Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bookbag: The Gentleman from New York, a Biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan

"Ljubljana is lovely, and incredibly prosperous," he wrote home to a secretary from the conference, though the meeting was "incredibly disorganized and wasteful of time and energy, but it is, I think, worth it to me." To the worldly and sardonic Dick Goodwin, he cabled a summary of the conference, saying, "I have seen the Austro-Hungarian empire, and it works."
That last line is as good as his well-known take on the Kennedy assassination ("I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually").

I know that, as a conservative, I am supposed to believe in every man's right to his own tribal loyalties, but I think people should give serious consideration to the possibility that the Irish have unmediated access to truth. Maybe they're just right and the rest of us need to catch up.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bookbag: The Anatomy of Thatcherism by Shirley Robin Letwin

In practice, it is perfectly possible to be coherent without having a theory. The sculptor fashioning his statue out of marble has a coherent aim, and realizes this aim in an object which manifests and embodies that coherence, but he need not be, and generally is not, guided by any theory. So, too, a politician working to fashion concrete results out of concrete circumstances may have, and manifest in his achievements, a coherent aim without ever being guided by theory.
I tend to get hostile when I am told that "conservatism is the absence of ideology," but this quote helps me refute that fallacy with near-British calm.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hold 'Em, NYU

As NYU's protest/"blast from the past" unravels, it would be nice to take a moment to commemorate those right-wingers who, during the "occupation" wars of the 1960's, gave as good as they got. Well, almost as good as they got:
. . . twenty-two YAF members occupied the headquarters of the Resistance, an antiwar group in Boston. Inside, eight members of the Resistance "reacted violently to the liberation. One member called the Black Panthers, constantly harassed the press . . . and, in a final rage, stomped on the California grapes brought by the YAF as a snack."
(From Gregory Schneider's Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right.)

On a related note, here's a business proposal I've been considering: A student protest-themed amusement park where teenaged revolutionaries can spend a week reenacting the Spirit of '68 without bothering the rest of us. We'd have professional reenactors, like Colonial Williamsburg, who could play administration officials. (Is Fred Thompson available? He'd be great casting.) Perhaps the land could be eminent-domained in "blighted" Manhattanville, in true university style?

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Oh, how the ghost of you clings!"

Watchmen without cigarettes—isn't it ironic?:
Where were Laurie's smokes, Zack?

"Yeah, Alan hates smoking. Alan Horn—the head of the studio—that's his biggest, biggest thing. The Comedian can smoke, because he might be a bad guy, he's the bad guy, but that's it. That was the line that he drew."

But aren't those kind of a small plot device for the character to watch her go on and off the wagon?

"I was sad, but it was either that or...the movie wouldn't have been made, literally."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Follow-Up: A Story about Shame

This story from Floyd Patterson (as told to Gay Talese) combines my two obsessions—shame and boxing—and is beautiful besides:
"It is not a bad feeling when you're knocked out," he said. "It's a good feeling, actually. It's not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don't see angels or stars; you're on a pleasant cloud. After Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about our or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you're knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring. I don't remember that. But I guess it's true because that's the way you feel during the four or five seconds after a knockout.

"But then," Patterson went on, still pacing, "this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you're doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt—not a physical hurt—it's a hurt combined with anger; it's a what-will-people-think hurt; it's an ashamed-of-myself hurt, and all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring—a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people."
And you thought I was being figurative when I compared shame to getting punched in the face.

What If They Threw a Shame Culture and Nobody Came?

I've been having a long and glorious seizure over the blogosphere's recent interest in shame—how could I be anything but ecstatic that Douthat, Dreher, Serwer, McArdle, and Friedersdorf have all taken up my favorite topic?

Yet it seems, sadly enough, that shame needs defending from its defenders, who have the right general idea but miss some important particulars. Rather than fisk the whole lot of ya, here's a defense of shame culture written in a form that suits the blogosphere: a top ten list, in this case the Top Ten Reasons to Love "Shame Culture." I've written about most of these ideas before, so follow the links in parentheses if any of these items is unclear.
1. There can be no humility without humiliation. I can't repeat this too often.

2. Evil is sexy and exciting, but there is very little frisson to behavior that's "beneath you."

3. Guilt, unlike shame, is something a person can feel proud of. Piling self-congratulation onto sin adds insult to injury. (More, more.)

4. Shame reinforces the postmodern concept of "mutual implicatedness," which used to be called the Brotherhood of Man. This one is tough to understand, so I'll quote myself (a lazy shortcut for which I feel appropriate shame):
Virginia Burrus writes that "shame arises where we humans both honor and overflow our limits, where we recognize the limits of autonomy—where we observe, with no little alarm, the spreading stain of our mutual implicatedness."

To de-pomo-ify that sentence: We only feel shame before people because we think that we’ve somehow harmed them, even though the only harm we’ve done is to have put a little more sin into the world. If we truly believe that putting sin into the world is a meaningful kind of harm, then we’ve come to terms with one of the most difficult implications of the brotherhood of man.
5. I am inclined to be forgiving of my own faults—more so than I ought to be—whereas the public is not. With guilt, I always get less emotional punishment than I deserve. (More.)

6. Body-related shame tends to get the worst rap of all, but "a sense of shame is what safeguards the bodily privacy necessary to civility" (Jean Bethke Elshtain). If you want a culture that respects privacy and personal space, you need shame.

7. Consider this Navajo insult: "He behaves like one who has no family"—that is to say, shamelessly. Shame reinforces our "little platoon"-sized loyalties. (More.)

8. There is an important kind of courage that comes with a willingness to undergo humiliation; when shame disappears, so does this kind of courage. This is especially bad since this special courage is the virtue that philosophers, bloggers, and other truth-seekers need to have. (More, more, more.)

9. Shame is visceral and involuntary, which makes it ideal for enforcing your moral code on people who don't agree with it, and doing so in a way that doesn't involve coercion or the state. This is a feature, not a bug. (More.)

10. Guilt allows us to stay safely within our comfort zones, but shame pushes us beyond our limits. This is because shame is unforgiving, while guilt reinforces the fallacy that "to understand all is to forgive all." (This is similar to #5, but focuses less on feeling bad than on doing better. See here, especially the part about punk traditionalism forcing people to excel.)
The first and most obvious caveat is that we should take care to shame people for the right things. Good shame cultures are good and bad shame cultures are bad, obviously, although for my money either one is preferable to no shame culture.

Secondly, I'd like to point out (as I did here) that the cruelty of a shame culture can be mitigated by insisting that there should always be exceptions to it—i.e. if a girl has a child out of wedlock, she should get dirty looks on the street from strangers but never from her mother. Or, if it isn't her mother who refuses to be part of the Shame Brigade, let it be her aunt, her godmother, her best friend's family, or her pastor who takes her in. Or all of them. I want to keep shame alive, but I also want to be humane; I can eat my cake and have it by making clear that a person should have a handful of people in his life that love him unconditionally.

For an illustration of what I mean, watch this video from 5:30. (It's a scene from Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night.) I know that some people think that a person should support his friends only when he agrees with them or approves of what they've done, so I should admit that those people upset the picture of shame culture that I've drawn, as the Sports Night clip will make clear. If you don't have a robust understanding of loyalty, I can't imagine that you'll be on board with shame.

People Who Kiss in Train Stations, Local 527.

To arms, brothers and sisters! We are under attack! (Via.)

Unless the sign simply means "You may not kiss in this train station if you have weird bumpy hair, or if you are wearing a stupid hat," in which case everything's fine.

Who Writes This Stuff, Terry Southern?

Or maybe Henny Youngman, since this story is his kind of bare-bones, set-it-up-and-knock-it-down, premise-and-punchline joke (via Jacob Sullum):
A 20-year-old Port Hope, Ont., man has been ticketed for smoking in a car in which a 15-year-old girl was one of his passengers.

While Tory Ashton was waiting for his $155 ticket, the girl—a smoker herself—got out of the car and legally lit up a cigarette of her own.
Take my civil liberties. Please.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shame! I'm Gonna Live Forever, Baby Remember My Name . . .

And you thought I was the only one awaiting a Shame-Culture Renaissance:
It is a measure of how limited and poor our understanding of politics is nowadays that the only thing Linker envisions as an alternative to laissez-faire morality is legalistic intrusion into personal behavior by the government. This fails to take into account the possibility of social regulation through customs and concepts of honor mediated through natural and religious institutions. Social stigma, reputation, protecting the family name–these are decidedly not part of the “culture of choice,” according to which none of these things has any real importance, but they are effective means of conditioning behavior without recourse to coercion or an appeal to the law.

Transgenderism was just a red herring

When I told my mother I would be sharing an apartment with two men, she shrugged. "Hey, it's your uterus." Happily, I survived the year with my maiden virtue intact and with a new appreciation for the arguments against mixed-sex housing, which, apparently, my alma mater may soon adopt. Haven't these people seen When Harry Met Sally?

That was a bit glib. To tell the truth, I don't entirely sign onto the Harry-Sally Thesis: I think it's perfectly possible to become the sort of man who can have female friends; I just don't think it's desirable. Consider what it would take: A cultivated indifference to sexual tension, a reduction of gender dynamics to routine rather than ritual, the "Buddy Christ"-ification of Eros. We're already under enough pressure to think of sex as "banal rather than sublime" because "it hurts less that way." The Yale administration doesn't need to egg us on.

As Eve Tushnet put it: "We're just roommates," says the last man, and he blinks.

(There's another model for mixed-sex households, the one that relies upon sexual tension: "We choose to live together because it is dangerous and uncomfortable." I'm not necessarily opposed to that model—you can tell by the title of this blog that I like playing with fire—but these mad tempters of fate can take their business off-campus. One doesn't want such behavior to become ordinary.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'll Drink to My Defeat If You'll Drink to Yours

Peter Suderman's post on civil partisanship sounds like this line from The Big Sleep: "I knew Sean Regan in the old days, when he used to run rum out of Mexico and I was on the other side. We used to swap shots between drinks. Or drinks between shots, whichever you like."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hit That Book with a Club

If you live in New York City, please consider joining "X. Trapnel's" new libertarian book club. You'll get to learn his real name! I'll be there, in my capacity as loyal opposition.

Because Boxing is a Metaphor for Everything

For better or for worse, the “alternative” generation, and especially the alternative comic book, has been almost completely irrelevant to my comics life.
Say it ain't so, Joe! That was Leigh Walton in response to Diamond Comic Distributors' announcement that they're raising their order minimums ($1500 to $2500). I've never read serialized comics—only graphics novels, and only when the men in my life insisted on it—but for some reason I've always remembered this blurb from the back cover of Jimmy Corrigan: "Also winner of The American Book Award and The Guardian Prize 2001 (the consumer will note that these honors are generally only bestowed upon those authors who refuse to learn how to draw)." The future of alternative comics is something I have a remote but sincere interest in. So what does the news from Diamond portend? Leigh Walton again:
We’ll see fewer and fewer projects take the serial-comic-to-big-book format à la Maus, Black Hole, Box Office Poison, Local, Bone, From Hell, or Jimmy Corrigan. But the books will still come out, one way or another. Some of them will surely be underbaked, deprived of the reader feedback that serialization provides (but on the other hand, look at how many webcomics and newspaper strips have decayed into self-parodies, stunted by the shackles of constant reader feedback). Others will die stillborn, unable to find a publisher willing to risk a 400-page book on an unproven creator. Some will be published, only to find customers balking at dropping $15-20 on somebody’s debut. But, y’know, I think we’ll figure it out.
We may "figure it out," as Leigh suggests, but let's remember what happened when boxing (which I do know something about, unlike the comics industry) changed its distribution by switching to television. "In more normal pre-television times," said A. J. Liebling, "a fellow out of the amateurs would spend three years in four-, six-, and eight-round bouts in small clubs before attempting ten." When the amateur circuit dried up, it became harder for promising fighters to pay their dues; this meant lower-quality fights for fans, but it also meant more ring fatalities from dumb mistakes that seasoned boxers wouldn't have made. (If you've got your Boddy handy, see p. 319.)

In the end, boxing never did "figure it out"; no substitute for the amateur circuit emerged, and the new methods of shepherding young talent to the big time, though inferior to the old methods, stuck. I'm not sure whether this metaphor has legs—I'd be willing to accept that dues-paying is less important in comics, or that Diamond's recent tweak is less dramatic than the advent of television—but, to the extent that it does, it suggests that the predictions in bold above (emphasis mine) might come true, and stay that way.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Boxing Breaks Your Face. It is Designed to Break Your Face.

More bookbag from Kasia Boddy's Boxing: A Cultural History:
The very transience of the ideal body is made all the more poignant by the less than perfect bodies that surround it. This phenomenon is foregrounded in boxing—and not in other Olympic sports such as the discus or running—by the fact that while the processes of training are all about perfecting the body, and while, at the moment of triumph, the body may move beautifully, the sport itself is all about damaging (and making ugly) the body. Apollonian form could only temporarily contain Dionysian energy.

Three Uses of Smoking

I. Brechtian Alienation
Audiences should be encouraged to smoke as "it is hopeless to 'carry away' any man who is smoking and accordingly pretty well occupied with himself."Kasia Boddy, quoting Brecht

II. Calendar Memory
The family admires Zeno's remarkable memory for birthdays and anniversaries, not knowing that every one of them has been an occasion for his resolutions; they think it is his good nature. Making everything that happens in your life a pretext for resolving to stop smoking is not bad if it serves to endear you to your family.Richard Klein, referring to Italo Svevo

III. Good Behavior
It’s only when you quit that you discover what your fascination with smoking has all along been about: the everyday development and maintenance of moral life. Through the filter of a cigarette, the smoker orients himself to the outside world. It’s his very personal way of relating the outside world, the world of events, to the inside one, that of desire. And it is for this reason that, when the cigarette is taken away, the smoker’s moral life seems impoverished.David Orland, via Blackadder

Monday, February 9, 2009

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did we get our movement in your status quo?"

And that's not all Nicola Karras has to say to Sam Tanenhaus:
American conservatism has always been counterrevolutionary conservatism, whatever Russell Kirk says. Even more than that, it's always been a youth counterrevolutionary conservatism. It was born at the 1960 Republican Convention among the "young fogies" who swarmed the halls with their blue and gold balloons. National Review reported, "They greeted Richard Nixon at the airport with Goldwater signs, and did the same thing for President Eisenhower the next day. They drove one Nixon aide into muttering in exasperation: 'Those damn Goldwater people are everywhere.'"
Tanenhaus and his critics both complain that no one reads Burke and Nisbet anymore ("conservatism AND intellectually bankrupt": 91,400 hits), but it's worth asking whether there was ever a Golden Age when people did. My guess is that there never was, but we can point to a time when at least one segment of the conservative movement was reliably well-read: the young people. Used to be that ISI handed out so many free paperbacks people thought the "S" was for samizdat! My own experience was a throwback in this regard—as Dan McCarthy has pointed out, things have been going downhill since the day activists started outnumbering intellectuals on the campuses.

The lesson of Youth for Goldwater is that the hormonal radicalism of youth can be harnessed for good, even by reactionaries, but only if the twenty-somethings have the intellectual chops to play Principle to age's Pragmatism (and as long as they can avoid the trap of Hessian defection). With the current crop of young conservatives, one gets the impression they'd have been happy to settle for Rockefeller. O tempora, et cetera!

And the boat is leaking fore and aft: the young conservatives ain't intellectual, and the young intellectuals ain't conservative. I'm with Stacy McCain in being worried that so few of conservatism's Young Turks oppose gay marriage:
Now, if you talk to these bright young fellows—and I find excuses to talk to them as often as possible—one of the things you learn is how many of them are either (a) in favor of gay marriage as a matter of social justice, or (b) defeatist in conceding that the legal recognition of gay marriage is a political inevitability, even though they personally oppose it.
And I would add my suspicion that support for same-sex marriage has become a mark, not only of defeatism, but of self-conscious tokenism among young conservatives. Being publicly pro-SSM is the quickest way for a young journalist to signal that he's one of the right-wingers it's okay to like. Haven't they heard that it's better to be feared than loved? Or, to put it less glibly, the real respectability of a solid argument is preferable to the worthless respectability one gets by being on the Harmless Right.

The conservative movement used to be able to count on its twentysomethings to have whole passages from Burke's Reflections committed to memory ("It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness . . ."), on the assumption that these well-read young men would one day grow up, and grow up to matter. If Tanenhaus wants to kickstart an intellectual conservatism for the twenty-first century, he should remember that old ways are not seldom the best. He should also stand warned that these tweed-clad library rats are likely to be intensely ideological.

First one to say "heartless" can jump in a lake.

The road to success is paved with cheesecake.

How to justify such brazen-faced hit-baiting? I am rescued, again, by gender roles.

Christina Hendricks is the very flower of womanhood—you can tell by the stems. So how does it feel to see her go butch?

To ask the same thing a different way: Would the second picture be half as hot if it were a boyish girl like Audrey Hepburn? (An acceptable answer might be that gender roles have nothing to do with it, since the whole thing can be explained by the iron law that everything goes better with curves.)

'Cause He's Not Not Not Not in Your Academy

William Deresiewicz turns in an A paper:
. . . The audacity of Bolano's fiction, its disregard for convention and even probability, puts me in mind of a remark a friend once made after a jazz concert. I said I thought the keyboard player had really been taking chances, and he said, "No, he wasn't taking chances, he was doing whatever the fuck he wanted." In every sentence he wrote, every image he conceived, every compositional choice he made, Bolano did whatever the fuck he wanted.
I only know one existentialist, but I will draw his attention to this line from the same piece:
Death is just death, but to speak of oblivion as an abyss is to give it a spurious glamour, while to talk of "the abyss"—the abyss that we are all dancing on the edge of, or tragically circling, or whatever—is to seek to recover the Christian Hell, in all its metaphysical significance, under a different name.
Reminds me of the time a conservative journalist said to me, very drunkenly, "Sure, when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back. But, you have to understand, that's all it can do!"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is Boxing Conservative?

Is boxing conservative? Well, do all mailmen drink bourbon? Are butchers known for their stamp collections? Are ducks susceptible to the Pelagian heresy? "Is boxing conservative"—what question could be more idle?

But there may be some interesting overlap between conservatism and pugilism, and not just in the mind of Dr. Joyce Brothers (who, if you didn't know, got her start as a boxing expert). Kasia Boddy explains:
The very ubiquity of fights throughout [Fielding's] novels is comically conservative, as if Fielding is asking, "What else can you expect from human nature?" There may be lots of bleeding, and preferably some female nudity, but the conclusion of a boxing match, for Fielding, is also comic, and conservative in its effect (a jovial handshake with the balance of power unchanged), rather than tragic and radical (epitomized by the deadly Jacobite duel).
The first kind of conservatism Boddy attributes to boxing isn't very meaty; the perfectibility of man has lost all credibility, even among liberals. The second kind, though, sounds like a cross between Victor Turner and Joseph de Maistre, a hybridization worth unpacking.

Conservatism prefers stability to meritocracy, which is to say that it embraces hierarchy even when that hierarchy is unjust. If we allow ourselves to be bothered by this injustice—which we should if we want to keep conscience alive—then we need some way to compensate for it while still keeping the hierarchy in place. Boxing, according to Boddy, permits a dock worker to pummel an aristocrat in an environment where violence is robbed of any revolutionary potential. After the fight, things return to normal; everyone's class status is conserved.

In a rare stroke of good luck, my speculations are confirmed (rather than demolished, as usually happens) by history—generally speaking, boxing has been loved by the lowest and highest classes, but held in contempt by everyone in the middle. From The Manly Art by Elliott Gorn:
. . . where the gentry and aristocracy had seen manly fortitude, healthy paternalism, and a chance for some innocent slumming, the middle class found only depravity and the debasement of the poor.
Boxing, at least in Britain, was always underwritten by aristocrats and dominated by (mostly urban) working men. There were few middle-class merchants in the Fancy, and no wonder! There is no utilitarian justification to be made for boxing; it does not square with bourgeois Protestant values.* Therefore, any conservatism that starts either with aristocratic virtue or with working-class social conservatism—in other words, the big tent of "Blame the Enlightenment First"—will find its values ritualized in the ring.
*Boddy again, speaking of Roman boxing (in contrast to Ancient Greek): "A different notion of honor emerges, one less directly attached to the virtues necessary for combat and having more to do with those essential to art. According to Richard Lattimore, it was the 'very uselessness of . . . [the athletic] triumphs which attracted Pindar'; 'A victory meant that time, expense, and hard work had been lavished on an achievement that brought no calculable advantage, only honor and beauty.'"

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Wanted: Young Man, Single and Free; Experience in Love Preferred but Will Accept a Young Trainee

I notice that the music blog Mainstream Isn't So Bad has posted a copy of my favorite song as last week's bit of "Sunday Soul." I really do mean favorite song, too; I've drafted plenty of Top Ten lists, all radically different, but all listing "Want Ads" by Honey Cone at the very top. Check it out.

The rest of the top five, for interested souls: "Spazz" by the Elastik Band; "Little Sister" by Ry Cooder; "Darling Commit Me" by Steve Earle; and "Can You Get to That?" by Funkadelic. For the record, I can't remember liking anything else Steve Earle's ever done (I once tore down a concert poster of his on Franklin Street, in Raleigh, out of sheer contempt), but I fell in love with the line "You'll miss me, but there's no need to grieve—you'll get reports and the baskets I weave."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

An Irishman by Any Other Name

This joke from Elinor Teele's review of The Irish Americans: A History:
My great great grandmother insisted on calling her County Dingle maid Marie, real name Catherine, since her Irish cook had the same name.
reminds me of my favorite joke from Florence King's commemoration of Lizzie Borden as the quintessential WASP:
Bridget, 26 and pretty in a big-boned, countrified way, had been in the Bordens' service for almost three years at the time of the murders.

. . . Bridget adored Lizzie. Victoria Lincoln, the late novelist, whose parents were neighbors of the Bordens, wrote in her study of the case: "De haut en bas, Lizzie was always kind." Her habit of calling Bridget "Maggie" has been attributed to laziness (Maggie was the name of a former maid), but I think it was an extremity of tact. In that time and place, the name Bridget was synonymous with "Irish maid." Like Rastus in minstrel-show jokes, it was derisory, so Lizzie substituted another.

In the Future, When We are All Bohemians

When it comes to Sarah Palin and the future of conservatism, Conor Friedersdorf can't stop, won't stop:
Americans disdain the cultural radicalism of men like Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, and their ilk, and comparing their lives, rhetoric, and personas to Barack Obama, a cautious, even-keeled family man who ran the Harvard Law Review, helps to demonstrate why Sarah Palin’s charges of cultural radicalism failed to take hold. If the professional, “latte sipping” class in America backs a candidate in large numbers, he may well be a social liberal, but it is exceedingly doubtful that he is a radical.
Of course, we don't need to look any further than this morning's paper for evidence that the professionals Conor is talking about have a tendency to romanticize radicals, in this case ex-Black Panther Warren Kimbro, who died yesterday:
Q: Why did Kimbro agree to be featured in Murder in the Elm City?

A: He asked me to write the book. He wanted to come to grips with what really happened. He wanted people to understand to understand that he wasn’t a hero for committing a murder. He didn’t want young black men to follow that path. He wanted the truth to come out about the misdeeds of the federal government, the police, the Panthers, everyone. He thought the historical record needed to be set straight.

Q: Who called him a hero?

A: Everyone calls him a hero. His wife was being operated on by a doctor who came out and said, “I marched for you in the 60's. You were a hero!” He said, “No, I wasn’t!” I thought he was hero, but not in any way for killing Alex Rackley. The people romanticized that era, and he was worried that the romanticism excused violence.
Kimbro, of course, was a hero, but for what he did after getting out of prison, not for what put him there. I am reminded of the story Daniel Patrick Moynihan tells in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding of the government-sponsored community action program that "purchased telescopic sights for high-powered rifles and gave the excuse that they were going to be used for microscopes." All underwritten by middle-class bureaucrats.

And who is to say that the Democratic platform isn't itself radical? Hasn't that been the point of right-wing sociology for the last four decades? Conor seems to think that Sarah Palin's cultural appeals were nothing but naked tribalism; I wonder if he has considered the possibility that they might have been coded expressions of principle as much as allegiance. Much in the same way that the "latte-sipping" aesthetic (to run with Yuval Levin's shorthand) stands for a future in which we are all bohemians—a future in which I, a Brooklynite hipster (see photo at right), would be perfectly at home, but to which I nevertheless have strong, principled objections.

*Take this passage from Theodore Dalrymple for a footnote:
Consider Eric Hobsbawm, the famous, much feted, and unrepentantly Marxist historian. No one would feel personally threatened by him at a social gathering, where he would be amusing, polite, charming, and accomplished; if you had him to dinner, you wouldn’t have to count the spoons afterward, even though he theoretically opposes the idea of private wealth. In short, there would be no reason to suspect that he was about to commit a common crime against you. In this sense, he is what one might call a moderate Marxist.

But Hobsbawm has stated quite openly that, had the Soviet Union managed to create a functioning and prosperous socialist society, 20 million deaths would have been a worthwhile price to pay; and since he didn’t recognize, even partially, that the Soviet Union was not in fact on the path to such a society until many years after it had murdered 20 million of its people (if not more), it is fair to assume that, if things had turned out another way in his own country, Hobsbawm would have applauded, justified, and perhaps even instigated the murders of the very people to whom he was now, under the current dispensation, being amusing, charming, and polite. In other words, what saved Hobsbawm from committing utter evil was not his own scruples or ratiocination, and certainly not the doctrine he espoused, but the force of historical circumstance. His current moderation would have counted for nothing if world events had been different.

If D. H. Lawrence is Too Uptight for Your Tastes . . .

How should we feel about the appearance of an Edward Carpenter biography? If we are Martin Pugh, delighted. But is this wise?

Carpenter was gay before gay was chic (the late 1800's), for which he is to be applauded on the grounds of extraordinary courage if nothing else, but, as this passage from Neil McKenna's biography of Wilde should make clear, a hero and his folly are not soon parted:
John Addington Symonds firmly believed that love and sex between men could and would undermine the rigid class system that prevailed. A lord sleeping with a labourer meant that both could break free from the "cataract-blinded" destiny of their class... "The blending of Social Strata in masculine love seems to me one of its most pronounced and socially hopeful features," Symonds wrote to Edward Carpenter. "Where it appears, it abolishes class distinctions." Edward Carpenter agreed.
Gerald Early once reduced James Baldwin's platform to "the idea that if people (white, principally) were free to make love randomly across both sexual and racial lines they would be cured of their pathological behavior (racism and sexual repression)," and I haven't been able to read Baldwin since. Carpenter and Symonds on the virtues of masculine love have the same effect on my ability to read post-Stonewall gay-lib with a straight face.

The Victorian flurry of interest in homosexuality has been reduced to the Wilde trial in the twenty-first century telling of it, which is a shame: they were blunter about their dreams of class hermaphrodism then, which makes it easier to see the ways in which hermaphrodism of every kind was their ultimate goal. Unrestrained eros annihilates distinctions; that's why we should be afraid of it.

If I were writing a book about Victorian queer theory, I'd put Carpenter opposite Marc-André Raffalovich, whose theory of "uranism" Wikipedia summarizes this way: "While a heterosexual's destiny is to marry and start a family, a homosexual's duty is to overcome and transcend his desires with artistic pursuits and spiritual and even mystical friendships." Because, after all, can't every cultural controversy be retold as Catholicism vs. pantheism?

"I Only Went With Her 'Cause She Looks Like You"

Aloof from Inspiration asks a stumper:
How does pop music shape our own erotic understandings, the kind of desires that we find desirable, particularly during one’s adolescence?
Her own story:
My holy teenage triumvirate between the years of 12-16 was Joy Division, The Cure, and The Smiths. Torture, kissing and celibacy.
Owen Hatherly's, in bits and pieces:
Well, replacing the Cure with the MSP (a spectacularly sexless group, for all the glam: ‘my idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography’ etc., the physicality of their best record being more about pain, agony and prostitution rather than the other more fun things that do occur), I had the same problem . . .

But there was also Suede (the enjoyable pose of purporting to be bisexual-who-has-never-had-homosexual-experience, faded glamour in estates etc. etc.) and, more than anything else, Pulp—surely the most sex-obsessed ‘indie’ act in history. The joy of artificial fabrics (’Acrylic Afternoons’, ‘Pink glove’), sex-as-class-warfare (’I Spy’, practically all of His & Hers) 1960s architecture as setting for liasons (’Sheffield Sex City), suburban curtain-twitching (’Pencil Skirt’) the list goes on: it’s fair to say I was made permanently dubious at a formative age by their work, something for which I am never quite sure whether to have a grudge against or to thank Jarvis Cocker.
I will concur with a teenhood libidinally mediated through music—which is again why Pulp are important on this issue, for positing a kind of theatricalised sexuality which the likes of me [a "pale, thin socially inept indie boy"] could in some way embody without it being utterly ridiculous.
Like Owen, I am willing to take seriously the idea of "a teenhood libidinally mediated through music," and, as one who entertains secret ambitions of Catholic chastity, I am of course most interested in those bands that make modern sex sound like something less than any fun at all.

My own turn-off of choice was the Soft Boys, who, if you don't know them, sound like what you'd get if Withnail had a dog and that dog joined the Smiths. My favorite track of theirs ("Insanely Jealous") does not exist on the Internet, but here's a verse of it:
The paint is cracked and dry, the name is now illegible,
And everything is lost upon the cracked and blistered hull.
Beneath the yellow sky the lovers trip beside the ship
But all I hear when they embrace is just the kiss of skulls.
Everyone else's favorite song of theirs is "Kingdom of Love":
You've been laying eggs under my skin
And now they're hatching out under my chin
Now there's tiny insects showing through
And all the tiny insects look like you.
But Hatherly's recent essays on Pulp (I, II) will become the gold standard of pop music criticism-as-class autobiography if history's judgment coincides with my own (for instance, James on Elliott Smith gets an 8.5 on the Hatherly scale and me on Pulp gets a 4), so let's talk about Jarvis Cocker. I take Morrissey at his word when he claims to be chaste, but he nevertheless seems to inspire an awful lot of people to want to have sex with him and so is disqualified from the Poster Celibate stakes. Cocker is just the opposite: He has an awful lot of girlfriends for someone who makes you never want to have sex with anyone again.

I always imagine the narrator of songs like "Babies" and "Disco 2000" as the sort of man who spent his adolescence aware of sex only as that thing other people were doing, which squares with the fact that Cocker himself didn't lose his virginity until after he had released his first album and turned twenty. That voyeuristic fascination stays with a person for a long time (overheard at CPAC: "I'm a traditionalist because the libertarians never invited me to their sex parties in high school"), as a consequence of which every romantic scene ends like the video for "This is Hardcore"—by pulling back and seeing the cameras. The weakness of my Ladyblog post about Pulp was that I didn't demonstrate how easily love becomes a movie version of itself, but just listen to "Babies" enough times and it will become self-evident. Hatherly points out how Pulp, like Ghost World, is "marked by attempts to romanticise the mundane," but how quickly that slides into judging our indulgences by whether they're good cinema!

None of that was especially clear, perhaps because my take on Pulp is sadly un-British and therefore weak. Maybe the American translation would have something to do with Neutral Milk Hotel, the band that led a generation into thinking that the ideal love affair would be one between a two-headed boy and the ghost of a teenager fifty years dead. In each case, the effect is to make real life seem tawdry compared with our more and more stylized expectations, even as our public fantasies get more and more tawdry (and this is where Elvis Costello's second album comes in). Fairy tales are "erotic novels for children"—hear that, Jeff Mangum? For children.

I was explaining to someone the other day that my favorite moment in pop music is the third verse of "King Horse" (from Get Happy!!): a girl declines sex because she doesn't want the song that's playing on the radio to be ruined for her. The person I was talking to commented that this girl "sounds like someone who takes art seriously!" If you can understand why the girl in that verse is very shallow rather than very sensitive, you can understand the ways in which Pulp is like a Phil Spector girl group.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

". . . the expectation was that, if you had a fistfight with somebody, you'd become friends afterwards."

When they asked Sugar Ray Robinson what he liked best about boxing, he said, "Getting hit." Speaking of kindred souls!

I did not expect to have my combativeness validated at last night's Opium Magazine Eighth Anniversary event, which I was promised would be full-to-brimming with "fops" and "literary types"—yet, to my surprise, the novelist with the big square head came through. Stephen Elliot, by way of explaining the infamous case of the time he threw a beer in someone's face for saying that he had "no literary merit", said that "back home in Chicago, the expectation was that, if you had a fistfight with someone, you'd become friends afterwards."

Given that this exact sort of male bonding has grown up between the Ordinary Gentlemen and R. S. McCain in the aftermath of their flame war, I thought Elliot's comments were timely. In any event, it explains why a good heart and quick fists (metaphorical or not) make a lovely trio.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Something to Keep in Mind

Schwenkler knows I love him, so I can ask, in response to these posts, what he would have written about this Reagan gaffe (as described by the late, great John Patrick Diggins):
A hostile journalist, determined to reveal his ignorance, asked Reagan if he knew who the leader was of some obscure country that was giving the United States trouble. "No, I don't know his name," replied Reagan, "but after the election he'll sure know mine."
Yet surely love for Reagan is more than the product of "a no-dissenters-allowed policy of lockstep groupthink?"