Sunday, February 18, 2018

This Thing We Keep and Dip Into When We Need

Rosie Wilby:

The vast majority of couples I’ve spoken to who have opened up a central or ‘primary’ partnership have done so precisely as a way of being more faithful – a way of having neither to cheat nor leave. For them, it’s been a case of sustaining a good thing, keeping promises and allowing one another to thrive.

...‘But isn’t it an admission that something’s lacking?’ Bex asked.

‘Absolutely,’ I said, ‘but since when does any one person meet every single one of your needs? I’ve never had a relationship without several items left un-ticked on my ideal wish list. Finally I get to be respectfully honest about it without getting my head bitten off.’

The Idler is a publication essentially dedicated to the observation of limits. They're not advocating rebellion so much as a sort of intellectual civil disobedience. Animated by the spirit of Bartleby the Scrivener, they look upon the modern cults of ambition, achievement and efficiency and demur, "I would prefer not to." So it's especially funny to see them publishing a piece on (the inaptly-named) polyamory, a trend which truly exemplifies the vain hope of "having it all." The greed of the poly mentality, which would be readily apparent to the average Idler if the objects of desire were mere material possessions, manages to pass unnoticed disguised in the modern virtues of egalitarianism and non-judgment. Biology's truth will out, I suppose. It's easy to pose as indifferent to wealth and status, but much more difficult to voluntarily limit oneself from pleasures of the flesh, especially when you consider the typical demographics of the people attracted to free love — young, unattached, and cosmopolitan. I said before that I continue to wait in vain for one of these proselytizers to follow up the cliché about how "no one person meets every one of your needs" with the equally valid observation that most of our "needs" are merely impulsive wants that it would be better to ignore and outgrow. You'd think a publication devoted to criticizing restless acquisition would be ideally suited for that.

Friday, February 16, 2018

I Can Do No Other

Noah Rothman:

Those who contend that conservatives, in particular, overstate the threat on campus make several claims. These are the works of only a handful of misguided “college kids,” they contend. The few instances of extreme behavior on campus are not suggestive of any broader societal trend and don’t merit much attention. In fact, the limited scope of the problem, therefore, suggests that that conservative indignation is false–a convenient way to avoid confronting anti-social behavior among their ideological compatriots. All of this is fallacious.

Everyone believes that slippery slopes exist. We just disagree on their precise location and steepness. Or, you could say we're all frogs in a pot of water, arguing over whether the temperature has noticeably increased in the last few minutes. Talented sophists can certainly make plausible cases for prioritizing attention toward almost any area of concern, from social to economic to environmental ills, but there's no objective standard of proof that would settle these arguments with finality. Hume's famous problem of induction still haunts us here — the fact that we can identify a developing trend doesn't guarantee that it will continue. We'll only know who was right with the benefit of hindsight one day. However tiny it may be, there's still a leap of faith involved in choosing which issues are worth our attention and which can be safely ignored. And in our frivolous culture, where, despite all the sturm und drang, no one honestly expects things to drastically change one way or the other, arguments over what right-thinking people should properly be focusing their limited time and attention on become just another way of flashing our tribal I.D. badges.

I'm a conservative by temperament, if not by party affiliation. If I vote at all, it almost certainly won't be in any election beyond the state level. To me, our sclerotic political institutions are like the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, completely beyond our control or fathoming, only worth keeping a wary eye on in the possibly-vain hope of not being crushed underfoot as they pursue their mysterious goals, heedless to the destruction they cause down below. I think that despite endless bipartisan ranting and raving, life is generally pretty good in this country, even for people without a lot of money or power, and that it provides a fair amount of freedom for people to live as they wish. The idea of man as a fallen creature prone to weakness and vice strikes me as portraying a psychological truth if not a religious one. I don't believe that any amount of money or comfort, let alone any new sociopolitical arrangement, will make people content, because it's too easy and tempting for people to be weak, lazy and prone to blame their unhappiness on something else. While not a Stoic, I do agree that the only thing most people achieve by complaining is becoming proficient at it and prone to practice it relentlessly. Obsessing over politics in particular causes most people to walk around with their own personal storm clouds permanently thundering in their heads. Work hard, treat people well, do your best to accept and ignore things beyond your control, and just get on with it — that's the basic framework of my approach to life.

Most of all, I share the typically-conservative tragic view of life, in which perfection is inherently unattainable. It's more than enough work for most people to cultivate the character and practice the good habits necessary to keep from accidentally or maliciously destroying the fragile blessings in life. The game always ends in defeat, so to speak, so it's more important to play it well. To this end, art, music, and literature, also known as the humanities, are the greatest source of succor and solace this side of the River Styx. This is why I make my stand there. The humanities are the greatest respite we'll ever have from our worldly tribulations, and these abhorrent philistines only care about turning them into just another branch of radical activist politics, with all the misery that entails. In everyday life, with limited time, energy, and resources at our disposal, it obviously makes sense to prioritize problems and tackle them in order of importance. In the big scheme of things, though, when we're talking about problems that are global in scope if not existential in nature, that sort of one-at-a-time approach won't work. Adolescent barbarians vandalizing their cultural heritage will never rise high enough on the list of pressing issues to be considered worthy of attention. Prioritizing be damned; some things are simply worth fighting for on principle, and this is the one I choose.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Shoulders Too Broad for a Girl

Jessa Crispin:

A truly progressive man, then, would be one who rejects the social and economic advantages that come from hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal conformity. A “feminine flourish,” as Cremin puts it, of perfume or lipstick or a silk blouse, would undercut a man’s power immediately in both the workplace and on the sexual market. But why is that still true, other than because men are heavily invested in retaining old forms and modes of power, and are unwilling to take even the smallest step toward voluntarily relinquishing it—as well as having a disinterest in, or belittling viewpoint of, femininity and women, and a fear of being mistaken for gay? You know, small things like that. The feminine potential that lies within men is often spoken about in terms of caretaking and parenting within marriages and nuclear families—which are forms of patriarchal control, too—rather than with regard to exploring sensuality, beauty, and softness.

I suppose I stand corrected. When I suggested the other day that our inclinations and behaviors around here were more truly genderbendy than all these bandwagon-jumpers who change their pronouns as often as their underwear, I failed to recognize that those ostensibly non-conforming practices were still taking place within the confines of a hetero-patriarchal relationship, rendering them null and void with regard to their revolutionary potential. Plus, the Lady of the House still harbors a reactionary fondness for fashionable clothes and makeup, while I, with my "gym bod" and "nostalgia bearding," am clearly reacting out of subconscious fear of the, uh, "rise of the visibility of women and queers in the public realm," desperately trying to reassert my threatened masculinity. Let's not even mention my t-shirt and cargo-shorts wardrobe. Point is, "true" revolutionary socialism will only arrive when we're all dressing like Ziggy Stardust. If the history of actually-existing revolutionary socialism is any indication, it's more likely we'd all be wearing drab unisex Mao Suits, but okay, whatever.

Funny enough, I don't actually have any problem with the idea that fashion is a largely-arbitrary social construction that could be changed with no lasting consequences to the social order. Whether we call them kilts, skirts, sarongs, kimonos, dresses or robes, I'm all in favor of dressing comfortably. If it became socially acceptable for guys to wear eyeliner, I'd probably do it. I fully admit that the only reason I don't is because it's not a hill I'm willing to answer ten thousand questions upon. Life is all about tradeoffs, and I simply don't feel strongly enough about men's indubitable right to wear makeup to do it myself. I mean, having a beard, even if only because I like the way it looks, apparently opens me to charges of being subconsciously homophobic and misogynist, so I really just don't have the time to face interrogation over the subtext of my lip gloss as well. Is this proof of the stifling conformity of capitalist patriarchy, or is it just the adult recognition of the fact that not all battles are equally worth fighting?

No, the article would be unremarkable were it not for the fact of Crispin's determination to squeeze in her typically half-baked ideas about socialist utopia. Well, since we're all pretending to be able to read each other's minds here, allow me to go ahead and speculate that her generic bowl of buzzword soup here is just the latest product of her admittedly-incomplete education and its attending inferiority complex. An intellectual orphan, left to fend for herself in the inhospitable, culturally sterile Midwest, trying to cobble together a sophisticated worldview through voracious, indiscriminate reading, she apparently impressed upon the first jargon-spouting critical theorist she encountered and never outgrew it. And so, sadly, here she is, close to middle age, proud of having attained fluency in academese, and evidently unaware that it does nothing to disguise the adolescent puerility of her ideas. "When we remove forms of control, we are left to act freely on our desires." Yes, and only a superficially-intelligent naïf who confuses bookishness with wisdom assumes that this is likely to turn out well.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Do You Even Believe That There's a Race to Be Won?

Michael Tanner:

We have become obsessed with economic equality at the expense of economic growth. Inequality is said to be the transcendent issue of our time. Yet a society that is rich and unequal still beats one that is poor and equal any day of the week.

I don't know about "transcendent," but it sure is ubiquitous, at least. I long ago passed through the semantic satiation stage; now, I think I'm in the learned helplessness phase, where I can't even react to the pain of hearing progressives yammering incessantly and nonsensically about income inequality; I just lay on the floor of my cage and tremble and whimper as if there's no escape.

In slogan form, the argument often takes shape as a distinction between equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Exasperated, progressives will retort that they're not demanding equality of outcome; it's just that there's no true equality of opportunity as long as there is structural inequality, i.e. privilege. Many will approvingly quote Anatole France's famous snark about how the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges and steal loaves of bread. Dig, if you will, the picture of society engaged in a race. The progressive perspective is that "equality of opportunity" still allows too many people to have a significant, even insurmountable, head start through "unearned" advantages. The only way the race can be made truly fair is to bring everyone back to the same starting line. Of course, doing so would entail the very same socioeconomic leveling that progressives insist they're not aiming for. Equality of outcome by a different name — imposing it "before" rather than "after" the race. And let's be honest — assuming such "true" equality of opportunity was even achievable, why would you fire the starting pistol and allow the same old inequalities to begin asserting themselves again? Are we supposed to believe that our former devotees of equality, possessing the power to eliminate disparities, would suddenly just shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, we ensured absolutely fair starting conditions, so it's all up to individual skill and desire now. Whatever happens, happens. Let the best man win."?

William Voegeli accurately noted that no matter how much the welfare state continues to grow (even under Republican administrations), progressives always insist it's never enough. More specifically, they never make any attempt to quantify what "enough" might finally look like, or how we would recognize it when we get there. How much GDP is the redistributive state entitled to consume? How many new programs do we need? At what point might we factor in that human beings are never satisfied and always complaining no matter what? A cynic might suspect that such vagueness is the entire point, that it's all about procuring blank checks and ever-increasing administrative power for you and your party by constantly stoking and inflaming moral outrage. No, it's not that there's a danger of progressives actually gaining enough power and ability to eliminate all the privileges and talents that give some people an automatic head start in life; it's that to the extent that such ahistorical fantasies are relentlessly pursued by people too stupid to recognize them as fantasies, they can still cause an awful lot of damage.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Obiter Dicta, no.36

It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was most surely necessary — even if they vowed to themselves, “de omnibus dubitandum.”

— Nietzsche

Andrew Sullivan:
Look: I don’t doubt the good intentions of the new identity politics — to expand the opportunities for people previously excluded.

Having spent the article up until this point making his case for why campus radicalism can't be dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow with no bearing on the "real" world, we arrive at this curious statement — curious, because a mere four sentences later, he correctly observes that "the new identity politics" is better understood as a Marxist assault on the very notion of a liberal society than a logical extension of the traditional liberal project of integrating minorities, which makes one wonder just what would have to occur to make Sullivan suspicious of their motives.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Snips and Snails and Sugar and Spice

The Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?

The Dude: Hmmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles.

Spencer Case:

When gender identity is divorced from biology, the only way to distinguish a male from a female gender identity is to rely on gender stereotypes. We can imagine a woman’s mind in a man’s body, or a biological woman who defies gender stereotypes with regard to preferences and behavior. But try to say something substantive about the gender identity “woman” – something that would distinguish it from other gender identities – without referencing either biology or gender stereotypes. The DSM-5, the most recent edition of American Psychological Association’s guide for identifying mental illnesses, includes having a “strong preference for toys, games or other activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender” among its diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria. Why not assume that children with such preferences are simply members of their biological sex who defy the stereotypes?

When my generation was coming of age, it seemed like the commonest of sense that many of the general differences between men and women could still be blurred or even erased by individuals who were so inclined. The Lady of the House worked in some of the most typically masculine manual-labor fields when she was younger. She's constantly doing the sort of "handyman" projects around here that involve trips to Home Depot for supplies, where the workers unfailingly look at me when asking if "we" need any help. I prefer tasks like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and decorating for holidays. (The Lady says I'm also emotionally sensitive, "in touch with my feelings," and in the sort of physical shape that, at my age, usually gets a fellow classified as gay.) And yet, despite the fact that in practice, we're more genderbendy than half of the adolescent posers on Tumblr, we don't make a fetish of it. There's no existential angst over whether we might "really" be the other sex. Our biology doesn't oppress or imprison us.

Had you told me then that in a mere couple decades, we would "progress" to the point where people would define masculinity and femininity by those very same, uh, social constructions favored by nostalgic conservatives and lazy stand-up comedians, I would have stared at you in stunned silence. But here we are. Racially-segregated public spaces and clichéd definitions of gender are now "progressive" stances. There's apparently no idea so stupid it can't come back into vogue, if for no better reason than boredom.

The American Civil Liberties Union describes itself as an organization that “champions transgender people’s right to be themselves,” which suggests that transgender activists are motivated by a “live and let live” philosophy. But because the underlying conception of selfhood is so radical, this implies a right to live in a society devoid of gender norms. It is far from clear that most people would flourish under these conditions. “In a culture where transgender identities are not only affirmed, but celebrated,” Anderson writes, “everyone will be compelled to construct their own gender identities, unaided by a common understanding of sex differences and why they matter.” Transforming society along these lines necessarily has implications for the rights and interests of others.

This is what mainstream liberals, the kind who think all this culture war drama is an annoying distraction from the serious business of ghost-dancing the Great Society back into existence, fail to understand. This is much more radical than just another partisan skirmish. The fact that the transgender political project relies on restrictive stereotypes for an epistemological foundation in the absence of biology is really just an ironic side issue. The act of choosing itself, the uncaused assertion of pure will, is the foundation of it. What this is really about is liberalism, as a political philosophy opposed to any unjust limitations upon the individual, taken to its most extreme logical conclusion. It's not just tradition in the form of, say, fundamentalist religious practices that's oppressive; it's the very existence of a common frame of reference at all. Why should I have to abide by linguistic standards that I didn't voluntarily assent to? Why should society get to have any say over my self-expression? It doesn't matter if my choices make no sense; the important thing is that they're mine. If I feel like changing my gender sixteen times a week and demanding validation from everyone else, that's my choice, my right. Anything that impinges on my ability to do that is tyrannical and oppressive.

And thus the centuries-old drive to liberate the individual from any personal, social, or cultural entanglements that weren't consciously chosen ends up in solipsism. Well, not precisely — they still technically recognize the existence of other people who need to be scolded and browbeaten into submission. It's more a malignant form of narcissism. But still, mainstream liberals, fearful of being scooped up by the social-justice tumbrils which they helped set into motion, keep pretending that this is just one more logical, incremental extension of the sexual revolution that no reasonable person could have a problem with. And even if they did find the courage to call it what it is, they'd feel guilty over drawing what, to them, would feel like an arbitrary line — why should Obergefell be the final scene? How do you justify bringing the curtain down now? Who are you to decide that trans people or polygamists or whoever's next don't qualify as victims in need of liberation from prejudice and customs? Boy, isn't it convenient that the revolution stops when you start to feel uncomfortable...! Etc. If individual choice and freedom from irrational customs are good things by definition, it's difficult to articulate any reason why they should be curtailed without sounding like, *gulp*, a conservative, and if there's one thing that wakes a typical liberal in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, it's the thought of being called a conservative by their peers.

As long as status and power accrue to those willing to play this cynical game, it won't end. As long as dysfunctional people are incentivized to project their misery onto society, they'll keep seeking political solutions for it. As long as the clerisy keep reflexively genuflecting before anyone who claims victimhood, they'll keep finding newly-discovered victim groups making demands. Conservatives are at least comfortable with the knowledge that mores and customs will never be "rational" in the sense of being founded on abstract principles rather than tried-and-true practices. Liberals aren't. Faced with accusations of irrational hypocrisy, of failing to live up to their principles, they'll continue to back down rather than risk sacrificing their beloved self-image as the heroic champions of the underdog. In a sense, they've been living off of cultural savings for a while now, having it both ways. They've been able to position themselves as the cool, tolerant, sophisticated alternative to those musty, archaic conservatives, while trusting that unchecked individualism would never actually gather enough momentum to threaten the social cohesion accrued over the ages. As those cultural funds dwindle, the bills are starting to come due. It looks like we may be the ones fated to live in some truly interesting times indeed.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

He Remembered Remembering Contrary Things, but Those Were False Memories, Products of Self-Deception

Ed West:

People have always objected to women dressing immodestly – more so women than men – but what I can’t understand, and this is the dinosaur brain again, is that the current public moral space has no coherence or consistency. So while F1 girls are out of date and exploitative, pornography is fine because it’s empowering and education or something, at least according to the increasingly Buzzfeed-like BBC online. It’s okay for singers whose target audience is pre-teen girls to be crudely sexual and dress half-naked as long as they’re woke; ditto films and television being sexually graphic, as long as everyone makes the right vacuous points on Oscar night. Sex work likewise is a morally neutral issue because it’s empowering; except when it’s not. Women enjoying lifestyle choice is good; except when it isn’t. The one thing all approved, authorised sex-positive things have in common is that they upset conservatives or traditional conservative mores; grid girls don’t.

I appreciate that we’re in the middle of a cultural revolution and revolutions are marked by uncertainty and therefore terror – have I denounced the wrong person today? Did my tweet upset people when a year ago it would have been harmless? – but I do wish it would just hurry up and reach whatever awful dictatorship phase follows next. At least then we’ll have consistency.

Spoken more out of weariness than conviction. In other words, he knows better, the poor guy. The arbitrariness is the whole point. As Beria famously said, "Show me the man and I'll show you the crime." Or, as power-seeking radicals have long known, if they acquiesce to one of your demands, hit 'em with a dozen more. The point isn't to get what you want and be satisfied; it's about keeping them subservient and anxious to satisfy your neverending demands. Political correctness isn't about inspiring people to practice better behavior; it's about being the authority in charge of ordering others how to behave. They won't stop hectoring and start praising once we finally give in and comply with today's dictates; they'll just invent some new ones tomorrow and start hectoring us again. But I feel confident enough to assert that this phase of revolution will fizzle out as it continues to eat its own; I don't see any danger of the Napoleon of social justice coming to power and exporting its principles by force (though I resent Ed even putting such a horrific image in my head).

Again, I truly hate to give a quack like Freud credit for anything, but projection explains so very, very much about unpleasant human behavior. The same people who insist that everything noble or pleasurable in society is merely a mask concealing an insatiable lust for power and dominance turn out to be grotesque mutants who conceal an insatiable lust for power and dominance underneath a mask of egalitarian rhetoric. They were warning us all along!