Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What we did on our summer vacation

We spent the weekend in the wilds of Wisconsin, where the internet access is sparse and the milk is fresh. The occasion was the  2012 Gerasene Writers' Conference, sponsored by The Korrectiv. The alchohol consumption was prodigious, the under-18 population was positively anti-Malthusian, and the highlight of the weekend was the world-premiere reading of Matthew Lickona's Surfing with Mel, a short story in script form about Mel Gibson's (further) descent into madness as he tries to get a film project about the Maccabees off the ground. (Here's the germ of the project, though the workshopped story had a different focus and was powers of ten more profane.)

Also, people told me what was wrong with the beginning of my novel, and Darwin blew things away out on the back 40.

And while we were packing, we found the key to turn Eleanor's expander, stashed deep under the seats of the car. Vacation: truly a time of renewal.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Sharp Teeth of Time

I underwent a profound shift in my perception of myself recently: I am now the parent of a child old enough to need orthodontic treatment.

Here's my big girl and her pretty smile, a bit strained from the new stresses of her expander but still game.

I feel like my life is one broad continuum, over which I can look back and see my current self in each situation. But her glasses and her braces are startling external reminders that time is slipping away. Everything is changing and moving. She isn't growing away from me, but her mind is expanding and broadening, like the universe, and I'm catching more glimpses of a rich interior life and a new adolescent sensitivity. At the same time, she still has a child-like trust in me. This is such a time of wonder: when understanding is still unjaded; when parents are still propellers, not anchors; when she still sees the world through my eyes as much as through hers. I want to always maintain this sweet and easy relationship we have now.

And I want her to keep track of the key for turning the expander, which we only got three days ago, for Pete's sake, and how can it already be lost? 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Is The Public Crazy Not To Support Gun Control?

A number of opinion writers have taken the occasion of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado to express disgust with the fact that the American public shows little inclination towards increased gun control. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say they "feel that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict" dropped from 78% to 44% during the period from 1990 to 2010.

Some of the more hyperbolic has claimed this is because the US is seized by a "death cult" or that it "worships violence", but I think the actual reason is quite rational.

If we look at the percentage of people supporting stricter gun control in relation to the percentage of people who say they own guns (also from Gallup) and the US homicide rate, we see that the homicide rate dropped by 49% from 1990 to 2010 while gun ownership rates have remained fairly flat.

Since people readily perceive that gun ownership remains common, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly since the height of the '80s and '90s crime wave, people seem to implicitly believe that restricting gun ownership is not necessary in order to deal with crime.

We can get a somewhat longer term view of this if we look at an older Gallup question which is available in the same study, the percentage of Americans who say they support a ban on civilian handgun ownership. The question has been asked somewhat sporadically by Gallup, so we have only a few data points from the 50s, 60s and 70s, but the pattern is still very interesting.

Gallup first asked the question in 1959 when the murder rate had just gone up from 4.1 in 1955 to 4.9 in 1959. Support for a ban was quite high as 60%. Support for a ban dropped rapidly while crime increased. In 1979 31% of Americans supported banning handguns and the murder rate was 9.8. Support for a handgun ban then rebounded, reaching a recent high of 43% of American in 1991, which was also one of the worst years for violent crime with a murder rate of 9.8. However, violent crime then fell sharply and has continued a gradual decline, and support for banning hand guns has declined along with it with only 29% of Americans supporting such a ban in 2010.

This suggests to me that Americans actually have a pretty reasonable approach to the question. Despite the occasional headline grabbing catastrophe, the current murder rate is down at the same level as the 1950s, despite the availability of Glock handguns and "assault rifles".

Friday, July 20, 2012

Seven Quick Takes


After the recent discussion of fantasy, I thought we might be in the mood for something... sizzling.

None of my puns on this are fit to print, so you guys go to town.


I was recently accused of "hating" for being insufficiently supportive of someone's pet project. And of course, it rankled deeply, and forced me to see the error of my ways, because I'm still in middle school and can be properly abashed by being called a big meanie.

No, no, friends. Accusations of "hating" are the last shrill defense of those unable to articulate why their particular favored institution should be above reproach. Dr. Boli knows what I'm talking about:
One of the most efficacious methods of bringing about the downfall of the establishment is to equip yourself with a large supply of stickers that say “HATING” in large white letters on a red background.What good will that do? you ask. Ah, but this is the clever part: you will affix those stickers to stop signs all over the city, neatly centered under the word “STOP,” so that the signs will now read “STOP HATING.” The entire military-industrial complex will be confounded by your apt repurposing of already-ubiquitous signage. 


Are you not reading Dr. Boli? Hater. His history of the Roman Empire is everything it should be.


Bearing meditates on the fallacy of homeschoolers taking Dorothy Sayers's conception of the Trivium-based school too literally.

Did you catch that bit -- that at the start of her "school" the children have already been taught to read, write, and do arithmetic?  We're on our own for that part, homeschoolers.Sayers' imaginary school is not, actually, a plan (and she takes pain to point this out).  Nor is it a reconstruction of the medieval trivium in any way -- significantly, she stresses, "It does not matter, for the moment, whether it [the trivium] was devised for small children or for older students, or how long people were supposed to take over it."No, this school she describes is a rhetorical device.  The point of the description is to create vivid pictures in the readers' minds, of children arguing, or finding Cassiopeia in the night sky, or examining portraits of the Kings of England, or carefully studying maps.  This is just an illustration to motivate readers to hear and accept her philosophy of education, which she emphasizes by making it the very last sentence of the essay:For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.This is a philosophy that appeals to me, and it is why I go around telling people that I am a "classical homeschooler."  Not because I think my homeschool should be split up into Grammar and Rhetoric and Dialectic (although I sometimes use those terms to describe the level of mental process that is engaged by a particular book or curriculum).  I tell people I am a "classical homeschooler" because I believe my job is to teach my kids how to teach themselves.

Also: Sayers never taught any children.


I was driving along bobbing my head amiably to the oldies station, when I was jolted out of my complacency by the familiar opening strains of "Play That Funky Music." I mean, normally the only time I ever hear it at every wedding reception, but that's also the only time I ever hear the BlackEyed Peas, no oldsters. As soon as possible I plunked myself in front of YouTube, and sure enough, this song dates back to 1976. That wasn't a long time ago when I was young, let me tell you whippersnappers.

And now the kids have it in their ears, and beg, "Mom, can we listen to that song from two years before you were born?" Humph.


Of course, my problems could be much, much worse.


Well, I'm fresh out of other people's cleverness. Have a lovely weekend, all!

So Who Did Build That?

Every so often a politician makes a statement which so well represents the partisan divide that the political chattering class settles down to mocking or defending the statement for a week or two. Such a case, it seems, is Obama's "you didn't build that" speech last Friday. Speaking to supporters in Virginia, Obama said:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
My primary reaction to this is literary and intellectual snobbery. The pass to which political rhetoric has come in this really pretty sad. Compare Obama's whimpers of populism with the master, William Jennings Bryan:
Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between "the idle holders of idle capital" and "the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country;" and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of "the idle holders of idle capital" or upon the side of "the struggling masses?" That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
Bryan may have been wrong on a lot of things, but dang could he speak.

But aside from its poor prose, the surprising thing about Obama's speech is its poor thinking. Yes, it's certainly true that no one does anything "on his own" in that we are all live within society. And of course, successful businesses exist within the context of a civil society in which laws exist and are enforced, infrastructure is maintained, etc. It is entirely just, for that reason, that we pay taxes to maintain that law enforcement and that infrastructure, and that we charge taxes proportionally to people's earnings, so that those who make the most pay the most. Contrary to Obama's implication, no one is disputing this. Even the most radical of "flat tax" proposals would still result in the rich paying far more than the poor. The only truly regressive tax we pay in the US is the social security tax, to which Obama, Mitt Romney, Bill Gates and I all pay exactly the same tax bill every year.

However the claim "If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen." doesn't merely suggest the obvious and inane point that "hey, we all exist in society", but rather that there's nothing particularly special about those who build huge businesses or otherwise become huge successes. "Let me tell you something," Obama offers, with his typical, hectoring, I'm-much-smarter-than-you tone, "There are a lot of smart people out there.... [T]here are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there."

But here's the thing: We all have roads and laws and the internet and teachers available to us. Bill Gates and Michael Dell aren't billionaires because they had roads and teachers and I didn't. They're billionaires because through some combination of vision, hard work, drive and luck they built companies that provide millions of people with things they want enough to pay for. I grew up with the same legal system, the same public infrastructure, and the same educational opportunities as them, and I didn't build a huge, successful company. I work a good job and earn a nice paycheck by providing services that my employer is willing to pay for, and as a result I pay my mortgage and buy things that we want. And I pay taxes -- though far less taxes then billionaire entrepreneurs (as is just, since they make more money.) However, despite having the same government provided services and infrastructure available to me as billionaire entrepreneurs (and smaller entrepreneurs), I haven't built a successful company that provides other people with jobs and many more with valuable goods or services. As such, the difference between my fortune and that of Michael Dell or Bill Gates is not due to the government providing them with infrastructure, it's due to them and their actions. They really did build it.

This doesn't mean that taxation is theft or that those who are highly successful shouldn't pay an equitable share of the cost of maintaining the civil infrastructure and services we all benefit from, but it does mean that the "you didn't build that" line of argument that the president is attempting isn't just bad rhetoric, it's just plain wrong.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Happy Belated Birthday to Us!

In our grand Darwinian tradition of being late to everything, we failed to notice that our seven-year blog-iversary was last month. So, seven years and forty days since Darwin wrote his kick-off post, we'd like to thank our dear readers for sticking around. Every time we bat around the idea of shutting the blog down, whether from over-work (Darwin) or sheer sloth (me), we consider the good friends we've made over the years through blogging, and decide to keep the place open a bit longer.

To our many internet friends: God bless you. You're often in our thoughts and prayers.

Donald Sobol, RIP

Donald Sobol, the author of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, has died at age 87.

Sobol was a prolific author, writing daily even to his last days. Encyclopedia Brown is his most famous work, but I have fond memories of reading his novel Secret Agents Four. This is a tale of four Florida teenagers who, in league with the good-guys spy agency Mongoose, form their own secret spy group to bust the evil Cobra. V.A.C.U.U.M. (Volunteer Agents Cruising Unsteadily Under Mongoose) and their pal Mary (V.A.C.U.U.M.'s Beautiful Assistant Girl) have to use a garageful of Rube Goldberg inventions and antique cars to foil Cobra's evil plots to take over Miami. I haven't read it for years, but I remember it being funny, suspenseful, and charming.

And of course no discussion of Sobol's books would be complete without mentioning the iconic illustrations of Leonard Shortall.

RIP, Mr. Sobol.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fifty Shades Of False

With the Fifty Shades trilogy fogging up the screens of millions of e-readers, women's sexual fantasies have hit the mainstream, so much so that the publisher is planning a big new publicity campaign based around the slogan "Reading for pleasure has a whole new meaning." Women prefer the emotional build up and relationship aspects of novels instead of the more direct depersonalization of pornography, but the explicit and fantastic nature of the sexual content in these books have earned them the moniker of "mommy porn". Just as the images men view in porn burn into their mind, the scenes women read in romance novels -- the titillating emotional interchanges, the sensual phrases, the fantastic sex -- lodge in their memory and imagination.

"Porn" is an ugly word to be juxtaposed with "mommy", but in a sense it isn't surprising that married women are driving the sales of the burgeoning "romantica" genre. Younger women, hopped up on hormones and living in a near-permanent condition of quasi-arousal (men: you do not have the monopoly on this), live in an aspirational state in which it's perfectly conceivable that the perfect man and perfect relationship and perfect happily-ever-after is right around the corner. The transgressional naughtiness of stuff like the Fifty Shades books is designed for the woman who has settled into her walk in life, who is basically satisfied with her marriage and her spouse, but who wonders where the thrill has gone and how to reanimate a sexual drive that seems balky and unpredictable. 

The sexual fantasies fueled by romance novels seem like a ideal fix to this problem. It’s so easy for the reader. One can respond quickly and effortlessly to the ideal man on the page. There’s none of the inconveniences of reality -- the awkwardness of being out of sync with her spouse; the absurdity, especially for a woman, of having a body that’s not fully under her command, this “Sister Ass” which sometimes bucks and halts grows tired. These fantasies allow the reader to step beyond her established life and relationship and experience the thrill of the chase again. They're a quick hit of cheap arousal for the woman who, by the time bedtime rolls around, is tired, worn down by the concerns of the day, and finds that even though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak, sluggish, or capricious. And her husband never has to know that what pushes her through is not just him, but him in conjunction with memories of billionaire sadist Christian Grey (or Mr. Darcy or the tough-yet-tender cowboy or what have you). If both spouses are happy at the end, what harm could these fantasies possibly do, right?

Well, plenty, actually. Romance novels -- novels for which the raison d'etre is sexual fulfillment, whether they're the hard-core Fifty Shades stuff or "Christian" romance or historical-tragical-pastoral -- create an image of effortless sexual complementarity that can supplant the very real work it takes for a woman to meet her husband where he's at, each time. And they undercut that work because fantasies can become addictive. They work their way into a woman's mind and rob her of the ability to respond honestly to her husband, just as any physical skill not practiced becomes rusty over time. It takes so much less emotional and physical commitment to become mentally aroused by retreating to happy stories (especially if there has been a fight or some breach in the relationship that has damaged communication) that eventually a spouse can become no more than tool for achieving satisfaction, or a "bin for one's urges" (as a commenter recently put it). Fantasy breeds lust, not love.

A woman who develops a reliance on sexual fantasy is cultivating a taste for something other than reality. Fantasy, so infinitely malleable, creates puppets for the purpose of objectifying them, or conveniently allows for the emotional manipulation of real people in a way that stubborn real life seems to resist. It also dismisses the real ugliness of subversive sexual situations -- women who find themselves excited by the fictional S&M antics of Fifty Shades would feel horrified, humiliated, and dehumanized if their husbands were to subject them to the same emotional and sexual abuse. True brutality isn't glamorous or arousing -- it's sickening and damaging.

And fantasy is damaging as well, especially when it trespasses on the dignity and integrity of another person. A young friend who recently described her temptations to fantasize about a man of her acquaintance wrote, "The real possibility that I could end up married to this guy made it seem 20 times more a violation to interact with a shadow version of him in my head that I could control and speak for and manipulate for my gratification -- reducing him to a mental blow-up doll was sickening enough to accomplish what love for God and hatred for sin hadn't." Fantasies, rather than bringing her closer to her loved one, were in reality erecting barriers to true interaction with him. That he wasn't aware of her thoughts didn't mean that her relationship with him wasn't being subtly influenced by her mental images.

In marriage, since spouses are supposed to become one flesh through a total gift of self, subjecting the other to fantasy, or using the other to fulfill fantasies, becomes even more of a violation. In these heady days in which every lay Catholic is a sudden expert in Theology of the Body and sexual fulfillment in marriage is a hot topic, women may feel betrayed in the moments when their bodies, whether through age, weariness, or sheer biological perversity, refuse to cooperate with the most loving of inducements. Possibly a rocky marriage or an insensitive spouse may mean that satisfaction becomes more and more elusive. The antidote to these difficulties lies not in a woman filling her mind with an arsenal of one-dimensional fantasies, but in pouring out her mind and heart to spouse. Communication -- honest, intimate conversation in private; day-to-day openness and affection; the shared communication with God and spouse that is mutual prayer -- is the antidote to a trap of fantasy. Some desires that seem so erotic tucked in the deep recesses of the imagination are shown up as tawdry and unappealing when spoken and submitted to the clear light of reality. Others may be brought to a more satisfying and tender conclusion when shared with the one who can make them come true.

Necessary disclaimer: I have not and will not read the Fifty Shades books, nor am I a consumer of romance novels because not only do I want to fill my head with such images, but ugh, poor writing.

The Hard Choices

Leah touches on a simple point which doesn't get made often enough about morality, over at Unequally Yoked, which is that there's an unhealthy tendency to see the "hard" moral choices as being very borderline ones in which seemingly both options have major obvious benefits and evils, which are hard to weigh. This is what's behind many of the trolley or burning building dilemmas (though these usually aren't even real moral dilemmas, since they're based on weighing the worth of outcome rather than the intention and end of actions.)

But even weighing out these situations built around placing value on outcomes, often people picture the struggle to make moral choices being around making a clear moral decision in a situation where it bears a huge personal cost of some sort. Certainly, doing what you believe to be right despite huge personal cost is difficult, but Leah points out that most of the struggle of living a moral life is not struggling with one or two really big situations, but rather struggling with tiny ones:
I wasn’t talking being tempted to steal or kill at random, but about repeating a funny, unflattering story about a friend or lashing out when someone doesn’t seem to be listening to your answer to their question or responding to a friend letting you down by just resolving to rely less on other people in the future. People who know me in person will recognize a rogues gallery of my own weaknesses in the above, and I’m sure you can come up with other examples of petty-seeming sin.

The first examples that came to my mind are all sins of commission: when I do what I shouldn’t. The glaring omission is, well, sins of omission: when I fail to do something I should: not helping a lost-looking tourist, not paying enough attention to a friend to notice s/he’s upset and needs attention, not attending to the physical needs of the poor (through donations and political activism) or their dignity (by recoiling when approached by a panhandler).

Calling my struggles with these weaknesses heroic is as silly as labeling my quest to wake up at my first alarm ‘epic.’ But the small scale of the failing doesn’t mean it’s not hard to fix.
Not only is it hard to persevere in these circumstances because the lapses are apparently small (and yet the bad moral habits formed by those lapses over time can be anything but small) but the really hard-to-persevere times involve those situations in which external observers are absent. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith sketches out an essentially secular moral code based on the idea of the impartial observer. We act well in order to be perceived as someone who acts well. We also internalize this observer and thus act well in order to satisfy our internal observer that we are people who act well.

And yet, this internal impartial observer is someone that, we often think we can catch napping or buy off. A moral practice based primarily on regard is one which we find it almost impossible to maintain when not observed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

So Gather 'Round and Harken To My Tale

For my next project, I'm thinking maybe an epic in iambic pentameter about the search for a magic talisman that will bring peace. Here's a sample:

Mother: Hast seen the pacifier, churlish youths?
Thy sister in her crib doth wail and moan, 
And this, her nap time, offers her no sooth
And damn it! Why this ringing of the phone?

Eldest: My mother is enraged, upon my word,
But little do her words my soul aggrieve
For ever doth she rail, and rail unheard,
While we her bairns our plans unfettered weave.

Baby: Wan' POOKIE!!!

Hour of OUR Death

I have a guest post today at Sarah Reinhard's blog, as part of her series on each word of the Hail Mary. My word is OUR, as in "hour of our death".

Atheism Has Lowest Retention Rate of Any Religion

Msgr Charles Pope on the Archdiocese of Washington blog has a post up linking to a post on 1964, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate blog out of Georgetown university, which looks at the retention rate of various religions and denominations: the percentage of people born into that belief system who continue to profess that same belief system as adults. The data that CARA is looking at comes from a Pew Forum survey in 2008 called the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. What this survey shows is that Hindus have the highest retention rate of any faith in the US with 84% of people raised Hindu still identifying as Hindu.  Greek Orthodox have the highest retention rate of any Christian church at 73% and Catholics rank higher than any Protestant denomination at 68%.  (Other data that I've seen, which fits well with this, has shown that people born Catholic are 1/3 practicing Catholics, 1/3 identifying as Catholic but no longer practicing and 1/3 no longer identifying as Catholic.  Most people undergo these changes between their teenage years and their 30s.)  The lowest ranking religious identifications in terms of retention are "nothing in particular" at 38% retention, Jehovah's Witnesses at 37%, Congregationalists at 37% and at the very bottom atheists at 30%.

It should be noted that the atheist sample is fairly small, and that the majority of people who identify as atheists as adults were not raised as atheists. CARA goes into detail as follows:

Some of the retention rates in the figure above were never provided in Pew's original report. These are calculated from the original data sets released by Pew for this study (one for the continental U.S. and another for Alaska and Hawaii). In these data there are 432 weighted respondents who say they were raised as Atheists. A total of 131 of these individuals self-identify as an Atheist at the time of the survey resulting in an estimated retention rate of 30%. However, there were a total of 1,387 Atheists (weighted) identified in the survey (equivalent to 1.6% of the adult population). What these findings reflect is that in the U.S. Atheists are for the most part "made" as adults after being raised in another faith. It appears to be much more challenging to raise one's child as an Atheist and have them maintain this identity in their life. Of those raised as Atheists, 30% are now affiliated with a Protestant denomination, 10% are Catholic, 2% are Jewish, 1% are Mormon, and 1% are Pagan.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

WSJ: From Pixar's School of Plotting

Writing a story? The WSJ (you were expecting some other source from me?) features 20 story prompts from Emma Coats, a storyboard artist for "Brave"

2. Remember that what's interesting to an audience can be very different from what's fun to do as a writer.3. Theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about until you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___....6. What are your characters good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front....9.When you're stuck, make a list of what wouldn't happen next. Often the material to get you unstuck will show up....12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third and fourth—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself....19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
As I waffle over whether I should take the NaNoWriMo plunge again this November, these are the sorts of reminders of what I enjoyed about the whole bizarre process.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Immodesty != Manure

If you've spent any time on Facebook, you've probably run into the tendency to pass around pithy maxims in the form of images. The problem with this means of communicating one's ideas that is in translating something into a pithy maxim, truth often suffers. There's one going around at the moment which, for whatever reason, particularly annoys me:

Part of it, I think, is the "Dear Girls, ... Sincerely, Real Men" format. This sets up a hierarchy of sorts in which the "real men" instruct the "girls", who otherwise may not know what is up. It also implies that if you're a man and you disagree with the sentiments expressed, or the way they're expressed, you may not be a "real man".

For those who agree on the value of modesty, there's an immediate feeling of validation encapsulated in the statement: "Dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure.  Yes, you'll get attention, but mostly from pigs."  So, if you're a woman, and you dress modestly, you have the virtue of not being covered in shit.  (And those vixens are actually disgusting.)  And if you're a man, and you value modesty, you're a real man and not a pig.

The problem is, although it's calibrated to make people feel a quick spurt of validation, the analogy is not at all apt.  If someone really rolled around in manure, people would find her disgusting.  But let's be honest: "real men" (taken to mean: men who put some value on modesty) don't find immodestly dressed women disgusting (at least, not if the woman in question has the goods to carry it off.) They find an immodestly dressed woman attractive just like any other man would. It's true that dressing immodestly may get a girl the wrong kind of attention, but it's certainly not because she's made herself unattractive or disgusting, it's because dressing provocatively sends certain social signals. Some guys make take that as a message that there are other things on offer as well and provide attention (wanted or not) and others may either avert their eyes or quietly absorb an eyeful while assuming that this "isn't their type". But there's no similarity to rolling in manure.

Maybe the attraction in this formulation is that it's simply more evocative than trying to make some point about objectifying or commodifying yourself through immodesty, getting the wrong kind of attention, etc. But I can't help thinking that a lot of the attraction of this formulation is simply that it makes it so easy to look down on others.

It's also unpersuasive.  If you go tell some girl you think is dressing immodestly that it's like she's rolled in manure, and she'll only attract pigs, you've got two problems.  First off, you've described her as rolling in manure, and insulting someone is usually not a good way to get her to listen to you.  Secondly, she knows perfectly well that dressing the way she's dressing does not make her disgusting to "real men".

Immortal Beloved

In these degenerate days of "sexting", the love letter seems to be a lost art. But there were once men who could set a page aflame. Today marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Beethoven's letter to his Immortal Beloved, an incendiary missive to a mysterious lady.
The entire letter is written on 10 small pages, in Beethoven's rather inconsistent handwriting. The first section occupies four pages. In the following, the dashes and underlined words are as in Beethoven's manuscript, crossed-out parts are enclosed in “{...}”.
6th July, in the morning.
My angel, my everything, my very self. – only a few words today, and in pencil (with yours) - I shall not be certain of my rooms here until tomorrow – what an unnecessary waste of time - why this deep grief, where necessity speaks - can our love exist but by sacrifices, by not demanding everything. Can you change it, that you are not completely mine, that I am not completely yours? Oh God, look upon beautiful Nature and calm your mind about what must be – love demands everything and completely with good reason, that is how it is for me with you, and for you with me - only you forget too easily, that I must live for myself and for you as well, if we were wholly united, you would not feel this as painfully, just as little as I would – my journey was terrible. I did not arrive here until 4 o'clock yesterday morning. As there were few horses, the mail coach chose another route, but what a dreadful one this was! At the last stage but one I was warned not to travel at night; attempts were made to frighten me about a forest, but that only made me more eager. – I was wrong. The coach broke down on the awful road, a road without a proper surface, a country one. If the two coachmen had not been with me, I would have remained stranded on the way. Esterhazi travelled the usual road here and had the same fate with eight horses that I had with four. – Yet I did get some pleasure out of it, as I always do when I successfully overcome difficulties. – now quickly to the interior from the exterior. We will probably see each other soon, only, today I cannot convey to you my observations which I made during these few days about my life – If our hearts were always close together, I would have no such thoughts. my heart is full with so much to tell you - Oh - There are moments when I feel that language is nothing at all - cheer up - remain my faithful only darling, my everything, as I for you, the rest is up to the Gods, what must be for us and what is in store for us. –
your faithful ludwig -

The following section continues on pages 5 and 6 through half of page 7. The struck-out portion below is heavily crossed-out in the manuscript.

Monday evening, 6th July.
You are suffering, you my dearest creature – only now do I realize that letters have to be posted very early, on Mondays – Thursdays – the only days when the mail is delivered to K. - you are suffering - Oh, wherever I am, you are with me, I talk to myself and to you[,] arrange [it] that I can live with you, what a life!!!! as it is!!!! without you – Pursued by the goodness of mankind here and there, the goodness that I wish to deserve as little as I deserve it. – Man’s humility towards man – this pains me – and when I consider myself in relation to the universe, what am I and what is the man who is called the greatest? – And yet, – therein lies the divine element in man. I weep when I think that you will probably not receive first news of me until Saturday. However as much as you love me - I love you even more deeply, but - but never hide yourself from me - Good night – as I am taking the baths I must go to bed. {oh go with me, go with me} Oh God - so near! so far! Is not our love a true edifice in Heaven - but also as firm as the firmament. –
The final section of the letter resumes after a horizontal line on page 7. The handwriting on the last page is much larger and more difficult to decipher, showing a marked difference from the relatively more orderly page 9. The entire tenth page is thus taken up by only a small amount of text (beginning with "life - my everything" in the translation below).
Good morning, on 7th July.
While still in bed my thoughts turn towards you my Immortal Beloved, now and then happy, then sad again, waiting whether fate might answer us - I can only live either wholly with you or not at all, yes I have resolved to stray about in the distance, until I can fly into your arms, and send my soul embraced by you into the realm of the Spirits - yes unfortunately it must be - you will compose yourself all the more since you know my faithfulness to you, never can another own my heart, never – never – O God why do I have to separate from someone whom I love so much, and yet my life in V[ienna] as it is now is a miserable life - Your love makes me at once most happy and most unhappy - at my age I would now need some conformity[,] regularity of my life – can this exist in our relationship? – Angel, I have just heard that the mail coach goes every day – and thus I must finish so that you may receive the letter immediately. – be patient – only through quiet contemplation of our existence can we achieve our purpose to live together – Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose of living together.- be calm - love me - today - yesterday - What yearning with tears for you - you - you my life – my everything - farewell - oh continue to love me - never misjudge the most faithful heart of your Beloved


Forever thine
forever mine
forever us.
This letter was never sent, and was found among Beethoven's effects when he died.

The mostly likely candidate for the Immortal Beloved is Josephine Brunsvik. Beethoven had given her piano lessons when she was a teenager, and a passion seems to have ignited between them. However, Josephine was married off to an older count and their relationship was apparently harmonious enough. The unfortunate man was carried away by pneumonia in 1804, leaving Josephine a widow pregnant with her fourth child. Although she and Beethoven visited regularly, a marriage to a commoner was out of the question because Josephine would have lost custody of her children. Her second marriage was extremely unhappy and her financially incompetent husband ruined the family. In the summer of 1812 Josephine traveled to Prague (through which Beethoven had to travel to reach the spa at Teplitz where he composed his letter); nine months later her seventh child, Minona, was born. Her husband had been gone since the beginning of the year and did not return until 1814.

Josephine's life was full of sadness and hardship: estranged from her older children; separated from her younger children, she died in 1821. Wikipedia says: 

During this year, Beethoven composed his very last Piano Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111, believed by many musicologists to be clearly like requiems, with discernible reminiscences to "Josephine's Theme", the Andante favori.
The "Immortal Beloved" letter is a powerful testament to a misbegotten yet flaming passion.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

American Exceptionalism

It's typical of me to be a day late in a 4th of July related post, but given that I've been reading through a fair amount of non-US 20th century history lately, I wanted to write about three aspects of my country that are (fairly) exceptional, and for which I am distinctly grateful.

The US has a real history of separation of church and state. Yes, many of the individual colonies had established churches, but the US never did, and even the established churches within the colonies were comparatively small and did not control major portions of the wealth in those colonies. Yes, this means that we Christians in the US have never had the kind of totally integrated experience of religious and secular life that existed in some of the societies of the old world, but it also means that we have been spared the ills that seem necessarily to follow eventually when the church functions as a quasi (or official) government or when it is one of the largest and richest landlords in an area. The more I read of European (and to a great extent Latin American) history, the more it strikes me that we in the US simply have no frame of reference for the levels of anti-clericalism and government hostility to religion which resulted from the breakdowns of these old church-state partnerships.

The US is not defined by cultural or ethnic nationality. When intellectuals warn about "nationalism" in the US, they seem to think that nationalism is a matter of holding parades and thinking your country is a nice place. It's hard to see how this could be a bad thing, mainly because they aren't bad things. The nationalism which has been at the root of most 20th (and many 19th) century conflicts is another and wholly darker animal: the belief that a cultural/ethnic group by virtue of its existence deserves to have a country that is distinctively its own. It sounds all very idealistic to say that a people deserves to have its own country, but if a country is defined as belonging particularly to one ethnic or cultural group, the necessary follow-on is that it does not belong to any other. This is why, to cite the most famously intractable conflict, the situation in the Holy Land is so poisonous: because Israel is intended to be a country of and for the Jews, while the Palestinian Arabs desire a country occupying the same space that is of and for the Arabs. Neither group can have what they want so long as the other group exists in the same area. The United States, by contrast, while it is vaguely a member of the Anglosphere, is as Chesterton put it “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” Because is the American idea which is considered central to America, despite all too much prejudice directed against whatever is the most recent wave of immigrants, not to mention the even more shameful history of slavery in the US, the country has remained notably free of the kind of nationalism which has made ethnic cleansing a nation building tool through much of the world.

The US has a noble history of a non-political military. For this we simply cannot give enough thanks to General Washington, a man so universally revered for his service in the Revolutionary War that he could very easily have made himself President For Life, and set the US on the road which is standard for virtually all countries which have their origins in revolutionary wars. Washington truly followed in the ideal of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, fighting for and ruling his country, and then stepping aside. 236 years into the American experiment, the idea of generals seizing control of the country and replacing the government is virtually unimaginable, and yet for many countries this has happened multiple times just in the last 100 years.

Swan's Way

When Darwin and I were first dating, my younger sister (then 7 or 8) asked me, "Does Darwin love you because you're beautiful or because you're smart?"

"Because I'm smart," I said.

She considered for a moment and then said, "No, that's not it."

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Music for the 4th of July

As American as motherhood, apple pie, and a good rousing tune! Here's what we've been listening to around the Darwin household in honor of our country's birthday.

The fabulously stirring theme from the HBO series John Adams:

John Phillip Sousa -- a capella! The outfits may be 1995, but the harmonies are 1910. As one commenter says: "The only thing that would make this sound better would be a fly-by from 2 F-14's on the last chord."

And a reminder that the tune for our national anthem started off as a drinking song. The Georgia Tech Glee Club sings "To Anacreon in Heaven".

Enjoy the fireworks tonight!

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Trade-offs Are Required

Lots of people have already weighed in on the "mommy war" aspects of Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All". In it, Slaughter decries the necessity of a high flying career woman having to make decisions that involve putting either her family or her career aspirations first. The opening makes it clear that we're talking about a very rarified group of people from the get go:
EIGHTEEN MONTHS INTO my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.

As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband commuted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”

She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.
To give her credit, Slaughter realizes that she's talking about a very small group of people who are already incredibly well off in terms of money, power and bragging rights:
I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.
However, she goes on to claim that it is only by making it easy for women who are at the pinnacle of money and power to feel like they can balance their family and professional responsibilities that things will get better for the rest of American women who have real problems.

I'm deeply unsympathetic to Slaughter's line of thinking here. Long time readers certainly know that I am not an absolute opponent of income and social inequality, but what Slaughter advocates here is essentially a subsidy to the richest and most powerful in our country. Right now the equations is roughly that if you are smart, skilled, willing to give up most of your life to the endeavor, and well connected, you can enjoy living at the top of the American pyramid. Lots of people are smart and skilled, so two of the big filtering mechanisms are the extent to which people are willing to sacrifice all else to the quest for advancement, and the extent to which they are well connected. If, as Slaughter proposes, we remove the necessity of sacrificing one's time and balance in order to "reach the top", we leave being well connected as the primary remaining filter. That doesn't strike me as in improvement.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Orphan Openings: My Fair Wheat Field

On the Arabian island, the farmers could read the signs of the times. As the skyscrapers rose out of the desert and the sheiks raced their Maseratis down the shimmering King Fahd causeway, the demand for food increased. The leisured classes and the construction workers alike needed bread. That food could be imported, or the money could stay close to home.

The land was against them. Government scientists had been searching for a way to reclaim land from the sea, to make the small amount of arable land more productive, but all but the most dedicated agriculturists knew that the real value of the land was in the black gold beneath the surface. Grain could always be imported from Egypt -- why waste time and manpower on cultivation? The press, which has been testing the limits of the new and more lenient regime, criticized the endeavor in increasingly strident editorials.

Still, the project had the favor of certain highly placed officials. With support from national funds, researchers at the largest public university had compounded new chemical fertilizers that could be dusted onto the fields of the coastal plains. The project was unveiled to much publicity, and lucky farmers were selected by lottery to have their fields treated with the experimental product. The result was an utter fiasco -- a junior lab assistant had made an error in sending the formula to the chemist's lab, and instead of enriching the soil, the acclaimed fertilizers burned the land. The resulting wheat crop was sparse and singed. Egyptian economists and exporters sat back in cafes and ordered each other another round of tisanes.

The reaction of the press was swift. Papers, still damp with ink and scorn, were flung into the marketplaces and the city shops as the merchants, antagonistic to the aims of the peasant farmers, stroked their beards and murmured over the headlines: Bahrain, It's Plain, Sprays Vainly On The Grain.

A Long Tyme Agoon in a Shire Far Away

Ich bryng tydings of grete joy: Geoffrey Chaucer, though dismayed yn hys mynd by the acclaim of the twitter, hath turned again to the makinge of verses:
And yet, a tetchy kinge notwithstandinge, finallye Ich have hadde a litel space of myn owene for to maken of verses, thogh Ich feare nowe nobody doth lyke verses eny moore. Helas, for Ich am super psyched to maken severale lynes followe oon anothir for hundreds of pages, and yet it semeth everichoon thes dayes loveth oonly to twit and tweete and maken up a gret swarme of quippes and linkes. A blog semeth about as cuttinge edge as a sworde buryed in a mounde. Thogh Ich have made an accompte of twitter, Ich knowe but litel how to maken of a fyne and retweetable tweete. Litel Lowys doth mock me dailye with a fiers mockinge, sayinge “watching yow trye to tweet, Dad, ys lyk watchinge Archbishop Arundel trye to keepe hys cool a a Lollard support groupe. Helle of awkward!” The tweet so short, the crafte so longe to lerne!
And yet Ich have had comfort in myn art. For Ich am composinge a narratif about folke who are togedir ythrowne by the windes of fate and goon on a journeye.
Read ye of hys character notes for the epic celestial: THE PILGRIMS IN THE STERRES!

Ther was a SMUGGELERE, and he the beste,Wyth gowne of whit and snazzye litel veste.He hadde a shippe that was a noble vesselFor in twelf parsekkes it had yronne the Qessel;At customes houses nevir did he pause –For resoned he ther was but litel cause:To paye a tax or impost made hym wood,And I seyde his opinioun was good:Why sholde hys labour fatten up the paunchesOf bureaucrates that sitte upon their haunchesAnd tak their paye from honest merchauntes werke?This good man kepte the officiales in the derkeAnd oft he wolde in his shippes floore hyde. From oon ende of the sterres to the other syde,He hadde yflowne, and seene many a wondere,And yet he hadde no feare of Goddes thondere.He seyde hys destinee was hys to makeWyth blastere or wyth sleight or wyth wisecrake.Of goold and eek of love he had a thirste, In altercaciouns he ay shot firste. 
...A WHINY YOUTHE cam nexte, barleye a man,With yelwe haire, tunique, and farmeres tan.But aquaculture litel did he love,He wolde been a pilot al above And bullseye oump-rattes yn a nimble craft.Saye, have ye evir been upon a rafteAnd herde the wynde blowe fast over the waveSo that the winde did seme to sighe and rave?Wyth just swich fierceness sigheth thys yonge man,And whineth eek, and whingeth whan he kan,For he ne lovede nat his occupaciounAnd he wolde rathir go to Tashi stacioun. 

Take and read.