The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Bloggin' Kristin 2: Mother

I read in great big gulps while our daughter naps on the weekend. Now halfway through. I am soon leaving for a week’s vacation without internet, so you’ll have to wait a little while for the next installment, which will probably be the last one.

This may be the single best novel I’ve ever read. (The other contender is War and Peace.)

Again I am struck by Undset’s gift at sketching characters that are utterly believable, as complex as any living being, and deep. I am struck by her gift of “showing not telling.” When I wanted to be a writer (ha) those were the two things that bedeviled me. Those who can do it I view as gods.

(Before I started Kristin I was reading Infinite Jest but for all my true admiration for DFW’s amazing wordsmithery, this is not where the charism of writers lies.)

I’m also struck by what a page-turner this is. I am intensely invested in the story. I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. As I write this I’m struggling with the temptation to just spend the whole day reading the book—but of course I have a business to run here.

All right, some chaotic notes.

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Whatever You Do, Don't Pray

I take a break from your regularly scheduled 14th century Norway blogging to bring your attention to a funny piece that appeared recently in America’s Finest News Source: “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.”

You may have already seen it because it’s been around on Twitter and Tumblr several times now. I’m writing about it now because TAS Alum ayjay linked to it.

Quick question: what’s missing in this paragraph?

According to relatives who moved thousands of miles away and are currently alienated from much of the family, Husmer has never once taken a major professional or financial risk, choosing instead to “coast through life” by putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his two children’s lives, and being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.

First, let’s think about what The Onion is doing here. I’ve argued before that the internet (and perhaps its recent change of ownership) has led The Onion to change its editorial strategy from “writing funny stuff that panders to our readers” to “writing funny stuff that will make our readers want to heighten their social standing by sharing it on social networks”, a subtle but, in my view, real, difference.

If we accept the old-school newsgroup definition of “trolling” as “trying to get a reaction” as opposed of “trying to make people angry” The Onion is now very much (and a real way, moreso than in the past) in the trolling business.

And here we’ve got a great Onion piece, because it is trolling both “sides” here, is it not? It’s trolling its traditional audience of urban hipsters who are mocked by the piece and will ironically share it, but it’s also trolling the guys-who-stayed-in-their-small-town and will very unironically also share it.

Anyway…

When I read the sentence “putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his…” my mind completed the sentence with “church.”

But there’s no mention of “church,” or “God,” or “faith” in this story, is there? And shouldn’t there be? I mean, this is a piece that recites clichés of Small Town vs Big City life, and one of those clichés is that Small Town people are churched.

But Michael Husmer, for all appearances, doesn’t go to church. Not that he isn’t “spiritual”, because we still need that for his picture of happiness. So instead of going to church, he has “[put] considerable time and effort into […] being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.”

That would have been a bridge too far for The Onion. The Onion trolls its audience—while pandering. If they’d shown someone who goes to church as more fulfilled than their presumably largely secular audience, they wouldn’t have been able to build the ironic detachment to enjoy this critique of their lifestyle.

Anyway, I couldn’t help but think of this post and video brought to you by Friend of TAS Rod Dreher which highlights just how thoroughly contemporary American media ignores religion in the day-to-day life of people.

Meanwhile, we’ve replaced the language of salvation with the language of addiction.

I’m not sure I have a point here except to note that it is through the day-to-day that we build the awareness of faith that allows it to remain a potent cultural force (as well as through projects of infiltration and renewal) and that there’s something important here about making and keeping faith as a fabric of everyday life for contemporary American culture. Call it the naked cultural square.

Bloggin' Kristin 1: Youth

My first hundred pages. Below the fold because spoilers.

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Bloggin' Kristin

After the eighth horse’s head in my bed I have finally caved in to TAS Chamberlain Matt Frost’s entreaties and begun reading Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter.

Since the translation available on Kindle is reportedly not very good, I have next to me as I speak an ancient and cumbersome artifact, a codex which I will carry around with me now for some time. It has been handed to me by my wife, who is now done with Kristin (for now, at least).

The timing is apt. Summer is here, and I will be vacationing (or, “vacationing”, as entrepreneurs do…) soon.

This is a nice throwback for me. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read fiction, or a codex, or a book this long. And since I’m told this is such a masterpiece (and thirty or so pages in, I’m already inclined to agree), and since I may or may not need extra motivation to make it to the last page, and since I know Matt has a gun and so I’d better make it to the last page, I intend to blog my reading of the book here.

It would be truly glorious if we could get a bit of a book club started and have other folks (bloggers, commenters) join in, but I understand that’s a bit of a stretch.

In any case, get ready for some more Kristin bloggin’.

Bloodlust is worse than ignorance

When Christians (and smart agnostics) talk about the New Atheists, what they usually talk about is their ignorance, because it is so glaring and obvious. Ignorance about philosophy, ignorance about the world, ignorance about history, ignorance about humanity.

But really what ought to be striking about the New Atheists is what I can only call their bloodlust. These are people who quite clearly and nakedly want to see religious believers oppressed, and even eradicated. Like the European anti-Semites who don’t want to fall afoul of speech laws, they know very well where the line is, and they know very well how to walk right up to it and not cross it, but there’s little doubt where they’re headed.

Hitchens believes that religion is the main driver of war, but of course the best rebuttal of this is not a book of history or sociology, but his own history. Hitchens needed no Yahweh and no Shiva to enthusiastically call the thunder of war upon countries he deemed less civilized than his, and orgiastically luxuriate in the ensuing bloodshed. Hitchens was an enthusiastic advocate of the idea that more civilized groups should wage war on the less civilized; he was an equally enthusiastic advocate of the idea that religious belief is the mark of the uncivilized. He didn’t say “2+2=4” but the math is still straightforward.

As Damon Linker noted in the only perceptive essay I’ve seen on this, Richard Dawkins has written very clearly that bringing children up to believe in God is not only tantamount to child abuse, but actually worse than sexual abuse. Dawkins doesn’t explicitly spell out the only logical conclusion of this—that society should treat religious parents the way we treat sexual predators, with prison sentences, thorough ostracism, and perhaps “reëducation”—but he doesn’t need to.

Here’s a TED Talk by Sam Harris on science and morality. Now, normally the impulse of any Christian (or other slightly educated person) would be to note that his argument that science is a moral guide doesn’t, you know, make any sense whatsoever.

But actually, that’s missing the point. Skip to 10:15. What Harris does here is fascinating. It’s rhetorical three-card Monte so you have to put it on slow motion to break it down.

Before a picture of women wearing head-to-toe Islamic veils, here’s what Harris says:

We might not like this, we might think of this as wrong in Boston or Palo Alto. But who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture are wrong to force their wives and daughters to live in cloth bags? Who are we to say even that they’re wrong to beat their wives with steel cables, or to throw battery acid in their faces if they decline the privilege to be smothered in this way? Who are we NOT to say this? Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this? I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned. But what does “voluntary” mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?

Notice, first, the big straw man. Harris conflates the wearing of a veil with beating wives with steel cables or throwing battery acid in their face. I’m pretty sure “we” tolerate the former but not the latter. I’m pretty sure that “we” are quite comfortable in saying that these things are wrong. I’m pretty sure that in any advanced country if a man throws battery acid in his wife’s face and is arrested, “I am a proud denizen of an ancient culture” is not actually acceptable as a legal defense. So this is a complete straw man, but Harris gets to conflate everyday, mundane expressions of religious faith with utter atrocities, and paint a world where we are dangerously complacent and inhumane by tolerating these atrocities.

Note also how Harris talks about the supposed toleration of fundamentalist Islam in “Boston and Palo Alto” at the beginning of his paragraph but it’s pretty clear by the end that he’s talking about fundamentalist Islam wherever it may be.

But note, most importantly, the little switch at the end. This is where you lose sight of the lady.

Does Sam Harris think we ought to make the wearing of Islamic veils illegal? He quickly reassures us: “I’m not talking about voluntary wearing of a veil. Women should be able to wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned.”

Phew.

A pause.

And then he says this. “But what does ‘voluntary’ mean in a community where when a girl gets raped, her father’s first impulse, rather often, is to murder her out of shame?”

See what just happened?

Of course, voluntary expressions of religious faith should be allowed…except that the meaning of “voluntary” is in question. Indeed, who could say it’s “voluntary” for you to belong in a cult if you’ve been brainwashed into doing so? Of course, Harris has made it clear elsewhere that he believes virtually all religious belief is brainwashing. So voluntary expressions of religious belief are fine, except that it’s an open question whether they’re really voluntary, and if they’re not “voluntary” by Harris’s definition, then they’re really fair game for the coercive powers of the state.

You really have to watch the video. Harris says the “voluntary” part softly, almost musing to himself, you could easily miss it. And then he brings up the shocking idea of a father murdering her daughter for being raped (and insists on that image) so that you quickly forget the little parenthetical about the definition of “voluntary.”

Harris knows that even though an audience like TED is probably not a big fan of religion, it’s also probably not quite yet willing to strip all religious believers of their civil rights, so you have to just push slightly at the Overton window.

If you think I’m being paranoid, Harris doesn’t hide his comfort at using the levers of state to punish religious belief.

Harris is actually refreshing among the “New” Atheists as not exactly lumping all religions together. He thinks some religions are worse than others, and has no problem contrasting them. (Sometimes you prefer a New Atheist who recognizes differences between religions to a milquetoast agnostic who thinks all religions are the same…) And he thinks the worst of them is Islam. And because when he talks about violence against religion he talks about Islam specifically and not religion in general, he is less guarded about showing his true intent.

Harris has argued against the building of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. He has argued for the use of torture in the War on Terror—in fact he doesn’t like the expression “War on Terror”; he wants it to be replaced by a war on Islam (Pope Benedict couldn’t get invited to TED, but maybe if he’d said that…). He has argued for a nuclear first strike against Iran should the country acquire nuclear weapons, an option that even Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t contemplate. (He has noted that the prospect horrifies him, which I’m sure would be a great comfort to the good citizens of Tehran. This will hurt me more than it’ll hurt you, etc.)

So in other words, Sam Harris is wholly comfortable using civil oppression, war, torture and weapons of mass destruction against the believers of a religion. Now maybe it’s just a religion, not all religions. But Harris has also made it abundantly clear that he only feels microscopically less contemptuous of myself and fellow Christians than of Muslims. And of course once the terror machine machine gets started it needs to feed on new enemies.

Do I believe that Sam Harris is actually actively plotting to wage a global jihad on all religious believers? Well, I’m agnostic (ha) on the question.

But (yes, I’m going there) if you think of an event like the Holocaust, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It grew from a fertile terrain of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism which had intellectual promoters, many of whom were very well-read and well-credentialed, many of whom were good husbands and good fathers. If you’d asked one of these men, circa say 1920, whether they favored a plan to systematically murder all of the Jews on the planet, they would have scoffed—and sincerely, too (for some of them anyway). But they did help bring it about. And once it happened, of course, none of them (that I know of) turned against it, and many of them cheered it on and actively participated.

Now, I obviously don’t think the situation of Christians, or religious believers in general, in wealthy secular countries is anything like the situation of Jews in, say, Vienna or Paris in 1890, let alone Berlin in 1932. And there’s a very good chance we may never get there.

But I do think Christians in the West are much too complacent about it, and this complacency is reflected in our response to the “New” Atheists, which gave them a heck of a lot of credit. In a sense, this is admirable. Very Christian. These guys are one shot of vodka too many away from calling for all our heads on pikes, and we’re patiently explaining Philosophy 101 to them.

The problem is that while this is going on, Sam Harris goes to TED and gets a standing ovation. And a slightly-less-strident (at least in public) version of “New” Atheism is increasingly taking over the elites of our culture. (If you’re wondering why I’m writing about “New” Atheism now when no one’s talking about it, it’s because of this Buzzfeed post.) There’s more than one kind of atheism, and because it’s the worst, we’re assuming it’s going to stay the minority. But there’s nothing in either past or recent history to suggest that that’s true.

Mainstream Christians and run-of-the-mill agnostic liberals are united in their belief that “it couldn’t happen here.” But the French Republic kicked religious orders out of the country and banned religious schools just a short century ago, in a democratic country where there were devout Christians were a significant minority with significant political clout. Again, I’m not saying it’s going to happen in the US. I’m saying it makes no sense to be complacent about it, something the Founding Fathers would wholly agree with.

And one thing I’d like would be for people who talk about these guys to be clear with what we’re dealing here—religious people, but particularly non-believers. These are not people who are “extreme” because their ideas are too simplistic, or because they’re not civil, or not nice (we believers can handle ourselves on the tough streets of ideas, thanks)—though all these things are true. These are people who are extreme because they don’t really think religious believers deserve civil rights. This is something I hadn’t realized until looking into them many years after their books came out and many years after I’d read the reviews of them. I wish we’d had said it.

A Shift In How We Think About Education

Random thought I had on the way back from dropping my daughter off at the Nanny…

There’s been a remarkable shift in our public discourse about education, and what it ought to entail, over the past few centuries, more remarkable for the fact that (I think) it’s gone unnoticed.

Simply put, in the 19th and 18th centuries, the public discourse about education was about politics; over the past few decades it’s become about economics.

Here’s what I mean: if you read the great advocates of democracy in the 18th and 19th century (the Enlightenment philosophers, the American Founding Fathers, various French liberal and/or republican intellectuals (using those words in their French meanings)), to them education was a necessary precondition of democracy and its main goal was to build enlightened, free, citizens. What was foremost to them was that education be liberal, in the oldest and etymological sense of the word: an education to freedom. A free society could not long endure if its citizens were not educated enough to make responsible use of that freedom in their personal lives and in public life, and so education was not only crucial but a certain type of education was.

Flash forward to today, and the only goal is to beat the Chinamen who are coming to eat the bread off our plates. The central question about education, both sides of the aisle agree, is how to create productive worker bees workers to win the economic race against China.

This has obvious consequences. The classic curriculum of the public schools of the French Third Republic emphasized philosophy, mathematics and latin. There were also “morality” classes in elementary school. Today the United States is obsessed with producing ever more graduates in the field of experimental science and engineering.

Now, there are several possible explanations for this shift, not all of them bad:

  • To some extent, the earlier focus on liberal education was related to an anxiety about whether the then-new experiment of democracy could succeed. Critics notwithstanding, the architects of democracy were well aware of how the regime could fall victim to populism leading to despotism (today we would say fascism). One might say liberal education has become less pressing a concern, because we’ve reached that goal. Advanced democracies have been around and relatively stable for a long time, and almost everyone in them agrees with the basic tenets of individual rights, representation, rule of law, etc. Of course, a critic would say that this is all dangerous complacency—we think democracy just “happens” whereas in fact it is a constant struggle.
  • If you agree that the polity should encourage some form of liberal (in this sense) education, then you are postulating that there is some sort of “public morality” that everyone must subscribe to, and perhaps this is dangerous. Perhaps we’ve grown a lot more weary about “imposing morality” on anyone and this is something we prefer to leave to the private sphere. There’s an obvious sense in which any attempt to impose a worldview through (mandatory) public education is creepy; Jules Ferry, the architect of France’s public school system, once wrote that his main goal for his school was to teach citizens to be able to sit quietly for hours at a time and to obey orders. And obviously the overarching goal of public education in France was to rid the country of organized religion by combating the “brainwashing” of non-secular schools with secular brainwashing. But there are obvious retorts to this libertarian-ish view: that it amounts to a dangerous relativism; that the ideology that has replaced it, which we could dub “economism”, is itself a form of public morality; that indeed the very belief that only the private sphere should teach morality is itself a form of public morality; that really no one actually believes this, witness ever-flaring debates about e.g. evolution and sex in school curricula, or the striking resemblance between school curricula in the US’s manifold jurisdictions.

What’s striking to me here is that if we’ve gone away from “public morality” as a goal for education, it seems to me that it’s either because we all agree on what the public morality is, or because we can’t agree on what the public morality is. And I have a nagging sense that the answer is actually “both.”

There’s a sense in which there is a “public morality” in education and that it works out to some sort of “atheistic productivist moral therapeutic deism” where the goal of life (and what education should prepare you for) is to be happy and do whatever you want and find fulfillment as long as fulfillment involves earning a degree from a four-year institution of higher education in a vocational field and finding a productive 9-to-5 job (and getting married but as long as it’s not before 30 and having had many other romantic experiences before that). Or something.

Keen readers of this post will rightly guess that I side with the “politists” against the “economists” in this debate, if only because the “economist” view is so awful, but what I’m more interested in is in why we’ve actually shifted away from this view so much that to articulate it is to seem old-fashioned and out of step, and perhaps even outside the Overton window.

(PS I guess I’m thinking about this because yesterday I had a convo with libertarians on Twitter about civil liberties and terrorism. They argued that another 9/11 wouldn’t be such a huge deal because after all plenty of people die in car crashes every year. I responded that another 9/11 would be a huge deal because it would have huge social and political ramifications. Now they’re right that it doesn’t have to be this way, but they’re wrong to just wave away the stubborn fact that this is the world in which we live. I really wish it weren’t this way. As I said yesterday, I agree strongly with David Foster Wallace here. But most Americans don’t. Perhaps teaching that sacrifice is part of liberty should be part of our public goals for education. Of course, the idea of public goals for education would also horrify libertarians…)

Alan on me on growth

(Since TAS Alum @ayjay has disabled comments on his blog, I’m responding here, so this will not be like a regular blog post. Here’s me and here’s Alan. )

With regard to grammar, a subject on which you’re more qualified than me, I take your point, though only to some extent. I am not merely arguing that “in conditions of economic growth many heated debates would become less heated or would disappear altogether.” I am arguing that these debates arise as a result of decelerating economic growth and that the only sustainable solution to these debates is higher economic growth.

With regard to, say, pensions, it couldn’t be clearer. We are arguing about “saving” Social Security, and whether the way to “save” it is to raise taxes, or lower benefits, or raise the retirement age, or move to some form of private accounts, or some combination of those things, or whatever. There’s only one problem with this: absent long run economic growth none of these solutions will “save” Social Security and Social Security will be in serious trouble whatever we do. And on the other hand, if there is long run economic growth, “Social Security” under whatever form will do fine.

This is rather like being stuck in a car on railroad tracks with a freight train rapidly approaching and arguing about whether the way to avoid it is to change the car’s paint job or install a different sound system. These things may well be desirable and these questions are worth posing. But if your objective is to avoid getting crushed by the freight train, they are also quite irrelevant. If you want a better paint job that’s a very legitimate thing to want. But if you want to avoid being pancaked you have to put the pedal to the metal. And everyone is acting under the assumption that getting the right paint job will stop the freight train. It won’t.

These debates are “about” economic growth in the sense that any rational outside observer would view “avoid the incoming freight train” (prevent a Social Security collapse) and “move the car off the railroad tracks” (reignite economic growth) as essentially identical propositions. The debate “about” avoiding the freight train is the debate about moving the car off the tracks. Now maybe the accelerator is stuck or the engine is out, or something, and in that case that’s something really worth looking into. But that’s not even the debate we’re having.

So that’s with regard to the point about semantics, which is incidental.

With regard to your points about economic growth…

Except that we don’t know what policies generate and sustain growth. At best we might be able to discover and eliminate some policies that inhibit growth, but economic flourishing in any given society depends on a great many unpredictable and uncontrollable factors. Often the stars just have to align.

First of all, I would vigorously dispute just about all of these points. (And also note that if all we know is what the bad policies are, then that’s already a place to start.)

But second of all, I would note that if you’re saying all these things, then at least we’re having the right debate, which was my whole point to begin with.

If we spent all the time we’re spending debating the deficit, unemployment, Social Security, immigration reform, etc. instead debating how to reignite economic growth (including, perhaps, whether that’s possible) we would be in a much, much, much better place. Which, again, is my point.

Now, on to this:

As James Poulos has recently argued, in these matters as in so many others we are susceptible to the illusion that proper planning can both eliminate failure and ensure success, which means that if growth doesn’t happen someone has screwed up and is to be blamed. That is wrong, but more than that, as James argues, it’s a mode of thought that misses a vital truth: The planned life is not worth living.

So my response to PEG’s post is this: we need to strive to articulate and commend visions of the good life, of human flourishing, that do not depend on economic growth. Then, if the growth comes, well and good — what a delightful bonus.

Now, why didn’t I think of that? Yes, Marie Antoinette, it’s possible to live the good life without bread. Why, I’m sure many vagrants lead a much happier life than many people with their fancy McMansions and their cars and their indoor plumbing! All this fretting about material concerns is so bourgeois, so materialistic.

Sorry for being sardonic, but this is where I lose my patience with the Poulos-Jacobs “critique” of politics and policy. Yes, it’s important to realize that politics and policy can’t solve all our problems, and certainly not “save” us in any metaphysical sense. It’s important to realize that we as individuals have a duty to first change our own lives and those of people around us, and to realize that we can transfigure one another in our private lives in a way that politics never can. It’s important to realize that culture matters a great deal. It’s important that wonks have some humility. Yes to all these things.

But we also live in the real world. In this world, people organize collectively—as they always have, as they always will, those political animals. In the parts of the world we live in, they do so through things called governments. They have things called elections where they appoint representatives. These representatives then implement things called policies. Out of the universe of possible policies, some are more desirable than others. The more desirable ones will improve the lives of millions upon millions of people in countless tangible ways. The less desirable ones will make the lives of millions upon millions of people worse in countless tangible ways. That stuff, like, matters.

The wonder of the life to come does not absolve us of the duty to serve our brothers in this life—indeed, it reinforces it. In a world of angels, we wouldn’t need politics and economics, but that’s not the world we live in (didn’t you write a book about that? I recall it was quite good). As Pascal (the better one) said, man is neither angel nor beast, but he who would make him an angel turns him into a beast. This is pretty basic stuff.

If you want us to prepare for a world without growth, I assume you’ve been really happy with the state of the United States for the past 5 years, because you got your wish. I hope you’ll visit the 50% of unemployed Southern European youngsters to see how wonderful a zero-growth world is. I hope you’ll experience the deep social malaise of Japan, with its suicide rate and its bone-deep risk aversion. This is not just about material living conditions. Societies tear apart. Neighbors and strangers stop trusting each other. No one wants to take a chance on other people. When the pie gets smaller people fight like dogs over the scraps. The young turn against the old and the old against the young, the rich against the poor and the poor against the rich, the white against the brown, the citizen against the migrant. Maybe you’ll say “See? What was PEG worrying about?” But I doubt it.

A further reason why your line of thinking is so pernicious is that these things have a self-fulfilling quality, what Keynes called the paradox of thrift. If no one expects growth, people will invest and consume less, and the zero growth will continue.

The stubborn fact of the matter is that modernity relies on economic growth. I don’t know which revolutionary said the Revolution is like a bicycle, if it doesn’t keep moving forward it falls down, but communists have a strange way with insight sometimes, and while that may not be true of revolution, it’s certainly true about the modern world. It is a world built on growth—built by growth and also built on the expectation of future growth.

And if your response is “Well if we have to always have growth then maybe we’ve been on the wrong track all this time” I would respectfully suggest that living past 40, not starving to death, not dying of a toothache, not losing half your children before they take their first steps, not being forced to watch a warlord rape your wife are all pretty cool things and that only modernity brings this. But hey, the Dark Ages produced lots of saints, so that’s cool too.

Several generations of Americans have organized their lives in expectation of a government program called Social Security that will serve them through retirement, and this expectation will be dashed if growth is too low for the next 20 years. “Sorry Grandma, time to eat cat food now, but remember that Jesus loves you and you can still make friends with your neighbors” is, simply, not acceptable as a response to this problem. Oh, but “the planned life is not worth living.” (Said the tenured professor to the entrepreneur.) Okay then.

Just because ships sink sometimes does not mean that it’s irrelevant who the captain is and what she does, or that sinking is somehow equally valid as an option as not sinking. I mean, who can tell? Sometimes we hit icebergs, sometimes we don’t. It’s all a big mystery. Ashes to ashes and all that, lad. All we can do is put on life jackets and be nice to the people in the next cabin and pray. And if we do get to port, why, “what a delightful bonus.”

And if you don’t like my analogy of society as a ship with a captain—well, tough. This is the City of Man.

Replacing less desirable policies with more desirable policies is not “the planned life” in any by me comprehensible sense of those words. And by the way I am very inclined to believe that in many instances the more desirable policy is “the government should just leave it to private initiative”—but that is still a policy decision and “decide to do nothing” is just as much “planning” as “decide to do X”. A vision of the good society is put forward, with certain government policies considered as a means of getting closer to it. This is what human beings do.

Gifts Make Slaves, Whips Make Dogs, and Covenant With Yahweh Makes Charity

A couple months ago, I read Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism by Schwartz. As suggested by the subtitle, in this sense “Mediterranean” is not a geographic designation but a synonym for clientelism. This combines two of my favorite interests, Western civ history and comparative exchange, and so naturally I had to read it when I saw it in the PUP catalog.

As background, it helps to understand that clientelism (aka hierarchy, patronage, or authority ranking) is one of the basic modes of human organization. One of the many ways that our culture is WEIRD is that to us clientelism is relatively unimportant in fact and even less so in salience. The logic of clientelism is premised on reciprocity under conditions of inequality. So you have higher status people giving gifts to lower status people, who in turn incur social obligations to the higher status people. In the process the former become patrons and the latter clients. In the extreme case this can turn into debt slavery, but even short of that you see the clients reciprocating with deference (thereby conferring status to their patrons), votes, and fighting in the patron’s military unit. My  favorite example of reciprocity through deference comes from JLM’s Social Structures (p. 206), when he notes that non-military feudal reciprocity “was usually minor or degrading or both: in return for the manor of Hemingstone, the tenant was required to `leap, whistle and fart for the king’s amusement’ every Christmas day.“ (For more background on clientelism, read Graeber’s Debt, JLM’s Social Structures, and Fiske’s RMT).

Anyway, back to the Hellenistic/principate era Judaism that is Schwartz’s empirical focus, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that his conclusion is that Jews exhibited both clientelism and solidarity during this period. Nonetheless, he sees Jews as exhibiting relatively less clientelism and relatively more solidarity than your typical Hellenistic culture. That is, Jewish culture was unusual in providing charity to the poor without turning them into clients, and in particular with constraints on debt slavery and weak institutions of euergetism (civic philanthropy as clientelism). In this respect it makes sense to take a sort of glass half full approach and ask where did the solidarity come from?

The source of solidarity is God, or to be more precise about it the Bible, and to be even more precise about it, P, D, and the prophets. (For background on Hebrew source criticism concepts like “P,” listen to the Yale OT course by Hayes or read Who Wrote the Bible by Friedman). The prophets and priests who wrote these parts of the Bible, and to a certain extent the rabbis who developed the subsequent interpretive tradition, were developing an ideology of mutual support and a polemic against reciprocity since to hold a client in debt implies that they are not members of the same community with obligations to one another on the same level as between members of the same household. This is seen most clearly in passages like Deuteronomy 23:19, which prohibits charging interest to another member of the community and likewise in other parts of the Bible that demand debt jubilees in which debts are forgiven (and in anticipation of which one is supposed to nonetheless continue making “loans” to those who need them despite the imminent foreseeable mass debt amnesty). That is, in Fiske’s terms, these strands of the Bible are engaging in polemic against authority ranking and in favor of communal sharing. It is telling that debt jubilees come from the P source, which suggests an underlying class dynamic of priests contesting with landowners for the support of the masses, very similar to the oratores/bellatores split of the mediaeval elite or the models of a semi-autonomous intellectual class found in Gramsci, Bourdieu, and new class theory.

However the glass half empty is that, as Schwartz emphasizes, this was to a large extent an aspirational ideology and in practice Hellenistic/principate (and presumably Biblical) era Jews didn’t always live up to it, but still had a fair amount of clientelism. In some cases this was genteel clientelism, as with the rabbinic traditions in which one reciprocated the mentorship of a master rabbi with praise (much as a 21st century academic will write journal articles citing her doctoral advisor), and yeah, this is a form of clientelism but it’s a pretty far cry from debt slavery. At the other extreme you’ve got The Wisdom of Sirach, which Schwartz reads as a sort of a Hellenized Jew’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” type deal, complete with full-blown Bourdieu among the Kabyle-ism in which the instrumentality of gift giving is just barely sublimated.

It’s interesting that Joshua ben Sira was a thoroughly Hellenized chap, living in Alexandria (the same diaspora community that included his book in its great cultural achievement, the LXX Bible). This cosmopolitanism and cynicism to a large extent go together. Part of the logic of communal sharing is that it only works within tightly bound communities and indeed in lab experiments you prime communal sharing by emphasizing the alter’s common membership in a highly salient community. We also see this logic in the parts of the Bible that demand egalitarianism. For instance, the very next verse after Deuteronomy 23:19’s famous prohibition against interest allows the exception that one can charge interest to foreigners (including resident aliens).

Parts of the Bible are downright genocidal, but what’s interesting is that these parts are uniformly directed towards what we might call an especially energetic form of boundary work. That is, the Bible reserves its most bloodthirsty passages for other peoples who threaten to undermine the particularity of Israel through intermarriage and encouraging apostasy (issues which the Bible sees as nearly synonymous). (e.g., Numbers 31:15-17Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Nor can you really separate the “nice” Bible that discourages exploitation from the “mean” Bible that demands men divorce their foreign wives and that the nation wage genocidal campaigns against the nations within Canaan. Intense social closure (at least in aspiration) and intense altruism (at least in aspiration) were mutually supportive. What undergirds both of these issues is that the nation is defined by relationship to Yahweh. The Bible defines Israel not primarily by common descent from Abraham’s twelve legitimate great-grandsons but rather by common affirmation of the covenant Abraham cut with Yahweh. Notably, most of the covenant language follows the genre conventions of Near Eastern vassalage treaties. Although the Bible vacillates on such issues as whether Yahweh’s protection is contingent, all versions of the covenant establish Yahweh as patron of Israel which means that relations of Jews to one another are as mutual clients to a single patron. Now in general co-clients often lack horizontal ties, but this structural equivalence means that there’s the ideological raw material there to build an aspirational case that horizontal ties among these co-clients are as members of a common household. We see this view make the jump to Christianity, yet again primarily as an aspiration, in Paul’s view of the church (including the laity) as the new Israel and internal to which there were to be altruistic relations (e.g., his letters to the Corinthians, which both encapsulate supersessionist covenant theology by rejecting circumcision and demand egalitarian relations within the community through internal arbitration of disputes, sharing the agape feast, etc).

Conversely, the decline of particularism and closure is associated with the decline in altruism. Nelson’s thesis is that the taboo against usury relaxed with the decline of a notion of tribalism. Similarly, we see a close reflection of this in the common observation that welfare states are most likely to arise in highly homogenous high trust societies like Scandinavia and less so in heterogenous societies like the United States. However much there might be an aspiration towards universal altruism it looks much like the product of universal and altruism are more or less a constant, such that if you increase one, you tend to decrease the other. An extremely open society is one in which we can hope people will refrain from swindling one another, but it’s probably too much to expect that they will consider highly inegalitarian relationships to be inappropriate or engage in unreciprocated altruism.

cross-posted to Code and Culture

The Case Against The Case Against National Service

I probably wouldn’t support any actually existing proposal for national service, whether in the US or in France.

There are plenty of good practical arguments against national service: it’s expensive; it’s social engineering with a low likelihood of success; it’s feel-good paternalism; it’s a waste of time. If your idea of national service is military service, you can add that good 21st century militaries are highly professional outfits, not mass conscript armies, that social engineering is not the military’s job, and so on.

Those are all good arguments. They are also not the arguments that most libertarians make. And the libertarian arguments are not only ridiculous, and not only as ridiculous as they are strongly-held, they are ridiculous in a specifically pernicious way that perfectly encapsulates why I’m not a libertarian.

I remember being so shocked that I committed the event to memory: many many years ago Rep Rangel introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft as a protest against the Iraq War. One of the writers at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote (and this so shocked me that I committed this quote to memory) that military service is “a heinous institution that presupposes that people are the property of the state.”

I don’t remember which of the Volokh writers wrote this but if I’m not mistaken all of them are legal scholars, and this idea which ought to embarrass a first-year law student shows the extent to which libertarian brains shut down with a mention of the draft. The state is entitled to demand military service of you for the same reason that it’s entitled to demand that you pay a portion of your wages: military service is a form of taxation paid in kind. Military service is like slavery in the same way that taxation is theft. (And if you read this and pumped up your fist and went “Well, yeah!” you need to read more books.)

I’m the most quasi-libertarian non-libertarian you’ll ever meet. Milton Friedman is one of my all-time personal heroes—I even named my cat after him! Free to Choose will be mandatory (gasp!) viewing for my kids.

Here’s the thing, though.

My great-grandfather was a major in the French Army. When the Battle of France was lost he was one of only a handful of battalion commanders who managed to keep his unit together in the debacle, and was decorated as one of the final acts of the legitimate government of France. He was a public school teacher and administrator, because he had grown up as a stableman’s son and a public school teacher’s detection and encouragement of his precocity (something forbidden nowadays) was the only reason he was able to pursue education, and out of gratitude he dedicated his life to public service, at the end of his life watching impotently as the French public school system he loved was destroyed from the inside by Sixties radicals, and taking his granddaughter out of public schools and putting her in a private parochial school. For him serving his country entailed working in schools, but also serving in the French Army reserves, and he went to fight for his country when she needed it. After the armistice, he went home but did not stop fighting. He joined the French Resistance and ended up building and leading one of the most important maquis networks in Burgundy, which was occupied territory. He became a wanted man and his house was taken by the Nazis. If he had been found, he would almost certainly have been tortured to death as an important asset. And I shudder even more to think of what would have happened to his little daughter, also in hiding, my grandmother.

One of the greatest men of the past century, André Malraux gave this homage to one of his fellow Résistants, Jean Moulin, head of the Resistance tortured to death by the Gestapo.

You Head of the Resitance, martyred in hideous cellars, look with your blinded eyes all those black women standing watch over our companions: they mourn for France, and for you. Look as under the small oaks of Quercy, with a flag made of knotted rags, slip by the maquis that the Gestapo will never find because it only believes in tall trees. Look at the prisoner who enteers a luxurious villa and wonders why he has a bathroom—he hasn’t heard of bathtub torture. Poor tortured king of shadows, look as your people of shadows rises up in a night of June pierced by torture. Hear the rumble of German tanks rolling towards Normandy: thanks to you, the tanks will not make it in time. And when the Allied troops break through, look, Prefect, as in every town of France the Commissaries of the Republic rise up—except when they were killed. Like us, you envied Leclerc’s epic bums : look, fighter, your bums crawl out of their maquis. Their peasant hands have been trained to use bazookas, and they stop one of the foremost tank divisions of Hitler’s Empire, Das Reich. (…)

Enter here, Jean Moulin, with your terrible cohort. With those who died in basements without talking, like you; and even, which may be more awful, having talked. With the striped and shaved figures of the concentration camps. With the last stumbling, beaten body of the awful lines of Night And Fog. With the eight thousand French women who never returned from the prisons. With the last woman who died in Ravensbrück for giving asylum to one of ours. Enter here with the people born of shadows and gone with it—our brothers in the order of the night.

My ancestor risked torture and death and worse. What for? So that his children, and his countrymen’s children—so that I could enjoy a free and prosperous life.

If you won the sperm lottery and were born in a wealthy, democratic nation, you have a life whose charm is simply incommensurable and incomparable with the lived existence of the vast, vast majority of human beings who have ever lived on Earth.

You have the privilege of not dying of hunger and easily preventable disease. You have the privilege of having attended schools that, yeah, could be much better, but still taught you how to read. You have the privilege of access to technology and a standard of living that would have been simply unimaginable even to most kings of old. You have the privilege of not having to keep a spare set of clothes under your bed in case the secret police knock in the middle of the night. You have the privilege of being able to spout off whatever nonsense on the internet and not get thrown in jail for your opinions. You have the privilege of medicine which cures most ailments and is relatively available to you. You have the privilege of a relatively much much higher likelihood of having work that is not back-breaking and awful, and perhaps even meaningful and fulfilling. You have the privilege of having a life expectancy which is basically twice the life expectancy of most of the people who came before you. That’s right: you basically have A WHOLE OTHER LIFE on top of your “natural” life, as a reward for the hard work and toil of being born in the right place and the right time.

And the simple fact of the matter is that if your sperm was lucky and you were born in one of those countries, the only reason you enjoy this incredible, unimaginable privilege is because people who lived before you sacrificed, and toiled, and gave their lives so that you would have it. They fought wars and they gave their blood and their lives so that a certain political community to which you belong shall not perish from the Earth so that you could enjoy this.

We owe this incredibly charmed modern life not just to scientific progress and capitalism. We also owe it to the stubborn fact that many of our forefathers were willing to put on a uniform, swear an oath, and lay down their lives, for us, their children and their children’s children. Your blessed life is built on the blood and bones of your forefathers.

You can tell me that war is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that nationalism is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that militarism is bad, and I agree. But none of that changes the stubborn actual facts of history that wars, some of them just, were fought by your forefathers, and that your forefathers died, so that you could enjoy the positively mind-boggling privilege you do enjoy. Freedom is never free. Government is often a threat to freedom, yes, but it is also a bulwark for freedom. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s the way it has been.

In this context, the idea that your political community which has given you so much does not have the right to ask you to contribute just a little something back to the effort of national defense strikes me as the height of solipsistic adolescent egotism. It is spitting in your father’s face.

Through no effort of your own, being born in the right political community basically gave you forty extra years of expected life, and giving back just one or two is too much?

“Oh, but that’s slavery.” You know what’s slavery? ACTUAL SLAVERY. And you know where slavery exists? Not where you live. Slavery still exists—in places you were lucky enough not to be born in. Instead you were born into a place of unimaginable freedom, wealth and wonder which you did nothing to earn. And so yes, that place just may ask you to spend a year wearing ugly green fatigues which don’t compliment your eyes, crawling around in the muck and getting yelled at by a guy who didn’t even go to a good college. The horror.

Tell me national service is too expensive. Tell me it won’t work. Tell me you want smart ways to deal with true conscientious objectors. Tell me it’s wankery, even. Heck, tell me why as a Christian you refuse to take up arms against anybody. Tell me all these things—really.

But don’t tell me that there’s no social contract. Don’t tell me that you don’t owe anything to your country.

In the end, that’s why I’m not a libertarian. I am pro-libertarian in that I believe the libertarian critique of state overreach is critically important. I want libertarian ideas to have more purchase in our societies. I probably agree with the Cato Institute on 90% of issues. But following the logic of libertarianism leads to denying the social contract, to denying that political communities have value. Nations exist. In all of human history, people have formed political associations. It seems to me self-evident that this is necessary and good. Through a painful and long process of trial and error, we’ve stumbled upon a form of political association, the liberal democratic nation state, which is uniquely good at protecting people’s natural rights and encouraging their flourishing. But for these political associations to be successful, they require us to give as well as take, and for us to affiliate in a powerful way, and to view our destiny, at least a little bit, as a common endeavor and not just an individual one.

As Jim Manzi wrote in his book, every successful institution relies not just on the well-understood personal interest of its members but also on an emotional attachment to that institution and its well-being at the expense of our narrow personal interests. The liberal democratic nation state is the most successful, good and important institution we’ve come up with. It deserves and needs that we defend it—with words, with deeds, and sometimes, yes, with service. And it has the right to ask that of us.

La Chanson française

As one who straddles the Transatlantic cultural divide, I often have trouble communicating to my American friends the wonder of some French musical acts, particularly the great auteurs of la chanson française.

The thing with chanson is that it is as much poetry as it is music, and poetry that relies heavily on alliteration, cultural references, wordplay, poetry therefore that is very hard to carry over to another language and culture.

The obvious example here is Georges Brassens, who rolls his Auvergnat r’s over a meek plucked guitar, casually unfurling lyrics packed several layers deep with cultural allusions, extended metaphors, clever rhymes and astute wordplay.

His masterpiece Les Copains d’abord (originally written for the soundtrack of an eponymous film which has been utterly forgotten, overshadowed by the song, even though it is one of the gems of French cinema, starring some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, often before they were famous) is built upon an extended metaphor of friendship as a ship and a nautical journey, bringing in The Raft of the Medusa, Fluctuat nec mergitur and the Battle of Trafalgar. In the song, friendship is “franco de port,” a technical expression for shipful of merchandise paid for by the sender, that is to say free, but also a wordplay on “port”—a port in the storm—and “franco”—slang for “honest.”

For Brassens, friendship is unselfconscious and not theorized. The copains would give anything for each other, but the last thing they would do is think “I would give anything for him” :

They weren’t fancy friends
Like Castor and Pollux
Or people from Sodom and Gommorrah
They weren’t friends chosen
By Montaigne and La Boétie

For all its value and perhaps transcendence, it would be wrong to see friendship as religion:

They weren’t angels
The Gospel? They ain’t read it
But they loved each other at full rigging
John, Peter, Paul and the gang,
That was their only litany,
Their Credo, their Confiteor,
Friends first

(Brassens is known for his opposition to organized religion, and isn’t it nice for once to see an adversary of the Church who actually knows what he’s talking about? One finds it hard to imagine Christopher Hitchens knowing how to use confiteor. )

This is just a small glimpse of the lyrical depth of one song by Brassens, and perhaps I’ve shown how hard, perhaps futile, it seems to translate the combination of alliteration, rhyme, cultural reference and wordplay that the chanson throws at the listener.

Another glorious example is Jacques Dutronc, perhaps—I dare submit—the coolest cat of the 20th century (no doubt helped by the fact that his wife is one of the most beautiful women in the 20th century). Known in his youth for his three-piece suits and forever for his big cigars, Dutronc is what you would get when you cross the perfect son-in-law with a fiercely playful devil.

His formidable song L’Opportuniste, a send-up of politics, is impossible to appreciate without understanding the idiomatic expression of the chorus: retourner sa veste (to turn one’s jacket inside out, that is to say, to change one’s affiliation or public belief):

Some object, demand and protest
I only do one thing
I turn my jacket inside out
I turn my jacket inside out
On the good side always

The predictable line “I am of all parties” has three layers: political parties; fun parties, but also parties fines, that is to say, orgies. (Not that French politicians would know anything about that, of course.)

J’aime les filles (I Like Girls) is, as the title suggests, a French song out of central casting.

I like the girls from Castel
I like the girls from Régine
I like the girls you see in Elle
I like the girls from the magazines (…)
I like the girls with dowries
I like the daddies’ girls
I like Lot’s girls (!)
I like the girls who don’t have daddies
I like the girls from Megève
I like the girls from Saint Tropez
I like the girls who go on strike
I like the girls who go camping (…)
I like the girls from Camaret
I like the bookish girls
I like the funny girls
I like the Vieille France girls

The song’s overall theme is, well, pretty straightforward. But then again, you miss much of the song if you know the popular Paris nighttime spots Castel and Régine (as popular when I was in college as in Dutronc’s generation—I like les filles de chez Régine too), if you know Megève and (this one is easier) Saint Tropez, if you know that “les filles de Camaret” is the title of a French bawdy song, if you know what “Vieille France” refers to…

Every Dutronc song is packed to the brim with awesomeness, but it’s just so hard to convey. I’ve been meaning for a while to share with fellow Scenester Matt Frost his amazing anti-French Parenting song Fais pas ci, fais pas ça (Don’t Do This, Don’t Do That). Listen to the song’s restless tune, and know that “A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet” is one of the sillier French nursery rhymes.

Don’t do this, don’t do that
Come here, sit here
Watch out, don’t get cold, or else
Eat your soup, come on, brush your teeth
Don’t touch this, go to sleep
Say Daddy, say Mommy
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t put your fingers in your nose
You still suck your thumb
What did you spill?
Close your eyes, open your mouth
Don’t bite your nails nasty child
Go wash your hands
Don’t cross the street or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Let your dad work
Go do the dishes
Stop squabbling
Respond when I call
Be polite say thank you to the lady
Leave your seat
Time to go to bed
Can’t miss the class
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
You tire me I can’t take it
Say good day say good night
Don’t run in the hallway
Or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Come here get out of here
Here’s the door get out
Listen to the grown ups
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Stubborn runt
You’ll get a beating
What did you do with my comb?
I’ll only say it once
You’re good for nothing
I’m telling you for your own good
If you don’t do better
You’ll be a ditch-digger
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t worry guys
Don’t worry guys
They told me all that too
Don’t do this don’t do that
Don’t do this don’t do that
And this is where I ended up
And this is where I ended up
La la la
La la la
La la la
La la la la
La la la la
La la la la

Fuckin’ A man.

Dutronc is, after all, a guy who wrote—and, more importantly, got past the censorship boards of mid-‘60s France—a song dedicated to how wonderful his penis is.

Am I jealous?
Not at all, not at all
I have a girl trap
A taboo trap
An amazing toy
That goes crac-boom-hoo
It makes girls fall to their knees

Dutronc disses “professional play boys” who “work like beavers, not with their hands or feet” (beavers use their tails to build their dams, and in French queue (tail) is slang for penis). Those playboys are “minets” who “eat their ron ron at the Drugstore”—minet means kitten but is also slang for “prettyboy”, hence the “ron ron” (cat food) they eat at the Drugstore, a nouveau riche hangout near the Arc de Triomphe. Dutronc may not have the play boys “Cardin suits” or “Ferraris” or hang out at “Fauchon”, but is he jealous? No, because he’s got his “amazing toy” that makes all the girls fall to their knees…

Dutronc disses all the types of Parisian playboys: “the Supermen with bodies of steel”, “those who read and who can speak” and even “those who get married at La Madeleine”. As far as diss songs go, this is pretty great. “My rivals may be richer, prettier and smarter, but I have a bigger dick.”

Then there’s his untranslatable L’Aventurier where he rhymes French slang with basically every town on Earth (my favorite: “J’ai été lourdé à Lourdes”), while mocking the fake adventurers we sometimes run across.

Perhaps I’ve gotten my point across: it’s very hard to convey the awesomeness of the chanson française to a non-French audience, based as it is on poetic lyrics and cultural references, rather than musical quality.

Of course, there are exceptions. Jacques Brel’s volcanic intensity punches through all cultural barriers. I dare you to listen to his Quand on n’a que l’amour (When All You Have Is Love) and not feel like you’ve just been punched in the gut.

When all you have is love
As your only reason
As your only song
And only succor

When all you have is love
To provide, in the morning,
The poor and the wanderer
With velvet coats

When all you have is love
To offer up as a prayer
For the evils of the Earth
As a simple troubadour (…)

When all you have is love
To talk to cannons
And just a song
To convince a battle drum

Then, having nothing
But the strength to love
We will have in our hands,
Friends, all of the world.

Without a doubt, the most underrated of the great auteurs of chanson is William Sheller. Sheller has a fatal flaw: he appeals to the people of my class, the old money, and thereby earns the contempt of the music critics. He has the gall to use Christian themes sometimes, and not to mock them either, so he’s clearly a simpleton.

Sheller is, first and foremost, humble. It’s so easy to mistake him for a peddler of poor pop, with his saccharine synth and mild electric guitars, his unimpressive voice, a light tenor which sounds like it could be yours or mine. Sheller sneaks up on you. When you listen to his songs, you don’t picture an arena, you picture him in your living room or perhaps some dive, on the piano, banging out a few tunes. Then you realize that the catchy tunes are the wings of deep poetry, that his voice has a je ne sais quoi of earnest intensity you’ve never quite heard elsewhere, that this man is painting a whole world for you in the span of just a few minutes.

Sheller is a poet for sure (his pseudonym “Sheller” is an homage to Shelley and Schiller) but like his lyrics, the quality of his music likes to hide in plain sight. A classically-trained pianist and composer, Sheller uses the tools of orchestration to make the elements of pop music do more than they’re supposed to. The drums, the base are ever so slightly more subtle and complex than they would be if someone else was writing the song. You’ll never catch the music showing off, or overshadowing the song, but always accompanying and strengthening it.

In Les Filles de l’aurore (The Girls Of Dawn), an almost meditation on hedonic teenage love, the drums and base first give off a very simple beat, but they are quickly completed with piano, then synth, then strings. The strings are on their own melody, undergirding the song. The drums sometimes bounce up into the song. So easy to miss that there’s a lot going on under the catchy choruses.

The boys of dawn
Slide their bodies in worn jeans
They brush nervous fingers through their hair
And walk outside
They have deep in their eyes
The dreams of the strongest
The wars they still wage
When the dawn sees them walk two by two

And I come well after the dawn
When the sun rises above St John
I want to tell them I still love you
You who always leave me

The lovers of dawn
Still give themselves to each other
In wrinkled beds
Hearts against bodies
Is it love or death
That keeps them in their embrace?
They have deep in their eyes
Dreams I used to dream
That you would stay
After the dawn kept us

Vienne (Vienna) is both an ode to the beauty of the imperial city and the telling of the bittersweet story of a marriage hitting bottom.

If I write you tonight from Vienna
It’s for you to understand
That I chose absence
As our last chance
Our sky became so heavy

If I write you tonight from Vienna
— O fall in Vienna is so beautiful —
It’s that without thinking I chose to take off
And I’m in Vienna without you

I walk and dream in Vienna
To the triple time of a distant waltz
It seems as if shadows turn and melt into each other
Our evenings in Vienna were so beautiful

(Don’t worry. They get back together in the end.)

I ask you, who has the means to take off for Vienna for a week off when their marriage goes south? Someone who’s not paying enough taxes, that’s who. Class traitors like Sheller can’t make good music.

One of Sheller’s most affecting songs is Maman est folle (Mom Is Insane), narrated from the perspective of the older child who has to care for both his disabled mother and his younger brother, while hiding her condition for fear of having her taken away. No father is mentioned. This heart-breaking song is 100% pathos-free, carried by a strangely upbeat tune and lyrics appropriately simple and blunt for the child narrator.

Mom is insane
Can’t do nothin’ about it
What makes it better
Is she loves us

When she flies away
We hold her hand
She’s like a kite
That the wind plays with (…)

When Mom laughs
We forget we’re hungry
That it’s time for school
That we’re afraid of the neighbors

She’s our idol
She fills our hearts
They mustn’t steal her
Or take her away

So Sheller does naturalistic stories. There are biographical ones, like Basket Ball about, well, playing basket ball as a young man, and more (“I was then a guy/Who played a bunch of basketball/Who played a bunch of rock’n‘roll/But when you were there, I never knew what to say…”), RockNDollars about his slightly silly teenage dreams of making lots of money as a rock star and aping all things American (“I will be your popstar, your King/It’s all about dollars and feeling”).

He also often evokes history, as in Guernesey a poetic evocation of Victor Hugo’s exile on the eponymous island and a call for free speech (“To be exiled for ideas/To hear the voices drifting/Under the waves”).

But Sheller is not above mysticism. With impressionistic touches, he paints worlds that sometimes have supernatural hues. You never know what’s what, as in Les Miroirs dans la boue (Mirrors In The Mud)

In the storm of an ageless forest(…)
I saw the face of a wild child
Carrying a jewel
Green eyes swept with ginger hair(…)

God makes pictures with clouds
The rain makes mirrors in the mud
I have looked for you everywhere
I keep a mirage in a strange cage
The kind that mad men build
I have looked for you everywhere

My favorite Sheller song (and I’m going to end this interminable post with this) is without a doubt Excalibur An hommage to the chansons de geste, this song evokes the powerful mythos of the Middle Ages about as well as anything else I can think of. The faith and the heroism of knights, but also the violence and the tragedy. I said Sheller’s orchestration is subtle, but here he goes all out, with an orchestra and a Latinate choir. This is a song that makes you want to ride your steed to Jerusalem to retake it for Christendom, and yet leaving you with a piercing feeling that it’s all for nothing, and yet somehow still worth it if it’s noble. A medieval history professor I knew once told me this about the Middle Ages: “They committed as much horror as any era, but they repented more than any era.” The knight narrator addresses a father who is alternatively his lord and God.

It is a great blessing, noble father
To see you again, so full of life
Back on your noble lands
Before your proud squadrons
After these long years of war
Heaven is a witness that today
It is a great joy for the whole city
To open its doors loudly

Misery and long nights came
God gave and God took back
Our brothers are gone, so are our enemies
God gave and God took back
God kept you
May He be blessed

It took so much earth
To dig so many beds
That whole mountains were not enough
And You needed so much stone
To build fair churches
Where we sang Your light
Where we felt so small.

In the forest of your banners
Blows a good wind, flapping with life
The sun burns your iron gloves
Today is a great day,
But allow me noble father
To leave you with this
The road to the border is long
I shall have to travel by night (…)

I leave to bury
At the ends of our old land
The soft Diane with the fair hair
Whom I cannot forget
She shall sleep as in prayer
Out of the fairest marble anyone saw
Under the fair light
Of your fair churches

This bittersweet song appeals to any romantic, particularly one taken with the romanticism of the Medieval knights. It does not flinch from the ugliness of the Medieval drama, but nor does it deny its epicness. This song grabs you and makes you travel to another world, one where you could almost—not quite—confront Mordor on horseback with Aragorn.

Sheller is really cool. He has an uncanny gift for painting whole worlds with just a few words in his songs, and elegant, subtle orchestration. I hope I’ve been able to convey that.

PS: This is a guy who wrote a “psychedelic mass” in 1969. Side 1 and Side 2 on YouTube.

Chesterton's Weed

A few days ago Glenn Loury hosted Mark Kleiman on Bloggingheads to discuss Mark’s work implementing Washington state’s marijuana legalization plebiscite. In the conversation Mark suggested that:

- tax revenues will not be anywhere near as high as people are expecting (and it would be a bad thing if they were insofar as this could only occur were the state to actively promote vices to problem and/or new users, as in the case of state lotteries)

- recreational diversion is a very substantial part of the “medical” marijuana system

- producers should be kept fragmented so as to be too powerless to accomplish alcohol-style regulatory capture that would let them aggressively market, avoid excise taxes, and promote the problem users who account for most revenues

- legalization and regulation should be accompanied by a short-term increase in enforcement against the underground market (and law enforcement should have gotten a cut of marijuana tax revenues to assure buy-in)

- the federal government has the constitutional power (under Wickard v Filburn and Gonzales v Raich) to obstruct Washington’s market (but not to demand the active cooperation of local authorities)

- marijuana is responsible for lots of emergency room visits (for bad trips, not poisoning) and policy should discourage strains with high THC:CBD ratios

- paternalistic policy is generally justifiable to protect minors and to help adults realize self-control and enlightened self-interest

Moreover, when California had a similar (unsuccessful) plebiscite in 2010, Mark frequently expressed a “pox on both your houses” attitude towards the backers and opponents alike, viewing both sides as prone to bad faith and the “legalization in one state” model as unworkable in the face of federal obstruction, and he generally held out the hope for a narrow defeat.

So given that Mark sounds like neither a pothead nor a libertarian, why on Earth would Mark be the appropriate person to implement a law backed by these two constituencies? Well, first, he’s a bona fide expert on drug policy (I’ve read and loved Against Excess but admit I have not read his co-authored Marijuana Legalization book). Second, and more interestingly to me, while he is skeptical of the details, he has no problem with the basic idea of adults who choose to seek out marijuana for moderate recreational use being able to obtain it legally. That is, Mark is not out to sabotage the basic legitimate aims of the law, but he has a pessimistic streak about all the ways it could have bad effects.

If we go by the logic of Chesterton’s fence this makes Mark the perfect person to oversee implementation of legalization. As you may recall (and if you don’t, how exactly is it that you came to read TAS?), Chesterton’s allegory involves coming across a fence blocking a road and the fool says to just smash it whereas the wise person says to first figure out why it was built as it was presumably built for a reason and not by lunatics or sleepwalkers. (Yeah, I know, it was all reefer madness, paper companies, and freemasons). So the person whose idea of a marijuana policy is “everybody must get stoned” isn’t somebody you’d want in charge of it, especially if they’ve convinced themselves of their own talking points that marijuana isn’t addictive or dangerous. (By which logic the problems with alcohol are DTs and alcohol poisoning, but there’s no need to reckon non-physiological addiction, car accidents, homicide, cirrhosis, heart disease, etc). Rather you want somebody who worries about all the things that could go wrong to implement a reform because that person will take steps to make sure that, as far as possible, they won’t.

Reform Conservative Manifesto TL;DR

I wrote a fairly long ‘Reform Conservative Manifesto’ post on Forbes this morning.

For those interested in skipping to the good parts, here are the key points.

1) The key problem facing America is family breakdown, which causes inequality of opportunity, economic insecurity and social dysfunction, and drives higher demand for government as private safety nets fail and human capital formation is inadequate. There are a number of policies that can address this, particularly family-friendly tax reform.

The Republican Party needs to take up this mantle of affordable family formation. If it does, it would get political victory (as starting a family makes you much more likely to vote GOP), a more vibrant America, and the political capital to truly shrink government for good.

If it doesn’t, ever-increasing social dysfunction and stratification will lead Americans to increasingly embrace big government and lead America on the path to France.

I describe the alternative scenarios this way:

Address family formation seriously -> win elections -> make it easier to start families and have kids -> more families and more kids -> a better economy, a healthier society, less demand for big government, more GOP voters -> win more elections -> shrink government, grow the economy and civil society -> win more elections -> rinse, lather, repeat.

The alternative scenario would go something like this: Don’t address middle income voters’ day-to-day concerns seriously, don’t make family formation more affordable -> concede the field to Democrats -> increase economic and social insecurity -> increase demand for government -> lose elections -> government grows bigger -> social pathologies get worse -> keep conceding the field -> increase demand for government -> etc.

2) The “Grand New Party School” of GOP Reform and the “Libertarian Populist School” have a tremendous amount in common, much more than separates them. The problem is that an austerity-plus-flat tax-plus-hard money agenda is a sure-fire political loser and terrible policy. GNPers and LPs should merge. GNPers should adopt the LP small-vs-big framing, and attendant impulses and reforms (anti-corporatism, prison reform, civil liberties) and LPs should adopt family-friendly reform and Milton Friedman-style economic policies.

Read the whole thing here →

We're Getting Our Asses Kicked Over Here, Guys

A message from a Catholic to Catholics.

Via Matt comes this Times Mag piece which is a true monument. It depicts how Mormons have been stealthily infiltrating Hollywood, on the strength of BYU’s excellent computer animation program.

Really do read the whole thing, but here’s some excerpts:

“Honestly,” says Marilyn Friedman, the former head of outreach at DreamWorks, who visited B.Y.U. frequently, “the first few times I went to Provo, I was like: What am I doing here? I’m a little Jewish girl from back East. But I was just amazed by how absolutely lovely those kids are. They couldn’t be nicer, humbler, more respectful. It’s a pleasure. And when they come here, they stay that way.” Many students are already married with children by the time they graduate; they want to excel at their jobs to give their families stability. Many have served missions abroad, often deposited in third-world countries amid great suffering, and are years older than the typical college student by the time they graduate. “It means there’s a maturity level there,” says Barry Weiss, a longtime animation executive and former senior vice president at Sony.

Strong is 24, a contemplative and steady-seeming senior. He was the producer on “Chasm,” the current project. Having borne the managerial stress of the production all semester, he insisted on carving out some time that night with his wife, who was six months pregnant with their first child.

I kept being reminded that B.Y.U.’s program was only 13 years old: most of the moral emissaries that it has been pouring into the industry are still climbing to the positions from which they’ll be able to truly influence a film’s tone and content. One day, there will be alumni directing and producing, students insisted — it’s an inevitability. “Right now we’re the workhorses,” an alumnus at DreamWorks told me. “But I think our future is bright in terms of being able to shape the industry.”

during his freshman year at B.Y.U., his outlook changed. He saw students who were all striving to be kind and moral people but also having fun and enjoying solid friendships with one another. The uneasy compromises between his principles and his popularity didn’t seem necessary anymore. It was the reverse of the typical coming-of-age-at-college story: he felt liberated enough to experiment, so he experimented with returning to the values he was raised with.

But at B.Y.U., everyone works as a team on a single film because, unlike at art schools, students are too busy with religion courses and other requirements to be full-time filmmakers. Out of necessity, production on each year’s film winds up mirroring the way the industry actually works. B.Y.U. students emerge committed to a specialty and to collaboration

Guys, guys, guys, guys—we are getting our asses KICKED.

We’ve all heard the refrain that now that Christianity is no longer dominant, that’s an opportunity to be counter-cultural and salt of the Earth. So why are we not doing it?

The Mormons are showing us how it’s done. They’re in the world, being diligent, hard-working, and yet so, so counter-cultural. And breeding like hell. (By the way, some of the piece shows how Mormons can be too Mormon. The problem with contemporary culture is not reduced to whether it’s PG, and in art quality and uplifting are not equal.)

Oh, and there’s this

Low taxes and a cheap but well-educated workforce persuaded Goldman [Sachs] to go on a hiring binge in Salt Lake City. The bank now employs 1,300 people here — putting Utah’s capital city on a path to become Goldman’s fourth-largest global operation, behind only New York, New Jersey and London.

Seriously?

Georgetown? Notre Dame? Give me a break. Where’s the Catholic Minerva Project? Where are the thousands of Catholic Montessori schools? (Maria Montessori, by the way, is one of us — a daily communicant and friend to Popes. Montessori values are so resonant with Catholic theology it hurts.) Where’s The Plan to infiltrate Hollywood and take it over? And Silicon Valley? And the New York Times? Forget about the NYT, where’s the Catholic Buzzfeed? Catholic Mayo Clinic?

By the way, Tim Keller is right (no Mormon; no Catholic either) — we won Rome because we took over the cities. And the elites. The word “basilica” refers to the mansions of the rich Christians which housed the community when it was persecuted, because we couldn’t have temples.

Back in the day, this is what we created the Jesuits for. The Pope is saying all the right things. What are we waiting for?

EDIT: Ok, we do get SOME things right.

Sex In A Sex-Drenched World Is Sexless

Evidence for the prosecution.

Ama Et Fac Quod Vis

Now Conor has gotten into the fray and Rod has a response.

Conor tackles the question of whether consent can be the only lodestar of sexual morality, and then tackles my post.

As I said, the consent-sexuality question is to me incidental to the Witt essay. I may have some things to say about that later on, but I want to respond to Conor’s points about my post.

To be frank, I’ve been surprised at the positive reaction to my post because, since I’m the only guy on this thread who doesn’t write for a living (Alan doesn’t count, because tenured professors don’t actually work. KIDDING, Alan. Mostly.) I had rushed it a little bit, and so I want to try and make some things clearer.

Gobry’s proposed remedy to loneliness and Kantian failures in contemporary sexual culture? Christianity. “Treating other people as ends in themselves is a wonderful idea, but why, and how, should we do that? The only answer, it seems to me, is love,” he writes, supplying a link to his interesting, Christianity-influenced notion of what pursuing love really entails.

I actually tried and I’m sure failed to make a slightly more subtle point. I mean, I believe that Christianity is true and awesome and that people should accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But I was trying to make the following three-step point: 1) we’ll be better off if we’re Kantian (as in, treat people as ends in themselves and not means); 2) the best way to do that is through love; 3) the best way to do that is through Christianity. Implicit in my argument, and I should have made it explicit, is that you don’t have to buy 3 (I hope, for our sakes) to buy 1 & 2. And you don’t even have to buy 2 to buy 1.

(After all, Kant didn’t, and he’s still a pretty great example to follow; though I think Kant’s incredibly austere personal life speaks to the fact that for most people an abstract ideal is not a sufficient spur to moral behavior. Hence, love—which, for you, may or may not be incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ.)

Conor goes on:

I couldn’t help feeling that, even as [PEG] came very close to grappling with the core of Witt’s essay, he ultimately talks right past one of her contentions. “I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated,” Witt wrote. “Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival.” It won’t [do] to simply tell her that love is the answer. The question her essay interrogates is what we ought to do when, having tried to find romantic love, it escapes us.

Again, this is due to the fact that I was sloppy and made implicit what I should have made explicit, but I think I tackled it in my post.

The reason my post ends with despair is because I do grapple with the question and ultimately find that there’s no good answer in our current culture.

When I say that “love is the answer” I don’t mean just for Witt, but I mean for the whole society. Witt makes clear that she has had long-term relationships that were loving that might have evolved into marriage. Witt states that marriage was once her goal but that it was tantalizingly and terribly just out of her reach.

One problem with current society is that what’s been called “serial monogamy” takes up a longer and longer stretch of our lives. What this screams to me is that people are increasingly afraid of commitment, and I can’t help but think that one reason is that we’re afraid of love. Even pop culture recognizes this. (I’m not trying to paint a picture of halcyon days, here. As a Christian, I believe in original sin, and every era was derelict. But in days when we got married early and stayed married, we were afraid of love in different ways, and through different means.)

Part of the reason for this is the divorce culture, right? One reason we’re all so afraid to get married is because we’re all so afraid to get divorced. No doubt many divorces are justified, but I think it’s also fair to say that a good chunk of the 50% (or whatever) of marriages that end in divorce could have been salvageable, and that if those marriages had been or were salvaged, we would have a stronger marriage culture, at least in the sense that marriage would seem less scary and more approachable.

And part of the reason is that we’re all more generally afraid of commitment. As Eve Tushnet and others have powerfully argued, in our contemporary culture marriage is death. Your wedding day is the day your life ends—all of your interesting life experiences happen before marriage, and marriage is what happens after you’ve “lived your life” and have had all kinds of good, interesting, formative experiences. There’s obviously a case for maturity before marriage, but it seems pretty clear that Witt (and countless others) are collateral victims of this new equilibrium.

The higher ed bubble is in large part a function of our collective fear of commitment (and also of economic insecurity, which is a topic conservatives should spend more time on)—college is, for many people, the thing you do when you don’t know what to do. And, for the right social strata, grad school after that. (And/or management consulting or some other job whose main value is that it doesn’t actually commit you to a career path but “opens options.”)

I am thoroughly a dynamist and a fan of innovation and globalization and everything else, but it seems that one nasty consequence of our wonderful modern life is that when there’s so much wonderful stuff everywhere to be experienced, we become paralyzed. It’s possible to welcome our wonderful post-scarcity world and still acknowledge some drawbacks.

I’ve been avoiding the language of disgust, but one very symptomatic and enlightening symbol of this—and a thoroughly disgusting one, I think more than a Kink video—is the recurring pop culture theme of the Groom afraid of getting married (or his friends fearing for him) because it means he’ll never have sex with anyone other than his wife again. This view implies such a devaluation of both sex and human people, and such a distorted view of what human life is about!… Sex (and life) is about having lots of interesting experiences, not about love and self-giving union. A “healthy” sex life is not about self-giving love, it’s about having lots of partners and experiences. As someone who’s been on both sides of that fence, it seems so self-evidently, dead obvious to me that this view is just hilariously false (not even morally wrong, just factually wrong; ie of course sex with a life partner you love is about a billion times better than hookups; real sex with someone you love is ever new, and (dear Lord) sex with a bunch of different partners is always the same) that its emergence is evidence of something really rotten. (It’s also very American; marriage is sacralized—the possibility of adultery or divorce is implicitly rejected—even as it’s emptied of meaning; the tension is between moralism and hedonism.)

Look—obviously I’m not saying everyone should pick a career and get married at 18, but it seems to me that the trends I’m describing are real, and damaging, and worth critiquing.

Anyway—to circle back to Conor’s beginning—how do we critique “hookup culture” or “dating culture” (or however you want to call it)? Are we stuck with a passé traditionalism on one hand, and total laissez-faire (as a smart libertarian, Conor knows that true laissez-faire abhors coercion) on the other? I think Conor is right to point that traditionalism is insufficient, outdated, and impractical (I can rant all I want against kids-these-days, it’s not gonna help Witt), and I think Conor is at least open to the idea that laissez-faire leaves something to be desired—certainly, in Witt’s case, it does.

The answer, it seems to me, is Kant. I happen to believe Kant leads to Jesus, but please just bracket that if it leads you to dismiss Kant.

Also bracket the marriage/chastity question. Is “ends-vs-means” a useful and moral way to think about sexuality? I think so. I think that the case that a prerequisite to treating another person as an ends in themselves through sex is to first make a lifelong monogamous commitment to them is, at the very least, not self-evidently absurd; I think there’s another case that even if it’s not true in all (most?) circumstances society would be better off it it assumed that it’s mostly true. But that question, while important, obscures the bigger “ends-vs-means” question.

The problem with hookup culture and dating culture is that it leads us to—it assumes that we treat each other as means, and not ends. That’s the definition of a hookup, isn’t it? From the point of view of consent-only ethics, hookups are unproblematic as long as they’re consensual, and even good if they’re satisfying. But even if the encounter consenting and satisfying, we’re treating each other as means. I want to have a pleasurable experience—whether it’s with Sally or Jenny or Dick or Harry doesn’t really matter. Unless Sally is totally hot, man. And this is also true of dating, right, insofar as when you’re dating someone you’re really mentally comparing them to your intellectual checklist of the Right Mate so you can have your picture perfect wedding with your house and your car and your kids.

And the fact that a culture of arranged marriage and child brides also treats people as means and not ends doesn’t really change that.

And I realize that once I’ve said that I haven’t really put forth a “solution”. But I do think that as we’re sort of collectively looking for a kind of language that’s appropriate for discussing and critiquing our current sexual culture, the categorical imperative is begging to be used, here.

Conor’s problem is that this line of thought might lead one to accept either married sex or chastity as the two possible life options, and that that’s unpractical and perhaps even cruel:

Celibacy, pending a change in life circumstance, is the answer that some folks would suggest. For them, the woman who fails find anyone to marry who wants to marry her, like the gay man who can’t find anyone of the opposite sex he wants to marry, is called to struggle and abstain. If one believes that all extramarital sex is contrary to the will of an infallible Supreme Being, that makes sense. I take it that Witt believes otherwise, as do I. “Back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter,” she writes. Without saying anything in favor or against her approach, the details of which are sparse, I’d add that my least favorite thing about Christian sexual ethics, which offer some valuable insights even to secular and deist observers who grapple with the relevant tenets, is the way that it consigns people unable to get themselves in a traditional marriage to a life without sex. They are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire, and all opportunities to connect intimately and profoundly with other humans, not because no one will consent to joyfully be with them, but because society purportedly functions best if its norms needn’t accommodate certain kinds of individuals as sexual beings, except as examples of what is sinful and aberrant. That fate strikes me as more lonely than the pornography or hookup culture Witt describes, and consigning people to it has never seemed very Christ-like to me.

I mean, look, if Witt hired me as her lifestyle guru (which would, I think we can all agree, be a terrible idea), I wouldn’t say “First, you must never under any circumstances have sex ever again until your wedding night.”

I think that Conor’s point is important, and Christians have to grapple with it. We might argue that this isn’t exactly what we’re saying, but it’s what a lot of people hear.

That said, a couple points.

First of all, obviously, I think it’s not crazy to think that at least one reason why chastity is so hard these days is because society is so sex-drenched. (And saying so does not mean that chastity wasn’t hard in previous eras, as the history of the Church—its saints as well as its villains—plainly attests.)

Conor finds problematic that the call to chastity means we “are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire.” But, of course, this is what Christianity says—we are indeed expected to forgo very powerful, innate desires. Like greed, like pride, like vanity, and yes, lust. In fact, it seems to me that any moral system worthy of the name implies the forgoing of “powerful, innate desire[s]”. (And yes, we agree that plenty of Christians, including the writer, are and have been really bad at foregoing pride and greed and chastity and all the rest.) The idea that to behave morally involves demanding self-sacrifice is, I hope, uncontroversial. (And of course Christians should stop being self-righteous about sex, should stop confusing abstinence and purity, and should stop thinking of sex as dirty. )

Which circles back to Kant. Yes, Christianity (particularly Catholicism) can be legalistic in its insistence on the marital context of sex, for reasons both historical and theological. But we’re not really debating the morality of loving sex, or relationship-embedded sex. There’s a continuum, right. Or maybe there’s not—which seems to me to be the question we’re discussing. If we’re in a consent-only world, then (assuming we have a functioning definition of consent, which is another can of worms) it’s black or white: consensual good; non-consensual bad. If we have a Kantian sex ethic, then we have a continuum; more ends/more means; more loving/less loving; more good/more bad, with, let’s say, shooting extreme porn, watching extreme porn, one-night stands, second-date sex, sex within an uncommitted relationship and sex within a committed relationship at various points along the spectrum. (And by the way, it should be obvious that a Kantian sex ethic is also an ethic of consent, since sex without consent is the ultimate treating-as-means.) We might disagree about where various things are where on the spectrum, or what to call them, or whether some distinctions are meaningful (e.g. unmarried loving sex vs. married loving sex), but at least we’re somewhere. We’re still lost, but we have a map, albeit a sometimes blurry one.

What Witt’s essay screams at me is that we’re lost without a map, we’ve forgotten what a map is, and that this is the map we need.

A common thing to hear from people who push back against the Church’s various rules on sex is Saint Augustine’s well known phrase, ama et fac quod vis, “Love and do what you will.” But if you know Augustine’s life a little bit, you know that to him that certainly didn’t entail liberation from sexual continence. Indeed he knew as well as anyone that a healthy sexual ethic is demanding.

Forget about the Church’s rules for one second. I don’t want to outlaw premarital sex, or get everyone to become a nun.

“Love and do what you will” cannot be “Obey these rules or else burn for eternity”, but it’s absolutely not (might even be the opposite of) just “Do what you will.” Which is what we have right now.

Ama et fac quod vis.

Consider The Fist And Other Essays

TAS alums debating morals and kinky sex? Where do I sign up!

By now the intellectual internet has read Emily Witt’s excellent n+1 essay, which is fascinating and is self-consciously only superficially about an extreme BDSM porn shoot in San Francisco. (In this post I will assume you’ve read the essay and will not censor my language.)

Here’s Rod Dreher calling it a glimpse of hell.

Here’s TAS Alum Noah Millman reacting to the essay and Rod’s post saying, essentially, why are you a bunch of squares (obviously his post is much smarter than this), and pushing back at the idea that there should be an ideal of morality that we should all conform to.

Here’s TAS Alum Alan Jacobs reacting to Noah and asserting the case against degrading sex with a poetic followup noting how lonely extreme sex can be.

EDIT: I had missed this additional post by Rod.

Here’s Noah taking Alan’s point and a further followup querying the concept of consent.

All of it is fascinating and very good, but I just sort of want to take a step back, because it seems to me that the discussion is headed in a direction that, while important, actually misses what was so striking about this essay. The question that Rod and Noah and Alan are sort of batting around is: are some kinds of sex intrinsically degrading? If yes, what and what does that mean; if not, why not and what does that mean. (There’s also a sub-debate about the difference, and whether there is one, between participating in sexual rituals and watching them over the internet.)

That’s an important discussion to have these days but I do think within the context of this essay it risks missing the forest for the trees.

There are several threads to Witt’s essay: there’s the Kink shoot, but there’s also the San Francisco Googleplex of smart beautiful healthy empty robotic people, there are also as Alan notes glimpses of the human devastation that San Francisco’s sheen hides but that all San Franciscans know (“A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill”; “a side street haunted by drug addicts and the mentally ill just south of the Tenderloin”), and there is finally Witt’s own ruderless personal life.

What is the thing that binds these things all together? It’s not kinky sex. It is, and the piece screams this at me, an utter absence of love.

What this piece is is a description of is what happens when not only people don’t love each other but don’t even have the idea that that is something they ought to do.

If with orthodox Christian theology we describe Hell as the absence of God and God as love, then Rod is absolutely correct that this piece is a glimpse of a Hell on Earth, but perhaps not for the reasons Rod had in mind.

And so while Alan is right to push back against Noah’s notion that getting anally fisted in public is just in Noah’s phrase “San Franciscans flying their freak flags” and to point out that this is self-degradation, I think the right way to understand the piece is to query what is it that makes us want to be degraded, or degrade, or watch people be degraded (while we degrade ourselves), rather than whether degrading is degrading.

Because, to talk about the kinky sex for one second, degradation is what it’s about. What’s arousing about a Kink video is not the anal fisting; what’s arousing is what happens before: the girl being paraded with a sign reading “I’M A WORTHLESS CUNT.” This is the subtext, and this is what generates the arousal. Unless you have an anal fisting fetish, which is not true of enough people to make Kink a viable business enterprise (and even then one might query the reason for the fetish), anal fisting is a turn-on not because of the act itself but because of what it means; that is to say, degradation.

What’s most striking about BDSM is how much of a prisoner it is of Christian sexual ethics. For all the talk of BDSM practitioners about how they are free from “vanilla” sexuality, they are in fact their slave: they simply take vanilla sexuality, and then do the opposite. If you define yourself in opposition to something you are not free from it; you are enslaved to it. And this isn’t just about “putting tab A into slot B”, but about the requirement of traditional sexual morality that sex must be radically other-centered and therefore radically equal—so BDSM must be radically authoritarian. If you could have a definition of Christian sex, a good one would be “a radical denunciation of power”—so of course BDSM must be all about power. If Christian sex is all about self-giving, then BDSM is all about possession. (And the well-known point that in BDSM, it is actually, if you think about it for two seconds, the “sub” who is the master, does nothing to change that.)

And by the way, this is why it’s so powerful, right? Power, domination, possession, these are all the things we crave, deeply, and powerfully, and BDSM promises to give them to us in a radical, deep way through one of the most powerful experiences of humanity, which is sexuality. Good BDSM sex is great.

Christianity cares about sex ultimately because it recognizes that sex is a microcosm of human nature, with its potential for the highest or the lowest. Within sex, we can radically give ourselves to another, but within sex, we can indulge our deep, deep needs for power, or powerlessness—that is to say, in either case, selfishness.

Once we’ve said all of this, we can safely realize that what matters when we think about sex is less specific acts than what they entail and what we are actually doing.

But let’s forget about the sex and God for a second.

If you were to describe how everyone in the piece behaves—the people at the Kink shoot, the Googlers, and Witt herself—, a good place to start would be to say that they’re behaving as anti-Kantians. No one is treating anyone as an end in themselves. Everyone is treating everyone as a means.

In our contemporary sexual hellscape, the thread that binds everything together is that we treat ourselves as means. The Google Princes treat everything as means. The Kink people, obviously—the female porn star is here for an experience, she doesn’t care about Princess Donna or anyone else; the male porn star and Princess Donna are here for a pay check; the bystanders are here for, take your pick, satisfying base urges or simply cheap thrills. (This is where Alan was right to push back against Noah’s notion that they were behaving in a “civilized” way—they were, within the bounds of that particular culture, polite but they were very much uncivilized in the sense that everything they were doing was about them. That’s the difference between politeness (in French, the word for “polite” and the word for “polished” are the same) and courtesy: politeness is merely formal adherence to external standards of conduct, while courtesy is the expression of care for other people which may or may not come through adherence to external standards of conduct properly understood. True civilization is courteous before it is polite. And the discussion about consent, while interesting, leads us astray from this, I think, deeper point.) And Witt, finally, in her own personal life, is treating others as means. She was once looking for a permanent relationship, but she didn’t really know why, except for a vague sense that it would be good for her, and so then she looked for hook-ups, but that hurt other people, and she doesn’t really know how to feel about that, and now she doesn’t know what she wants. (I want to say that I admire Witt’s courage for laying it all out, and I’m certainly not casting stones. It’s not her fault that she lacks the moral vocabulary to understand her actions.)

The thing that all these things have in common is not anal fisting. The thing that all these things have in common is that everybody is treating each other like means and not end in themselves, and not only that, but they don’t seem to even have the concept that there is another way to treat people.

And obviously I think the best way to be a Kantian is to be a Christian. Treating other people as ends in themselves is a wonderful idea, but why, and how, should we do that? The only answer, it seems to me, is love. (And that love, in turn, can only be credible if it is a person.)

Witt writes:

I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival. So, back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter.

As if love was something…no human could escape.

What sadness. Of course, we are powerless to “instigate” love or “ensure its duration” if we live in a society that is completely fixated on everything else and on extinguishing it. If everyone is fixated on themselves. If we’re all dangled toys in front of each other, whether labelled “nice car”, “anal fisting videos” or, perhaps the worst, “keeping my options open”. Oh yes, by all means, seek out love, but don’t commit to anything, particularly not early, particularly when there might be so many other interesting things out there to see or do.

And thus, how is it possible to not understand this:

After a decade or so of living this way, with occasional suspensions for relationships that would first revive my belief in romantic love and its attendant structures of domesticity, and then once again fail and extinguish them, I started finding it difficult to revere the couple as the fundamental unit of society. I became a little ornery about it, to be honest: that couples paid lower taxes together, that they could afford better apartments, that there were so few structures of support to ease the raising of a child as a single person, that the divorced experience a sense of failure, that failed marriages are accompanied by so much logistical stress on top of the emotional difficulties. All this because we privilege a certain idea of love. The thought of the natural progression of couples, growing more and more insular, buying nicer and nicer furniture, shutting down the world, accruing things, relaxing into habit, scared me. … Why was love between couples more exceptional? Because it attached itself to material objects, and to children? Because it ordered civilization? I probably would not have a baby without love, and buying a home seemed impossible for all kinds of reasons, but I could have sex. I had a body.

Yes, if “love” is about getting a house and getting a car, and paying less taxes, and if it’s an endlessly receding horizon, then it starts to feel a bit of a ripoff, doesn’t it?

“But, you can have sex. You have a body.” (No, by the way, you are a body.)

That’s when the anal fisting comes, but that’s not where the despair is. The despair is before.

Yes, we’re all getting screwed, in more ways than we realize.

Why Good Societies Stigmatize Anti-Semitic Language

Andrew Sullivan has noticed that some kinds of language that are sometimes used to criticize a lobby like the NRA are not considered acceptable to use to criticize Israel or “The Israel Lobby.”

I’m really going to presume that Andrew (I don’t know Andrew Sullivan personally, but it seems that if you’ve been in the blogosphere long enough, you get to call him Andrew) is acting in good faith, here, and is genuinely vexed by this, and try to explain. I think/hope that it might be useful to do so, because I do believe that there are some people who feel the same way as Andrew in good faith (though there are also a lot of people for whom this kind of talk is simply an expression of anti-Semitism).

I mean, the reasons seem obvious.

The first obvious reason is that gun owners are not an ethnic group. In post-Enlightenment society, we recognize that people who are members of a group by choice are more open to criticism for being part of that group than people who are a member of that group by birth. I’m sure Andrew is well aware of how the emergence of a consensus of homosexuality as innate, and not chosen, has affected conversation about the gay community. We would cringe if President Obama (or a white Democratic politician, for that matter) was described as, say, “pandering to the Black Lobby” for addressing the NAACP.

The second obvious reason is that there is no record in history of a totalitarian regime embarking on a plan to exterminate all gun owners as a group and nearly succeeding, or of a major figure of a currently existing thuggish regime calling for the extermination of gun owners, or of a disturbing number of clerics of a major world religion calling for holy war on gun owners, nor is there a constant drumbeat of examples of gun owners, all over the world and for all of recorded history, being victimized in various ways for being gun owners.

The third obvious reason is that the language and ideology of gun owners’ alleged behind-the-scenes political influence, itself standing for a belief in their intrinsic malevolence and treacherousness, does not have a centuries-long history of being used as a spur for discrimination, mob violence, and massacres against gun owners.

Our society, quite reasonably in my view, has developed a taboo against the use of words associated with group hatred, as a way to stigmatize said hatred. White people can’t use the n word in contemporary polite American society because that word is associated with the memory of white people who used that word and bought and sold black people as chattel. The fact that it’s possible in theory to be a Non-Racist White Person and still utter the n word is irrelevant—and quite rightly so! And the taboo is all the stronger because there still are white racists around who use the n word and want to hurt black people. And we think it’s wrong. So we stigmatize it.

By the same token, and for obvious reasons, it would not be received in the same way if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is gay” and if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is a fag.” If I wrote the latter and defended myself by saying that I was only stating a fact, I would be ridiculed, for obvious and good reason. The word “fag” is not considered noxious because it refers to a gay person or because of the sound the syllable makes, the word “fag” is considered noxious because it is a symbol and instrument of group hatred.

And expressions like “Jewish lobby”, which carries the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are a shadowy clique that secretely controls the government have been—for centuries, around the world, to this very day in some places—used as spurs to mass violence.

Now, does this mean that it’s “impossible” to criticize the State of Israel, or America’s Middle Eastern policy, or AIPAC? Does it mean that Chuck Hagel is a dhimmi or an anti-Semite? Of course not. Does it mean that there are certain phrases that you may not use to be considered civilized? Does it mean you shouldn’t write just quite the same way about AIPAC—or the NAACP—as the NRA? Yes. Is this just? Absolutely.

Period.

And I could just leave it at that, but I’ll press on, because it is (very) important and I haven’t seen formally spelled out the argument for the pressing duty of combating anti-Semitism in all its forms, including rhetorical, including accidental. In contemporary society, when someone earnestly screws up about race, the opportunity to assert moral superiority is so strong that the opportunity to explain is almost never taken.

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The Pitfalls Of Impressionism In Narrative Art

The central challenge of great narrative art is to present characters that feel like real people. The problem with that, of course, is that each person is a universe. Each person is depths of complexity, frailty, irrationality. We only barely know ourselves and don’t even know our spouses and children well. It’s a mark of true genius to be able to build characters in a piece of narrative art where you can feel this character has the same infinite depths as an actual human.

Since it’s impossible to portray these infinite depths, the best way to do that is to let people “take a peek under the iceberg.” Show just enough that the reader or viewer is just capable of discerning, through a glass darkly, that there are immense depths within. Show too little and the character is a cardboard cutout. Show too much and it becomes artificial. You can see the gears whirring inside the mechanical turk.

The work of art that I know that I think pulls it off the best, is War and Peace. Every single character in that book feels like a real person. Like a sculptor chipping away, Tolstoy shows us archetypes that he then refines into real people that are absolutely, thoroughly, 100% believable. Prince Andrey is a hero, but is also insecure, rejecting the woman he loves because she might have been with another man. Pierre is a coward of hidden depths and who rises to great maturity. And this is true of every single one of the Russian-novel-countless characters in the book. Criticism of War and Peace focuses on its pretty silly metaphysics and philosophy, but it is really a wonderful character book. You want to read it and read it over and over again and make these characters a part of your life because you know you’re never going to hit bottom with them. They’re infinitely deep just like you and me (well, mostly me) .

One potentially fruitful way to reveal “just the right amount of iceberg” is through what I’ll refer to as “narrative impressionism”: telling your narrative through small sketches instead of a continuous storyline. Narrative impressionism lends itself to this because it is intrinsically suggestive: the whole point is to show just enough to suggest much, much more. But the real pitfall of narrative impressionism is also obvious: not showing enough. And not just showing enough, but by showing only the things you want to show, revealing the artificiality of the narrative. The reader/viewer gets into the habit of, with each new scene: “What is it the author is trying to tell me here? Oh, So-and-so is this type of person. Got it. Please move on, now.” Characters become dry and one-dimensional.

I write this a propos of The Tree Of Life, which I only just saw yesterday and was underwhelmed by. (Spoilers below the fold.)

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The Radicalizing Of A Young Conservative

I like to think of myself as a pretty moderate guy. I like to think that politics is the art of the possible, and try to support policies that could get passed in the real world (while trying to shift the Overton Window a little bit with my writing). I especially like to think of myself as the kind of guy who remembers that no “side” has a monopoly on truth, and that all sides are mostly made up of well-intentioned people who want a better future for their polity. I like to think it’s important to remind myself that I’m a Christian first and a right-winger second, and that Christians in the public square should have what Catholic social doctrine calls “a preferential option for the poor” ; that while I very often disagree with the Left on how to make this option real, the Right too often forgets about it altogether in practice. On so-called social issues, I like to think of myself grandiosely first and foremost as a peacemaker, not a warrior ; when I talk about abortion I am more likely to talk about building a society that welcomes all life than about legal restrictions (and even then to talk about a gradualist approach) ; more likely to talk about strengthening all marriages than to talk about banning certain ones ; (much) more likely to view gender politics through a feminist than a traditionalist lens ; and so on.

First, let’s be honest: there’s probably a lot of affect here. Part of it is how I want to be seen by my contemporaries, which in my elite world are majority liberals: a conservative, maybe, but a Serious, Reasonable one. Not one of those Tea Party types who watch Fox and read Breitbart.

But I’m increasingly wondering if my self-conscious moderateness doesn’t also include a good deal of self-delusion. What if what’s at stake is much more fundamental than I think? What if it really is a war, and I’m too foolish to notice?

I think back on the HHS Mandate hoopla. Is this a technical issue or an other prong in a sustained, deliberate assault on religious liberty? At the time, I was openly derisive of the latter view. Sure, the Obama Administration was giving a sop to an interest group which was problematic for a bunch of reasons, but that was no threat of the Republic. My main preoccupation when thinking of the HHS Mandate was to figure some sort of compromise, not fight tooth-and-nail. As a Catholic, the idea of forcing Catholic hospitals to cover contraception makes me cringe, but is it really the end of the world? After all, I live in a country where my taxes pay for free abortions…

Then again, as Ross Douthat noted at the time in a very important column, the HHS Mandate relied on and promoted a truncated vision of religious freedom; one, which, taken to its logical course, is not just un-American, but deeply illiberal and unjust. As Megan McArdle noted, there’s a (deeply creepy) way in which lots of liberals seem to think that religious groups should consider themselves lucky to be allowed to exist as social institutions in the Grand Liberal Order. The mentality of the HHS Mandate and of many progressive reforms and wish-lists leads to a world where mediating institutions— families, religious groups, community organizations, local governments—are pared down and pared down until, as one of my Twitter followers put it, “the individual stands naked before the state” (and its conjoined twin, crony capitalism ). Is this the end game, or just collateral damage? And if the latter, it is one that progressives seem utterly unconcerned by, rendering the question rhetorical. First they came for the Catholic hospitals, and I said nothing, because I wasn’t a Catholic hospital…

I am writing this today, of course, because of Kermit Gosnell. I’m not even going to argue that there has been a black-out* by the mainstream mass media on the coverage of this horrible, horrible affair. Smart, secular, pro-choice writers like Conor Friedersdorf, Jeffrey Goldberg, Megan McArdle and Dave Weigel have seen it. If you think that it is totally normal for an editor or producer at mainstream media organization to hear about a story of a serial killer who kept a collection of feet, who was allowed to keep perpetrating for years and years, who preyed on minorities, and yawn, that this is totally normal for contemporary US mainstream media, or if you think that the story has already received plenty of coverage, you are just not, to coin a phrase, a member of the reality-based community.

(* By using the word “black-out” I am not alleging the existence of some conspiracy, just describing what effectively happened, whether through incompetence, blinders, etc.—or conspiracy.)

The near-universal vehemence with which many progressives have asserted the normalcy of the Gosnell coverage has completely baffled me. Are they completely deluded? Are they cynically lying? No doubt, on the whole, a mix of both. But who cares? If this is the mentality of the Left, if this is the extent of self-delusion and/or deceit they will go to suppress a story which might possibly give political advantage to the pro-life movement, they mustn’t be compromised with, they must be utterly defeated.

What’s all the more striking, and indeed gut-wrenching, is that the Gosnell story is also a social justice story. Gosnell preyed—was allowed to prey—on the poor and on minorities, because they were poor and minorities. It shows us in its disgusting detail not just the horrors of abortion in 21st century America but also the horrors of inequality in 21st century America. But, as a matter of fact, to the contemporary Left, the egg of calling attention to deep injustice against the poor must be broken to get the omelette of preventing any chance of any restriction on abortion whatsoever. I say as a matter of fact, because while many lefties would loudly proclaim to disagree with the previous sentence, what has actually happened is that they all collaborated, as one man, to proclaim that Gosnell must remain uncovered—thereby, of course, all-but ensuring that we will have more Gosnells —social justice be damned. If poor young women must die like dogs so that more babies—the word for viable foetus is baby—can be killed, then so be it. If this is really what the contemporary American Left stands for, any compromise with it would be shameful.

So I’m getting radicalized. I’m increasingly finding, or at least wondering, if I’m not fooling myself by trying to find a way to give half a loaf. We in Europe remember, or at least we should, the “salami tactics” by which Communist parties, by slicing off one concession after another, eventually grabbed full, totalitarian power.

Understand me: less than a week ago, I would have rolled my eyes at a comparison between the contemporary American Left and mid-century European Communist parties. If a liberal journalist had mocked it on Twitter, I would have approvingly retweeted it. Now I find myself surprising myself by making it.

Do I think that all contemporary American left-wingers consciously want to destroy liberties, mediating institutions, indeed transcendence itself, and make us all part of the Borg collective? No. But then again the self-soothing illusions of the useful idiots were no reason not to oppose Communism at every step.

I realize how crazy it sounds, what I’m writing. It sounds crazy even to me. But blind naïveté is also a form of insanity.

Welcome to the mind of a radicalizing young conservative.

Don't Tell Me I Can't Be a Feminist House Husband

Into the ever-churning vortex of debate about leaning in/having it all comes Lisa Miller’s New York cover story bogus trend story about “the feminist housewife,” women who have, without changing any of their feminist convictions, decided they’re happier staying at home with the kids as their full time job. They insist that having a career mattered to them, but it simply couldn’t compete with the tranquility and stability of having one parent managing the household full-time. Several of Miller’s characters describe their pre-housewife lives as miserable and frayed by stress and marital tension. With both parents working, neither gets to the spend the time they want with the kids; dividing up the domestic duties and communicating about them non-stop makes life transactional and exhausting; inevitably someone’s dreams are going to get shorted. So the (two!) women in Miller’s story say they’ve discovered, in giving up an outside career and settling into traditional gender roles, that there really is some kind of “natural” groove of the dad going to work and the mom taking care of the kids.

This mass of work-family issues is debated to a pulp, and yet it somehow seems like no satisfying conclusion is ever reached. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering that we are living through one of the greatest technological and economic revolutions in the history of the planet, and it’s a little ridiculous to assume that answers will be discovered easily. But there are several things these splashy gender-bomb articles tend to consistently leave out of the picture to the detriment of any serious discussion about the important issues they raise. So with this latest article as an example—and Anne-Marie Slaughter, et al, following closely in the rearview mirror—let me try to point out a few things that are continually overlooked and gotten wrong.

They’re too narrowly focused on rich people. I’m far from the first to point this out, but it’s striking the extent to which these debates about who chooses to do what are moot when the conversation is taken beyond wealthy white people. The main character of Miller’s “feminist housewife” story has a husband who makes “low six figures,” which may not be “rich” by Wall Street standards, but is a hell of a lot more than my wife and I make working two full-time jobs. One of us quitting is all but out of the question, and would be all the more so if we had a child So all the talk of optimal arrangements and the “hell” of filling each other in on domestic responsibilities we split becomes meaningless outside of a situation where you have considerable financial flexibility to adjust your domestic arrangement. For many people—including a majority of the people working for places like The Atlantic and New York magazine—the ability to have afford a child at all where they live is a much more pressing question than how to divide the chores.

They’re too narrowly focused on women. We are living in the golden age of the Great Women’s Internet Polemic, and, while I heartily support writing about and for women, this age—with its high quotient of trend exaggeration and trolling—actually does a disservice to public debate about family issues. Despite the way they are often packaged and discussed, I don’t see articles on subjects like Miller’s or Slaughter’s as “women’s issue’s journalism”; these issues are vitally important to my life as a husband and future parent. But when the conversation is all or mostly about who is and isn’t a proper feminist, and what magazine is getting how many pageviews by trolling who, it starts to feel like we’re spinning our wheels on a subject that our society desperately needs to discuss. (Not that that need by any means precludes discussion of the feminism angle; in fact, I’d say the bigger problem is the lack of male writers besides Rod Dreher, PEG and a couple others willing to engage.)

There is a desperate need for men write about what we absurdly think of as “women’s issues”—not to “mansplain” to women about what needs to be done, but because we have just as much or more work to do figuring out how to handle modern work, marriage and fatherhood. How much does a career matter? What are we prepared to give up to be parents? Do we have a realistic picture of how two careers and two kids are going to work in practice? And on and on. Unlike women, who have now had decades of feminist dialogue in which to work out these issues as the world changed around them, men have not thought and written enough about what a revolutionized world means for our choices and priorities.

They make too many assumptions about the genders, especially about men. It’s depressing to see old gender stereotypes returning as something like a settled truth: women “naturally” care more about kids and are better domestic administrators, and men are only fulfilled by outside work. (The main character of Miller’s story explodes with oddly unsubstantiated maxims of this sort, things that might as well have plucked from Phyllis Schlafly’s diary by Suzanne Vencker.) I don’t care whether you back it up that kind of claim with bullshit evolutionary biology or bullshit fundamentalist theology, it’s manifestly contradicted by the world around us, which has nothing but endless variation. Very little about the genders is “naturally” one way or the other. Many, many women dislike children and, even if they don’t, struggle to feel what others blithely call “maternal instincts.” An equal number of men are gifted with children, and only passively and regretfully put in their time at the office to feed the family they love. If someone were to seriously suggest that my wife will somehow “naturally” enjoy spending every day with our kids more than I would, or would be better at managing the household, I would ask if they had taken leave of their senses.

Nowhere does this tendency to impose gender stereotypes lead to more problems than in the sexist way we treat work-family balance a concern that only women face. Most of the time, men are never assumed to face any kind of choice about how they will sacrifice to have a family, or worse, not expected to sacrifice at all. Unlike women, if they succeed at work, all is more or less well and good. They’re automatically excused when they manifest their learned helplessness at cooking, washing dishes, paying bills, etc, while women still feel intense social pressure to succeed at those things even if they have full-time careers or don’t have that apocryphal female aptitude for grinding chores. I couldn’t possibly describe all the couples my parents’ age in which, even if the man is a natural administrator and the woman is not, the woman is left to shoulder—often poorly and with resentment—domestic responsibilities she’s no good at. The “women’s work” assumption still silently underlies the way we live and think, and the mythology that the man must go out each day to conquer the world continues to shield him from questions and choices that should fairly be addressed to both partners.

They fail to challenge the American idolization of work. So many of these discussions preserve the sacrosanct place of the career in American life, and this is perhaps one of the greatest impediments to actually achieving some sort of workable solution. I appreciate the women in Miller’s story who discovered—surprise, surprise—that jobs and careers are massively, massively overrated in American social life. But everyone in the story, including and especially their husbands, cares too much about work. As both Miller’s subjects and New York Times reporter Michael Winerip admit, being the stay-at-home parent is often lots more fun that schlepping to an office every day. Personally, I’d rather spend any day with kids than co-workers. If we could collectively admit that we often value and commit to work at a far deeper level than it deserves, maybe we wouldn’t be so neurotic about choosing arrangements that make sharing domestic life more natural: working from home, part-time jobs, freelance projects, and occasionally, a few years off when the kids need us most. The world really can wait.

Update: Tracie Egan Morrissey and Jess Grose have solid takedowns of the Miller article and both agree with me that its “weird gender essentialism” is not only made-up bullshit but pretty insulting to men who are great with kids and housework.

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