizren and had the time of my life. Nobody ever saw me as a girl or thought it was indecent that I went out drinking. They always accepted me as one of them, and two of them are my 'blood brothers'. Apart from my mother and aunt, I spend time only with men, but I am not interested in love or sex. I just want to be free to work, go fishing and drink raki, vodka and beer.

Haki, 66: I am a man and that's it. I own this whole farm and I work very hard. Why would I mind living on my own? I have a lot of honour in this village and beyond, and people visit me. Why do you come here and ask all these questions? I don't have time for you. I am very busy.
The Guardian article's main objection to the practice is that it makes celibacy a condition of participation in the masculine sphere. I'll certainly concede that celibacy is a total drag, but, for my money, I think it's an unofficial condition of being treated as "one of the guys" in any case. Think CJ Cregg versus Amy Gardner on West Wing, or Dana on Sports Night. The femininity involved in being someone's wife or girlfriend—letting him be the man of the house—necessarily compromises a girl's ability to seem tough enough to make it in a man's world, which leaves you with the option of either keeping the two spheres completely separate or abandoning one of them altogether.

You Gotta Rep Your Hood

Aquarium Drunkard's guide to the Triangle is making me homesick:
Restaurants: There are some good, affordable mediterranean restaurants in the Triangle, most notably Neomonde in Raleigh, which is by some railroad tracks that have hordes of tiger lilies growing by them from time to time.

Coffeeshops: We really like Cup a Joe on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, mainly for their tapioca bubbles that they will put in your drink. And also because we end up seeing a bunch of friends whenever we hang out there for a few hours. Maybe it’s also the buzz we get from the dangerous second hand smoke.
When caffeine-and-nicotine junkies die and go to heaven, it looks like Cup a Joe.

They neglected to mention Nice Price Books and Reader's Corner, two of the best second-hand bookstores on the planet across the street from each other. New Haven's a nice town, but it doesn't even have one.

Bookbag: Labor Theory

. . . the futile effort to bring socialism to tzarist Russia in 1905 assumes that the labor theory of value, having its origins in medieval craft society, can continue into the modern industrial age, where all values succumb to market forces.

In the Christian conception, work stood for the wage of sin, an act of atonement that suggests necessity, affliction, and misery; and if work had more positive connotations in the earlier handicraft age, modern industrial life endows it with little moral significance.
From Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy.

Setting the record straight on Jules et Jim

Kevin B. Lee is a grown man with a god-given right to think whatever he wants about Jules et Jim, but this summary begs a little correction:
Truffaut builds and expands on Jules and Jim’s vision of love as a dark descent into obsessive ownership killing off the sense of free discovery from which it sprung, while being equally deft, less ostentatious and more judicious in his stylistic approach (characterized by finely choreographed long tracking shots) to emphasize the dramatic core of each scene.
Truffaut himself on Jules et Jim:
One of the most beautiful modern novels I know is Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roche, which shows how, over a lifetime, two friends and the woman companion they share love one another with tenderness and almost no harshness, thanks to an esthetic morality constantly reconsidered.
I understand the temptation to make the movie about the tyranny of outdated psychological expectations—who among us hasn't totally wanted to marry our two best friends and be relieved of the burden of rejecting one?—but the story doesn't support it. Lee seems to think that "esthetic morality constantly reconsidered" could lead us all into paradise if only we shed our hang-ups (thinking of love in terms of "ownership," for instance), when Truffaut seems much more to suggest that esthetic morality, while less constraining than the regular kind, is hardly a recipe for total freedom. Or, really, greater freedom at all. Jules, Jim, and Catherine don't ever really abandon the free-wheeling openness that brought them together in the first place; that's the whole problem.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fired two warning shots . . . into his blog!

[PoMoCo]: All the good ones are gay, taken, or Marxist.
[PoMoCo]: Three objections to soft paternalism.

The authoritative institution of poetry, instantiated!

Read this poem by Luke Kennard ("I take the murderer for coffee./‘Make sure you don’t murder your coffee!’/I joke. He likes my jokes"); hat tip Nikki Tranter.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Patti Smith and "the authoritative institution of poetry"

Noah once asked me to explain the Leonard Cohen lyric "I know that I'm forgiven/But I don't know how I know." I always thought that it would have a lot to do with "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," and it turns out I might be right:
. . . a quick tour through Smith’s childhood reveals a rich dichotomy between her Jehovah’s Witness mother and freethinking atheist father that would not only manifest itself directly in her music (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” goes Horses’ famous opening declaration, immediately stating which side of the divide she has fallen on), but would also go on to provide the essential tension at the core of her life and art. While initially offering a reprieve from the stifling nature of her mother’s faith, facilitating what Shaw beautifully describes as Smith’s “endeavor to supplant the illusory ecstasies of religion with the materialist excesses of the body,” the wild sexual abandon of classic rock ‘n’ roll would later come to subvert, for Smith, the authoritative institution of poetry, as well.

Bill Deresiewicz on the area of his expertise

David (the one with the thought experiment catchphrase) forwarded me this article by Bill Deresiewicz on why the Ivy League is breeding "excellent sheep":
I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.

Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus. Throughout much of the 20th century, with the growth of the humanistic ideal in American colleges, students might have encountered the big questions in the classrooms of professors possessed of a strong sense of pedagogic mission. Teachers like that still exist in this country, but the increasingly dire exigencies of academic professionalization have made them all but extinct at elite universities. Professors at top research institutions are valued exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on teaching is time lost. If students want a conversion experience, they’re better off at a liberal arts college.
The likelihood of a conversion experience seems like a decent barometer for how real a place's intellectualism is, and, while my old Daily Themes professor is right about Yale culture, I'd be curious to see what he'd make of the Yale Political Union's subculture, a place where conversion experiences are constant fodder for the grapevine. ("Did you hear? George rejected the Enlightenment!" "What, so he's not a Randian anymore?" True story.) There's a reason why David gave his email the subject line "Why a Yale Political Union."

I don't know why Yale refused Deresiewicz tenure, but I've always wanted to thank him for a moment of heroic courtesy during a Daily Themes lecture. The week's topic was journalism. Our first two writing samples were "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" and "Twirling at Ole Miss." Deresiewicz took a moment in the middle of his lecture to apologize for starting with two examples of what he called "Southern blackface," which, if you've read the pieces, is just what they are. He acknowledged that Terry Southern and Hunter Thompson--both Southerners--probably knew exactly how their northeastern readers would feel about sentences like "Anybody who wanders around the world saying, 'Hell yes, I'm from Texas,' deserves whatever happens to him." He was an exceptionally considerate lecturer, and I hope he stays in the game.

On the other hand, there's something to be said for turning your back on the academy with a tip of your hat and saying, like Robert Benchley, "Remember me fondly, as a ship departing a sinking rat."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Movie review

My review of War, Inc. is up at Taki Mag.

Bookbag: A. J. Liebling on Harold Ross

Ross liked writers, but he would no more have thought of offering a writer money than of offering a horse an ice-cream soda. "Bad for them, Liebling," he would have said. Ross thought that a healthy writer wouldn't write unless he had had to emit at least two rubber checks and was going to be evicted after the week end. It was an unselfish conviction, a carry-over from his newspaper days. He reminded me of a showman I knew named Clifford G. Fischer—the impresarial analogy pops up constantly when I think of Ross. Fischer spoke to actors only in a loud scream, and when I asked him why, replied, in a low conversational voice he used on nonactors, "Because they are abnormal people. To abnormal people, you got to talk in an abnormal voice." —A. J. Liebling, "Harold Ross: The Impresario"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How many conservatisms can dance on the head of a pin?

I'm inclined to think that the debate over Ross Douthat's definition of conservatism doesn't have much left in the way of shelf life (my take here; my Grand Unified Theory of Traditionalism here, here, and here), so I will close my own commentary on the matter with something a friend of mine from back in Mississippi said: "Sure there's such a thing as a conservative revolution! We call 'em revivals."

However, insofar as discussion of what "conservative" means the further proliferation of prefixes (the future belongs to the nihilocons!), please carry on.

"Nothing is in itself tragic, not even death."

My dear Arnold, I dimly remember your surname, but take leave to drop it now, so very delightful and friendshipful is the letter I have just had from you. But you mustn't expect from me "a diabolically ingenious defense" of Zuleika, any more than you would expect a woman who has just borne a child to be diabolically ingenious in defense of that child... "Madam, this baby is in many respects a very fine baby. I observe many inimitable touches of you in it. But, Madam, I am bound to say that its screams are more penetrating than a baby's screams ought to be. I notice in its complexion a mottled quality which jars my colour-sense. And I cannot help wishing it were" etc. etc. . . Will the young mother floor you in well-chosen words? With a rapt beatific smile she does but turn on her pillow, very sure that this baby is as perfect as a baby can be . . . Or perhaps, raising herself on one elbow, she gazes at you with an exquisite forgiveness and murmurs (mutatis mutandis) some such faltering words as these: "I admit that a humorous work cannot end with propriety on a tragic note. But I don't think Zuleika really has that kind of ending. Nothing is in itself tragic—not even death. Death in fiction is tragic or otherwise according to who it is that dies, against what manner of background, in what way described. —Max Beerbohm to Arnold Bennett, 10 January 1912

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wide open spaces

A question for urbanists from Owen Heatherly, in the context of the Alexanderplatz:
Where do those of us who like the Siberian air to run at us unencumbered in a massive parade ground go, nowadays? Why must all the wide open spaces be either a) outside of the city or b) green?
More on inappropriate countryside envy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The connection between cities and theater

Luc Sante on theatrical urbanism in New York City:
There were also businesses that could hardly be found anywhere else: black-eye fixers, for instance, who were essentially makeup artists, and whose ability to maintain sufficient trade to set themselves up in storefronts, while only occasionally keeping a second line in something more workaday like barbering, is a testament to the continuous cycle of violence of the neighborhood.
The Grand Duke's Theater was not only owned, managed, and operated by adolescent boys; its casts, crews, corps of playwrights and, for the most part, audiences, were likewise made up of boys ranging in age from three to twenty. Just as the sets were improvised from found and stolen materials, so was the house's physical equipment similarly scavenged: six kerosene lamps made up the footlights, the stalls were benches, two sawdust-stuffed red plush lounges were the boxes, and stepladders and piled boxes functioned as the gallery. Such makeshift was forced not only by the impecuniousness of the youths but by the provisional nature of their establishment: it was under constant attack—bombardment with bricks and stones—by rival gangs.
Living in a community of strangers means being attuned to superficial signals, since there's nothing deeper to go on. It's interesting how performativity turned into an enthusiasm for the actual theater, and by "enthusiasm for" I mean "willingness to riot on its account":
The Astor Place Opera House was just two years old when the celebrated English actor George Macready was engaged to play, coincidentally, Macbeth. [Instigator Ned Forrest was also playing Macbeth at a Bowery theater.—HEAR] Its patrons were the city's leaders and substantial citizens, none of whom, by that time, would venture into any of the playhouses on the Bowery, the upper portion of which lay a mere two blocks from the Opera House. At Macready's first appearance, on May 7, when he was driven from the stage by "groans, jeers, hisses, cat-calls, and cock-crowing," and a shower of rotten apples, lemons, eggs, potatoes, pieces of wood, and finally a bottle of asafetida that broke at his feet, the hecklers shouted not only "Down with the English hog!" and "Three groans for codfish aristocracy!" but also a bizarre slogan meant to bring race into the picture, "Macready and Nigger Douglas!" oddly connecting the Britannic tragedian with Frederick Douglass.

. . . Whatever the actual sources of this uprising, in Ned Forrest's jealousy or Macready's arrogance, there is little question that the red rag used to incite the mob was simply Macready's nationality, a convenient tool for uniting the various Bowery factions, and that the crowd's ire was further aroused simply by that visible analogue of the cast system—the Bowery theater vs. the uptown theater.
All quotes from Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York.

Killing modernity every night

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bookbag, with snark

Celibacy is now more necessary than ever before among the professionals, including the rabbis, because of the tremendous threat from the gay and feminist movements. Obedience to commanding truths may require the sacrifice of sexuality. [...] The defense of sacred order requires some sacrifice to tradition. Otherwise, the defense of sacred order rests on capturing the state, as it did during Calvinism and Roman Catholic triumphalism, or on a messianic hope of the messiah founding the perfect social order. —Philip Rieff, The Decline of the Officer Class
Deploying celibacy willy-nilly in order to "build character" on a societal level is weird enough, but it's strange to say that hyping the priesthood will be a setback for "the gay and feminist movements?" Does Rieff not realize that celibacy is, in some important way, queer?


An interesting study conducted in Paris over many years has shown that as people come to take their bodies as more and more complete definitions of their own sexuality, the "symbolizing" of the body becomes less and less easy for them. As sexuality becomes an absolute state fixed in the form of the body, the people who are those bodies have increasing difficulty imagining phallic forms in natural organisms such as plants or feeling a relationship between bodily movement and the action of a cylinder or a bellows. The enshrining of the body as an absolute sexual state is narcissistic because it makes sexuality exclusively an attribute of the person, a state of being rather than an activity, and therefore essentially isolated from the sexual experience the person may or may not have. The study concludes that the result of this narcissism is a decrease in "metaphorical" imagination of the body, which is to say an impoverishment of the cognitive activity of creating a symbol out of a physical thing. —Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man

Wendell Berry, adultery, and epistemological modesty

Gearing up for a post on why I object to Wendell Berry has meant reading him—always a mixed bag. On one hand, he writes CSB-friendly sentences like this one from "The Problem of Tobacco":
Though it was often said, when I was a boy, that smoking would "stunt your growth," we did not know any smokers who had been stunted—unless, perhaps, they had been intending to be giants.
On the other hand, his charming stories always end in claims like this one:
A public issue, properly speaking, can only be an issue about which the public can confidently know. Because most sexual conduct is private, occurring only between two people, there are typically no witnesses. Apart from the possibility of a confession, the public can know about it only as a probably unjudgeable contest of stories. (In those rare instances when a sexual offense occurs before reliable witnesses, then, of course, it is a legitimate public issue.)
Leaving aside the disturbing parenthetical, Berry's understanding of sex scandal shaming seems backwards to me. Why not simply say "Adultery is a private matter," or, if you want to be more nuanced, "In order to figure out what kind of adulterer this guy is and how upset I should be about it, I would have to become familiar with aspects of his life (and his wife's and mistress's) that I would prefer remain protected by privacy?"

Grounding your objection to sex scandals on privacy rather than unknowability needs conditions and clarifications, of course — "The rules of privacy are different for public figures" is an obvious one. "It would be inappropriate to fire you for having an affair, but I'm still going to shame you in other ways" is a less obvious caveat. Still, these fuzzy rules seem to me better guides for determining one's reaction to someone else's sexual disgrace than epistemological modesty. If Berry were certain that a well-qualified Supreme Court nominee was slippin' around and he was the only one who knew about it, would he really blab? If a moral leader (i.e. preacher) were uncertainly suspected of being an adulterer, would Berry really rule the issue out of bounds?

Goldwater's response to the Walter Jenkins affair was "It was a sad time for Jenkins' wife and children, and I was not about to add to their private sorrow," not "I wasn't there so I couldn't say for sure." "The private realm" means something more than "Things that happen with fewer than three people in the room."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My links are red hot! (Your links ain't diddly-squat!)

Somebody over at Popmatters shares my love for old-timey union songs.

Somebody else thinks that the demise of local scenes isn't just a problem for pop music.

Jennifer Roeback Morse seems to think that gay people are from Neptune. "Perhaps you do not yet understand our Earth marriage..."

Meanwhile, I'm over at Pomocon broadcasting my High Snark Theory, and over at Takimag putting it into practice.

Two withering insults I omitted:
Thank you for your manuscript. I shall waste no time in reading it. —Samuel Johnson
This Beerbohm is only funny if you know who Walter Pater is, and what it means to parody and disparage him in a single sentence:
Even then I was angry that he should treat English as a dead language, bored by that sedulous ritual wherewith he laid out every sentence as in a shroud, hanging, like a widower, long over its marmoreal beauty or ever he could lay it at length in his book, its sepulchre.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


The operation of honour (as separated from conscience, which is not as between man and man but as between man and God) is to suppose the world acquainted with the transaction, and then to consider in what light the wise and virtuous would regard it. Edmund Burke
[PoMoCo]: The shame culture horse isn't dead; it just prefers kipping on its back.
[PoMoCo]: Martha Nussbaum, meet Oscar Wilde. Wilde, Nussbaum.
[TakiMag]: I hate New Urbanism almost as much as Noah does.

Nick responds to my Wilde/Nussbaum post. If his point is that Carson's prosecution was unscrupulous, he'll get no argument from me. On the other hand, shame will die without catastrophic instances of public disgrace, and we just have to be strong enough to stomach it. Should there be people willing to cross the picket line and befriend these disgraced individuals? Sure; that's why God invented best friends. Everyone else can be—has to be—judgmental.

Jeff Martin picks up on the same Gnosticism that I found in Sex and the City:
. . . the fact that if one first acts as though one is not a body situated in social and relational contexts, but a gnostic Self striving to realize its own True Being in a world of indifferent or malign stuff that must be forged into instruments of the Self, then there is no reason for this to halt at the boundaries of friendship. Why would it? The idea that it might is merely an expression of the idea that sex is somehow special, unique; but the reduction of sexuality to gnostic animality strips it of its uniqueness; and if something considered so critical to personal identity is nothing more than desire objectifying the other, why should friendship be immune? It will be little more than a sounding board for the Self: a chorus of approbation for those who have 'dared' to 'write their own rules' and negate the world actualize the Self to the uttermost. The gnostic Self is a universal corrosive.

Monday, June 9, 2008

"They make a desert and call it Poundbury."

An interesting note that didn't make it into my Taki Mag post on New Urbanism: the Scruton article mentions that the original plan for New Urbanist flagship Poundbury didn't have a church, an omission that Krier explains by saying that "it is not for the architect to provide such a thing...but for the residents to demand it."

According to Postmodern Urbanism, 80's-era Krier disagrees:
In Krier's entry for the Amiens competition, he placed a church and bell-tower in the center of the town, saying that even if people don't go to church anymore, it is important to have this public space which is always open to all, which fulfils mystical and symbolic functions, and which provides a landmark.
There's something to be said for a man with the humility to learn his lesson.

Those with further interest in the ways that "work itself (manual labour as opposed to 'symbolic' activity), not sex, becomes the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye" should read this article from the latest Kino Fist.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

You're my piece of the rock and I love ya, SC.

Dara took issue with my advocacy of sanctuary cities and municipal ID cards by arguing that it's not important that we assimilate illegal immigrants into our communities by means of the state.

I wouldn't want to make the Oakeshottian argument that there can be no personal identity outside of the state, but I do think that one is either a citizen or an outlaw. These two can mean lots of different things, citizenship especially, and I don't have a strong preference for one over the other, but the choice has to be made.

I guess I'll just wait for the next Doublethink like everybody else...

UPDATE: And here it is.

Open casting? And you made fun of me when I memorized my Disability Studies monologue "just in case"...

Noah is holding open casting for a disability theorist, and if he doesn't know better by now than to get me started, there's really nothing I can do for him.

The easiest way to begin is with the ways to get disability policy wrong. Inhumane treatment in institutions (warning: photos are Pulitzer Prize-winning but deeply disturbing) is one such way, but no longer the most popular. For a more common one, consider Martha Nussbaum:
The parties to the social contract are assumed by John Locke to be “free, equal, and independent.” Contemporary contractarians explicitly adopt such an hypothesis. For David Gauthier, people of unusual need are “not party to the moral relationships grounded by a contractarian theory.”
If your political theory depends on any kind of equality more literal than "equal in the eyes of God," the existence of disabled people is going to be for you what children are to Objectivism.

To turn to someone more helpful, here's Lennard Davis (if you only buy one disability studies book this year...):
. . . many Deaf activists do not consider themselves disabled. Rather, the Deaf think of themselves as a linguistic minority like Latinos or Asians, who are defined by their use of a language other than the dominant one in the United States. [...] Likewise, the Deaf and the disabled do not see eye-to-eye on the issue of mainstreaming. Disabled people want to be mainstreamed into the "normal" educational system rather than be segregated in often inferior schools. But for the Deaf, mainstreaming is seen as cultural genocide since residential schools are the breeding ground of Deaf culture.
Noah asked for a liberal vision of disability theory and I obviously can't give him one*, but I can point out one reason why he run into trouble in his search. Davis says in the same book, "Wounds are not the result of oppression, but the other way around. Protections are not inherent, endowed by the creator, but created by society at large and administered to all." I know leftists who would disagree very strongly with the first seven words of Davis's statement, even if he moderated it to "not always the result of oppression." (Liberals think life is a comedy; conservatives think life is a tragedy?)

The bottom line: there is no clear distinction between care that is patronizing and care that is compassionate, or between recognizing a disability and calling undue attention to it. I don't really respond to arguments against "reducing someone to their disability" because I don't think it's important that I deal with everyone I meet as a whole person (are you denying your professor's humanity when you use him for his mind during a history lecture?), but, even if I did, that wouldn't be a clear distinction either. All I do is gesture in what I think is the right direction.

I've probably seen a few hundred speeches given on the floor of the Party of the Right, and one of the dozen that I really remember was one Will (not this one) gave on the four kinds of forgiveness**: game theoretical ("I should forgive her because it's to my advantage to live in a world where forgiveness is the norm"); stoic ("I didn't really care in the first place"); seeing oneself in the other person ("I might have done the same thing in her circumstances"); and seeing the face of God in the other person. The distinction between the last two is the important one here.

I can't imagine what it's like to be blind, or mentally retarded, or wheelchair-bound, and they can't imagine what it's like to live without a life-pervading impairment. Any disability theory that depends upon seeing oneself in the face of a child with autism, or that demands that he take seriously the possiblity that his life will ever look like yours, is flawed; far better that we should look for some common ground that is actually universal. I call it "the face of God"; Noah might call it something different.

*Try Bérubé.
**He might have cribbed this from Miroslav Volf; I wouldn't know.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

We are not the Village Green Preservation Society

John, Will, and I seem to be in basic agreement that, in a perfect world, localism would be to the twenty-first century what nationalism was to the twentieth (a force to topple empires!), but, as important as conservatism's intellectual renewal is to me, I'd prefer to achieve it in such a way that allowed me to continue to avoid agrarians.

A word of friendly advice to the two people who recommended Wendell Berry to the presidential hopefuls: back away slowly. Localism is fine. Even hyperromanticized localism is fine, if you don't take it too seriously. Disdain for cities is irritatingly backwards and counterproductive. Do you think Wendell Berry cares about your public transit agenda? The width of your sidewalks? Your post-punk music scene? He does not.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

James Agee, Neko Case, innocence, and old jazz records

I always meant this blog to be, among other things, your go-to site for James Agee links, so here's one from PopMatters:
In a little-known short story by James Agee, a poet and soldier has returned home from the Second World War, and in an effort to reestablish something of ease with his estranged wife has unearthed his collection of old jazz records. Bringing out these records proves sad and complicated, as he discovers that the associations bound up with the music are no longer common between them and that his own memories, fantasies, and experiences evoked by the music seem only to make grosser, wider, the chasm separating that life from this one. He finds that the person he was is an anachronism, lost and missing. For Agee, such are the depths reached as music cores into time, or as time into music: so inextricable are the two, as they cause our most fundamental notions of identity and history to twist together, revealing everything or nothing.

This is where “1928 Story” begins. Back home, trying but lost, the poet-soldier recoils from the records he truly thought of as his, records that had, before, marked him out in the world and made him feel good and right. Now they feel weird and kind of wrong. Wrong because the senses of world they suggest are too innocent. This is an innocence, he says, “that has no business being so innocent.” But Agee doesn’t really tell this story; he doesn’t really tell the story of a soldier making a go of it after the war, not explicitly anyway. The story he tells is really of those days spent discovering in the first place the music that after the war, after all, haunts.
The essay is actually about Fox Confessor Brings the Flood; read the whole thing for insights like these two:
When [Neko Case] sings, for example, “Hey pretty baby, get high with me / We can go to my sister’s if we say we’ll watch the baby”, it seems as though a whole, complex, involved, and moving story has been told about something really good and probably doomed. And it is this both-ness of good and doom that characterizes the world of the song, and also characterizes whatever borders may be sensed around the whole of the album as well.

. . . After the line, “I leave the party at three a.m.”, Case takes an almost-breath, slight—a moment, just—but that almost-breath is big, and seems bigger in memory, because it’s a prelude to one of the record’s most rewarding and genuine moments of joy. A breath, a pause, then: “Alone, thank God.” [...] In this instance, the unexpected and the possible take on the shape of humor. And humor, well, in a country song, is grace.

More on college loans to needy students at sixth-rate schools

Noah is not a fan of my post on college loans:
Take a look at Gateway Community College's course offerings (pdf). Yes, there is one course on Intro to Cultural Anthropology, that Helen can attend, but there are far, far more on keyboarding and Toyota engine repair. Community colleges and for-profit universities (which are a really mixed bag, but the good ones are an important part of the post-secondary system) are by far the institutions least invested in imparting social capital and most concerned with direct skill provision.

You can see this because they don't have dorms, much less campuses. Helen's worry about teaching the language of "community service and extra-curriculars" might have some legitimacy when talking about Yale. I would disagree, but right now I don't have to. Her argument has literally no merit; it's describing a phenomenon she just made up.

Community colleges serve people who got a bad break in life and are working damn hard to make good. They're deeply troubled institutions, but they're improving and help tons of people. To make them the target for an already strange quest to get kids to stop going to college is singularly awful.
Dara starts an interesting back-and-forth in response:
It seems to me that, whatever the merits of Helen's argument, taking useful classes at college doesn't preclude its function of molding you to particular middle- or upper-class norms of behavior--and the inverse is even more true: a liberal-arts school doesn't necessarily teach behavior just because it doesn't teach basic job skills.

I'm also amused that you're skeptical of Helen's claim as it applies to Yale et al., because it's essentially a reiteration of Rob's argument in his post on Commencement...
Taking career-path courses at school doesn't preclude imparting behavioral norms on you, no. But something has to impart them. If it isn't campus life, because there isn't any, and it isn't your courses, which are distinctly service-sector, I feel like Rob's robes at commencement are all that remains. That's a lot of heavy lifting for commencement to do as compared to how you spend every day for 2-4 years, don't you think?

So while in theory, the two aren't in conflict, I'm struggling to think of how community colleges as they exist could primarily be imparting norms of behavior.
Noah's right to say that colleges that "don't have dorms, much less campuses" don't acculturate students into the Daily Show mindset the way a place like UNC-Chapel Hill does, and I suppose I was insufficiently clear about what I think is the most pernicious "middle class value" that B.A. ubiquity reinforces: the idea that job training should always take place at a college.

The "strange quest to get kids to stop going to college" isn't so strange; there's no reason why human resources managers, accountants, daycare providers, or pastry chefs (to take a few examples from Gateway Community College's course offerings) should be expected to spend money that they probably can't spare on a community college degree. Bourgeois cultural hegemony is the consequence of degree inflation that I care most about, but that doesn't necessarily mean I think it's the most important or problematic one.

For the record, I liked Rob's Geertzian analysis of Commencement weekend, although I think he missed an important element of the "graduation" rite of passage: ritual humiliation.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere there is one response to a post of mine that I unreservedly endorse; hats off to Dave.

God knows how I've lasted livin' with these bastards in the 'ouse!

The Current short on the most famous of the DC blogger houses focuses more on the fact that Yglesias and Co. blog than the fact that they all live together, which is a shame; the phenomenon of flophouses is less thoroughly played out than "Ooh Web 2.0!"

The Yale Mafia operates on the flophouse model—Will, most of Iqra'i, TKB, Broockman, and I have all shared various roofs at various points—and there's a lot to be said for having a surplus of argumentative people around at all times. The high-minded discussions that never quite made it to the blogosphere:
“I need a synonym for empathy.”
“No, I need one that connotes death.”

“I vant to suck your blood. I vant to be alone.”
“You can’t do both.”
No, I vill siphon your blood into a Mason jar.”

“Okay, we’re done with metaphysics jokes.”
“We can never be done with metaphysics jokes, they persist through time.”

“What? There’s no sex in Heaven?”
“Yes, but we already decided that Heaven was a tragic place.”

"There's no way that Interpol actually has two hundred couches."
"No, it is. Think about it: you live in Brooklyn and you're sick of having band practice in your crappy apartment, so, when you see a huge warehouse available for practically nothing, you jump on it. Then you have all this space you're not using, so you start picking up couches that get left on the street. It wouldn't take you that long to get two hundred."
Think of it as the blogger equivalent of a music label. Plus, we save on magazine subscriptions.

[Shameless self-reference definitely not cross-posted at PoMoCon.]

Monday, June 2, 2008

Did I forget to mention. . .

. . . that James Poulos has been kind enough to offer me a spot on Team Guestblog?

[PoMoCo]: Lower-tier colleges and student loans thereto are a scam on everybody, rich or poor, booksmart or otherwise.

Dobie Gillis for Commander-in-Chief

Good men nowadays question what form of government is best and search like Plato for a formula, following which this benighted race of ours may automatically perfect itself. The Delta sages of my youth knew there was no such formula. —William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee
If you missed devil-woman TKB's post on shame-based internationalism, check it out:
Start with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe cracking down on anti-union drug warlords to appease American Democrat Congressmen, skip over to the EU-pleasing election of Boris Tadic in Serbia, Bush's unhelpful lipservice while on a gratuitous Israeli becomes quickly apparent that the focus is anywhere but the homeland, where ever that may be.

The rise of the "international community" in the guise of organizations like NATO and the EU has forced diplomacy into stilted, scripted interactions a la Leave It to Beaver.
"Well gosh, Al, those drug lords of yours sure are causing a ruckus... what'll the boys down at the lodge think?..."

"Aw heck, if it means that much to ya I'll tell 'em to quiet down..."
The focus has definitely shifted outward: everyone's busy trimming their lawns and painting their fences, while no one seems to care that the wastebasket in Pop's study hasn't been taken out in two weeks, and the fruit laid out on the kitchen table went bad and has started attracting flies.

. . . shifting domestic politics in a certain direction to make a good impression on the "international community" is certainly nothing new- but what is is that there's no consensus on who needs to be impressed. The US? The EU? NATO? It's not just the would-be westernizers and capitalist culture seekers coming across as sheepish and insecure anymore...
A far cry from Matt Yglesias's reading that the international organizations that popped up in the forties and fifties "created the levels of trust and confidence necessary to allow the governments of Europe to choose peace rather than competition." The UN may have been founded out of zeal for Kantian universalism, but such zeal is neither a condition nor effect of membership in it. Yglesias may or may not be right that international organizations made the global scene look less like a patchwork of exclusively self-interested actors, but is this really the "liberal internationalism" he has in mind, and, if it isn't, would more enthusiasm for organizations like the EU and the UN get us there?

Burke said that "whilst manners remain entire, they will correct the vices of law, and soften it at length to their own temper"; to the extent that it even makes sense to talk about the "manners" of a community the size of a planet, I'm not sure we can hope for much more than the weird gestures TKB describes.