Saturday, August 30, 2008

Bookbag: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (II)

A Suspension of Mercy reads like an expose of the crime writer at work, a literary hall of mirrors in which reality and fiction are constantly reflected and, ultimately, confused. Sydney is a man seduced by fantasy—the imaginative game of killing his wife, Alicia, carrying her body out in a rolled-up carpet and burying her in a field. [...] After months of repressed resentment toward his wife, Sydney imagines killing her, visualizing the murder in detail, positioning her as a character in one of his stories. Sydney then acts out the murder, buries the empty carpet, and records the fantasy in his notebook, written from the perspective of a guilty man...

Sydney, like Highsmith, is driven by the desire to understand why some people commit murder, but when—after learning of Alicia's suicide—he forces his wife's lover Tilbury to take an overdose of sleeping pills, his novelistic imagination fails him. Ironically, the self-conscious, omnipotent author, so in control of his characters, becomes a mere character himself: "it dawned on him that he hadn't remembered to think what it felt like to commit a murder while he was committing it. He had not thought at all about himself."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Twee Pop is Also Reactionary.

Peter Suderman meta-endorses "selling out" by way of the band Of Montreal. But we knew they were conservative already.

Mental Health Break: Paleoconservative Hilarity (And Not the Inadvertent Kind!)

John Zmirak offers "bumper stickers you won't put on your car":
For nostalgic readers of Russell Kirk, who keep their bound volumes of the old NR like a framed photo of Kaiser Franz Josef on the wall of a Holocaust survivor who fled Vienna: Burkeans Do It Reluctantly and Incrementally.

For tenured Straussians teaching at Christian colleges [sorry, Dave!—CSB]: God Bless America. (Then, in Attic Greek:) Except that He Doesn’t Exist.

For Brilliant, Unemployable Catholic Losers: Don’t Blame Me. I Voted for Philip II. (With a Spanish galleon.)

For pessimistic Protestants: In Case of Rapture This Vehicle will Be… Just Fine.

For home-schooling families of 15: This Minivan Brakes for Apparitions of Mary.

For paleocons who secretly wish that Putin were ruling America: Have You Hugged Your Russian Oligarch Today?

For Crunchy-Cons who live in the suburbs and subscribe to the Farmer’s Almanac: Think Parochially, Act Globally.

For really disillusioned conservatives: George III was Right.

For blue collar Americans: My Army Son Shoots Foreigners So Your Honor Student Can Have a Same-Sex Marriage.

For me (and I really am printing this up, and you can buy one from me if you want): Arm the Unborn to Guard the Border.
This reminds me of the Facebook group "Closeted Nietzscheans" that a blogless Yale Mafioso almost created. As long as I'm stealing other people's humor:
At our weddings we will quote Corinthians and toast that love which is patient and humble; but later that night we will revel in that love which is power and domination...

During the day we say it is a virtue to be cheerful; but we secretely love those who have great contempt, for they truly have great reverance, arrows of longing for a further shore...
I'm the only sane person I know.

UPDATE: Elsewhere in the Takiverse, Evan deploys my very favorite near-obsolete expression, "walking to Canossa!"

Time Flies like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like Campy 1930's Comedies and Camille Paglia.

[TakiMag]: George Cukor's The Women: Remarry, Remake, Repeat.

I omitted from the review my favorite lines from the movie, but I include them here for Tristyn, who continues to insist that her misogyny is only a subset of her misanthropy:
"Oh, Lucy, he beat you? How horrible!"

"Yeah. Especially when you think how many women in the world need a beating worse than I do."

"The biggest X-chromosomal chatterbox known to man"

Thus has James Poulos christened Ladyblog, one of three blogs offered by the next big thing, Culture11. Eve Tushnet, Nicola Karras, and I are all in the stable. Check it out.

[Ladyblog]: Maybe it was God who made honky tonk angels after all.
[Ladyblog]: Hunter S. Thompson, model parent?

Bookbag: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Mary Highsmith, observing how little Pat was interested in the opposite sex, took it upon herself to find her daughter a boyfriend. Pat and her date would go out for a meal followed by dancing, but when it came to kissing goodnight, the sixteen-year-old girl found the practice disgusting. "It's like falling into a bucket of oysters, isn't it?"
My name is Helen Rittelmeyer and I endorse this message.

UPDATE: Just so no get the wrong idea, a balance quote from the first date scene in Valerie Breiman's Love and Sex:
"What was your longest kiss?"

"I don't know. I'd have to think about it . . . "

"No, don't tell me, it'll only make me jealous. Just make sure this one is longer."

"Hear then this lesson from the Seller's bag— / You buy a woman when you buy a Jag."

My favorite West Wing moment is from "The Stackhouse Filibuster": CJ asks Sam his favorite writer, and Sam says it's his boss, Toby. It's always interesting when your favorite writer is someone you know. One of mine is my grandfather, who taught English to twelfth-graders for decades.

The backstory of this poem is that, when my grandfather was enrolled at Cambridge in the early 1970's, his professor assigned the class the task of writing a poem about some aspect of modern life in the style of a great poet. My grandfather saw a full-page ad for the Jaguar XJ6 in which Jag boasted of all the technicians—artisans!—responsible for the various stages of the XJ6's design and construction. The great poet, of course, is Pope:
'Tis said Adonis, when the heated Queen,
Riparian, turned her turtle-tears to teen,
Took inspiration from her mare and stallion,
Inventing for the world the motor-galleon.

For this, with subtle arts to merchandise,
He seeks the lights of engineers and eyes;
Sweeps all before him, parishes and burgs,
Electing weird affinities of ergs,
Miscegenating Love and Techne's forces
(By Dove Cytherean, Out of Puissant Horses).

Now Zephyrus alone can go before,
And so securer may his maids adore
With Elegantise and lesser odes
The Pentecostal Spirit of the Roads,
Speaking with tongues of flame, from pox and pyx,
The ultimate in Jag — the XJ6.

Adonis is enraptured as a dream;
Both maid and motor-car Belinda seem:
Not Holy Mother Mary, drawn by stars,
Outshines Belinda on her motor-cars.

Belinda's paintwork holy seven rul'd,
To Pythagorean perfection school'd;
Six times at first the leaden lacquer sprayed —
No Solomon, no ant so well arrayed.
"Un', Duo, Tres!" then "Quattor, Quinque, Sex!"
'Til scrutinizing Ted may scan for specks.

Roy Collins now, a connoisseur of hides,
Declares the leather soft as babes, or brides.
And Lizzie then, (the daughter of a Brown)
Examines all the stitching up and down
Concerned, as all must be, that be be seem,
And being seem, be seemly, to redeem
The seating that her minions nimblystitch
Lest Belle's diviner motions get to itch.

And now Old Williams, whom the font called Ray
(Anticipating, ere the dawn, the day)
Declares at last the complement of seven,
Inducing over all the hues of heaven.

But see! The son of woman, Mann, whose Mom
(So well she knew him) named him Tom,
Performs his Mannly act upon the bench,
And seizes first the spanner, then the wrench.
Fatigued and panting, dealt delight and dread,
Her cosmos was cosmetic, yea, her asphalt bed.
Grinding with passion, tittering with jest,
He roundly puts her engine to the test.

Say will she blench, this wench, if bench befall?
Say not. She'd nothing have you say at all:
Not that she fell, not then, not now, nor ever,
When she supports the brunt of Tom's endeavour.

Her Beauty? Lying arm in arm behold her,
For lie she must, and shall, until she's older.
The Queen of Love alone forgoes her arms,
Whose nakedness is dresser of her charms.
Belinda in her lesser spheres disposes
What Man, and Woman's God proposes,
Namely, that Love in women's hearts we fix
And best adorn, adore, with XJ6.

Hear then this lesson from the Seller's bag —
You buy a woman when you buy a Jag.

Bookbag: "You are my mask."

From Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff:
In 1945, Katharine White at The New Yorker expressed concern over his taste for obsolete language; she inferred that he had learned his English directly from the OED. For good reason Harold Ross swore he would cut his own throat if Vladimir Nabokov were to become a professor of English.
To give you an idea of Schiff's style, the next paragraph begins "Ross had a while still to live."

Other notable sentences include:
Vera did not remove the mask [a black satin one; Nabokov had gotten his first glimpse of Vera at a masquerade ball, so she wore a mask to their first arranged meeting.—CSB] in the course of the initial conversation, either because she feared her looks would distract from her conversation (as has been suggested), or (as seems more consistent with female logic) because she feared they might not.

Nabokov complained he was afflicted by total recall, an affliction of which he could be miraculously cured by the presence of a biographer.
And the only one I can foresee myself stealing someday:
Possibly Vera was taking a page from the international handbook of intellectual coquetry.
Vera eventually took off her disguise:
In a 1924 letter Nabokov had asked her to describe what she was wearing. He was pleased by her response; he could picture her perfeectly, so well that he was impatient to remove several items. Furthermore she had included an unnecessary accessory in her description. "But you really wouldn't dare wear a mask," chided Nabokov, when the two had known each other for precisely eight months. "You are my mask."
Masks, forms, translation; a literary romance. Love is the place where people of my generation are most inclined to be freewheeling and least content to work off a script, but consider this line of verse composed for Vera by Nabokov during the first year of their courtship: Diving you notice all, / all night's silhouetted games. / I start to talk—you answer, / as if rounding off a line of verse. "As if rounding off a line of verse"; I doubt that such a feeling is possible without at least one traditional script in play.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


1. Izzy of Manolo for the Men doesn't care for Spain's new tactic of using dapper, top-hatted men to follow debtors around and shame them into paying up. He thinks it's an abuse of style. I think it's nice.

2. Will and Nicki liveblog the convention. "Any bets on whether the video tribute to HRC will include scenes from the Goldwater campaign?"

3. Leigh Walton gets interviewed. "If you treat your comics as newspapers from a fictional universe, there’s no reason to read them twice. Marvel and DC have essentially told their readers that any given issue is not important—it’s only important as long as it connects to this network of events, or because it contains a certain plot point, they’re creating stories that can be replaced by reading a spoiler on a blog. And when you create that type of story, you have to follow that logic to its natural end, and relish the ephemerality. Make the best piece of disposable entertainment you can! Make it look like the other kinds of disposable entertainment that we understand."

4. Nicki loves the patriarchy. "Not that all feminists hate my heels — some of third-wavers will rise to their defense. They wear makeup because they like it. They’re strong, independent, modern women, and they’ve separated the trappings of femininity from mandates about gender roles. When they dress up, they do it because it’s fun. I do it because it means something. It’s not just that I like performing some parts of femininity, but rather that these are all visible manifestations of something that goes much deeper. Feminine accoutrements become femininity; a skirt becomes a reminder, as much to myself as anyone else, of everything that goes along with being a woman."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nostalgia for 1950's Southern California not pictured

When a post is this good, the only thing to do is post nearly the whole damn thing. I've bolded sentences that I enjoyed thinking extra-hard about. Just think of it as the kind of underlining a ninth-grade girl does to her copy of The Bell Jar:
. . . I've been reading Alan Hess' monumental study of 1950s Pulp Modernism, Googie - Ultramodern Roadside Architecture. This was a specifically southern Californian style, used to draw attention to burger bars, car washes, coffee shops (the name comes from one such, designed by John Lautner). Hess places the style in direct opposition to the 'high-art Modernism' of Mies van der Rohe and his disciples, the classicist glass skyscraper school that became the spatial lingua franca of even the most conformist parts of American capital. What's interesting here is that the debate was purely aesthetic. While the opponents of 'Googie' accused it of being crass and commercial, the Seagram Building was given tinted windows the colour of their client's brand of Whisky. While its outrageous geometrical illusions and structural expressionism were being criticised as mere dressing-up, Mies' towers 'expressed' their structure by decorative I-beams.

In essence, the debate between classical and pulp Modernism in the US was one of taste.
On the one hand there was the luxury aesthetic of the wing of the bourgeoisie that aspired to finer things: New York's successful attempt in the 1950s to wrest from Paris the accolade of world fine art capital (naturally with a bit of CIA assistance). In order for this to occur it had to set itself against a more straightforward capitalist hucksterism. In fact, with their deliberate defiance of the rules of gravity and geometry, their brashness and lack of precedent, googie buildings were more true to the Modernist event - futurist visionaries like Sant Elia or Chernikhov would have recognised themselves in Armet & Davis, McDonalds, Denny's and Big Boy, more than in, say, I.M Pei, Seagram, Lever or IIT. It's also a reminder that the idea of Modernism as 'paternalist' imposition on the benighted proletariat makes sense only if one begins with an extremely limited definition of Modernism. Principally, one that limited itself to the International Style, the pernicious legacy of Johnson & Hitchcock's dual depoliticisation and classicisation of modernist architecture for American consumption, wherein the commercialism of Erich Mendelsohn and the 'organic intellectual' socialist approach of Hannes Meyer were equally scorned in favour of purity, white walls and stark volumes.

When I finally read Venturi/Scott-Brown/Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas (one should know the enemy), I found much to agree with in the paean to crassness and commercialism, to the libidinal pull of the advert and the utopian promise of making the desert into a paradise of montage and consumption (despite their deployment of that characteristic pomo rhetorical move whereby the 'authentic' is ridiculed except at the shopping counter, where suddenly consumer choice becomes genuine unproblematic popular desire), but as for the simultaneous eulogy to 'the decorated shed', to a deliberate blandness, retrogression and cheering on of the 'boring' and the 'vernacular.' One seemed to support a futuristic America of seductive surfaces and extraordinary collisions, seemed to be against the mundane - the other valourised the mundane against the apparently de trop desire of the avant-garde to be interesting. On the contrary, googie suggested a futurist everyday. Mostly it was the mundanist element that was taken up by postmodernism, and Hess' Googie (as with postmodernists in general) shows no interest in the question of why, from the early 70s onwards googie was replaced as the commercial style by simulacra shacks and fibreglass huts - that is, why after around 1969, America began to fear the future, and returned to dressing up the entirely novel in historicist drag - which was what American architecture had historically mostly specialised in, of course.

But is Googie really dead, or does it survive in some very unexpected places? Across the road from St Paul's Cathedral is a little pavilion by Make architects. In its improbable geometry, its jagged zig-zag showing zero interest in function or taste, it is as googie as googie can be. Likewise, the new building by Surface architects for Queen Mary University, sundry others by Gehry (obviously), Future Systems, Libeskind and his imitators, etc. While this has in common with googie the reduction of the building to a logo, to an instantly memorable image - one which is appreciated in the act of distraction, as from a passing car (or while doing some heavy shopping, presumably, in the case of the architects mentioned above) it also continues the moralistic rhetoric of the American Miesians. Nobody ever suggested that roadside diners used non-orthogonal geometry to make us better people, or induce them to 'aspire', let alone to simulate the experience of war or the holocaust. It does suggest a truth at the heart of today's allegedly radical architecture, however - its forbears are in the aesthetics of consumption, advertising, in forms designed to be seen at 80mph, not in serene contemplation. The architecture once described as 'deconstructivist' owes less to Derrida than it does to McDonalds.

I bet capitalism looks good on the dance floor, I don't know if it's looking for romance or...

This post from Feministe takes the line that it's possible for an exotic dancer to be a feminist. I'm essentially agnostic on the question, but the author makes a smaller point that I would like to dispute when she uses her observations at the Magic Carpet (!) to refute Pat Buchanan:

Pat Buchanan said:

“Rail as they will about ‘discrimination,’ women are simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed in the fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism.”

Spend about ten minutes in a strip club and you’ll realize that is false. At the Magic Carpet on any given weekend night, there are about twenty women on the floor who could give lessons to Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. [...]

. . . bottom line, there’s no reason why this level of focus and ambition (without being an asshole) cannot extend to other job environments. From what I saw of and learned from my Magic Carpet colleagues, I have no doubt that if this were the case, we would be deadly at all levels of employment.

What she says about the Magic Carpet girls may or may not be true, but in no case is it a refutation of Buchanan's point. When anti-feminists express skepticism about women's ability to succeed in the "fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism," the quality they're suggesting that women lack is neither ambition nor talent but something more like thick skin. Clawing one's way to a leadership position is not an easy ride, emotionally speaking; it involves a great deal being called a failure and told to shape up or go home, and demands an ability to engage in professional conflicts without putting them in the context of personal relationships. This impersonal toughness is very different from either ambition or a knack for strategy.

Ability to navigate the politics of a place like the Magic Carpet speaks to a woman's canniness, but not her toughness, nor her ability to take a beating to her self-confidence. Quite the opposite, being an exotic dancer is a constant reminder that one is attractive and desired, so such a woman's self-confidence is the last thing being called into question. There are plenty of women Feministe could point to that display the kind of thick skin that hard-nosed male businessmen possess, but it's wrong to assume, based only on their shrewdness, that these exotic dancers are any of them.

High Fidelity Tuesdays: Top Five Smoking Songs

Previous entry here.


1.) "Take Me to the River," Syl Johnson or the Talking Heads
There are two relationship scenarios that absolutely terrify me: breaking up with a boy who retaliates by selling my library to the second-hand bookstore, and being asked to quit smoking.

2.) "All Rooms Cable A/C Free Coffee," the Extra Glenns
Wine and honey, lipstick and spit, / I see you coming through the door with a cigarette lit. / I'm not supposed to think your death wish is cool, / But then I see you knocking back tequilas by the pool. The Extra Glenns, if you don't know, are John Darnielle and Franklin Bruno. Bruno also makes the Top Five Heroin Songs of All Time with "Clean Needle": All I want to be is your clean needle, keep you safe and high...

3.) "She Only Smokes When She Drinks," Joe Nichols
She only smokes when she drinks, she only drinks now and then, / Now and then when she's tired of being let down by men...

4.) "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)," the O'Jays
My parents still tell the story of the time they drove out to Chincoteague at three in the morning and caught a truly bizarre radio show coming out of some college station. Apparently it sounded like they'd pulled a homeless guy off the streets and stuck him in the booth, and he kept saying things like "This one goes out to my man Nasty Dawg." He introduced this number with "This is the O'Jays, but not that new disco shit."

5.) "Slack Motherfucker," Superchunk
You haven't moved from that spot all night / Since you asked for a light, / You little smokestack. A little Carolina pride. Always to be followed by Earlimart's "We Drink on the Job."

Bookbag: David Bromwich on Edmund Burke and "mercantile interest"

In the course of reading up on Edmund Burke as quintessential "party man," I found this passage from David Bromwich's introduction to his volume of Burke's speeches and letters:
What used to obstruct an appreciation of Burke was his unembarrassed apology for high politics. But the face of things has changed tremendously in our democratic politics in the past decade. The prevalence of leaders who declare, with neither pride nor humility, that they are utterly bound by popular mandates, is one sign of the change but there are others more ominous. Politicians and lawyers together have gone far to set the vocation of politics on the usual trajectory from status to contract. In keeping with that pressure, and obedient to the tendency of all contracts, political interest is on the way to being swallowed up by mercantile interest. The political elite in the two centuries preceding ours kept up a nervous suspicion—if never entirely antagonistic, still powerfully self-defensive—toward the ambitious and increasing power of the commercial elite. That suspicion is dying out at a time when the facade of democracy becomes more and more an affair of plebiscitary temperature-taking and polls.
The one thing that can always put me out of the writing mood is having the wrong voice: when my internal monologue sounds like an eight-year-old's, I am put off. The best cure is to read someone whose prose style I enjoy, and Bromwich is on the short list of reliables. (I like to mix them, like Des Esseintes with his perfume symphonies. Take in a cocktail of Oscar Wilde and Patricia Highsmith and everybody dies.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hitchblogging on Notorious: "I'm not that kind of a girl?" I can't stand women who say things like that!

Previous installments of Hitchblogging here and here.

Turner Classic Movies had a Claude Rains marathon last night. Well, it was an Ingrid Bergman marathon, but I only caught Casablanca and Notorious and I prefer to think of it my way. I generally have nothing but love for Hitchcock/Truffaut, but in the case of Notorious Truffaut gets it wrong. From his summary of the plot:
. . . Alicia's assignment is to establish contact with Sebastian, a former friend of her father's, who harbors in his home a group of prominent Nazi refugees in Brazil. Alicia succeeds in establishing contact and becomes a regular visitor to Sebastian's home. He falls in love with her and proposes marriage. She hopes Devlin will object, but when he fails to do so, she accepts the offer.
I understand that Truffaut had to make concessions to brevity, but I worry that he has entirely sidestepped the film's big theme, which we can recognize as the film's big theme by the fact that it's the damn title.

The fundamental question is, "What kind of girl is Alicia?" The first half hour of the movie is Cary Grant keeping Ingrid Bergman at arm's length because he's not sure if she's mended her ways from the trampy lifestyle she'd been leading when he met her, and the tension of the next hour revolves around her inability to convince him she has, since her spy duties require her to sleep with Claude Rains. (Grant's best line: "Dry your eyes, baby. It's out of character.") Grant abuses Bergman for being loose, and Bergman, because she knows that at some level he's right, doesn't fight back. Her decision to put up with his slights ("You don't think a woman can change?" "Sure, change is fun. For a while.") is the most interesting part of the movie; women really are like that, and it's hard to pin down why. The math of Bergman's decision to Mata Hari it up is obvious, but something about chastity doesn't fit with ordinary moral math. The fact that it's for the greater good doesn't seem to matter to Grant (obviously) or her (much less obviously). I would hate to think that Truffaut omitted the dilemma of Bergman's virtue because he thought such things were outdated. If the movie suggests anything, it's that purity is a human idea and not simply a cultural one.

Last note on Notorious:
Alicia: This is a very strange love affair.
Devlin: Why?
Alicia: Maybe the fact that you don't love me.
Devlin: When I don't love you, I'll let you know.
Alicia: You haven't said anything.
Devlin (kissing her): Actions speak louder than words.
Actions speak louder than words: if she loves him, why can't she act like it? The movie's climax proves that the real question was always "If he loves her, why can't he say it?" Performative language speaks loudest of all?
*Yeah, the post's title is actually from Paris When It Sizzles.

I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable.

I have developed a lengthy repertoire of thought experiments over the years (ask me the one about hiring a private eye to spy on your girlfriend*), and I am sad to see two of my favorites violated in one day.

First, Matt Rognlie:
Say that an all-powerful being walks up and offers you a trade. You have two options: you can either (1) permanently satisfy the basic needs of everyone on the planet or (2) save one life. Which do you choose? Obviously (1).
No, not (1), or at least not obviously. The whole point of Darkness at Noon, reviewed by Christopher this very day, is that "twice two are not four when the mathematical units are human beings."

He's right to say that, at some level, we have to put a price on human life, but he's picked the wrong thought experiment. The one you wanted, Matt, is the artificial heart that costs a hundred billion dollars to make. Comes in handy when talking about health care.

Then there's John Holbo, quoting from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
To seek to be punished because one likes it, is pathological, a perversion of the normal response, which is to shun or endure one’s punishment as one might other pains, burdens, deprivations, and discomforts. (Only among the Raskolnikovs of the world is one’s deserved punishment welcomed as a penance.)
He adds his own comments:
. . . in the case of punishment it seems that there must be a positive dislike – actual desire not to receive the thing in question: otherwise it isn’t punishment. (If the punishee desires the punishment in question, or is indifferent to it, it isn’t punishment.)
This strikes me as strange. Holbo wants to explain this as a "perverse," "masochistic" second-order desire, but wanting to be punished when you've done wrong is a normal intuition. Isn't the canon full-to-brimming with men and women in search of redemption, and isn't penance usually a big part of that?

More importantly, if human beings don't want to be punished when they've done wrong, why is it true that the most infuriating thing your mother can say is "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed?"
*The Private Eye Thought Experiment that Proves Traditionalism: Imagine that you're wealthy enough to hire a private investigator without noticing the expense. Your girlfriend has never given you reason to think she's unfaithful, but the private eye could send you a fax once a week saying "SHE'S NOT CHEATING ON YOU" and she would never find out about it. Would you do it? No, right? Verifiable truth isn't everything, QED.


Matt Zeitlin, with his characteristic youthful impetuosity, hits the nail on the head...:
. . . all this pressure from the left might force the media to report issues of candidates personal wealth in a better way. It seems like if a public figure is wealthy (as nearly all of them are) and promotes downward redistribution, the media will go after them viciously for any alleged slip-up. And so John Kerry windsurfing and John Edwards getting a hair cut become more important class indicators than Bush’s plutocratic origins and lifestyle. If the media could go after rich politicians who look out for rich people as much as they go after rich politicians who express an interest in helping the poor, I’d be happy.
...and then doesn't quite:
Conservatives are great when discussing political theory. No comment on what they are in any other situation.
My response is, "You forgot karaoke." James's response is here (See my most highfalutin theorization concretized in real-world practice!).

Just because I burned my Bible, it don't mean I'm too sick to pray.

Barbecue is a family affair for the Rittelmeyers, so I read this Pop Matters article with great interest:
Barbecue. It’s the cuisine that most directly satisfies our Promethean aspect, our embrace of the flame. It’s a food at the intersection of race, history, cultural distinctions, and regional pride. It’s a Rashomon word, with meanings as personal and distinctive as the regions and the people who make the delicious food it describes.
It continues:
“[B]arbecue arose less from native cooking practices than from a European gaze that wanted to associate those practices with preexisting ideas of savagery and innocence,” Warnes writes... Warnes nimbly equates barbecue with those other indelible, necessary American pariahs: jazz and the blues — each not fully understood or appreciated but thoroughly recognized. This is a full exploration of a food bigger than any plate it’s served on, a serious study of the commonalities of the barbecue experience: “a chance to relax and spend an hour or ten in flight from the pressures of civilized life.”
For more Southern culture from Pop Matters, see this interview with Larry Love of Alabama 3:
Your hidden talents...?
As a son of preacher man I have been taught to never hide my light under a bushel, consequently I am a flayed carcass in the abattoir that is the music industry.

What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Grow up and get a proper job.
Did you know that his ideal dinner date is Camille Paglia?

What's the matter with kids today? Not their reading habits, apparently.

To console Dan McCarthy, who has, among other concerns, a worry that young conservatives aren't reading the right books, here is a paragraph from the editor's introduction to this year's first issue of the Yale Free Press (not yet published; being an insider has perks):
. . . No, we are not conservatives of the sort one typically finds on talk radio shows or Fox News. We are part of a venerable intellectual tradition that includes Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk.
If only I can convince Dan that the author isn't a Bertram type—tweed aside, I swear he isn't—he can rest easy.

Elitism versus tribalism: why "latte-sipping" and "gun-toting" are fair game.

I spent last night drafting a sally into the conversation about elitism that popped up in the wake of McCain's price-of-milk moment (1, 2, 3), only to throw it in the cybershredder this morning for reasons that will become clear. It started with a response to Matt Zeitlin's volley:
It’s interesting how Republicans seem to criss-cross on what makes someone a legitimate repersentative of most Americans. In 2000 and 2004, when Bush was the most aristocratic of the two candidates (in the case of Gore, only by a hair), we were assured that he somehow “got” average Americans better. In 2008, the GOP has gotten even more brazen. The McCain-Obama wealth gap, both in current and liftetime terms, is huge, and so the McCain campaign went full-frontal in trying to ignore the real financial differences between the candidate and instead focus on ephemeral issues of elitism.
As John pointed out, there's a difference between being an elitist and being part of an elite, so McCain's actual income is only one of many factors determining his Elitist Quotient. Just as important is, say, whether he reacts to the sound of Harleys revving their engines with contempt or by saying "That's the sound of freedom."

I'm willing to cut the left some slack and say that they probably don't realize the extent to which their contempt for the gun-toting and country-music-listening is a manifestation of elitism. ("Your gun control position doesn't have anything to do with public safety, and it's certainly not about personal freedom. It's that you don't like people who like guns. You don't like the people.") It's a little like the conservative party line on the disintegration of the black family; we look at the statistics and assume our case is strong while ignoring the fact that telling the black community they'd be fine if they all stopped being so dissolute is deeply insulting.

So elitism has less to do with how many houses you have and more to do with whether or not you think everyone who listens to Toby Keith is a buffoon.* By that standard, Democrats are more elitist than Republicans. That was the bottom line I reached in the post I wrote last night.

So why toss it out? Not because it isn't true, but because this article rightly suggests that it's true but fine:
Antipartyism and its partner in negativity, antipartisanship, have a distinguished, even brilliant pedigree... Canonical political theory from antiquity is studded with precursors and echoes of the philosopher Hume, who famously wrote: “As much as legislators and founders of states ought to be honored and respected among men, as much ought the founders of sects and factions to be detested and hated.” And Jefferson, co-founder of the first popular political party, nonetheless contended, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

. . . Between carping and disapproval of parties and partisanship, on the one hand, and taking their uses for granted or utter disregard, on the other, we lose sight of the achievement of parties and partisanship. We miss the historical innovation of regular party rivalry, and the conceptual breakthroughs required to imagine and accept the political work parties do. Above all, we miss the creativity of party politics and the moral distinctiveness of partisanship. Parties create, not just reflect, political interests and opinions. They formulate “issues” and give them political relevance. Party antagonism “stages the battle”; parties create a system of conflict and draw the lines of division.24 Moving back and forth between metaphors of natural and artistic creation, Maurice Duverger tried to capture this shaping power: parties crystallize, coagulate, synthesize, smooth down, and mold. Creativity in politics is almost always identified with founding moments, constitutional design, transformative social movements, or revolution, not with “normal politics.” Modern party politics is the ordinary, not (ordinarily) extraordinary locus of political creativity.
I remember hearing William, a man of few compliments, say of a mutual friend, "His approach to politics is very tribal. I like that about him." (It might help to disclose that our friend is from Boston.) I like it about him, too. The necessary conclusion to draw from politics-as-tribalism is that Democrats should be allowed to have contempt for rednecks because rednecks aren't on their team, and teams matter. Reframe a party's elitism as tribalism and it becomes much more palatable.

I'll stop here, but there's more to be said about a team-based approach to party politics. Expect in the next few days posts on Edmund Burke "who, born for the universe, narrowed his mind and to party gave up what was meant for mankind," and the way that the two parties' positions on the Drug War can be explained by which communities they take to be on their teams.

* The most unpleasant conversation I've ever had ended with an unhappy liberal shouting that I should "go back to Mississippi." I always thought I was pretty cosmopolitan.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Viewer mail: Cartoons!

Adam sends this cartoon with his warm regards:

Bookbag: Noel Coward during World War II

The reason that I didn't come back to America was that in this moment of crisis I wanted to be here experiencing what all the people I know and all the millions of people I don't know are experiencing. This is because I happen to be English and Scots and I happen to believe and know that, if I ran away and refused to have anything to do with the War and lived comfortably in Hollywood, as so many of my actor friends have done, I should be ashamed to the end of my days. The qualities which have made me a success in life are entirely British... Everything I've ever written could never have been written by anybody but an Englishman.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"No humility without humiliation" explained; it has a lot to do with Abraham Lincoln.

I've quoted "There can be no humility without humiliation" several times over the last few months, usually in the context of championing shame culture. I feel like I should take up the sentence on its own merits as a way of answering reader mail—not really any particular piece of mail, more of a general "The hell?" vibe I get every time I talk about how great it is when a policeman makes teenaged girls cry by calling their MySpace pages "slutty" in front of a class assembly.

I think I can wind up at an explanation of why I like "No humility without humiliation" so much, but I can only get there by way of Abraham Lincoln:
Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may even be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or presidential chair, but such belong not to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path.
And Max Weber, as explained by John Patrick Diggins:
The leader is a figure of conviction, insights, vitality, asceticism, devotion, sacrifice, preferring struggle to subordination, moved by values that are intrinsically worthy and not simply instrumentally useful. Politics, in contrast, is all pragmatic, an attempt at expedients, strategic coalitions, adaptations and readjustments...

Both Lincoln and Weber saw political institutions as a threat to the political ideals born of passion, and charismatic passion itself a threat to order until it becomes normalized. To draw such parallels is, of course, to slight the difference between Lincoln and Weber, not the least of which is the difference between a Christian and a Nietzschean view of tragedy.
There is a certain amount of asceticism and sacrifice that Lincoln and Weber both associate with leadership. What does this have to do with humility? Look back at the first Lincoln quote. Being content to rise no further than governor is, for a man of genius, a kind of sacrifice, but it isn't the right kind. Plain, old, cotton-coat humility wouldn't count; humiliation would. Unpack that and you'll grasp the difference that makes all the difference between humility as we usually understand it ("I'm just a humble schoolteacher/shepherd/stay-at-home mom...") and the humility that comes from having enough courage and self-respect to stand tall through any embarrassment or disgrace.

And that's why I'm on the Colorado cop's side.

Backwards, in heels, with a highball in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

I found a review of the David Laskin book that I mentioned last week, the one about Mary McCarthy, Jean Stafford, Robert Lowell, and the rest of the Partisan Review crowd. The woman who wrote the review seems to belong to the tiny set of people with whom I agree on feminism:
. . . in this respect [Laskin] makes what feels like one very wrong turn. Repeatedly he is frustrated that these smart, independent, pioneering women couldn't see the point of feminism. It is not enough for him that they did it all backward, in heels and with highball in hand. Why the compulsion to marry, and to marry so recklessly? Why the deference to husbands of whom they were the intellectual equals? He dearly wants them to have embraced the women's movement, to which they would have lent considerable force but which they resisted, often with all their might.

. . . Laskin wonders why it never struck these intellectuals to arrange things differently, yet the ''differently'' is something for which—a revolution later—we are still searching today. And while it may seem remarkable that a husband's work should come first, none of these women appear to have minded having been married to hugely talented, often very visible, men. Most of all, it's impossible to say—of McCarthy, Stafford, Hardwick—that ''they managed to get published and to become famous, formidable intellectuals without challenging or offending the males who published them,'' given the toll on their personal lives. Hasn't Laskin seen ''Annie Get Your Gun''? These women wrote their way out of, and around, their marriages. They funneled their frustrations, their failures, their feelings about Boston society into their work. It cannot be said that anyone suffered in silence. They fought all the way, but the battle was a private one. Blinded by their own success, they had no time for liberty on the barricades.
RTWT. The first two paragraphs are very well-written.

Wilde File (II)

Oscar Wilde's trial is called a landmark moment in gay history, but it only makes sense to call it that if the trial had some effect on England's perception of homosexuality; this is why The Oscar Wilde File is such an interesting collection. Having read it, I now know that, for the most part, the press took a hard line against Wilde's "unspeakable offenses":
Beyond an expression of deep regret that a brilliant career should have come to so terrible an end, we have two, and only two, comments to make upon the Wilde case. The first is that if this trial had not resulted in a conviction the law relating to such offences might as well have been erased from the Statute-Book. Judge and jury alike are to be congratulated upon the unflinching discharge of a grave responsibility.

Our second comment is that the lesson of the trial ought not to be lost upon the headmasters, and all others who are responsible for the morals, of public schools. It rests with them, more probably than with anybody else, to exorcise this pestilence.
I have found only two indications that the scandal surrounding homosexuality was beginning to diminish, neither of them unequivocal. The first, this letter to The Star (emphasis mine):
After some howls of execration, the expunging of an author's name from the public playbills, and other acts of Christian charity which have lately been witnessed, it may not be out of place to enter some kind of protest against this very hasty prejudgment of a case still pending. After all, in sexual errors, as in every thing else, the real offense lies, and must always lie, in the sacrificing of another person in any way, for the sake of one's own pleasure or profit; and judged by this standard--which though not always the legal standard is certainly the only true moral standard--the accused is possibly no worse than those who so freely condemn him. Certainly it is strange that a society which is continually and habitually sacrificing women to the pleasure of men, should be so eager to cast the first stone—except that it seems to be assumed that women are always man's lawful prey, and any appropriation or sacrifice of them for sex purposes quite pardonable and "natural." Yours, &c., Helvellyn.
Second, the famous court scene as described in The Daily Telegraph:
Witness: The Love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find int eh sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare—that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect, and dictates great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo and these two letters of mine, such as they are, and which is in this century misunderstood—so misunderstood taht on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest for of affection. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when teh elder man has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life. That it should be so the world does not understand. It mocks at it, and sometimes puts one into the pillory for it.

At this stage there was loud applause in the gallery of the court, and the learned judge at once said, speaking very sterny, "I shall have this court cleared if there is the slightest manifestation of feeling."
Wilde's insistence on a Platonic homosexuality—noble, intellectual, and chaste—is taken up at greater length in the senior essay*, but let me emphasize that his reluctance to publicly endorse physical love between men is a big piece of the Wilde puzzle. On the one hand, it's the inevitable bummer of filtering your sexuality through Plato.** On the other hand, Plato's impossible standard of perfect chastity was, for men like Wilde, Pater, and Symonds, almost like Christ's impossible standard of perfect sanctity. Platonic eros, as inhumane as it was, pops up in Wilde's thought so often that you can't get rid of it without losing ideas better kept: that beauty is a kind of genius; that eros is the basis of education; that there are more outlets for eros than hetero marriage; that chastity is not the unthinkable catastrophe that people in this age believe it to be; and that we can believe in virtue while treating it unseriously (see comments here). Leigh asks, in the context of the Stephen Fry film, whether anyone would care that Wilde loved men if he hadn't been a genius; a better question might be whether Wilde would have been a genius if he hadn't loved men.

*The relevant paragraph: "Symonds, who credited Plato’s dialogues with his own Uranian awakening, took from Platonic philosophy not only its endorsement of erotic love between men but also the idea that love, in its highest form, transcends the physical. He called the identification of male love with sodomy a 'vulgar error.' Marc-André Raffalovich distinguished between unisexuals who engage in sodomy and those who are 'sensual without being debauched,' meaning those who did not. It was this distinction between the baseness of the carnal and the purity of the spiritual that allowed Wilde to think he might describe in glowing terms one man’s 'extravagant adoration' of another and yet deny that the reference was 'sodomitical.'”

**To anyone interested in how gay Oxonians used the study of ancient Greek as a kind of code, I highly recommend Linda Dowling's Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wilde File

I stopped buying books a little while ago—it'll be years before I finish the ones I have—but I couldn't resist The Oscar Wilde File, a collection of press clippings from the Wilde trial. Here's a satirical dialogue from the front page of Le Figaro (translated):
"My dear fellow, you can say what you like, I may be tired of this affair as an impresario, but as an Englishman I am proud of it."

"In that capacity I, too, am proud of it."

"If I had gone on presenting Oscar Wilde's play, there would not have been a single spectator in my theatre—and all the theatres are in the same situation. That's what I find so wonderful about this country of ours."

"It is the only country in which even scandals serve to highlight public morality. Oscar Wilde is not only finished as a gentleman but also as a playwright."

"In France, if such a thing had happened to a dramatist, it would have given his play enormous publicity."
The only American article excerpted is from The New York Times; below are three of ten paragraphs. Can you spot which crass American obsession is on display?:
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin about forty years ago. His father was a skilled surgeon-dentist, frequently called upon by the Queen for professional services. But somehow or other he never seemed to accumulate any money. He was a man of letters, a skilled statistician, and a man whose experiments in denitistry are still an authority in his profession; but he seemed to lack thrift. Oscar Wilde was the first one in the family to develop it, and the success he has achieved as a playwright and man of letters is mainly due to the devotion of his mother. She deprived herself of necessities in order that he might be liberally educated.

In a primitive school at Enniskellen, Ireland, Oscar Wilde was sent to get the rudiments of an education. He soon outgrew the school, and was sent to Trinity College, Dublin. Here, again, he distinguished himself with such marked success that he was sent to Oxford. He won prize after prize. This was ten years before he came to America as the apostle of a new "cult," and attained the celebrity that brought in the almighty dollar. Whatever personal humiliation the caricature in "Patience" involved, it put money in Oscar Wilde's pocket, and placed the entire family in a position of personal independence that it had never known before.

. . . Oscar Wilde never hesitated to say it was his American "experience" and the plump bank account that he was abe to take home after delivering more than 200 lectures here that taught him that it "paid" to be a crank with a "fad" that people were interested in, as he said once at a public dinner. With all his peculiarities, he was a shrewd business man, with a sharp eye to pecuniary results. He made money much faster than he expected, and it is only just to say that he was quite unselfish in sharing his prosperity with other members of his family who had not been so fortunate.
Of course the American newspaper would be preoccupied with his finances. For the record, the idea that Wilde was a "shrewd business man" is ridiculous.

Punk Rock is Conservative; Conservatism is Punk Rock.

I am stealing this anecdote from Will who stole it from someone else. I would say I'm stealing it shamelessly, but I like shame:
I fell in love with Punk Rock when I was 13 years old and snuck into a club because my classmate was sleeping with the bouncer. It was a subculture defined by rigid rules which allowed for great expression, an overwhelming ethic, high expectations, and a bareknuckled willingness for confrontation. I'll never forget that first show—seeing a guy go down hard after taking an elbow in the face, then watching him get picked up by some guy he'd never met before who said to him: "You okay? You able to walk? Good, then get back in the pit and punch somebody."
I'll use this as a jumping-off point to answer a question posed by a Highly Placed Obama Operative about the difference between allowing heroism, encouraging heroism, and requiring heroism. First off, am I right in assuming that everyone finds the punk rock story compelling? It is, like war movies and Fight Club, right?

The only thing holding me back from strapping on my knee-high leather boots this minute is the suspicion that ordinary life has enough opportunities to "get back in the pit and punch somebody" without my looking for extra elbows to the face. A world that requires heroism, as opposed to one that simply allows for it, is a world in which the thrill of the pit is there all the time, and I'm skeptical of anyone who would have the world be less like that. Heroism isn't something for exceptional people; it's something for everyone.

To take an everyday example, I don't think it makes sense to ask a young woman to carry an unwanted child to term without convincing her that it's a kind of heroism to do so, even if your moral system (or hers) makes it a necessary heroism. To say that liberals like heroes doesn't get them very far if the only kind of heroism they can talk about is the optional kind; allowing heroism isn't enough, because sometimes it's icing on the cake and sometimes it isn't. (Pregnancy is one example of obligatory heroism; poverty is another; there are more.)

Life's tough, and when I say that it demands a punk rock approach, as defined above, I don't think it's just my aesthetic preferences talking. I'm sympathetic to liberals like The Operative who say that no one should ever have to be heroic, but I'm not sure that's the world we live in or that I would be happy if it were.

Where there's smoke, there's freedom.

Via a Chapel Hill tipster, this article on UNC's new smoking restrictions:
A trip outside for a quick cigarette might soon turn into a lengthy hike away from campus.

The Employee Forum has decided to voice support of a proposal by UNC's administration to make the area within 100 feet of all campus buildings no-smoking zones. "Our plan is to make the campus as smoke-free as possible," said Ernie Patterson, forum chairman.

The plan leaves smokers few areas on campus to smoke. Some of those locations include the center of Polk Place and the Kenan Stadium field.
The most frightening measure:
The group's resolution also calls for measures to encourage people to stop smoking. Brannigan said the plan includes cessation packages that would include alternative forms of tobacco products for employees. "We're in favor of it, so long as it is directed at helping people quit, not saying, 'Hey, you're smoking; you're fired,'" he said.
There's a beauty part, though. The only place on the quad that's 100 feet from all surrounding buildings is the flagpole. The ban sounds hellish for the "Winston-wielding," but it's some consolation that UNC will see a net increase in patriotic symbolism.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mental Health Break: Femininity and Eye-Candy

The following images all come from a Helsinki street blog and feature women having fun with femininity. I've been called "very high femme," but I've got nothing on these ladies:

Dara and I once fought over whether the third girl ("Purple Mittens") looks benevolent or sassy. Thoughts?

You wouldn't think I'd approve of the second girl's shoulder pads, but somehow I do.

For the last time, I'm not blogging barefoot in the kitchen!

There's a riot goin' on over at the Periphery that began with the Abyss reading Writing a Woman's Life and raising questions about "women who defy cultural scripts for leading 'a woman’s life' and who thus make newer, freer scripts possible." She quotes remarks of mine about gender dynamics at Yale to support a line from the book that I think is entirely true: Exceptional women are the chief imprisoners of nonexceptional women, simultaneously proving that any woman could do it and assuring, in their uniqueness among men, that no other woman will.

The comments thread is twelve posts long as of this writing; allow me to be so unladylike as to lay into it. To quote one of the Abyss's comments in full:
In HR’s view, I’m pretty sure that preservation of a traditional female gender role means centering one’s life on “the domestic,” rather than “the public sphere” (to borrow some annoyingly fuzzy phrases from Carolyn Heilbrun). I think that most understandings of “the traditional” female gender role tap into realities and situations that predate second wave feminism.

I don’t think it’s impolitic to discuss “a vision of femininity,” but 1) I prefer androgyny to gender roles, and 2) HR certainly has not developed a diplomatic tone or a nuanced argument. I find the idea that the entrance of women into the public sphere feminizes it - or, more specifically, that college men on the debate floor would be unwilling to engage in genuine debate with college women on the debate floor - kind of ridiculous.
First, a clarification. The idea that "college men on the debate floor would be unwilling to engage in genuine debate with college women" is indeed ridiculous. What I meant to suggest when I spoke of dreading the day when the Yale Political Union gets a fifty-fifty gender split is not that men will be unwilling to engage with women but that they will be unwilling to wage unholy metaphorical war on them. There are certain salutary cruelties that men will inflict on other men but not on women, and these are the aspects of YPU culture that I worry would disappear.

The statement "that's no way to treat a lady" has been watered down in recent years, but not altogether. There is something very particular about male group dynamics. If I were feeling bitchy, I would call it a "pissing match" mentality; since I'm not, I'll say that it's a ruthless, competitive (which is to say non-cooperative), and bloody trade in one-upsmanship. It's common in the YPU (and used to be more so) to embarrass someone who's given a bad speech with questions that are intellectually tough, yes, but also meant to be humiliating. Men feel comfortable doing this to other men but not doing it to women. I don't think that debate will cease if YPU women stop being exceptional in the literal sense, but I do think debate would look very different. I've evaluated these differences and decided that I don't like what I foresee.

As for the claim that my vision of femininity means keeping women out of the public sphere, I'll quote two sources before I give my own take. Eve Tushnet first, since I know the Abyss is a fan:
Rosalind, Antony, Lear, Beatrice, Iago, Emilia, Leontes—could any of them exist in a genderless world? I think not; and I think even the apostles of gender neutrality would miss that menagerie when they were gone.

And also: Could any of them exist in a world where women were "angels in the house" and men were Strong Silent Types? Again, no; I can only hope that the apostles of gender rigidity would miss them.
Second is a book I'm halfway through, Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals:
Mary McCarthy, Jean Stafford, Hannah Arendt, and Elizabeth Hardwick all ridiculed "women's lib," as they called it, at various times in their lives. Liberation from what? was their attitude. They weren't victims, at least in their own minds. Indeed, they considered themselves comfortable and happy in their relationships with men. Talk to them today, the few who survive, and a shade of peevishness comes into their voices when you ask about feminism, as if the women's movement had spoiled a perfectly sound state of affairs by making men and women ornery and self-conscious about the most elemental things.
What the author calls "the last generation before feminism" managed promiscuity, literary success, and public action while still embracing femininity. Perhaps they were textbook examples of those "exceptional women" Heilbrun speaks of; if they are, it would explain why I don't mind them.

I'm not sure I could name every way I think it's appropriate for a woman to involve herself in public life—there are too many, for one thing, and such a list would inevitably reflect my own aesthetic preferences as much as my ideas about gender—but my understanding of "a woman's place" is at least expansive enough to contain Camille Paglia. You could point out that Paglia revels in being something of a freak, but observe how little being a freak has impeded her ability to be an influential public voice! Not even the undying hatred of feminists everywhere has kept her down.

The Abyss and I probably agree more than my rhetorical clumsiness would lead her to think. The same cannot be said of commenter Marjorie:
I don’t believe in gendered virtues. The things that are virtues in men are also deeply important in women: strength, honesty, responsibility–and maturity. It’s fairly easy to do a gender swap on your list and make it address age-old problems in the behavior and attitudes of some men: Marriage is not an enslavement of a man to a woman’s agenda; fatherhood is not a burden to flee from (I agree with Periphery that parenthood really is a burden, and one that needs to be accepted responsibly); promiscuity is dangerous and ungentlemanlike; women should not be treated as animals or sexual playthings; sex ought not to be an expression of contempt for anyone’s body. These statements take their gendered character from the history of relations between the sexes (men being viewed as rapists is a less important problem than rape; if we’re speaking in terms of ideals, though, the point is that nobody ought to be sexually assaulting anyone). As goals and virtues they apply evenly.
I blogged very early on about whether virtues are universal or whether they fall into certain incompatible bundles, so I'll be incredibly gauche and quote myself, not because I put it especially well but because it's just the easiest thing:
Agee's Night of the Hunter is a lot like his novel A Death in the Family; both deal with what happens when innocence, in the form of a young child, is confronted with absolute evil, in the form of a murderous preacher and the sudden and senseless death of the child's father. Our expectation is that it will harden the child and force him to transition from innocence to experience a little earlier than usual, but in Agee's world children confronted with absolute evil remain innocent. They are able to identify evil, but can neither comprehend it nor become aggressive enough to protect themselves against it. (One of the lessons of Night of the Hunter is that it is the responsibility of old, wise people to protect the innocent who should not have to sacrifice their innocence in order to protect themselves. Never has this looked better than Lillian Gish holding a big shotgun.)

It is a choice to protect one's innocence, and a decision that everyone under a certain age should make, regardless of their circumstances. At the end of the film, young John Harper is asked by the judge to point at the man in the courtroom who tried to kill him. John can't do it, not because it would be contrary to his conscience to finger Robert Mitchum but because it would be contrary to his innocence. Robert Mitchum should be punished, but John shouldn't be the one who does it. This also explains the part of the movie that always puzzled me, which is why John reacts the same way to the police hauling off Mitchum at the end as he does when the police haul off his father at the very beginning.

Innocence is more complicated than not knowing about evil. It's a kind of purity, like chastity — there's something wrong with a world where everybody does it, but for certain people (children under the age of twelve and those with vocations for it) its preservation is worth every sacrifice. It is true that innocence/wisdom is more fluid than masculine/feminine, but that doesn't mean they aren't the same kind of thing.
"I don't know what courage looks like, but I know what Achilles looks like." I can't remember who I cribbed this from (MacIntyre?), but it makes the valuable point that virtues need to be embodied in characters if we're going to learn how to live them. Character relies on type, type relies on coherence, coherence demands coming down on one side or another of various virtue spectra (i.e. justice/mercy). There are no gendered virtues? Are there the virtues appropriate to a patriarch versus those appropriate to a dutiful son? General versus footsoldier? Friend versus brother?

I'll end on an exchange to which I have nothing to add. Commenter "DXL" offers this creed:
1. Marriage is not slavery.
2. Motherhood is not a burden.
3. Modesty is a virtue which does not preclude achievement.
4. Promiscuity is dangerous and unfeminine (see Paris Hilton).
5. Men should not be treated like animals or sexual playthings (see the “hook-up culture”).
6. Men should not be treated like potential rapists (see Catherine Mackinnon).
7. Heterosexual sex is not “a formalized expression of contempt for women’s bodies” (see Andrea Dworkin).
To which the Abyss herself responds very astutely:
Actually, I think (based on observing and reading about new mothers) motherhood is a burden. Perhaps, DXL, item number one should read: people ought to center their lives (or life-choices) on an acceptance of burdens as meaningful rather than terrible.

Bookbag: Richard Sennett

From Conscience of the Eye:
In one way, [Henry James's "The Best in the Jungle"] is a parable simply of a modern fear. One has to wait so long to be in a position to be ready, to know what one is doing, to be strong enough to "really live."

James intended "The Beast in the Jungle" to be a parable; it was to be of the "the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened." This representative man has failed to live, in living a life of inner anguish: "It wouldn't have been failure to be bankrupt, dishonored, pilloried, hanged; it was failure not to be anything." In mourning he discovers why the seeming inner drama of his life has been no life at all... There was a terrible shallowness in his obsession with his inner demons, the beast has bitten his consciousness, his knowledge that he can never regain time delayed. The beast was Marcher's waiting to live.

. . . If indeterminate and illogical, these stories [told in New York bars] were also curiously neutral, the speaker seldom moved by his tale, at least audibly, the voices recounting problems with women or big deal equably, perhaps with poise that polished repetition does give and also perhaps like Marcher driven by the compulsion to tell it once more in order that, by chance, the telling might suddenly reveal the hidden meaning of the tale.

One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.

I spend a non-negligible amount of time pontificating about the nature of art both on-blog and off, so I was delighted to find these two posts. First, from Pop Matters, In Praise of Ugly Shoes:
Fashion and art are now irrevocably intertwined. Gloriously impractical and surprisingly sculptural, ugly shoes may be the new affordable art.

. . . One Prada pump was red velvet, with a pink bow on the toe and a candlestick heel sculpted to look like violet petals; another had the same design but in lilac and chartreuse; another was sewn from wavy panels of multi-colored suede—mint green, purple, yellow—with cut-out panels along the sides.
And this from American Craft, Let Them Eat Cake:
I believe the simple act of making something, anything, with your hands is a quiet political ripple in a world dominated by mass production... and people choosing to make something themselves will turn those small ripples into giant waves.

. . . “I spoke to my mom about it; she’s a Quaker who lives very simply and I really look up to her,” she explains. “I thought she would say yes, you are making things for the elite, but instead she told me it was OK to make money for something I spent a lot of time on. She said it’s not that we shouldn’t have nice things, it’s that we shouldn’t have as many things. I decided I could participate in the model of making things intensely, with consideration, and making things that will last.
Let us leave the gallery and go to the bakery in our Sunday finest!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


"Grvbřdhvnít" is Georgian for "You (pl.) are tearing us apart," a helpful phrase to know in the current situation. It's pronounced as one syllable; no wonder they're all nuts.

Doug Muir has penned a very thoughtful response to my Gamsakhurdia post:
. . . That said, if you weren't a bit funny going into a Soviet psych ward, you had a pretty good chance of being so coming out. And this may have been the case with Gamsakhurdia. Certainly his later career showed signs of... well, "mental instability" covers a lot of ground, but in this case it fits. He was haughty, vindictive, had a genius for alienating potential allies, and never forgot a slight. He was prone to sudden outbursts of paranoid rage, where he'd rant on and on about his many enemies and their plots against him. His judgment was consistently horrible. The boy was just not right.

P.J.: Few political humorists have had so complete a collapse as P.J. O'Rourke. Up until 1990 -- the First Gulf War, to be precise -- he's both insightful and goddamn funny. After that, he very quickly becomes neither. The Gamsakhurdia piece comes early, but the process is already well advanced. Gamsakhurdia's supporters were ordinary Georgians, not because he was a populist, but because he'd rapidly alienated every section of the elite -- Communists, anti-Communists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, regional bosses, you name it. Basically he was left with people dumb or ill-informed enough to think he knew what he was doing.

It's not like Georgia is -- as some commentators have suggested -- some country that's uniquely unstable and hard to govern. Grey old Shevardnadze lasted a decade. Saakashvili is in his fifth year. Even the Menshevik government way back when had three reasonably stable years before the Soviets invaded. So, pissing that many people off that fast didn't happen because it was Georgia. It took a special kind of talent.
For more Muir on breakaway states, see his post on Transnistria. (David II, David III, and Noah: Read it; it's fun with class war.)

Link Love

1. I don't want virtue to exist anywhere.

2. Skilled Trades Seek Workers. "With the shortage of welders, pipe fitters and other high-demand workers likely to get worse as more of them reach retirement age, unions, construction contractors and other businesses are trying to figure out how to attract more young people to those fields. By 2012, demand in fields like welding is expected to exceed supply. Their challenge: overcoming the perception that blue-collar trades offer less status, money and chance for advancement than white-collar jobs, and that college is the best investment for everyone."

3. James Bowman on Dark Knight. "I have heard the convergence of Batman and the Joker compared to that between John Wayne and Lee Marvin in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But Ford was telling us that people want to believe heroism grows out of reason and law and civilization but that it really doesn't. Instead, it is a throwback to the most primitive honor cultures before there were any law or civilization, which are things that cannot be contracted for. The Dark Knight tells us the opposite..."

4. K-Punk on same. ". . . the emphasis on deception in The Dark Knight is one of the themes that connects it with Nolan's previous films, and Batman's climactic act of self-sacrifice is precisely an act of deception. It takes place at the level of signs: what he must give up is his reputation, his good standing in the eyes of the Gotham public. The act of deception doesn't conceal an underlying good act - it is the concealing that is the good act itself."

5. Scott Duguid responds to K-Punk. "Although my appreciation of his rather garlanded Joker (and of the Dark Knight in general) is not unreserved, you're correct to say that the strength of Heath Ledger's performance consists in his playing the mask. What sanctions that, however, for me is the mask's transparency. The misapplied make up is not an extension of the rictus, as with Nicholson's Joker; rather the mismatched smear points us to the face, as do other tell tale signs (splodges of pink flesh under the white, the rather deep ridges of wrinkles). The message is: the face is the mask. And hence no backstory, or, which is to say the same thing, no locatable history of trauma (which again is to say, cause)."

For someone as skeptical of authenticity as I am, the last two were especially interesting.

Two ways in which cigarettes are wonderful

1. Without them, I would have no identity:
Outside these walls, in the open air, many of you may feel certain sense of exposure. The best answer to that is pipes, cigars, and cigarettes which leave a familiar mark upon the void. The wearing of a hat is also helpful: I do not have to remind you of the late Dr Black Planorbis's superb paper on the relation between modern hatlessness and loss of identity. Nigel Dennis, Cards of Identity
2. I Blame the Patriarchy and I finally have something to agree about:
[Here she describes a hellish day.—CSB]

. . . On the way home, with no internal regulating mechanism to prevent it, an imp of the perverse caused my car to turn in at the Bluebonnet quick shop, where I grabbed a roadie* from the handy ice bin and heard myself utter the most beautiful words in the English language: “pack of Marlboro reds, and make it snappy.”

Four-and-a-half packs later, it is Tuesday . . .
Later in the post, she and I agree again! Well, almost:
See, I was going to tie this all together with a big tirade on the bogus notion of health as a moral issue — how people are always yelling at you to quit smoking or quit eating or quit procrastinating when you should be packing or quit doing anything the doing of which is considered a moral failure, ostensibly out of their concern for your health, but in reality because “health,” in accordance with some convoluted Christian doctrine embedded in the cultural subconscious, has become a kind of yardstick by which conformity within the social order is measured, and how shaming people who are insufficiently obsessed with their cholesterol puts these concern trolls in a morally superior position and creates an underclass of “unhealthies” who have brought it on themselves through their blatant ingestion of Cheetos — but I’m too exhausted from all the delicious smoking.
I would put together an Amen corner for this paragraph if only IBTP struck the word "Christian." My impression, as I have said before, is that secular liberals are to blame for the cult of health. They're the ones who don't feel confident getting worked up about any moral conviction more controversial than not dying. (They'd reach for something more controversial than health, but that'd be hard and we might disagree with each other.) Otherwise I'm on board, esp. with the phrases (as deployed) "concern trolls," "morally superior," and "conformity within the social order." IBTP's smokes against conformity, I against modernity. Still, more that unites us...

Abuses of the word "postmodern"

Roderick Long mans the barricades against Charles Krauthammer's assault.

Pronounced like "Graham's Accordian," except not really.

Douglas Muir at Fistful of Euros hates Zviad Gamsakhurdia more than I do. That isn't saying much: I don't hate the first president of post-Soviet Georgia that much, and Muir hates him a lot, although having read the post I'm not sure it's for the right reasons. For instance:
. . . if there’s one man who’s responsible for the current mess in Georgia — more than Saakashvili, more than Putin — it’s Gamsakhurdia.


Because he was a complete jackass.


. . . in terms of sheer damage inflicted upon his hapless country, nobody — not Yeltsin, not Berisha, not even Milosevic — came close to Gamsakhurdia. [Yowza!—CSB]

There’s a whole long backstory about Gamsakhurdia, and if you like you can go and read it. Briefly, he was the son of a very important Georgian family (his father was one of the nation’s great literary figures) who grew up to be an intellectual, anti-Soviet dissident, and fervent Georgian nationalist. As a teenager, he got thrown in a Soviet psychiatric ward for a while; as an adult, he did some time in jail; meanwhile, he built a career as a writer and translator, circulated a lot of samizdata, and feuded viciously with other Georgian intellectuals. There’s a whole book to be written on his early life — it’s a very Soviet story — but suffice it to say that he was in and out of trouble for over thirty years before emerging as leader of independent Georgia.
"In and out of trouble?" Muir is giving us a portrait of Gamsakhurdia as white trash cousin, and it doesn't quite work. The "psychiatric ward" line is especially weak; dissent was a mental disorder in the Soviet Union, remember? And it's not like he was in jail for knocking over a liquor store.

As for being awful for Georgia, I'm not convinced he was awfuller than his equivalent post-Soviet contemporaries (forbidding Georgians from selling food and building materials outside of Georgia is pretty dumb, but I've heard worse) and Muir hasn't convinced me. Nor on G's handling of the South Ossetian question:
An emollient policy towards the minorities might have worked; failing that, there was always the possibility of delaying a confrontation until Georgia’s embryonic military was ready to roll. Certainly it’s hard to imagine a worse policy than Gamsakhurdia’s “we’re revoking your autonomy — suck it up!” without having either the guns or the political clout to make it stick.
Gamsakhurdia's line was less "Suck it up" and more "I am concerned that you are being manipulated by Russia." Maybe his actions drove them deeper into Russia's arms (more folly than wickedness, surely?), but his concern that Russia was using ethnic tensions to destabilize post-Soviet states wasn't entirely batty. Also, his government only revoked South Ossetia's autonomy after the South Ossetian regional government declared its intention to secede, which is an important difference between Gamsakhurdia's overreaching and Saakashvili's.

Then Muir hits the kicker: the 1991 coup:
Gamsakhurdia then mismanaged things so badly in Georgia itself that within a year he’d been ousted in a coup.
Er, sort of. Muir admits that it wasn't the Georgians but "a disaffected coalition of Georgia’s elites" that ousted ZG—the fact that the pro-Gamsakhurdians were mostly peasants and factory workers and the anti-Gamsakhurdians were educated elites is an interesting angle to take on the situation—and the examples of "mismanagement" they mustered were hardly egregious (see below).

Would you judge me if I quoted P. J. O'Rourke?:
The Gamsakhurdia supporters . . . were the same kind of poor, benighted slobs who supported Noriega in Panama, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines and Nixon during Watergate. They were mindlessly patriotic and full of ignorance and prejudices. The [anti-Gamsakhurdia] people at the TV station were much more like us. They really cared about human rights and social justice. They were hip. They were smart. And they were wrong. The president had been duly elected. He hadn't done anything terribly unconstitutional. In fact, by the standards of the Soviet Union, he hadn't done anything worth mentioning. When, at the TV station, I'd interviewed Nodar Notadze, leader of the anti-Gamsakhurdia opposition in the Georgian Parliament, Notadze had said, "There is no legal ground to demand his resignation, but there is moral ground."
Not up to our standards, maybe, but the very bottom of the post-Soviet barrel?

Follow-up on "happiness libertarianism" and poverty

It was a tough pitch to hit, but Nick connects:
UM: Helen:

"Suffering is either meaningful or not, either redemptive or simply unpleasant."

Helen, three paragraphs later:

"Alleviating poverty is a kind of anti-suffering policy I can get on board with; not all suffering is sacrificial/redemptive/awesome."

Which leads, I think, to the conclusion that poverty is unpleasant? Surely it's more than that, and the fact that it is motivates much thinking on social and global justice. Once one drops below a particular threshold, poverty becomes a combination of pernicious and preventable.* Thus the attitude "that the only way they can think to respond to suffering is to want it stopped as soon as possible" is a polemical and theoretical response to the fact that most people are happy to do nothing.
Poverty is more than something unpleasant, but not only in the way Nick means. To the extent that it is both systematic and unfair, it is more ethically problematic than something like a hurricane and we should pay special attention to the ways it can be softened. On the other hand, my suspicion is that for every person who doesn't give a damn about the poor there's at least one person who cares a lot but has political objections to various welfare policies, so the "rhetorical strategy" line doesn't strike me as very sticky.* (This says as much about me as it says about the argument, though, so take that for what it's worth.)

But while we're talking about poverty being more than a thing that makes ya go Ouch, there's also poverty as spiritual mortification, poverty as penance, poverty as ascetic discipline, and poverty as glory to God.

I don't want to overstate poverty's spiritual perks--I mean it; I really don't--but if "Poverty builds character" is one unattractive end of the spectrum, an equally unattractive extreme looks like convincing people that their station in life is something they should resent rather than find joy in.

Poverty is one instance where I'm not super-worried about this externally inflicted unhappiness since most of the unhappiness seems built into the whole poverty concept, but the bottom line is that I can't stand to see anyone talked into feeling bitter and unhappy. (Why do you think I hate feminists so much?) I worry that, by never talking about sacrifice's positive aspects, we've ended up doing just that for a lot of people who might otherwise be able to find a lot of fulfillment in taking care of a sick relative. Or being put through the humiliation of asking a neighbor for money. Or the heroism of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. Or [whatever].

*Remember Burke's insistence that "if it should come to the last part is taken: I would take my fate with the poor and low and feeble." Eve has said similar things about "viewing political questions from the vantage point of the needy, the oppressed, the unwanted, and the poor." I agree with them. So there.

Autobiographical note

If anyone is wondering why posting has been so sinusoidal around here, the explanation is that, after four years, I finally left New Haven last weekend. I don't want this content-less post showing up on anyone's Google search, so I'll thank everyone pseudonymously: the Delegate; the Anarchist; Post-Attractive Dan; Ms. Raoul Duke; the girl who, ironically, called that Black Kids song "so anthemic!" the first time I played it for her; her future roommate; my freshman year roommate who looks like Mischa Barton and talks like Diane Keaton in Manhattan; and Will. Also the two professors who mattered, the Talmudist and the Senior Essay Advisor. You all made it hard to pack up and leave Gun-Wavin' New Haven.

I'm home in North Carolina for a couple weeks with nothing to do but catch up on reading and writing; hence blog overload. (This also means that if you want me to write something for money, now is a good time to ask...)

Monday, August 18, 2008

If you can't say something nice about a Cambridge don...

I don't have much nice to say about Michael Oakeshott, but here's one: he gets Hobbes:
Man, as Hobbes sees him, is not engaged in an undignified scramble for suburban pleasures; there is the greatness of great passion in his constitution.
More importantly, he gets the ways in which Hobbes is liberal:
It is Reason, not Authority, that is destructive of individuality... Hobbes is not an absolutist precisely because he is an authoritarian. His skepticism about the power of reasoning...together with the rest of his individualism, separate him from the rationalist dictators of his or any age.
Still, this falls something short of intellectual redemption.

Unlike John and Ross, I am not surprised that Andrew Sullivan has an extreme take on secularism, because the man did his thesis on Oakeshott who rejected not just religious ideas in politics but all ideas in politics. To quote from "On Being Conservative":
. . . to state my view briefly before elaborating it, what makes a conservative disposition in politics intelligible is nothing to do with a natural law or a providential order, nothing to do with morals or religion; it is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief (which from our point of view need be regarded as no more than an hypothesis) that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration.
The phrase Oakeshott uses to describe liberal democracy is "a living method of social integration"--a pretty weasely way to get out of talking about ideas if you ask me. I'm sure Sullivan would equally reject deeply help, non-justifiable, non-religious beliefs as illegitimate.

"Bush's third term" is the new Daisy ad?

Like Demophilus, I found McCain far from crazy in his Saddleback appearance. His response on Georgia name-checked "territorial integrity," but it didn't leave me with the impression that he would have bombed the joint.

Leon Hadar isn't sure whether the Georgian crisis will shake out in Obama's favor or McCain's. Not sure why; it seems like an obvious win for McCain. In fact, it's reasonable to imagine that the McCain campaign's aggressive response to what they were determined to make a "three AM moment" was entirely political. They saw a chance to put some teeth into their Obama's-not-ready-to-lead line, and so slapped down Obama's even-handedness more than the differences between candidates' positions warranted. This doesn't mean there's no cause to worry that McCain will be irresponsible on foreign policy, but certainly less.

I fight with Will Wilkinson, Freddie fights with George F. Will, and James Poulos fights with himself.

I always knew that there existed somewhere in the universe the perfect response to James's searching post on suffering and politics, which began with this challenge from Freddie de l'Hôte:
What men like Will never seem to understand, of course, is that people want change-- and not just gradual change but great, earth-shaking change, revolution and revolt--because they are suffering, and only change can end their suffering. For some people the status quo just can't continue. Only radical, life-altering change can end their suffering.

Now that doesn't mean we should always try to give it to them. Far from it. It doesn't mean that the plight of the suffering is society's only concern, though, yes, I find the elimination of suffering an absolute moral responsibility of a free and just society. There are always countervailing forces and other people with their own desires and needs.

But I grow increasingly tired of men like George Will pretending that some of us call for change just for change's sake. I am weary of the conservative principle of denying the suffering of the poor, or the oppressed. Advocate for limited change if that's what your conscience and your intellect tell you is appropriate. But stop ignoring the fact that the desire for change comes from genuine emotional and physical distress.
James, then:
. . . the George Wills of the world persist in coming along and reminding us, as did Jesus and Nietzsche, that there is no earthly elimination of suffering, there is no way even to come close; that the best of us, the highest, may indeed be the ones who suffer most of all -- God or no God. This is the repugnant paradox that so outrages enemies of suffering and enthusiasts of proactive, coercive change toward solidarity. Freddie's first paragraph is absolutely spot-on. His third paragraph, almost so: Freddie may be right that some conservatives deny the suffering of the poor--who, the argument runs, suffer for no meaningful other reason than that they are the poor--but really he has to do battle against conservatives who openly acknowledge suffering but deny that they face any kind of moral obligation, much less an absolute one, to take proactive, especially coercive, action to do whatever it takes to eliminate it wherever it is found. This is about much more than D'Souza's allegation of loserdom. A certain strain of suffering-tolerant, suffering-accepting (paleo)conservatives are more than happy to be 'losers' in the capitalist-darwinian sense, and this is why they drive Wilkinsonian libertarians to distraction.
I will pass over his astute remarks on friendship and Machiavelli elsewhere in the post, and say that, in the paragraph quoted above, James elides the differences among the various conservative responses to suffering, which have very little in common except a tendency to drive Will Wilkinson batty.

One is simply Burkeanism served neat: Yes, people are suffering, but change (or at least revolutionary change) is certain to produce more suffering through disruption, unfamiliarity, and unintended consequences. Another, which could be called domestic isolationism, says that people are suffering but it would be presumptuous to assume responsibility for its alleviation; ought implies can.

There is a third that I like far better, which is to say at all; this is where the mythical Perfect Response comes in, courtesy of the man himself:
One fascinating study as yet unwritten would compare, in the tradition of Western political philosophy, those whose new political sciences created political creeds through the idealized vehicle of the suffering sovereign -- the earthly cognate of Christ as suffering servant -- with those who saw political creeds as needless because the purpose of politics was to reveal and institutionalize the needlessness of human suffering.
Suffering is either meaningful or not, either redemptive or simply unpleasant. Either Virginia Postrel is right that "the only sort of character suffering builds is the ability to suffer" or Isaiah is right that by His stripes we are healed. If James and Freddie's back-and-forth proves anything, it's that every political theory has to come down on one side of this question or the other.

The second Poulos quote comes from a post about Lincoln, the upshot of which is that Lincoln put a face on the suffering sovereign who, like Machiavelli's prince, bears second-hand griefs for the sake of the greater good; he suffers so his people don't have to. I can think of three immediate responses to this theory. First, I'm not sure that a nation's suffering can be so cleanly delegated. Second, there are probably interesting things to be said about the way suffering sovereignty works in a democracy, at least one of which would be to explain the way that leadership and democracy can become compatible when the people bear suffering, which is properly the burden of leadership. Third, the whole idea of the suffering sovereign depends upon a belief that pain has its benefits and the correct response to suffering is not always to lunge immediately for the means to alleviate it (WWALD?). In other words, once we accept that happiness is not the highest good for our leaders, it would be weird to declare it the highest good for everybody else.

"To reveal and institutionalize the needlessness of human suffering" is a nice nutshell insofar as it makes obvious the point that surely we can think of a better way to define politics than that. Are we sure that suffering is needless? Never mind whether we believe in a tragic universe; do we believe in tragedy? Sublimity? At all, ever?

Let me put it in more concrete terms. Alleviating poverty is a kind of anti-suffering policy I can get on board with; not all suffering is sacrificial/redemptive/awesome. An example of one I like far less would be social security and other kinds of government care (i.e. for the disabled). Taking care of one's parents in their old age or a disabled child in his infirmity is a tough gig that demands sacrifice, but one that many people have been happy to bear because they loved who they were caring for. For government to convince people that such care is burdensome under the cover of instituting programs to alleviate that burden is for government to negate the idea that sacrifice is ever necessary. Decades of this kind of politics has yielded a generation of Americans who believe just that (see, once again, Will Wilkinson). (I may have been drinking from the keg of hatred earlier...)

To end, appropriately enough, with Lincoln:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'.
If we take this passage to heart, we may come to realize that the problem with changeniks is not that they want change for change's sake (Freddie's right about that, at least), but that the only way they can think to respond to suffering is to want it stopped as soon as possible. If Freddie can't realize that there are more ways to reject that attitude than simply "You're suffering and I don't care," then I'm not sure what's left to say.