Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bookbag: On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship

Nancy Rosenblum has my back when it comes to seeing a link between partisanship and humility:
I advocate for the moral distinctiveness of partisanship and propose reasons to elevate partisanship over its nemesis, the much vaunted pose of "Independence." Partisanship is the only political identity that does not see pluralism and political conflict as a bow to necessity, a pragmatic recognition of the inevitability of disagreement. It demands severe self-discipline to acknowledge that my party's status is just one part in a permanently pluralist politics, and hence the provisional nature of being the governing party and the charade of pretending to represent the whole.
For more on On the Side of the Angels, see Jacob Levy's ongoing symposium.

Citizenship is a Kind of Romance (But Your Crush on Obama is Still Lame)

For having compared politics and family, I stand in danger of being called lovey-dovey (i.e. comment #6), a paternalist (i.e. "Daddy State, save me from myself!"), an absolutist (i.e. "Spare the rod, spoil the citizen"), or else a credulous hero-worshipper (i.e. "President Bush was like a father to me"). A gallery of ghouls, each more horrible than the last!

Rather than any of those philosophical monstrosities, my politics-as-family metaphor was just that: a metaphor, one that can take us refreshing places, especially when applied not to the whole state but to the good kind of partisanship. But, in a perfect world, our stockpile of metaphors for democracy would make a heap, so, to that end, let me add another: the gothic romance, as defined by Bonnie Honig (quotations from Tania Modleski's Loving with a Vengeance):
"In the typical Gothic plot, the heroine comes to a mysterious house, perhaps as a bride, perhaps in antoher capacity, and either starts to mistrust her husband or else finds herself in love with a mysterious man who appears to be some kind of criminal." While Harlequin romances trace the transformation of the young heroine's feelings for the hero from fear into love, in gothics the heroine is older and "the transformation is from love into fear." In short, Harlequins are preoccupied with "getting a man" but "in Gothics the concern is with understanding the relationship and the feelings involved once the union has been formed."
I suppose I can't assume it's uncontroversial to think of citizenship as any kind of romance, so, if I can justify that leap retroactively: In order to have any kind of relationship with his country, a man has to be able to put himself in the middle of some kind of story about it, and stories come in genres. The question, then, is which set of genre expectations we ought to bring to the story of America. Honig again:
Most theorists . . . read democratic theory according to the genre conventions of a popular or modern romance, as a happy-ending love story. (Indeed, some explicitly invoke marriage—happy marriage—as a key metaphor for social contract or social unity.) From their perspective, the problem of democratic theory is how to find the right match between a people and its law, a state and its institutions. Obstacles are met and overcome, eventually the right match is made and the newly wed couple is sent on its way to try to live happily ever after.
Which leaves us at the final shot of The Graduate.
But what genre best fits a work of political thought in which a people with a great deal in common decide to share the burdens and pleasures of a life together only to find that they have cast in their lot with a bunch of untrustworthy strangers?
So citizenship is like a marriage—we have to figure out how to live together, both because we find ourselves in the same house and, ideally, because our institutional attachment is mingled with some kind of emotional one—but is it a happy one? Well, were they happy in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

If you'd rather our American marriage didn't look like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's, Honig has a less enthusiastically self-destructive answer. This is the best quote in the whole damn book, especially the second parenthetical:
Gothic readers know that we may passionately support certain heroes (or principles or institutions) in political life while also knowing that we ought not take our eyes off them for fear of what they might do to us if we did. They know that one can be passionately attached to something—a nation, a people, a principle—and be deeply and justifiably (and even therefore!) afraid of it at the same time.
Heathcliff, it's me, Cathy. I've come home.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bookbag: A Modern Maistre

Owen Bradley (as seen on this blog):
It is necessary to remark, however, a certain pride in failure on the part of the counterrevolution: not simply a disdain verging on disgust toward events in Paris, but a pride in not being understood as the trait of a superior sensibility.
However, Maistre was only sometimes a disdainfulcon, unlike Oakeshott, who we know was one all the time.

The Dogmatism that Can Be Spoken is Not the True Dogmatism

E. D. Kain is talking trash about my kind of conservatism:
An important thing to note when discussing various forms of conservatism is the difference, often-overlooked, between social and cultural conservatism; or perhaps better phrased, religious or fundamentalist conservatism vs. Civilization Conservativism . . .

One thing that defines cultural or civilization conservatives, and I consider myself to be one, is the ability to view the historical evolution of one’s society through the prism of change, as every cultural conservative is cognizant that for better or worse, however slowly, change has come and will continue to do so. No tradition has existed for ever. They are built on the bones of other traditions, recycled from the scrap heaps of ancient practices long forgotten; sometimes eroded, sometimes made more resilient by time. Often cultural conservatives are also religious, and consider religion to be an integral part of their civilization, but do not necessarily frame their political worldview on a vision of religious infallibility, recognizing along with the gradual changes in culture, also the gradual changes in religious outlook. Essentially, to be truly culturally conservative, one must be able to utilize history as a frame of reference.

To be a religious or fundamentalist conservative, one need only have a dogmatic approach to their particular religion. History, science, philosophy, modernity—all fall by the wayside.
There's no point in being a postmodern conservative if you can't say nice things about unpopular ideas, so I'd like to put in a good word for fundamentalist conservatism. This doesn't mean I have anything against "Civilization Conservatism." Quite the opposite; I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with it. "Take the long view, remember what your father taught you, and always pay attention to a good idea whether it's a hundred years old or brand new!" This is not the stuff counterrevolutions are made of.

Kain is wrong about dogmatism not so much in the summary he gives as in the picture he paints: the strict Christian who has no interest in testing his ideas against history, science, or logic—the very face of supreme arrogance. As I told you on this chord once before, the bloggers and thinkers I know who fit Kain's description of "religious or fundamentalist conservatism" tend to be the most humble.

The reason, I think, is this: Rather than regard tradition as simply a data point (i.e. helpful evidence of what works and what doesn't), the ideological conservative is willing to subordinate his own judgment to his tradition's. He may not understand why contraception is bad, but he trusts the Catholic Church more than he trusts himself. Left to his own devices, he might be satisfied with a mild and pleasant existence full of a nice family and entertaining diversions; however, his tradition demands something more than happiness (i.e. self-reliance, virtue, salvation). This humility before the past tends to get a man into the habit of considering the possibility that what he believes (or desires) is wrong, which makes him a good guy to have an argument with. Better, certainly, than the "Civilization Conservative," who has the arrogance to measure the past by whatever yardstick he feels like.

If Kain wants to argue that hard-core traditionalists are unimaginative, I'd say that it depends. A man who picks his traditions based entirely on what's been handed to him—the "because my father and grandfather did it" justification—certainly lacks imagination. However, speaking as a convert, I know that picking a tradition is sometimes a matter of falling in love, which is the opposite of intellectual laziness. Concrete traditions make an institution more like a person (i.e. concrete characteristics give it a personality), which is to say they turn it into something you can have a relationship with, something you can love—unlike an idea or a set of rules. See how rigid dogmatism flies out the window when you're dealing with this kind of conservative?

To offer a counter-definition to Kain's: A "fundamentalist conservative" is someone who has sworn fealty to a tradition, not because her judgment has led her to believe that it is a generally reliable one, but in response to some glimpse of beauty (or sublimity!) in it. This fealty supersedes her private opinions and judgments, and thank God for that; deliver me from the prison of my own subjectivity! This is not meant to be a comprehensive argument for my version of conservatism (which I will, after this post, never again refer to as "fundamentalist"); all I mean to point out is that, if a curious and adventurous humility is the cardinal virtue of philosophical argument, then E. D. Kain may discover it among the people who, apparently, he least expects to have it.

Brief Encounter and Adultery's Failure to Make Sense

Eve Tushnet has this to say about David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945):
The lead actress, Celia Johnson, is pretty excellent, although to be honest all she's asked to do is stare at the camera with a look of repressed misery. But I loved her huge-eyed, oddly lumpy and jawy face. She looked raw.

None of the other actors struck me at all, though the final scene was very poignant.

My main problem, watching the movie, I think was a culture-clash problem. I was strongly reminded of the Chris Ware line from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth
But with the inevitable forward march of progress
come new ways of hiding things,
and new things to hide.
Because we lie to ourselves differently now, it was easy to feel that the narrator of Brief Encounter was being willful and stupid to a degree and in a way which I found totally unsympathetic. Her self-deception tricks felt alien to me, and so it was hard to feel like I was implicated in her actions.
Eve is right that adultery depends upon self-deception of one kind or another; my question, then, is: what is the truth behind the self-deception?

Let's ask the director, in the person of his representative Anthony Lane:
[David] Lean was one of two sons born to Quaker parents of Cornish stock. His father, Francis (better known as Frank), was an absurdly handsome accountant, unlikely though it sounds. David’s mother, Helena, came from a family of “artists, inventors, and engineers,” as he later described them to Kevin Brownlow, whose 1996 biography remains the best and most exhaustive account we have. Lean himself described his mother as “sweet and very pretty,” although Brownlow spoke to two of his cousins, who claimed that their aunt Helena had been a woman of fury: “She had such an awful temper, it’s no wonder Frank couldn’t live with her.”

The couple split apart; Frank fell in love with somebody else, and David, then fifteen, was left with his mother to pick up the pieces. The angry wife had dwindled into a weeper: “She used to spend her time crying and to this day I cannot abide tears. If my wife starts to cry, I say, ‘Stop crying!’ in a brutal way, because it reminds me of my mother. I spent my life with tears.”
We're dealing with the product of a broken home, which means that Lean can be relied upon to understand that, sometimes, the opposite of divorce is adultery. On the other hand, we have a man who "cannot abide tears," which means that for him an affair, if it is to save a marriage, must be undertaken in a spirit of calculating pragmatism in order to preserve everyone's dry-eyed emotional discipline. If the affair turns into an adventure in boundless passion, we're back to tears again; more unbridled emotion, more women who can't stop weeping.

And that's the paradox of adultery as Lean imagines it: Affairs are only good if we're sensible about them, but, if we were entirely sensible, we would realize the folly of having affairs at all. Brief Encounter is an anti-cheating manifesto, not because of any deontological rule against cheating, but because Lean doesn't think that adultery makes sense. (Divorce, on the other hand . . .)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Compare and Contrast: Oscar Wilde and Michael Oakeshott

Renato Poggioli's theory of "decadence"—in the 19th-century literary sense—is the compare (translated from the Italian, so forgive anything that hits your ear at a funny angle):
The very notion of decadence, at least its modern version, is practically inconceivable without the psychological compulsion to become the passive accomplice of and willing victim of the barbarian... When the hour of decision comes, he [the decadent] discovers all too late that history has reverted to nature; and that the barbarian, being nature's child, is now becoming history's agent.

At this point the decadent recognizes that he is left no alternative but to play a passive, and yet theatrical, role on history's stage. That role is that of scapegoat or sacrificial victim; and it is by accepting that part, and acting it well, that he seals in blood the strange brotherhood of decadence and barbarism.
And Stefan Collini's put-down of Oakeshott the contrast:
I think the appeal of Oakeshott has often been an appeal to a kind of political snobbery, an appeal to those who aren't faced with making day-to-day decisions. It's an appeal more to those who like to present themselves as having a longer perspective, who are always somehow the voices of true conservatism which any example of everyday, existing conservatism falls short of.
When Andrew Sullivan bothers me, it is because he falls into that Oakeshottian trap.

UPDATE: An explanation of the post's title— Conservatives tend to find something aesthetically attractive about over-refined and well-dressed sophisticates, but our enthusiasm for decadence, dandyism, and mannerism might be coming from the same place as Oakeshottian withdrawal from politics. I'm all for aristocratic temperaments, but let's make sure ours is the deep superiority of Wilde and not the shallow, can't-be-bothered, dare I say lazy superiority of Oakeshott.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Wanna Live Like Common Law People, I Wanna Do Whatever Common Law People Do

Nick writes:
MAYBE 1000 YEARS AGO. NOW, NOT SO MUCH. Helen, quoting:
Once a practice was established it could be considered a custom, and a custom, steadily exercised, was nearly as good as a right in law. The process was, however, nearly imperceptible under ordinary circumstances so as not to provoke an open confrontation.
Several qualifications are in order:

1. "Nearly as good" does a lot of work. Custom, in international law and elsewhere, is frequently a source of law co-eval with statute (assuming, for argument's sake, that we're thinking of the minority of the world that follows a common law, rather than civil law, system; this is also no longer true in most common law countries, and hasn't been for some time), but even amongst custom's strongest defenders, it is generally admitted that statutes abrogate customs more quickly and more fully than customs abrogate statutes.

2. It's nearly imperceptible unless one derogates from the custom, which happens all the time.

3. Not sure what she's quoting, but it may be reading custom as usus. So far as I'm aware, no one thinks this: either opinio juris matters just as much as usus, or one follows Blackstone et al in establishing conditions for a custom to be considered valid and binding.
If I can put up some fight against one of Nick's objections—"even amongst custom's strongest defenders, it is generally admitted that statutes abrogate customs more quickly and more fully than customs abrogate statutes"—I'll point out that the advantage of custom over legislation is that custom can be changed even by those who lack political power. Nick's right to note that it's slower and less reliable than open revolution, and he isn't the first to do so. I think it was Michel de Certeau who compared successful subversion to a winning poker hand. Or maybe it was Kenny Rogers. In any case, picking the right moment, as the original Scott quote proposes, necessarily means waiting for the perfect opportunity to arise.

As for which force is stronger, law or custom, I'm not sure either side has a conclusive case. It takes a lot of political capital to overturn a custom that has become thoroughly entrenched, and, when a custom becomes prevalent enough, it can make accompanying legislative reforms inevitable. Or seem inevitable, which is just as good if what you need are the votes of people who don't care one way or another about an issue but want to side with the winning team.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!

Ages ago, I wrote that "subversion is better than revolution, always." There are plenty of good reasons to qualify that claim: Nimble-minded tricksters are certainly more appealing than grabby protesters, many of whom are hippies, but it's hard to imagine how an oppressed group can use underhanded mischief to bring about structural change; subversive tricks won't alter the status quo, just make it easier to cope with.

Luckily, James C. Scott offers a picture of how subversion might (eventually!) translate into something like revolution:
Once a practice was established it could be considered a custom, and a custom, steadily exercised, was nearly as good as a right in law. The process was, however, nearly imperceptible under ordinary circumstances so as not to provoke an open confrontation. For example, villagers might secretly girdle the bark of trees just below ground level and then, when the tree inevitably died, openly take the dead tree, to which they were entitled. Alternatively, they might conceal green boughs in the center of a bundle of dead wood. Gradually, they might, if not checked, increase the proportion of green wood till it made up most of the load. This incremental process might accelerate precipitously whenever forest enforcement was lax, as those who had held back now rushed in to take the wood, game, pasturage, and peat to which they all along thought they had a right.
The chant in this post's title was conceived as satire, but, for once, I mean it.

UPDATE: That quote is from Domination and the Arts of Resistance.

"How to Serve Man" isn't a cookbook when you're a trained monkey butler!

Remember the nightmare in which our transhumanist overlords get gene-happy and engineer a slave race of idiot-men to do our master-racy bidding? Well, we can all set those anxieties aside, assuming universal assent to this basic intuition: Trained monkey butlers are better than human ones.

One more theological problem solved.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bookbag: British Factory, Japanese Factory by Ronald Dore

A Richard Sennett favorite, as the footnotes to Authority reveal.
The importance attached to educational qualifications in recruitment has for a long time been greater at Japanese factories than at English ones. However, English Electric is becoming more like Hitachi in this respect. The change in Britain is due not only to the greater complexity of engineering and managerial technology, but also and more importantly, because there is now thought to be, thanks to the rising level of living and of parents educational aspirations for their children, a much tighter correlation between level of schooling and innate potential; the level of terminal education is seen as a much more certain indicator of ability than it was before the war when many bright working class children had no chance of a grammar school education.
No more searching for diamonds in the working-class rough? Boo, hiss.

Lawrence Lessig, James Agee, and Obsolete Telegraph Operators

I was one of the poor souls at the Lolita Bar Debate on "Is Intellectual Property Theft?" who sided with the vote-losing open-source pro-piracy types (no surprise to CSB regulars), which makes me all the more disappointed that Lawrence Lessig has joined the devil's party in opposing all graft, rather than simply opposing the bad kind:
Trust is at the center of those institutions, in the sense that if you want people to listen to you when you tell them that they should vaccinate their children against malaria, people need to trust that when you say the vaccines are safe, they are safe.

If you don't have that trust in society, what happens is that people don't vaccinate their kids against malaria, and malaria starts to take off, and as it takes off there are devastating consequences for the population. Trust is at the center of that relationship. The question is how we build trust.
"The question is how we build trust." Indeed it is. If machine politics teaches us anything, it is that personal politics does so while bureaucracy simply breeds suspicion.

I've thrown up this James Agee quote on CSB before, but it bears repeating:
The Postman Always Rings Twice is also interesting as the third current movie — the others are From This Day Forward and Deadline at Dawnwhich represents the Law as an invincible and terrifying force before which mere victims, whether innocent or guilty, can only stand helpless and aghast.
When the law is impersonal, it necessarily becomes Agee's vast, inscrutable edifice. How could such an image fail to result in mistrust?

I have some sympathy for the position that suspicion of government is a good thing, but consider this quote from Ronald Dore's British Factory, Japanese Factory, which illustrates why a relationship of trust between management and labor is better than a culture of opposition:
Inability to declare redundancies hardly inhibits Hitachi's technological flexibility, whereas English Electric often was so inhibited because union strength made managers scared to resort to the redundancy dismissal solution they were accustomed to—and retraining, if it were considered as an alternative, would be severely hampered by union craft rules.
To unpack that tangled excerpt (which would make more sense if you'd read the whole book): In Japan, it is taken as a given that neither management nor labor wants to lay off workers; this allows management to do what it needs to do in order to keep "obsolete" workers on, including retraining workers or reassigning them to different factories, as a soldier might be reassigned to a different base. In England, however, the unions regard it as their job to hamper management's flexibility; this has the intended consequence of making it harder to fire workers, but it also makes it harder for dead-weight workers to be deployed productively.

A fascinatingly weird post

Watch in delight as Fastlad gets his Ibsen on.

"Conservatism for Punks" for Punks

Todd Seavey has pointed out that he and I like punk rock for entirely opposite reasons—Todd because it's individualistic, me because it's "rule-bound and tribalistic." In other words, it's fifteen rounds of punk libertarianism vs. punk traditionalism.

To understand why I am so quick to read conservatism into punk rock, take a quick look at this story of someone of "falling in love with Punk Rock," which came to me third-hand:
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."
"Rigid rules which allowed for great expression"; "an overwhelming ethic"; "high expectations": about as trad as one can be short of hauling out the Pope.

I like that punk is torn between strict enforcement of its own rules on one hand and knee-jerk opposition to rules at all on the other; it's a helpful tension, and Todd seems to agree. However, I don't think his understanding of the punk coin's traditional side is quite right:
. . . the means of squaring the circle here (or scrawling a sloppy “A” in the circle, if you will), for political purposes, is to recognize that we should appreciate both the comfort people find from immersion in densely rule-bound communities and their freedom to leave such communities, the latter facilitated by not turning such communities’ particular rules into actual laws enforced by cops.
Todd can make me acknowledge the fact that some people "find comfort" in tradition, but he can't make me like it. If your traditionalism makes you comfortable, you're doing it wrong.

I'm sure it's psychologically soothing to behold a vast sea of bobbing mohawks and know that you belong, but the traditions of punk get a lot less comforting when you go beyond the dress code. The kind of person drawn to punk is probably pretty tough, but the punk ethos demands they be tougher. They probably have the beginnings of self-discipline, but the tradition demands that they have more. They're probably independent-minded, but the tradition demands that they sacrifice their last remaining attachments to conventional respectability. Punk, like all traditions, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

But what do I know? I'm listening to Steely Dan right now. (James is wrong, by the way. Jose Cuervo, you are a friend of mine.)

IMPORTANT BONUS: Todd's instinct is to weaken the social pressures that keep people within their traditions and communities, but, given his conservative disposition, he's happiest when people make the choice to "stay on the farm." My instinct is just the opposite: I think that traditional communities should exert considerable pressure on their inhabitants, but I'm secretly delighted when the occasional exception lights out for the big city (i.e. heads to Brooklyn to become a writer). Does this shed any light on our respective readings of punk rock, and which of us is right? For the record, Florence King agrees with me. A Southern family may worry that Mary Lou will "go hog wild" once she heads north, but eventually:
. . . if she stays in New York long enough, the family will decide that she is an eccentric, which is the nicest thing any Southern family can say about one of their own.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Wilde Defamed Yet Again

Oscar Wilde's sex life is up for public debate again, this time over the question of whether it is appropriate to call him a child molester. The relevant question is the age of Alfonso Conway, which sounds as if it should be eminently verifiable, and, indeed, it seems that British journalists have put it at fourteen. But Barbara Hewson disputes:
It’s interesting that barrister Edward Carson, who cross-examined Wilde mercilessly when the playwright prosecuted the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel, made no mention of Conway’s age, though he did dwell on the cigarette case and elaborate walking stick, which Wilde had given Conway. These are not things one gives to children, incidentally.
Wilde also gave Conway a copy of Treasure Island, which is not a thing one gives to an adult, "incidentally." It is also interesting to note that, during Carson's examination, Wilde twice mentioned that Conway had been a good friend not only to Wilde himself but also to his two sons, neither of whom was older than ten at the time Conway would have met them. Hewson continues:
Douglas . . . mentioned that he had noticed an ‘astounding’ male courtesan in the town: ‘about nineteen, just Oscar’s style.’ This shows that Wilde preferred older teens (who perhaps made better conversationalists), whilst Douglas preferred younger boys.
It seems from the historical record that, Edward Shelley aside, Wilde's taste in boys ran contrary to his other affinities. He preferred living Greek sculptures, Beauty being higher than Genius; conversation did not enter into it.

Still, Hewson is quite right that the present kerfuffle about "child molestation" is overblown, as can be seen from the statements of the town historian who set the matter off:
Chris Hare, a respected historian and former university lecturer, has just published Worthing, a History: Riots and Respectability in a Seaside Town. In it he points out that Wilde, a homosexual man married with children, had a documented taste for seducing teenage boys. At least one of his victims, a 14-year-old newspaper delivery boy named Alphonso, had to flee Worthing when the scandal of his relationship with Wilde became public knowledge.

"This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education—I don't think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible," said Hare.
To say that Wilde preyed on them is wide of the mark. He preferred lower-class lovers on the innocent side of twenty-five, but so did many gay Victorians. Those inclined to blame Plato may do so. Perhaps we should all go read (or watch) Maurice again, and let sleeping dogs lie with whomever they please.

Beyond the Mob Aesthetic: The Practical Virtues of Machine Politics

Reform in New York, like reform before it, has favored greater mass participation, but in terms of many unconnected individuals, each having no power of any importance. "Participation," either as taking part in insurgency or having an institutionalized share of authoritative decision making, may thus be a mechanism for reducing autonomy as easily as one for engendering it. Reform movements have frequently "liberated" the poor from machines, leaving them with less power than before. —THOMAS BLAU, THE END OF COMMUNITY ACTION
It's lucky that I was deeply and completely understood by another human being early in life; the experience, I am sure, saved me from years of ill-conceived romantic entanglements and confessional Twittering. If you are wondering who he was and what he understood, it was my friend David at the moment he said, "So, basically, your political beliefs are determined by which faction you think has better music." Take this as my way of confessing that my abiding love for urban machine politics is in part attributable to an aesthetic affinity for brawlers, bad asses, and boot-strappers.

But only in part. I am preparing to give my copy of Patrick Moynihan's Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding to a fellow urbanist—merry Christmas, Noah—and, in the course of copying down underlined passages into the Bookbag Binder, I found the following:
What more conclusive evidence of evil could be adduced against a local political leader during the 1950's, the more so if he were Italian, say, and had taken to wearing expensive clothes, than to charge that he was a "Boss"—that is, that he had power!

. . . In the summer of 1968, the City of New York, with the assistance of a Yale summer intern and the fullest cooperation, as it were, of the New York Times, launched a monster registration campaign in the poorer areas of the City. Had a Tammany Mayor undertaken to spend public funds for such a purpose the Times might have seen the matter differently.
And especially:
It may be that the poor are never "ready" to assume power in an advanced society: the exercise of power in an effective manner is an ability acquired through apprenticeship and seasoning. Thrust on an individual or group, the results are often painful to observe, and when what in fact is conveyed is not power, but a kind of playacting at power, the results can be absurd.
Term limits, goo-gooism, and other reform-minded follies destroy the political capital of the poor in the guise of trying to save it, as the above Blau quote points out. I may be upset with machine dismantlers for canceling a good soap opera mid-season, but there are real reasons to regard their efforts with suspicion. It is tempting to think of government—especially at the local level—as a matter of administration, not politics, but this fallacy is a luxury that only the middle class can afford. For everything else, there's TammanyCard.

The Finest Neuhaus Tribute I've Read

From the Fallen Sparrow:
As I was leaving the church, I stopped to greet the numerous members of the Sisters of Life, who have been good friends of the Notre Dame Choir over the years, and whose infectious cheer never fails to brighten my spirits even on an occasion such as this. One of them asked me, "Did you know Father Neuhaus?"

"No, I didn't, but I hope to meet him someday."

Bookbag: Moynihan on the Virtue of Political Loyalty

Daniel Patrick Moynihan discusses behind-the-scenes wrangling over LBJ's Economic Opportunity Act in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty:
In a meeting in the Speaker's Office on August 8th, 1964, members of the North Carolina delegation demanded as a price of their support a pledge that [Adam] Yarmolinsky, who as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense had energetically sought to uphold the constitutional rights of Negro servicemen in Southern states and was known for his generally liberal and progressive views, would have nothing to do with the administration of the antipoverty program. Sargent Shriver made a quick call to the White House. Yarmolinsky was sacrificed without ceremony or ado. The most effulgent promises of future preferment were made this dedicated man, who, weeks earlier, half-dead on an operating table after an automobile accident, had regained consciousness asking for details of the day's work on the antipoverty program. None were kept.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hazlitt Postscript

Buried in the footnotes of Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic:
Among the notes which Hazlitt never saw fit to publish is perhaps the most vehement dismissal of general nature in all of romantic criticism. To Reynolds's "perfect beauty in any species must combine all the characters which are beautiful in that species," he replies: "These discourses seem written by an Hermaphrodite."

William Hazlitt and Aristocratic Distance

Even if we can forgive Michael Dirda for comparing Hazlitt to "the snarkiest of modern-day bloggers," and again for calling his abruptness "Asperger's-like," we are still left wanting to read less Dirda and more Hazlitt. In that sense the review is a success.

Further to that end, David Bromwich (in Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic) on Hazlitt on Coriolanus:
"There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved, or complaining that they are likely to be so." . . . Coriolanus stands for power, "the cause of the people" for disinterested justice, and only the former commands the submission by evoking the awe of the imagination.

. . . Perhaps there is a love of justice even in the compulsion to make and remake history as "a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of poetic justice." But the only hope for some good to mankind is that now and then we shall choose a hero whose way of keeping his distance is to become our benefactor. (RTWT, from 318)
Anyone noticing the similarity between Hazlitt's mythologized hero and Burkean "decent drapery" will be interested to know that Hazlitt believed speaking "with contempt" of Edmund Burke "might be made the test of a vulgar democratical mind."

"What's My Name? Is It Marriage? What's My Name, Fool?""

The New York Sun critic who reviewed The Children's Hour in 1934 was right in his commonsense response to Martha's lament that, because she and Karen had been accused of lesbianism, "There is not anywhere we can go!"

"You immediately think of half a dozen places," he said, "including the city of New York."

Scott Payne gathered a couple of worthies for a nice jaw about gay marriage, and I have a couple things to add, the first being an apology for making my "last post on gay marriage" merely penultimate. Sorry, Culture11, for making a liar out of you.

Freddie points out that the Catholic Church will continue to decide its own house rules, no matter how the law shakes out: "John, when you say that there will be cultural consequences for the government accepting same-sex unions, I would say 'Only if culturally conservative people let it.' It will be up to culturally and socially conservative people to decide whether or not same-sex marriage is actually normalized beyond the legal codification of it."

Not exactly. Everybody remembers Ali taunting Ernie Terrell in 1967: "What's my name, fool?" Whether or not you sympathize with Terrell's reluctance to legitimize Ali's conversion, I think it's clear that the gentlemanly thing to do, given the situation, is to bite the bullet and call the man whatever he wants.

Legal recognition of same-sex unions is the equivalent of putting "Muhammad Ali" on the fight card. It won't force conservative churches to recognize gay marriages, but it will make every reference to a man's "partner" sound hostile. If the government calls him a husband, I can't refuse to call him one without putting myself in a class with the people who say "freedom fries."

As for Schwenk's contribution to the podcast, I have only one thing to add. He talked at length about marriage as vocabulary—Andrew Sullivan, for instance, has pointed out that referring to his "husband" gives the world a consistent way to talk about the man he intends to spend his life with, thereby avoiding the uncomfortable pause that tends to precede terms like "roommate," "partner," and "boyfriend."

After citing this argument of Sullivan's, John brought up the deep friendship of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John as evidence that the Victorians did have the vocabulary to describe same-sex commitments, a vocabulary that has since disappeared. He admitted to having no idea who to blame for its disintegration, but seemed to imply that moral opposition to homosexuality makes it harder to develop helpful ways of describing gay relationships. There I disagree, and would point him first to Florence King's explanation of the Southern way to deal with men who are "a little funny" (being good to your momma covers a multitude of sins), then to the Faderman quote above. If widespread condemnation of homosexuality can coexist with a substantial amount of general knowledge about it, then we can only assume that gay marriage is not a necessary precondition for developing the kind of vocabulary John wants.

More Quentin Crisp

"Love is the extra effort you make in dealing with people you don't like."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Honor among Taxidermists

The facts of this story aren't all in, but, at the moment, it seems possible that Lawton McKenzie's arrest for animal cruelty may rest on nothing more than the ordinary "mutilation" involved in being an amateur taxidermist who also butchers one's own goats for food:
A man accused of animal cruelty says those charges are blown out of proportion after authorities found dozens of dismembered animals on his property. . . "What society's saying is that it's wrong for me to eat a chicken I've raised but alright for me to go buy from the store. I don't see what's the sense," McKenzie told WITN.

McKenzie says he is studying taxidermy and that some of the animals authorities discovered were those found by him along the side of the road.

Authorities said they discovered knives, a machete and bowls of blood when they visited McKenzie's home in Fremont last month. Investigators also found dead dogs, goats, sheep, owls and other animals.

McKenzie tells WITN that he butchered goats and ate them for food, while he also raises chickens for their eggs and food.

Born in Jamaica, he says he grew up around a culture of people butchering their own meat for food. "What makes me different from you just because I'm not afraid to go clean my own food up? Maybe I should . . . get my hunter's permit and just shoot my own, just shoot the goat first."

. . . The Fremont man tells WITN that he has always complied with previous animal control requests to care for his animals and had wanted to turn his property into a animal learning center for children. "I see dead foxes all the time, I see dead owls... Other people don't pay attention to that stuff, but I do. I think it could be a learning tool," says McKenzie

McKenzie is free on bond from the animal cruelty charges and says he was fired from his job this morning at the Fremont Rest Home.
Speaking as a taxidermist who has reclaimed her share of roadkill, I find his defense to be, at the very least, plausible.

h/t My North Carolina local news aggregator, otherwise known as "Mom."

Bookbag: A Sydney Smith Grab-Bag

The eighteeth century parson beginning a literary review:
We take it for granted that Mr. Ritson supposes Providence to have had some share in producing him, though for what inscrutable purposes we profess ourselves unable to conjecture.
On the Scottish temper:
They are so imbued with metaphysics that they even make love metaphysically; I overheard a young lady of my acquaintance, at a dance in Edinburgh, exclaim, in a sudden pause of the music, "What you say, my Lord, is very true of love in the aibstract, but—" and here the fiddlers began fiddling furiously, and the rest was lost.
On two pheasants sent to a friend:
. . . curious, because killed by a Scotch metaphysician; in other and better language, they are mere ideas, shot by other ideas, out of a pure intellectual notion, called a gun.
On his fellow Protestant preachers:
Is it a rule of oratory to balance the style against the subject, and to handle the most sublime truths in the dullest language and the driest manner? Is sin to be taken from men, as Eve was from Adam, by casting them into a deep slumber?
On Madame de Staƫl's Delphine:
The morality of all this is the old morality of Farquhar, Vanbrugh and Congreve—that every witty man may transgress the seventh commandment, which was never meant for the protection of husbands who labour under the incapacity of making repartees.
On rural life:
Whenever I enter a village, I straightaway find an ass.
That last, as any reader of Scripture will know, is entirely ass-backwards.

Macaulay praised Smith by comparing him to the editor they shared: "In ability I should say that Jeffrey was higher, but Sydney rarer. I would rather have been Jeffrey; but there will be several Jeffreys before there is a Sydney."

"One day we'll be in an absolutely smoke-free world."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Capitalism for Preschoolers

Heard at work today: "We don't have 'sharing' in this classroom. We have negotiation."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Provocative Urbanism

If they seek long-term success, American city advocates can’t simply shoe-horn people in more urban environments with technology (light rail) or policies (smart growth), but must cultivate an urban sensibility that demands such policies and tools because they demand a certain type of lifestyle. In Sennett’s view the key to cultivating this sensibility is reinforcing what makes the city unique, including those things that many planners have long thought undesirable: complexity, disorder, and conflict. Thus the rationalizing impulse of planning to order the city—with highways, zoning, and “centers” of all types directly conflicts with what we should be encouraging in our cities. Only planning that encourages urban disorder and conflict will create dynamic, healthy cities that will attract people.

Can arbitrary loyalties be morally defensible?

As a way of responding to Will's provocation on truth and particularity, I'll throw up bits from this paper I wrote for a Yale seminar on Edmund Burke. Excerpts chosen for relevance and readibility:
. . . The sketch of the accusation against Burke and his own defense against it are now both fairly clear: he believed fervently in objective ethical laws but allowed their abrogation and overrule for various aesthetic, circumstantial, and emotional reasons. Burke was a pragmatist, but not at the expense of certain overriding moral concerns. The question remains whether Burke’s compromises reveal a man trying to balance principle against pragmatism or whether his pragmatic concerns can be integrated with his moral ones in a unifying system.

. . . To accept Burke’s “sacred veil” is to conclude that a legend which breeds pride in one’s country is morally preferable to a factual story which breeds shame or humility. This preference for indirect truth may redeem Burke’s foppish ode to the age of chivalry from those of its faults that Philip Francis complained of. The drapery of legend distracts from the moral liberties taken by a country’s founders. The drapery of beauty distracts from the moral worth, good or bad, of a distressed lady. In neither case is the drapery simply a useful means to a preferable end. It is both principled and defensible to say that beauty and legend inspire feelings that are not merely useful in the way that resigning oneself to the quirks of the American spirit is useful but true in the way that compassion for one suffering is true.

. . . The moral law is one and the same for all, but just as moral duty varies from situation to situation, adherence to moral law may require vastly different actions from different men. That such differences should be based on arbitrary distinctions in no way undermines the universality of the rule. To say that a commandment is moral is to say that it is not arbitrary. However, this does not mean that arbitrariness cannot be a feature and component of a system of ethics. The political morality that can be extrapolated from Edmund Burke’s writings reveals the possibility of doing so by incorporating national loyalty, aesthetic chivalry, and family loyalty into divine moral law.
More, including a shout-out to Oscar Wilde. I think Eve will enjoy the sentence "Sublimity requires obscurity, and morality by its nature cannot be obscure."

Monday, January 5, 2009

More Quentin Crisp

If you look into your soul and find that you’re ordinary, then ordinary you must be, but, if possible, you must be so ordinary that you can imagine someone saying, "Come to my party and bring your humdrum friend," and everyone knowing that he means you.

Superlatively Queer Comedians Against Gay Marriage: Two Case Studies

Over at Ladyblog, I've thrown up a refutation of one fallacy underlying same-sex marriage (short version: gay marriage makes it harder to acknowledge gender differences, and talking about gender in our post-feminist climate is already hard enough), but there's another battle that needs fighting. The psychology of your average pro-SSM straight person goes something like this: Marriage is society's way of saying that a particular romantic relationship is awesome and important; I recognize that gay relationships are awesome and important; therefore, they should be allowed to marry. Step Two is fine, but Step One is fundamentally wrong.

Marriage isn't a stamp of approval; it's an institution designed to pressure people into making difficult but necessary (and, at the end of the day, fulfilling) choices. It's not society's way of saying something about relationships; it's about doing something to them.

Consider this joke from lesbian comedian Lynn Lavner:
There are 6 admonishments in the Bible concerning homosexual activity . . . [and] 362 concerning heterosexual activity. I don't mean to imply by this that God doesn't love straight people, only that they seem to require a great deal more supervision.
Or this from Quentin Crisp, who could never hold down any job except "Stately Old Homo of England":
Since people persist in getting married, what would your advice be to them?

Do not expect that you will be happy. Do not enter a marriage thinking this s the way in which I will be happy. If you do that you are making use of your partner. You must enter into a marriage knowing that you are sacrificing yourself. You must say, "I feel I have all sorts of things to give to a relationship and I will find somebody to whom I can give them. I only expect to die fulfilled—not happy—that I have done what little I could do."

So it is possible to be fulfilled in marriage?

If your view is that your style—your image—is to be self-sacrificing, and if you feel you have an infinite capacity for it. You may think: Will I go to India to feed the starving, or to Crimea to bind up the wounds of the injured—or will I just get married?
Marriage involves considerable self-sacrifice, but the things that make all that self-sacrifice worth it for straight couples (i.e. children, monogamy, the virtues that go along with being forced to stay with someone who, because of gender differences, you will always be somewhat baffled by) don't apply to gay couples. That's what both Lavner and Crisp are trying to say: Straight people have more sacrifices to make in their romantic relationships, and so we require "a great deal more supervision."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bookbag: Urban Politics and Ethnic Differences

From Michael Novak's Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics:
Mayor Lindsey found it difficult to attract Italian community leaders to his staff, Nicholas Pileggi reported in New York Magazine, because they did not like the hectic, family-less lives that Americanized staffers cheerfully accept.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Truth is Bad and There Should Be Less of It

In Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty, Daniel Patrick Moynihan points out the inevitable connection between the collection of sociological statistics and the unfortunate liberal intuition that government must therefore do something about them:
Among the complexities of American life is that the American business community, during the first half of the twentieth century, when it was fiercely opposed to the idea of economic or social planning, nonetheless supported, even pressed for, the development of a national statistical system that largely as a result of this support became perhaps the best in the world. This in turn made certain types of planning and regulation feasible, and in a measure, inevitable.

John Kenneth Galbraith has noted the indispensable ole of statisticians in modern societies, which seem never to do anything about problems until they learn to measure them, that being the special province of those applied mathematicians. Statistics are used as mountains are climbed: because they are there.

If one recalls that the nation went through the entire depression of the 1930's without ever really knowing what the unemployment rate was (the statistic was then gathered once each ten years by the Census Bureau), one gains a feeling for the great expansion of knowledge in this and related fields in the quarter century that followed.
It used to be the case that government turned its eye to social problems only when public outcry demanded that it do so; now, in an age when unemployment statistics (for instance) are a regular release, the impulse to "do something" comes from the top rather than the bottom. Boo, hiss.

Bottom line: Statistics lead to liberalism and should not be collected.

Conservative Obsessed with Purity. And?

I can't help but feel gratified when Zoroastrianism receives public notice, but Time's latest (The Last of the Zoroastrians) is disappointing. Yes, Zoroastrianism is ancient, and, yes, Zoroastrians are everywhere a marginal minority. They would be interesting even if they were neither.

I wrote a paper long ago explaining why every Christian theologian should familiarize himself with Zoroastrianism, if only because their understanding of purity is so much more interesting than our own. The nutshell of my argument:
It is important to note that impurity is not attributable to immoral action. The expulsion of semen involved in intercourse is considered to be unclean and couples are required to engage in a purification ritual afterward engaging in intercourse, but Zoroastrian scripture is emphatic that fruitful marriage is always preferable to celibacy. Unlike Christianity, Zoroastrianism’s theology includes no skepticism regarding sex; the fact that it carries with the inevitable consequence of impurity could not be said to imply anything about its moral standing as a behavior but rather renders it, at most, inconvenient.

However, while it is true that ritual impurity was not considered to reflect any moral failing, indifference to impurity certainly was. Zoroastrianism understands a separation between matter (getig) and spirit (menog), but the two are inextricably linked. One’s actions in the material world affect the cosmic battle between good and evil. As Zaehner points out, Zoroaster assigned purity and virtue eschatological significance: “Zoroaster seems to have been interested in establishing the Kingdom of Righteousness here on earth.” Purity had to be maintained not simply as a loving tribute to the benevolence of the creator but as a concrete step towards an eschatological golden age.

. . . The rhetorical differences between Zoroastrian and Christian ways of talking about purity should be clear: the former is primarily material and done for the sake of the cosmic battle between good and evil while the latter is primarily spiritual and done for the sake of moral betterment through diminished worldliness. However, there are implicit as well as explicit differences between the two. For instance, Zoroastrian purity was a social phenomenon: disposing of a corpse within the constraints of the purity regulations governing burial requires the cooperation of a large group; conspicuous menstrual protocols reinforced solidarity within the Sasanian Persian elite; many of the purity regulations regarding the disposal of nails and hair required a communal repository on the outskirts of town, which discouraged the solitary living practiced by Christian monks. Christian asceticism, on the other hand, had the opposite effect. Anchoritic monks were obviously solitary, but even coenobitic monks spent the greatest part of their time in solitude.

Where Zoroastrianism used purity to call attention to the importance of the material world, Christianity used it to call attention to the material world’s utter vanity. Where Zoroastrian purity is inclusive, involving every member of the community in order to enlist them in an ultimately eschatological battle, Christian purity is a method for distinguishing between the saintly and the insufficient, those who “can receive it” and those who cannot. The attempt to integrate those Persians not involved in the priestly hierarchy of the fire-temples into Zoroastrian religious life contrasts sharply with Christian asceticism’s belief that Christians who rejected celibacy were categorically less holy than those who took on that burden.
Clearly I use the term "nutshell" not to imply that my argument is short, but to imply that it is completely nutty.

Tristyn, read this one.

Sister, He's a Poet

From Morrissey: In His Own Words:
I was such an intellectual idiot, people were convinced that if they talked to me I'd quote Genesis and bolts of lightning would descend from the sky. So I was never kissed behind the bicycle sheds.

Oscar Wilde was a hideously fat person, so I'm sure he indulged in meat quite often. But he is forgiven.

I would never do anything as vulgar as having fun.

The tabloids hound me, and it gets very sticky. What makes me more dangerous to them is the fact that I lead somewhat of a religious lifestyle.
And my favorite:
Is celibacy really a victory of guilt over lust?

I wish it was. I wouldn't feel so bad about it then.

What Can Alasdair MacIntyre Do For Your Sex Life?

Neither of these speakers is identified, but it should not surprise you to learn that one of them is me. I refuse to say which:
"Everyone thinks of tradition as an expression of togetherness and unity, but it's actually just the opposite: embodied conflict."

"That's what she said!"
Almost as good as Will's timeless epigram: "Sex is like Christmas. You only have it at special times."