Friday, April 21, 2017

Redneck nation? Or Victorian?

This is from 14 years ago. It's from an interview with Michael Graham about his book Redneck Nation. Graham's argument, partly serious, partly comic, is that "Northern Liberals" (we'd say "Coastal Elites" nowadays) have picked up redneck attitudes.
When I talk about redneckery in Redneck Nation, I’m not talking about the Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. I’m writing about the ideology: What did a typical white southern “redneck” believe at the beginning of the civil-rights movement 50 years ago?
  • He believed that race mattered, that race was determinant.
  • He believed that free speech was dangerous, spread by “outside agitators” who never learned the southern speech code: “If you can’t say something nice…drink.”
  • He believed that all women were either delicate creatures in need of special social protections, or they were roadhouse trailer trash who would spank you and call you “Daddy.”
  • He believed that the more irrational and ridiculous your religion, the more fervently you believed in God.
  • He believed the most entertaining way to spend a Saturday night was to watch something get “blowed up real good.”
 I'm not convinced he really wants to avoid Jeff Foxworthy stereotypes. If he did, he wouldn't talk about "roadhouse trailer trash" or about watching something get "blowed up real good". It's not that those things don't exist in the south. The problem is that they aren't, and never were, particular or definitive of the south. You can find trashy women, and trashy men, anywhere. Similarly, there are boys and men everywhere who like watching stuff get destroyed.

So let's strip that stuff out and see what's left. What's left is pretty much what any good, progressive thinker from the Victorian era believed:

  • Eugenics: the belief that people can't transcend their genetics and, consequently, the people at the top of the socio-economic ladder belong there.
  • That free speech is dangerous in the hands of people who don't know the rules.
  • That women need to be protected in order to flourish.
  • That the historical and rational basis of religion has been destroyed so all that is left is spirituality.

That is the real ideology of the contemporary left. And that explains this:
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for? 
If you're wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book. 
What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton. 
The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.
And they can no longer explain themselves because their real motives are exactly the ones above and they don't want to admit that, not even to themselves. As a consequence—and I'm hardly the first to say this—the contemporary left is reduced to saying whatever looks like it will win. They have no beliefs of their own they're willing to admit to so they can only viciously attack.

I'm not sure what anybody can do about it. Sometimes I think the best thing would be for the parties of the left to get blowed up real good. That prospect strikes all my lefty friends, and most of my friends are lefties, as terrifying. I'm sure it would be for a while. Very soon, however, I think they'd find it liberating.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


Woody Allen has made some questionable decisions in his personal life, and his recent films have not been great. But I know of no modern filmmaker who would be so willing to indict himself as thoroughly as Allen does in Annie Hall.
I'll buy that. To a point.

Have you ever been around someone who lacerates themselves for their moral failings but smiles as they do it? I've seen it. I've done it myself.

The Last Psychiatrist talks about this somewhere. He talks about how easy it is to say, "I'm a narcissist." Unless you actually plan to do something about it, it's meaningless.

And, if you really mean to do something about it, why do you need to say it? Is declaring that you have a problem going to make you more accountable?

The answer to all those questions is easy: look how it worked out for Woody.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Other girls will judge them."

It's important to pay attention to what actually happens and to pay attention to what actually gets said. The quote above comes from a CBC story about a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends. Let me repeat that, "a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends"; a boy shared pictures she sent to him with other boys and yet the damaging consequence was that "other girls" judged her.

Isn't moral psychology interesting?

Here's the way the CBC sets up the story:
When she sent selfies of her partially naked body, she thought only her boyfriend would see the images. 
The teenager never imagined one of the sexually explicit photos would end up being shared with five other boys in a Dropbox account.
"Partially naked body" means she sent him a picture of her breasts. The CBC is worried you'll enjoy it too much if they're upfront (if you'll pardon the expression) about this.

Here's how she explains how the boy convinced her to send photos:
"Basically [he] threatened to break up with me if I didn't send him pictures. I was young and naive and just sent them, and then that's what he did with it," she said. "I just think he's a pig."
There's a lot of equivocation in that quote. "Basically" here means that he did things that she now interprets as manipulative threats. Just how explicit these threats were is not clear. We also don't know how she interpreted them at the time.

 Here's the moral lesson she has drawn from her experience:
"Other girls will judge them, make them feel bad about themselves, make them feel like a slut for sending the picture, for trusting the person. It hurts self-esteem and it makes it hard for people to trust each other."
She wants it to be possible for people "to trust each other." That is to say, she wants to live in a  world where it's safe for girls to send nude selfies. (By the way, we should notice that while her identity is kept from us, as it should be, one of the consequences of this case being reported in the media is that every single kid at her high school knows who she is. I suspect almost everybody in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia knows who she is. She has two choices: leave town or be stuck with the identity this has given her for the rest of her life. As offensive as this thought will be to some, she'd be better of if the five boys had gotten away with it. That's why kids don't tell their parents about things like this.)

Many (but not all) teenage girls fantasize about someone seeing them naked and a surprising number will arrange to have it happen. They want to have it happen but they don't want it to be their responsibility. Boys, meanwhile, will try to trick or pressure girls into letting them see them naked. The two desires tend to play into one another. The fact that the boys are trying to manipulate the girls into doing this makes it easier for the girls to believe it's not really their responsibility when this happens. It also makes it easier for everyone involved to limit how far things go—most teenagers want to play with fire.

That neither surprises nor depresses me. I still have fond memories of Barb who, at age 17, walked into the room where her brother and I were talking and accidentally-on-purpose let her terrycloth robe fall open. She did this not because she was interested in me; she probably held me in contempt. It would have felt like riding a roller coaster to her—like something that was calculated-to-scare-her-but-was-actually-very-safe. And it was.

If you want to get depressed, stop and think a bit about how this instinct that so many teenage girls have would have worked out for most of human history.

So, what's the lesson here? That we should stop trusting others? To some extent, yes, that is the lesson. That said, living in a world where there is no trust would be horrible. The better lesson is that trust is only possible within strict limits. To use the current jargon, you have to set boundaries. What that current jargon leaves out is that you have to set boundaries on yourself as well as others. To use the old and better jargon, good fences make good neighbours. My fence keeps your livestock away from my garden but it also keeps my livestock out of yours.

(If the only reason you set boundaries is to protect yourself from others, you're a narcissist. And if you advise others to set boundaries only as a way of protecting themselves by controlling others, you're teaching them to be narcissists. The boundary game only works if both sides have an interest in it.)

Notice that the girl quoted by the CBC doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her. She blames the boy, as she should. She doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her because she sees that as a consequence of his betrayal more than something that is the judging-girls' fault.

She may be just a naive teenager but she has a deep understanding of the praxis of high school life. Mean girls slut-shame girls who are willing to go further sexually than they are. She's willing to live with that and most other girls will also go along with the mean girls. It's a way girls can vote girls who threaten them by going too far off the island. The same thing happens to the most prudish girls on the other end of the scale. Every high school girl recognizes that there have to be limits and every high school girl also recognizes that no one is going to be able to have any fun at all if adults get to set the limits. At the same time, it takes someone brave and strong to step up into the role of setting limits and most high school students aren't brave and strong. The only people willing to do that are bullies, enter the mean girls. Crazy as it may seem to us, most teenagers trust bullies to make important moral decisions for them. (Note to busybodies: this is why anti-bullying campaigns will always fail.)

But this girl also wants something else. She wants a secret space she can sneak away to and interact with boys. She wasn't really surprised to find out this boy was, in her words, "a pig". She was counting on that. What really surprised her was that the shame of being such a pig as to ask her for these photos wasn't enough to make him keep the secret to himself. She thought of it as a secret they shared—the basis of the trust she sought was that both of them would be equally afraid of "their" secret getting out.

The key point here is that when she says she wants "people to trust each other" (for that is the implicit message she is sending), what she really wants is to have enclaves where the ordinary rules don't apply and yet remain safe; places where people can sneak away and do things that they will be so ashamed of they will keep these things forever secret. At heart, she's a Victorian.

What's taken that Victorian world away from her is that everyone now has a camera in their pocket. Before that, there was plausible deniability. If I'd been a heel and gone back to school the next day and told everyone that Barb had flashed me, she could have denied it and just about everyone would have believed her.

Notice the subject header again. It's dangerous in teen eyes because the whole world might find out. At the same time, the risk is what makes it fun. Every kid who ever jumped off a roof into a swimming pool knew it was dangerous but none of of them ever thought they were going to end up in a wheelchair. Let's not kid ourselves, tens of thousands of girls and women will send erotic selfies today. Most will never suffer any consequences. Most of those women are also smart enough to realize that it's a virtual certainty that other men and women than the person they sent it to will get to see those pictures.  They can live with that because the risk of being publicly shamed, that "other girls will judge them", is very small.

What to do about it? There is nothing you could do.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hmmm, is logic just a social construct now

Ann Althouse has a nice catch on hypocrisy at the New York Times. I particularly liked the contradictory thinking in this paragraph from the piece she is criticizing:
Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
I take it you see the problem? If "facts are made up" , then "evidence" is just something spoken from a particular standpoint.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

When members of the same family do not talk with each other

This came up in my Facebook feed yesterday.

As of now, more than 400 people have typed "yes" or clicked on "like", thereby revealing more about themselves than they realize.

Before we get to that, notice two things about that message. It uses every trick in the passive-aggressive handbook. It starts with something that looks like sorrow but very quickly changes gear to shame its target with the suggestion that "the children" are suffering because of you. Then it brands the conflict as imaginary. That alone is sufficient grounds to dismiss it. Some conflicts are imaginary but most are not. Most conflicts are real.

Some people do, of course, take offence for trivial or imagined reasons. A lot of others, however, don't stop talking to family members because of a conflict. It may happen after a conflict but it is not that conflict alone that causes someone to stop talking to their siblings, parents or children.

I was curious about the page that would share such things. When I visited it the top posting was this:

There is a certain tension in finding both those memes on the same page.

By responding positively to the first post, more than 400 people have outed themselves. They've told us that they have a family member not speaking to them. This clearly bothers them. So they've decided to respond by using passive aggression, by calling attention to a post on Facebook where they hope the person who is not speaking with them will see it. How very nice vile of them!

When a family member stops speaking with you they are telling you that they no longer believe your behaviour is acceptable. They may be right or wrong in this judgment but it is very unlikely that they are being impulsive. They're doing this not on the basis of one thing but on the basis of long-established behavioural traits of yours. They are not nurturing resentment about the last conflict so much as they are adjusting their behaviour based on their 100 certainty that there will be more such conflicts in the future if they maintain contact with you. As I say, they may be wrong; if, however, you were inclined to type "yes" in response to the message at the top of this post, you can be pretty certain that you, and not they, are the problem.

It's Easter today—the ultimate feast of reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, is not simply a matter of getting together again. It requires making amends and attempting to sin no more. And sometimes, reconciliation is not possible in this life. Sometimes people feel they've been burned so often that they aren't willing to risk being burned again. If someone has decided to stop speaking with you there isn't much you can do about it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Not a religious song

A few years ago some poor Christian shared his love for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on some social media I was reading at the time. He was promptly shat upon by also sorts of people who assured him that the song was not a religious song but a love song.

I think they're wrong. I think it and many other Paul Simon's songs are religious songs. That's the key to his success—that he writes religious songs for an era that loves religious music but doesn't want this music to be too on the nose. Simon sometimes puts overt religion in the music while leaving ambivalence and existential angst in the lyrics. It works surprisingly well. When I was a kid and folk masses were in vogue his "Sounds of Silence" was a popular choice and it worked surprisingly well.

It worked because it has no theology about it. Leonard Cohen songs, as has been noted here previously, don't work in Christian liturgy precisely because they come with their own theology and that theology clashes with ours. But "Sound of Silence" doesn't has so little theology it may as well have none. It works like a psalm, expressing a yearning for something the singer himself doesn't grasp, probably because he doesn't, Simon's efforts to explain what the song is about are confused and confusing, little wonder that many people concluded it was a young person struggling to talk with God.

The purely musical "religion" in "Sound of Silence" consists in its being very hymn-like; it's in a minor key like many Jewish hymns and it has irresistible call to sing along. The musical connection is much more obvious in "Bridge Over Troubled Water, with its gospel influence, and "American Tune" above, which notoriously borrows its melody from Bach's famous chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. When I first figured this out as a teenager it got me wondering about the line, "We come in the age’s most uncertain hour." On the one hand, Paul Simon obviously didn't mean Christ's crucifixion when he wrote "the ages most uncertain hour." On the other hand, once you've made that connection, it's impossible not to hear it that way ever after.

So ... what?

Well, that's the nature, and the limitation, os so many pop songs. Robert Christgau wrote once about a teenage girl who thought that the Beatles song, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," was about how life was an "eerie, perverted circus." He was quite certain that wasn't what it was about for the Beatles, and it wasn't, but who is to tell a teenage girl it isn't about life being an "eerie, perverted circus for her?

But here's a challenge, try thinking hard about "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite". You can sorta see the "eerie, perverted circus" aspect of it in the music. You can see it most clearly in the weird circusy interlude, which is a straight steal from the Doors version of Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song", released just a few months before the Beatles began recording Sergeant Pepper. But what about the lyrics? What can you here in theme? As is the case with just about all John Lennon's lyrics, what you here is nothing at all. As others have noted before me, Lennon specialized in a kind of easy going nihilism. The more closely you pay attention to his lyrics, the less meaning they have.

That's not true of Paul Simon. Many of his songs walk up to the precipice of nihilism but there is a spiritual yearning in them, a craving for God that is there whether he means it to be or not. The teenager who heard an "eerie, perverted circus" in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was just projecting teenage angst. Paul Simon was doing something more.

And it still resonates today. As a political ad, the following is empty. Literally empty. I defy you to find any coherent message in it.

But read it as a psalmist crying out for something lost, and you'll start to see possibilities. Possibilities that Bernie Sanders is scared to actually say out loud. For starters, this has to be the whitest political ad ever made. The first non-white person to appear in it is going down a line of white people giving them all the high five! As if the only reason they included her was so she could celebrate whiteness. The imagery, moreover, is all white America. The non-whites are there only to add colour. Bernie grasped, as Paul Simon grasped years before him, that White, Christian America was slipping away. Why? Big question. Too big for here. The important thing is that you could feel it toppling and people were forming sides between those who wanted to try and prop it up and those who wanted to rush around the other side and push it over faster.

If you're one of those who wants to try and save or regain America, and I'll come out of the closet as one myself, the thing you cannot escape is that there was a religious element to America. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”.