Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let's Make The War On Christmas A Reality

It's OK dude, you won't get hurt:  cats are officially non-combatants.

Was there ever a more eye-roll inducing concept than the absurd purported "war on Christmas"?

If you haven't been too bored to pay attention, you may know that the idea, propagated by certain religious and conservative factions, is that the effort to be inclusive -- by saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," by reining in the relentless Christian imagery and music, by neglecting our Shopping Duties -- somehow constitutes a "war": on Christmas, and by extension, on family values, decency, and all that.

I thought it was one of those things that if you ignored it it would just go away.  But the counter-attack has been strong.  There's more religious music than ever, and to my amazement, people have started to seem like they get a weird kick out of saying "Merry Christmas" -- like this is some kind of dangerous and subversive act.  Oooh, political incorrectness!  

So I'm annoyed by that.  But the truth is, I'm also kind of annoyed by Christmas itself.  I'm one of those atheists who was always happy to go along with decorated trees, presents, friends, food, and drinks -- all excellent things in their way.  But Christmas is out of control.

Shopping and gift buying are especially out of control.  Presents make sense for kids, and maybe in certain circumstances for adults.  But the idea that you should go on a massive shopping spree guessing at what all the other adults in your life would like -- how could that fail to produce piles of expensive, unwanted garbage?  Just thinking about all that stuff cluttering up people's homes and then getting shipped off to landfills gives me the horrors. 

Stores are opening Thanksgiving night; workers are there from midnight to early morning; The New York Times actually had a whole news story about whether "the Saturday before Christmas" was the 17th or the 24th.  People, if you were looking for signs of the materialism apocalypse, well, here they are.

So let's kill two birds with one stone:  let's make the war on Christmas a reality.  

Maybe you're thinking, "War?  Isn't that going a bit far?"  Who is this lunatic?  Is there really someone so grouchy and curmudgeonly that they'd actually prefer Christmas not to exist?  What about ginger cookies?  What about the star on top of the tree? Won't somebody think of the children?

You know, it's not the Christmas spirit I'm against. It's the Christmas crap.  The great thing about Thanksgiving as a holiday is that, because it's based on a universal and secular human concept -- that of gratitude -- it's inclusive, flexible, and non-materialistic.

So I'd like to see Christmas -- Sorry. I'd like to see a late-Winter holiday -- based on something like that.  As for that universal human concept, why not take a page from Christmas's playbook, and make it joy?

Instead of religion and shopping, we could do Joyful Things, like making snowmen, flying kites, and playing music.

Now doesn't that sound nice?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sexism, Homophobia, Sex, and Groping

I was talking with my friend the other day about the idea that there's some important connection between sexism and homophobia.  We agreed:  there is. 

Probably there are a lot of important connections, actually, including obvious ones about discrimination and so on.  But I think there's a less obvious one too, having to do with sex, gender, and sexual agency.

Here's a constellation of ideas that I think forms a part of some sexist and homophobic men's view of the world.  Men need sex, and women provide it.  Women aren't rational, so it makes no sense to put them in charge of decisions about something so crucial to men's well-being.  Women shouldn't really be treated as sexual agents, making decisions about what's best for them.  It's more like, keep the pure and domestic ones for home and babies, and treat the female rabble however you want. 

This may sound extreme.  But how else to explain the otherwise extraordinary ways some men defend other men's assault on women's sexual agency? 

Just as a single example, I recently learned about the Ada initiative to get more women involved in open technology and culture.  The executive director and co-founder says the reason she got involved with starting the Ada initiative is because her friend went to an open source conference and was groped -- and that she herself had been groped twice at such conferences. 

Worse, when the friend wrote about the experience on her blog, "hundreds of people made comments like, "Women should expect to get groped at conferences," and "It was her fault."  The comments came from her colleagues in open source, presumably highly educated and pretty thoughtful people.  If you're a reader of comments on the internet, you know this is not an isolated occasion. 

So it's surprising the extent to which some men will defend the appropriateness of just touching women in inappropriate ways when they feel like it. 

But such men don't want to be touched this way themselves.  And they really don't want to be touched this way by other men. 

You can see the groping-double-standard playing out in the recent upset about TSA groping.  I mean, women get groped on the subway all the time, and I feel like the general cultural reaction is a kind of collective shrug:  jeez, girl, you're out, you're on the subway, what did you expect?  Get over it.  But once the groping happens to men, and once it happens to women who are married moms, it's like OMG! Crisis! There's inappropriate touching! Call your congressman, right away

I know it's not quite the same -- because the TSA gropes you with the long arm of the law -- but still, the estimation of harm is obviously very different. 

You can see where I'm going with this.  If you're a guy who thinks that it's OK to treat women as having no sexual agency, that treating women this way is an essential aspect of male sexuality, and that being treated this way in turn would be an outrage, you're going to have a big problem with gay men right off the bat.  Because by turning that male sexual attention on you, gay men threaten the whole logic of your position. 

So even the existence of gay men is a problem for your sexist world view. 

The answer seems obvious to me:  equality and respect for everyone, and when it comes to sex, if you're not sure, ask. 

Why there's so much resistance to this basic set of human goods, I don't know.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Harmony Myth Of Human Nature

I took this a couple of years ago at a bookstore near my home.
Sometimes it happens when you're watching Oprah at the gym or reading some advice columnist while surfing the net.  Sometimes it happens when you're just trying to mind your own business but someone starts talking to you and you can't run away.

It starts when a person is talking about how it's "OK" that their dog died or that yours did or that their sister got sick or that they lost their job.  And they'll say that it's OK because, really, at the end of the day "everything happens for a reason."

And you'll be like, "Wait. What?"

I was going to say that this is a version of the "just-world fallacy," which is "a cognitive bias in which people believe that the world they live in is one in which actions have appropriate and predictable consequences" (thank you, Wikipedia).

But if you think about it, it's not so much a "just world" fallacy as a "utopian world" fallacy.  Because when people say that everything happens for a reason, they usually don't mean that bad stuff happened because a person deserved something bad to happen.  They mean the much more radical idea that what seems like "bad" stuff is actually good, and will reveal itself to be so in some unspecified "long run."

It's easy to make fun of the utopian world fallacy.  But I think it has a close cousin belief that is harder to ferret out -- and even more widespread.  This is what I call the "harmony myth" of human nature. This is the idea that that there is some naturally coherent way to put your life together so that all the pieces will fall into place.

If you can just get things properly organized and get yourself free of weird addictions and neurotic attitudes, so the thinking goes, there'll be no more cravings for doughnuts and quarter-pounders and no more lolling around the internet, looking for the latest Snooki news.  Instead, you'll be dying for organic carrot juice and spending all your free time taking free online physics courses or informing yourself about the history of the Balkans.

I might notice the harmony myth more than other people, because it is contrary to one of my most deeply held convictions about the good life:  that it is, at bottom, a series of trade-offs.

The reason to eat more carrots and fewer doughnuts isn't that carrots are inherently good and doughnuts inherently bad; it's just that there are other things you want, like health, that happen to be hampered by too many doughnuts.  If you're just waiting for things in your life to get organized so that the doughnut desires go away, trust me:  you'll be dead before that happens.

I was so pleased recently to hear Peter Sagal say on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell! me a couple of weeks ago that the one lesson kids would learn from having apples as a compulsory half of the french fry portion of a Happy Meal was how much better french fries are than apples.  Because that is true.  But it doesn't matter.  It's only if you're in the grip of the harmony myth that you'd think that nutritiousness and tastiness have to be tightly correlated.

Two manifestations of the harmony myth particularly drive me nuts.  One is in education.  I often hear parents telling me how important it is that learning in school be "fun" and what a failure it is when it's not.  And I tell them:  sure, it should sometimes be fun.  But it isn't always going to be fun.  And isn't that an important part of what kids are learning in school?  That you can do things you don't particularly feel like doing, in order to reap some longer term reward?  Isn't that lesson the foundation of achieving stuff?

The other is in the whole "cook fresh meals at home" movement.  I have no quibble with the idea that it is good to cook fresh meals at home.  It is.  But why on earth this massive pretense that cooking at home is actually more fun and pleasant than going out or getting take-out?  I'm sure there are exceptions, but for many people, cooking is boring, repetitive, and kind of stressful.  And when you're done, there are pots and pans and dishes to clean.

Why not call a spade a spade, and say, Fun, Maybe Not, but Worth Doing, Obviously.

Once you get rid of the utopian myth you realize that coherence in life isn't about magical harmony, but rather about making sensible tradeoffs and compromises.  Cake for breakfast on Christmas:  fine. Cake for breakfast everyday:  insanity.

It's tempting to do a little armchair psychology about why people fall into the harmony myth trap. But I'll limit myself to just one comment.  As the end product of millions of years of evolution that proceeded by survival of random mutations, how could we fail to be anything but a patchwork of varying drives, tastes, needs, and appetites? 

It just wouldn't make any sense that we'd be anything else.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Are There Babes In A Feminist Utopia?

Short answer:  I hope so.

I took a flight on Porter Airlines yesterday.  Maybe you know, Porter is all about the style.  They got the elegant and comfy waiting area.  They got the free espresso, snacks, and bottled water.  They got the cute raccoon character in their ads:

And they have the most amazing flight attendants:

I love this sort of thing.  Elegance and beauty transforms my mood and the whole way I feel about human existence.

Actually I was reflecting on this the other day when I read the New Yorker story about Steve Jobs, and how he was kind of an asshole.  One of the items described how he obsessed over the fonts in the headings area of the Mac user experience, making his staff redo them like 17 times. 

This really resonated with me, because when I'm using my Mac I often look at things like fonts and think to myself, "Ah, now isn't that lovely."  I'm like the perfect consumer for this kind of mania.  Just the other day the latest OS update radically improved the way the Times New Roman font looks in the "Pages" software.  The update gave me a couple of glitches, but did I mind?  No.  I'm like, "People, would you look at that font?"  

So yesterday I was there, sipping my espresso out of a lovely ceramic cup and I started reflecting on those flight attendants.  Because these women -- they look amazing.  And I have to say, it's a real pleasure to me to see them.

Philosophers are trained and socialized to ask annoying questions, even of themselves, and so found myself wondering, So, is that a guilty pleasure?

Because obviously there's a certain connection between these elegant uniforms and anti-feminism.  These women are on display, being valued for their physical attributes and ability to wear certain kinds of clothes, even while they're doing the ultra serious work of keeping passengers safe.  Isn't that just what feminism tries to eliminate? 

Just so, yes.  But there's a difference between being valued only, or primarily, for your appearance and being valued for your appearance along with lots of other things.  And there's a difference between being able to decide, for real, to participate in something like this in a way that makes it fun, and having it forced down your throat.  And there's a difference between a world that values only women's appearances and not men's.

So let me float this idea -- an idea that sometimes comes up in feminist scholarship.  There's nothing inherently wrong with the female beauty on display thing, even when it's being used, like this, in a commercial setting.  What makes it wrong, when it is, is that it plays into certain extremely common stereotypes, forms of discrimination and control, and occasions for inequality. 

If this is right, the male version of babes on display wouldn't raise many difficulties -- assuming, of course, the men aren't being exploited because of race or class or whatever.  And you know, I think this is right.  I live in a gay neighborhood, and the men who live around me seem to love to go out looking good, to love to look great while they're on the job, to love being a kind of a babe. 

If you could have a world free of sexism, of all the -isms -- a feminist utopia, indeed -- we could all be free to enjoy beauty, style, and spectacle without having to feel like we're letting down the side.  So, yeah, there would be babes in a feminist utopia.  Female, male, intersex, trans ... babes of all kinds.

After I thought all this, I was checked in for my flight by a Porter airlines guy.  And you know, he was just as elegant and beautiful as the women.

The only thing that gives me pause about this is, Does it suck to have to dress up for work in this particular way?  I hope not.  But you'd have to get that information from the horse's mouth.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Hedonic Stairmaster

The "second most expensive watch in the world," at least according to these people.
A couple of weeks ago my watch broke, and I decided to buy a new one.  I knew -- at least, I thought I knew -- what I wanted:  something rugged, large-faced, aggressively styled, water-resistant, and not to expensive.

At the store I found it -- it-who-will-remain-nameless.  It was large-faced, and water-resistant up to 30 feet.  It had a simple face, without one of those little "date windows" that I've come to feel are so annoying.  It was 35 dollars.  Canadian.  I bought it.

But two days later, it was broken.  I brought it back, and I was back in the market.

That's when I started climbing.  I wanted "something nicer," maybe something a bit more expensive.  First, I wanted a cheap diving watch, maybe 100 dollars.  But then I thought, well if you're going to get a diving watch, get a nice one.  You could spend, what, 300 dollars.  But then I was at these websites where 300 dollars is the "clearance" section and I caught sight of some real beauties, and I thought wow, a person could really enjoy that watch.  And it's, what, only 1,000 dollars.

Then I was listening to that song "Hot" by Missy Eliot which is such a hilarious send up of wanna-bes and con artists, where she calls out a guy who tries to rent a Bentley and pretend he's rich.  "Yeah boo you know you a joke, wear a fake Rolex, call it a Ro."  I like hip hop music, and though I know this shocks some people, I kind of love the crazy materialism of it, the lux brands obsessions.

And so I thought, Yeah. A Rolex.  Turns out there are even Rolex diving watches.  I can't tell you the price because the site I looked at took a distinctly If-you-have-to-ask-it's-too-expensive approach.

Then I remembered an old friend who was kind of into watches and how he told me about these antique self-winding watches with super craftsmanship and I thought "Yeah, wow, that's what I want."  And then I though of all the even cooler really old beautiful watches and how spectacular it would be to own something like that.

Before I knew what hit me, I had decided that only the Nicest, Most Expensive Watch in the World could possibly be really satisfying.

In a way I'm not surprised, because much as I love it, that's what consumer culture is like.  As long as N+1 object is nicer than N object, how can you be satisfied with any N?  You always know there's something better.

I call this The Hedonic Stairmaster.

Maybe you've heard of the Hedonic Treadmill?  This refers to the fact that people constantly adjust to the current status quo.  So that to feel the same happiness or pleasure, you can't just continue with the same state of affairs, you need that state of affairs to get better and better.

The Hedonic Stairmaster is different; it's a distinctly consumerist problem.  The Hedonic Stairmaster means you have to keep climbing.  It's never enough to have a mid-range thing, it's never enough to have a really-quite-nice thing; it's never even though to have a really nice thing.  Whatever it is, it'll seem shabby next to the even nicer thing, which you know is out there.

There is only one way I know off the Hedonic Stairmaster, and that's to have a sense of cool that does not track expense.  Real rebels do this, as do punk rockers, hippies, and goths.  Wonderful if you can manage it.  But like other ways of being Against The World, it gets harder as you get older.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sex In The House Of Holes: Cute Or Sad?

I just finished reading Nicholson Baker's House of Holes.  Maybe you know, it's a novel about a sexual theme park.  Not just dildos and 360 porn movies, but rather a place you can go and exchange genitalia in a "crotchal transfer," or trade your arm for a larger dick, or have sex with just the arm the guy forfeited in the exchange. 

I like Nicholson Baker's work a lot.  He wrote the highly amusing U and I, which chronicles his obsession with John Updike; Vox, which is the transcript of a very long phone sex conversation between a nice guy and a nice girl; and The Fermata, which is about a guy who learns how to stop time for everyone else but do as he pleases while no one knows.

Many images from The Fermata have stuck with me for years.  Especially vivid is a scene in which Our Hero talks to a taxi driver, who says that if he could stop time, he would force a woman down, lubricate her with black grease from NAPA auto parts, and have his way with her.  Our Hero is appalled.  In addition to being appalled, though, he's disappointed by the fact of how little he and the taxi driver have in common.  We want, he says, to think other people are like us.  I think that is true.

In The Fermata and Vox, the characters have a distinctly Bakerian style.  The guys are Good Guys with Large Libidos and a Wholesome Attitude Toward Life.  They want to have a good time; they want their partners to have a good time, too; and even when they have kinks and obsessions they are good-natured and cheerful about them.  The Bakerian women are GGG for sure, but they're also not shy about saying No, Sorry, That's Not For Me.

So that's  . . .  nice

To some extent the same nice atmosphere pervades House of Holes.  But when you think "sexual theme park" -- well, when I think "sexual theme park" -- you tend to think not just adventure but also something utopian.  Like, if it's a theme park, you can get right to the really good things without any anxieties, fears, or whatever getting in the way.

And it is like that, in some ways.  There's lots of funny, good-natured sex.  The woman who has sex with the forfeited arm is very satisfied, and eventually gets to meet the owner and return the arm.  That's cute.  There are lots of funny puns and names, like when a guy calls his dick his "Malcolm Gladwell."  Also, cute.

But for a theme park, there are some surprises.  Most surprising to me was the the fact that it's expensive.  Men have to pay.  A lot.  And if they can't cough up the cash, they have to perform some service.  Like the man with a nice body and ugly face: he has to do time as a headless man -- desired, of course, by the women who want to have hot sex with a guy without being sized up, criticized, found to be too fat, whatever.  With no head, the guy can't even see you.

Expensive? A theme park?  What is up with that?

I was also surprised by the rules and punishments.  One man isn't supposed to put his finger  -- well, never mind.  But he does.  And I don't remember, but I think he gets his dick taken away or something.  This, mind you, not because the woman in question didn't want, but somehow just because it was some rule about how his involvement was supposed to be structured.

Maybe there is some deep point lurking here about sex, cost, and inevitable sacrifice.  I'm not sure.  In any case, it's a little sad. 

Also, surprisingly heterosexual, the House of Holes.  This is also a little sad.

My favorite thing in the book is the "Deprivos," who haven't been allowed to see nude breasts for three full weeks.  After doing their time, they line up in the places that naked women are likely to be, dying for a glimpse.  After a ride on the "pussyboard" on the White Lake -- known for its magic rejuvenating powers of clitoral healing -- some women feels so good they want sex immediately. Fortunately, there's a line of Deprivos, at the edge of the lake, just waiting.

A group of people, in a highly appreciative and uncritical mood, eagerly awaiting your appearance, anticipating your arrival, and really happy to see you.  It's a pleasant thought.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Five Stages Of Nitrous Oxide

Mondrian was a great utopian.  This is his Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930.

I had nitrous at the dentist the other day.  For me, nitrous mostly changes a frightening and painful experience into a fun opportunity to take legal drugs.

But then it always leaves me wondering:  why isn't more of life like being high?  And why do drugs have to leave you feeling so crappy afterward?

It's kind an emotional roller coaster.  So here are The Five Stages of Nitrous, According To Me.

1.  Joy.  The initial feeling is joy.  The world is funny, pretty, interesting.  Even the crappy pop music on the sound system seems somehow cute and lively.  Amused wonder, switched on.  Critical negativity, switched off.  Glimpse of utopia.

2.  Conviviality.  It's not surprising.  With all those positive feelings coursing through you your next thought is, "I gotta tell someone about this."  I always have the impulse to make a joke, try to fell a funny story.  I have to remind myself:  not only are you in no state for being witty, you're at the dentist.  It's not a party.  Dentist and Assistant are working hard, don't want to hear your senile reminiscences.

3.  Existential Crisis.  As I settle in, I start thinking.  Why isn't more of life like this?  Why is ordinary life so sucky in comparison?  I mean, how many opportunities do you have to feel a combination of total Well Being and total Non-Boredom?  In ordinary life, things are always harassing or dull.  But not so on nitrous.  You're feeling no pain, and with your critical faculties fogged, the most banal observations and thoughts are totally engaging.

This past visit, I found myself thinking about religious people and how they must feel in this situation.  I mean, I'm an atheist, but if I were a believer I think I'd start having some seriously profane reflections at this stage.  If God loves you, why isn't there be more of this awesomeness in ordinary life?   I think he's hiding something.

4.  Paranoid Fog.  This might be just a dentist phase and not inherent in the experience.  But when I've been under a while, and the dentist is asking me things, like "how does that bite feel, OK?" I get a little freaked about trying to seem "normal" when really I'm so f-ed up.  I know it sort of doesn't matter.   But I also know that if I were to do or say something incredibly goofy under the influence, I'd never hear the end of it. "Good-natured teasing," and all that.  So I try to be cool. 

It always makes me laugh how much this is like trying to be cool in other, non-dental circumstances.

5.  Crash landing.  Eventually it's over.  They shut down the gas and pump you full of mind-clearing oxygen.  And you realize you're starving, because you're not allowed to eat beforehand, and you're cold, because the nitrous does that to you somehow, and your head aches.  Crash-landing, back to reality. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Artistic Interpretation And The Fear Of Human Nature

I went to see Rigoletto at the Canadian Opera Company a couple of days ago.  Maybe you know the set up?  Rigoletto is the court jester for the Duke.  The Duke is a big time seducer, who sets his sights on Rigoletto's pure and virginal daughter, Gilda.  The Duke follows Gilda home, and tells her he is a poor student; she falls for it and falls madly in love with him.  Rigoletto tries to have the Duke killed, and in her passion for the Duke, Gilda substitutes herself for him.  She is killed instead.

David Lomeli as The Duke

The opera itself is an amazing piece of art, and musically the performance was great.  So I couldn't help but enjoy myself.  But it wasn't because of the staging, which drove me nuts.

The staging was complicated, metaphorical, and weird just where it should have been simple, literal, and normal.   When it comes to opera, you should often just play it straight.  Because if you play it straight, it knocks you over.  That's what opera is like.  If it's complicated, metaphorical, and weird, that gets in the way of what is going on.

Worse, it distances the audience from the narrative.  It says, "Hey, it's OPERA.  You're at a PERFORMANCE.  We went through special efforts to STAGE it so it would be THOUGHT-PROVOKING.  Are we awseome?" 

In this particular staging, the Duke woos Gilda while they're standing and sitting on the dining room table.  There's a scene in which the Duke and Gilda are clearly having sex, and this is depicted as happening on a sofa in a living room with the courtiers all gathered around.  Gilda spends half the time in a white bit of underclothing.  And all this in ninetheenth-century costumes and scenery.  A nineteenth century in which obviously Gilda would be in her clothes in public; sex happens in private; and wooing happens on sofas.

It might seem that these techniques would involve the audience, through indirect allusion.  Maybe that can work, but it didn't in this case, and I think with opera, it often doesn't.  Because the emotion of the stories is made most vivid by their seeming real:  when you can really believe that you're watching the Duke promise the world to this young girl and then throw her away.  And the effect of these complex weird things is really the opposite.

I have a dark theory about why this happens so often here (I don't notice it in Europe, but I have before at the COC).  It has to do with the fear people have of actually presenting the story itself.  So often in opera when there is something horrifying or extreme or outrageous, it gets this treatment, and I think the reason is that people are scared to play it straight.

They're scared to say something about how horrible people really are, how evil and corrupt they can be.  Making it into a "show" makes those things seem less real -- like, Oh, look, the nineteenth century, oh, a virgin, oh oh oh.

As opposed to having the story remind you of things that happened in your own life and that of your loved ones.

Which of course is a scam.  As if that crazed thirst for vengeance, the using of the poor by the rich, and the possible loss of all you value in life was all, somehow, behind us.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dilemmas of Modern Life

My kitchen cabinets are falling apart.  The cabinets are old, cheap, and ugly anyway, and now the hinges have stopped working properly.  They make an incredibly annoying crack-ing sound when you open and close them.  Also, inside, the paint is peeling off.  What to do?

From the environmental point of view, the answer is clear.  Replace the hinges and, if necessary, paint over the inside.

From the common-sense real-estate point of view, though, another answer is clear.  Get need new cabinets, and since the dishwasher also doesn't work and the oven is old and crappy, might as well "update" the whole kitchen.  It's an "investment," right?

I hate carrying a backpack.  It's a pain, and it looks ridiculous with a nice outfit.  But I do it anyway because I want to carry my laptop and no other system seems workable for this.  I'm constantly trying to keep down the number and weight of the things I have to carry, so I can carry a slightly smaller, slightly more stylish backpack instead of a bigger, bulkier one.  I'm already carrying a water bottle, and carrying a reusable coffee cup will put me over the brink.  What to do?

From the environmental point of view, the answer is clear.  Carry a bigger backpack.

From the fashion and life comfort point of view, though, another answer is clear.  Forget it.  Why should I have to walk around like a pack mule, walking through the desert, carrying all my daily needs on my back?  I'm living in a city, for heaven's sake.  In civilized places, when you stop to get coffee they put it in a ceramic cup while you sit and drink it.  Then they wash and reuse it.  Is it my fault that places in North America can't get this sorted out?   

I could go on and on, and we haven't even considered the conflicts between femininity, practicality, equality, and health.  But it would get boring.  I'm already bored, thinking about it.

There are things about consumer culture that I love.  But these things reflect its f***ed up nature. There are vast forces committed to getting you to do what, all things considered, you think is probably for the best, and forces that arise from nowhere, making your sensible choices seem stupid.

And then you pick up a newspaper or magazine, and in section A you read a story that says how the new style of kitchen is retro, or the new thing in shoes is the super high heel, or the new "it" bag is the Prada Glace Calf Degradé Top Handle (see above!) for only $2050, money that if you had it you could never justify spending it on a handbag anyway, and then in section Q you read how kitchen renovations are the biggest contributor to landfills or high heels will ruin your body forever.

I mean, can't they get their story straight?  Is it too much to ask?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

_1984_ And Life After The Humanities (Was_1984_ in 2011, Redux)

 A couple of weeks ago I started rereading 1984.  Last week I finished.

This book is many things, but one of them definitely is a horror story depicting Life After The Humanities.  You want to know what it's going to be like when you get rid of the Philosophy, English and History Departments and keep only Engineering, the Health Sciences, and "Transformational Leadership"?  Read 1984.

Probably you remember that in 1984, the Party controls everything, and they make sure people believe what they're supposed to believe.  But do you remember how sophisticated they are about it?  They don't just fuck with your head; they fuck with the actual evidence.

Indeed, Winston (the main character) works at writing corrections into every edition of every newspaper to make sure the record reads to fit the current regime.  If Oceania is at war with Eurasia they have always been at war with Eurasia.  There must be no proof of anything to the contrary.

Winston is perplexed throughout the book by the problem of evidence and truth.  He knows that it matters that Oceania hasn't really always been at war with Eurasia.  He knows that it matters that the Party destroys all evidence of the truth about the past.  But how the "evidence" part works he can't quite figure out.

At one point he recalls a moment seven years before in which he held in his hand a mistake:  a piece of paper showing, conclusively, that what the Party said happened wasn't what happened.  He destroyed the paper.  But now he thinks:  it actually really matters that I held that paper in my hand, because it proves ... well, what?  He can't figure it out:  how can a moment that has disappeared into the past show anything about other moments that have disappeared into the past?

At the end, Winston is tortured and reprogrammed to believe what the Party wants him to believe.  His old pal O'Brien, his intellectual superior, needles him about his beliefs.  "Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?" Winston isn't sure.  O'Brien forces him to acknowledge that the past doesn't exist "concretely," but only in records and in people's memories. And as long as the Party controls those, they must therefore control the past.

Among the many profound ethical and political morals of this story, surely one of them is the affirmation of the importance of thinking for yourself, making up your own mind, and taking into account the evidence.  One thing that is terrifying and horrible about Winston's story is that he is prevented, unable, to do this.

And this -- this sacred activity, so basic to democracy and freedom -- is what we teach in the humanities every day:  how to think about complex matters for yourself, how to make up your own mind, rather than believing what some person put on a powerpoint presentation or in a textbook; how to consider and question evidence for yourself, about what you ought to believe.

Now I know scientists do this too, but there are serious differences.  First, in humanities teaching we do this all the time, with every level of student, about everything.  There aren't years of simple information you have to get through before you can become critical of what is already believed.

And second, in the humanities you do it for yourself.  You don't need a lab with a bunch of people and equipment.  You just need you and your own brain.  You can question anything, and you can do it yourself.

This is one reason I am skeptical of the push toward large collaborative projects in the humanities.  If you're going to stand up for what you believe against a bunch of other people, and defend a literary interpretation, an ethical principle, a belief about the nature of the universe or the causes of the French revolution, you're pretty much going to be doing that all alone, not as part of some giant research project.

Thinking about what to believe based on the evidence:  often you have to do it for yourself, and thus by yourself.  Please support your local humanities education!  I can only say this:  if you don't you'll be sorry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Some Graphic Novels And Comics You Should Read

“What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?”  

 That was the question recently posed by The Hooded Utilitarian (The what?  don't ask me, I don't know).   I'm not sure who they posed the question to.  But the answers were collated, or edited, or something, and then presented here.   I learned about this from the always awesome Ted Rall, who posted about it on his blog

I was pleased to see Rall mention and praise Alison Bechdel's Fun Home ("the first graphic novel to fulfill the form’s potential as literature").   But I was really weirded out -- OK, maybe even appalled -- to see that as far as I could tell no other women comic artists or women writers mentioned by anyone.  I don't know all the names so I could be overstating.  But not by much.  Weird, since many of the best graphic novels and comics are either drawn by or written by women or both.  

So, this list.  This list is not "BEST COMICS" or "BEST COMICS FOR GIRLZ" or even "MY FAVORITE COMICS EVER."   It's just a list of some comics, authors, and writers that are so good you should read them and that aren't your everyday super-hero stuff. 

In no particular order:

1.  Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.

Fun Home is a memoir of growing up, a reflection on gay and lesbian identity, and a gripping story about a relationship between a father and daughter.  The drawings give the story an intimacy you can't imagine experiencing in reading a regular novel.

2.  Marguerite Abouet  and Clément Oubrerie, Aya (a story in six volumes)

The story is about life in Ivory Coast in the late 70s/early 80s, and focuses on the young adulthood of three young women:  Aya, Bintou, and Adjoua.  The author, Abouet, who moved from Ivory Coast to France when she was a kid, wrote these books partly to show people that Africa is not just a place of violence and famine but is also a cool and interesting place where regular life happens.  The story and the drawing are both incredible beyond belief.  Available in French, English, and other languages.

3.  Marguerite Abouet and Singeon, Bienvenue

Also written by Abouet, Bienvenue takes place in Paris and tells the story of a nervous young woman whose parents gave her the awkward name of "Bienvenue" (which means "Welcome").  I love this book because you never get to see a heroine who is kind of grouchy and says what she thinks but is also really likable.  But that's what Bienvenue is like.

4.  Anything by Julie Doucet

I wrote about her on my old blog.  Julie Doucet is like nothing you've ever read:  free associative, a little crazy, and a girl's eye view of the world.  This cover of one of her books will give you some idea what she's like.

 5.  Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 1 and 2
Satrapi's amazing books describe growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  The drawing style is amazingly suited to conveying conflicting and complex emotions and the weird atmosphere surrounding the characters. 

6.  Lynda Barry, like, everything, but I love the Maybonne and Marlys books best, like Come Over, Come Over.

Everything you need to know about that very confusing thing that is life as a girl on planet earth.  It's here.

7.  Roz Chast

Chast is more a cartoonist and comic artist than a graphic novelist.  I think her comics are hilarious and in addition to being funny they always make me feel at home in the world, which for me is really saying something.

 8.  Delaf et Dubuc, Les Nombrils

I don't know anything about these authors and I had trouble even figuring out where this story was taking place, but it centers on three girls:  a kind of ordinary looking tomboy and her two super-popular and glamorous "friends" -- who abuse her but get abused in turn by the fates so it all evens out.  Somehow I found the crazy obsessions of "les filles" -- boys with motorcycles, super short shorts,  etc. -- massively charming.

9. Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For

Recently issued in a convenient collection as The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.  You'll laugh, you'll cry, DTWOF has everything anyone could ever want in a comic series.   

I've probably forgotten some things.  But as I said, these are just some things you should read!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

_1984_ in 2011

George Orwell, obviously a serious-minded young man.
I wanted to reread Orwell's 1984 so I downloaded it from Amazon [yeah, yeah, I know]. I happened to open and start reading when I'd just gotten on the subway.  Even the first two pages bowled me over.  Wow, what a book! 

One thing I hadn't remembered at all was the atmosphere of dingy, dirty, broken down surroundings with no comforts or pleasures and with the rationing of chocolate.  There's a smell of cabbage everywhere, and worn carpets, and Winston has a sore on his ankle that won't go away, and one of the first things that happens is that he has to go fix the old gross stopped-up sink in his neighbor's apartment.

Somehow I'd remembered the telescreens, always on, always watching, always listening, but I'd surrounded them in my mind with the look of the dystopian but computerized future:  clean white walls, clean white carpet, you know. 

I think one reason I hadn't remembered the filth and decay is that in the modern world I've come to so powerfully associate the political sheepiness of the populace with the consumer pleasures of the E-Z-Capitalist lifestyle.  

I mean, I've always figured that one reason we can't get it together to get upset about the unjust wars, the constant surveillance, and the dismantling of our legal protections is that, well, as long as we've got a new phone, the internets are working OK, and we can afford whatever A-line skirt/GPS device/whatever is hot for Fall, it's just too much trouble to get all upset.  But if Facebook went down, well, there'd be some uprisings.    

There was actually some evidence for this in The New York Times about a week ago.  There was some story about Netflix charging extra fees or raising their fees or something and I happened to look at the comments (I know! I know! Don't look at the comments!) and there were like 200 really angry and really outraged comments.  People were like, We're Mad As Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Anymore!  These people are fascists! Mister Netflix Guy is going to pay! 

I seriously haven't seen that level of indignation since Paul Krugman suggested that the US had misbehaved in the decade since September 11th.

Anyway, I had been reading quietly and happily for about four stops when suddenly a huge crowd of kids got on.  I think they were about 11 years old, and boy were they making a racket -- shouting, jostling, making faces.  This happens occasionally in a big city, usually as part of a school trip, and usually I'm slightly grouchy when it does.  Like, stop bumping into me and shouting in my ear!  And turn that music down!

But it's a sign of how immediately frightening 1984 is that in the grip of its atmosphere, I felt exactly the opposite.  These kids were completely irrepressible, unfrightened to express their every whim, accustomed to the world being a source of pleasure and happiness, and immersed in a world of gadgetry, fashion, stupid jokes, and internet memes.  In short, they were basically full of the qualities opposite to the qualities of every person in 1984.

My heart, it was filled with joy.  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mary Shelley Was Ms. Interesting

Mary Shelley
I was reading a book by the philosopher Peter Singer and he mentioned a nineteenth-century guy named Godwin who proposed a crazy thought experiment in which you are outside a burning building and inside is a famous author and also your father who is the author's valet and you have to decide whether to save the author or your father and Godwin said you should save the author because morality requires impartiality and impartially the author will bring a greater amount of happiness and well-being to the world than your father ever would.

I went home and I looked up Mister Godwin and I found out that he was the husband of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley author of Frankenstein one of the most philosophical novels ever written (IMHO) and a book I've always taken to be profoundly critical of the impartial worldview and I also learned that not only did Mary run away with Percy Shelley when she was seventeen and he was married and write Frankenstein when she was twenty she also wrote other novels including one about father-daughter incest which she sent to her father Mister Godwin and he never sent it back despite her begging and pleading because he thought it was disgusting and it never was published 'til after he died.

Also she had a "non-exclusive" marriage with Percy and a miscarriage and two children who died young and then finally another son who lived and as we all know her husband died young but Mary lived long and unlike all the "Mr. Interestings" out there she spent a huge amount of her time taking care of her son and making money for his school fees and moving to Harrow on the Hill (don't ask me) so that her son could attend Harrow without paying boarding fees and later she lived with her son and traveled with him and his wife and meanwhile she wrote a bunch of books and stories and political stuff and edited some of her late husband's work.

You can read all about it on Wikipedia here.

 We love you, Ms. Shelley.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Don't People Get Tired Of Competition And Negotiation?

Simone de Beauvoir
You know that whole individualistic world view we inherited from the enlightenment?  I think it's wearing us out.

It's pretty much part and parcel of that individualistic world view that people have to compete and negotiate with one another.  I mean, if you want something, or even need something, the individualistic world view says you should try to exchange something you already have for it, presumably seeking out the "best deal" you can.

If you think of this as just having to do with some contexts of "commerce and business" it can be OK -- good, even.  But when it takes over everything, not so much.  For one thing, being in constant competition and negotiation is exhausting.

When I think about the exhaustingness of competition and negotiation, I'm always reminded of teaching Simone de Beauvoir in my Intro class a few years ago.  This was the old translation, and it's just my memory ...  but I remember her saying that one reason men had to create women in the nurturing passive image they did was so that they would have people around to support and love them.  People they didn't have to compete and negotiate with.

Like, if you're a man, you're out all day competing and negotiating, and that means when you get home you need something else.  Some nurturing.  And so it was much in the interests of men to remove women from the competition and negotiation zone.  They did this by making laws restricting women's rights, by rewarding them for passive nurturing behavior, and by punishing them for other kinds of behavior.  

Women, naturally, were all, "Are you kidding me"?  Even though the transformation isn't complete, it has happened.  Women work outside the house, they pay for stuff, and they're generally expected to do all the same competition and negotiation crap men have always had to do.

But this means intimate relationships are no longer a competition- and negotiation-free zone.  Couples have to negotiate over housework, over whose career will take precedence, over whose crazy obsessions the bank account will go toward, and so on.  Especially if they have kids.

I remember a discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the higher you go in the university hierarchy the fewer women there were.  The article said one main reason was that women were doing more housework and more childcare and thus didn't have as much time for research.  What might the university do?

And this one commentator said something like, "Nothing.  If a woman fails to NEGOTIATE properly with her husband about domestic duties, how is that anyone's problem but her own?"

So, yeah.

For a long time I wondered why so many people who were "conservative" in the sense of wanting tighter fiscal policies were also so often "conservative" in the sense of wanting women at home not working.  But this suggests, I think, a connection.  Tighter fiscal policies means the competition and negotiation game is especially tough.  Having the game be especially tough makes it tougher to have it take over your whole life.  Indeed, if you have kids, it might be frightening to think that someone being home to care for them would depend on having played the negotiation and competition game properly.  But women's-place-is-in-the-home:  solves that problem.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

David Brooks Wishes Kids Had More Problems?

Today David Brooks talks about a study showing today's young people are bad at thinking and talking about morality and values.  Some of the evidence he gives for this is that young people can't recount any moral dilemmas that they themselves have experienced.

I know this isn't what he means, but it sure sounds like he's saying he's upset that kids have so few difficulties in life.  Some of the evidence from the study, as he describes it:
When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.
Well, yeah.  I mean, aside from the fact that people of all ages are hazy on the concept of "moral dilemma," it's funny to say What's Wrong With These Kids, Having So Few Problems in Life!

I mean, the classic dilemmas are situations in which you face a difficult choice because you have multiple obligations you can't meet.  You have to lie to keep a promise, or you have to neglect one person to help another, or you have to decide whether it's better to protect your friend or to tell a truth that will cause her pain.

But these are young people.  They haven't had many professional duties, or complex life relationships.  For them, the obvious causes of dilemmas are:  cheating friends, unintended pregnancy and children, neglectful or ill-behaved parents, and adults who mistreat one another.   

I can see why the fact that kids couldn't think of personal experiences with these as a real cause for handwringing.

Kids these days. When I was their age, I had to decide whether to save my father or a famous writer from a burning building, whether to join the resistance for my country or help my ailing mother, and whether to flip the trolley switch, killing one but saving five.   All before breakfast.

Those softies. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

What Is Wrong With Girls Going Wild?

There's a lot of disagreement about women's sexuality.  But one thing tends to bring people together, and that is a belief that when young women take off their clothes, kiss one another, and go back to the Girls Gone Wild tour bus for further fun, something has gone wrong.

Men call them sluts; feminists call them manipulated by a sexist debauched culture.  The TV show Arrested Development calls them "Girls With Low Self-Esteem." 

But what exactly is it that is regrettable?  These women are choosing to participate, they seem to be having a good time, and they don't seem coerced.  Indeed, it's often noted how small any material rewards are:  they get a cap or a T-shirt or something.  

I think one standard thoughtful response to this question is something like this.  What's regrettable is that these women are "objectifying" themselves, or permitting themselves to be objectified.  Even though they are choosing to participate, they're being objectified because they're giving sexual pleasure to other people, via their bodies, and not getting any "authentic" sexual pleasure for themselves.

Insofar as it is "sexy" or "fun" for them, it must be because of the attention, and not because of something they're getting for themselves.  Whatever they are getting out of it is other-directed, rather than self-directed. 

But it seems to me there's something not quite right about this.

One part I really can't run with is that there's a problem with other-directedness.  Because when you move away from the sexual domain and into other domains, being other-directed is often a good thing not a bad thing.  Suppose I want to throw you a party, and I become really focused on wanting you to have a good time.  Imagine I feel like your having a good time will make me have a good time -- indeed, that I could not have a good time without your having a good time.

If this is just a party and not my whole way of life, there's obviously nothing weird about that.  My enjoyment follows from your enjoyment, my preference is not for some thing, but for you to have a certain set of feelings and experiences.  If anything, we'd say that's an excellent part of human interactions.  If we go out to dinner once a week and I can't really have fun unless you are having fun, that's a nice thing not a regrettable thing.

In the New York Times discussion of women's sexuality a couple of years ago, one of the researchers talks about how much she thinks women's desire is "narcissistic" in the sense that women desire to be desired.  I don't know if that's right, but if it is even a little, then the women who participate in GGW can certainly be acting on their own "authentic" desires -- those desires just happen to be desires about the desires of others.

But having other-directed desires is not narcissistic!  Why not say, "generous," or "other-directed" or any of the million other nice ways to describe people who are concerned with other people's feelings?

There definitely is something regrettable when women's desires are only other-directed, and social and cultural pressures tell women they ought to have other-directed sexual desires -- to be sexy, rather than to feel sexual desire and pleasure.  And this is true about our world, and it is bad.

Like, this Salon article about sex from the economic point of view basically makes an assumption that women's sexual desires don't even exist -- women just have sex to get other stuff.  Jeez, people.

And so, insofar as things like GGW foster and promote this vision of women's sexuality, that is bad.

I think that is right, and I think it's important.  But it's not the same as saying that other-directed desires are second-rate, or bad, or inauthentic, or rooted in low self-esteem.  Ideally, in sex everyone would have a mix of other-directed desires and self-directed desires. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Spoonful Of Sugar Makes . . . You A Better Person?

The "ego depletion" theory of self-control is based on a very plausible idea:  when you use your self-control to make yourself do stuff, your self-control gets all worn out and you do stupid things.  Your "ego" gets "depleted" and you can't make yourself do what you know you should do.  To anyone who has had a piece of cake or a cocktail after a long day, sabotaging an otherwise successful effort at healthful eating or sobriety, this will have immediate resonance.

In their studies, the psychologists who created this theory -- Roy Baumeister and his colleagues -- make people do annoying things, like sit hungry in front of chocolate and not eat it, and then they test how long they're willing to exert their will -- say by forcing themselves to work at a puzzle.

There's a good article by John Tierney about it here, focusing more on decision-making.  And there's a good review of Baumeister's new book, co-authored with John Tierney, here, that's more of an overview.

The metaphor of ego-depletion is that of a muscle that gets worn out.  If you don't want to use up your self-control, don't force yourself to do too many difficult things at one time.  But if want to have more self-control, you can strengthen it with exercises. 

Supposedly, if you use your willpower to keep your room tidy, keep a diary of what you eat, or speak in complete sentences, and you'll have more of it when it comes time to quitting smoking or studying your German or whatever.

Like muscles, self-control needs food.  Ironically (as we say nowadays), self-control feeds on sugar, and an influx of glucose will help you make better decisions.  Sugary soft drinks?  Yes.  Cake, yes.  Diet coke? No.  Tuna plate with lettuce, hold the carbs?  Not so much.

They connection between self-control and glucose is so powerful that, as Tierney says, "The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets."

The jokes kind of write themselves, don't they?

Anyway, there's one big thing at the center of ego depletion theory that doesn't seem right to me.  Sure, it's plausible that when you have to exert self-control, your ability to exert self-control goes down.  And sure, it's also easy to believe that when you have your act together in small domains like keeping things tidy you're more likely to have your act together in bigger ways.

But the muscle metaphor fails in one crucial way:  there's nothing like "falling off the wagon" for your muscles. 

With self-control, it seems like you can be going along in life with everything in order when a wave of difficulty just knocks everything out of whack.  People who've returned from war have been massively exercising their self-control, but it does not always seem easy to transport that "strength" back home.

Muscles aren't like that.  When they get weak, they get weak slowly.

I have another theory.  Isn't it possible that what depletes your self control, really, is being harassed, annoyed, and unhappy? 

Then using your self-control can make you harassed, annoyed, and unhappy -- and if I had to sit hungry in front of chocolate I'd be harassed, annoyed and unhappy.  But other things can make you feel this way too.  Don't you think a person who just received bad news, or got yelled at, or was contemplating death, would also find it harder to work on the puzzle?

Why not just say, being in a bad mood makes you have less self-control, and using your self-control is one thing that can put you in a bad mood?  And that sweets put you in a good mood?  Nothing surprising there.

That would at least explain the falling off the wagon problem.  As we all know, the causes of bad moods are vast and varied.

And let me just close by observing that if the ego-depletion theory, or anything like it, is right, then the situation we have is this:  people whose self-control is worn down by having to select good options from among bad, together with massive industry forces devoted to wearing down our self-control to make us select bad options instead of good ones. 

From that point of view, it's a miracle we're not even less healthy and more in debt than we are.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fixing Fashion

New rule for the world:  only athletes can be fashion models.

Honestly, I used to love fashion.  It always annoys me when people are all "Oh, I'm really into architecture" and then go on to put down fashion as frivolous.  Guys, it's the same thing: art in a practical context.

But the fashion skinniness problem is SO out of control. It's just nuts.  You can't even enjoy looking at the ads anymore.

My proposal addresses the problem.  Athletes are obviously super healthy.  They'd be good for us to emulate.  They look great. 

Plus, they're a pretty racially diverse group.  There are plenty of disabled athletes.  And the athletes -- female athletes, I mean -- could use the money.

You see?  A bunch of problems, solved.

Or, you know, this approach is OK too:

This is a large Guess ad in the shop window near my home.  More like this please!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

If I Were A Boy

Today I'm thinking about this question:  How would my scholarly life be different if my name were Paul Jennings and my author photo was this:

I got to wondering about this reading Larissa MacFarquhar's recent profile of the philosopher Derek Parfit in The New Yorker, which I really enjoyed.

In particular, the reflection was prompted by the description of Parfit's feelings of admiration for the "dazzling" Bernard Williams. I, too, am an admirer of Williams's philosophy, though I didn't know any of the personal things the article describes: that he flew Spitfires in the Air Force; that he had an affair with another man's wife; that he wrote about opera. 

In describing Parfit's admiration for Williams, MacFarquhar suggests it's not just Williams's writing that Parfit admires, it's also his whole way of being in the world.  That "way" is captured partly in a photograph, in which Williams is described as looking aristocratic, worldly, godlike.  Williams just somehow seems like fascinating guy.

I know this feeling.  It's good when you have it, and of course, it's even better when someone else has it about you.  And it is common and natural for intellectuals to be fascinated by one another like that. 

In our discipline of philosophy, fascination and its lesser cousin "interest" play an unusually outsized role, because the first crucial step in anything is getting people interested in what you have to say.  Even if you're right, it gets you nowhere if no one finds you interesting.  Indeed, part of Parfit's interest in Williams seems to have stemmed from thinking Williams was completely wrong and mistaken in his basic ideas.

Now the problem.  Have you considered how difficult it is for a woman to fit into this world of intellectual fascination?

Men just don't seem to be fascinated by women in that way. Sure, they might admire women intellectually, and they might have crushes on them and want to sleep with them, but intellectual hero-worship?  No.  It doesn't really happen.

Even if it did happen, it would never be described in as intellectual hero-worship, because everyone would be falling all over themselves saying it was some kind of sexual or romantic fascination, not a genuine intellectual fascination.  The woman would be at best demoted to "attractive" and at worst accused of playing her sexuality for attention.

Of course, if a young woman is intellectually fascinated by a man -- well, this just seems to strike everyone as completely as it should be. 

So, really, is it any wonder we have an "inverted pyramid" gender problem in academia?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Food Courts: The Unsung Heroes Of Modern Life

The new twenty-first century food court at the Eaton Centre

There's a lot of hating on food courts.  People are always dumping on them like they're a symbol or manifestation of everything that's wrong with capitalism and consumer culture.

But if you could just improve the food and get rid of the styrofoam containers, the food court is a wonderful thing and a triumph of modernity.

They're egalitarian.  At the food court, everyone sits next to everyone else.  Mr. Subway is next to Madame Poutine; Ms. Sushi is next to little Sbarro.

They're community oriented.  Have you noticed how much people like to be near other people?  One of the best and nicest things about people them.  Hilariously, for many people, their favorite way to be alone is to be with a bunch of other people they don't know.  Why read or surf at home when you can do it at Starbucks with a million strangers? 

I'm not making fun of anyone here: I love the feeling of being alone with my thoughts and surrounded by a bunch of people I don't know.

But most importantly, they're accepting.  Often at the food court I see various kinds of social misfits, or just people who are alone in life and don't have other people around them who love them.  Maybe they don't want to cook.  Maybe they don't have someone to cook for them.  Maybe they just don't have anyone to share their meals with.

These people are sitting alone at the food court.  But it seems they're having an OK time: they're enjoying some Chinese food, maybe having some coffee after, and watching the scene.  At a real restaurant, it would be awkward and expensive, and weird to be alone.  But at the food court, it's totally normal.

Wouldn't it be so much worse if the social misfits of the world had to eat alone at home, day after day?  Doing what, watching TV?

I was prompted in these reflections by having just been to the new food court in the North part of the Eaton Centre.  The picture is above.  I didn't even know this was in the works, but it's like the food court of the twenty-first century:  beautiful, gleaming, with fancy espresso places right next to the MacDonald's.  There's good food.   There's even a special room just for nursing moms.

And the crowning glory:  real plates and reusable silverware! 

Gods of the food court:  I thank you.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dickens, Death, And Domestic Disturbance

In last week's New Yorker Jill Lepore wrote about "Dickens camp":  a place ordinary people go every summer to talk about Dickens. 

She seems to have had a great time.  Me, I've got no plans for Dickens camp.   To be fair, there does not seem to exist any X for which I would want to go "X camp."  But it's also true that part of why I would never go to Dickens camp is that I've never really liked Dickens and I've never understood his popularity.

It's not that I don't like long nineteenth-century novels, because I do:  I am an absolute fanatic for Trollope.  And you know, you might think that in the Venn Diagram of the world, the area of "likes to read long nineteenth-century novels" would be so small that there wouldn't be a lot of room inside for non-overlapping categories.  But, there is.  Here I am:  like Trollope; don't like Dickens.

Part of what I don't like in Dickens is the caricature aspect.  OK, I've gone on about this before.  But even this year at Dickens camp, one of the first questions that comes up is "Why is Pip such a little shit?"  Indeed, why are the people of Dickens's universe all either saints, or devils, or morons, or children?  How can this be considered good?

I was appalled to learn from Lepore's article that when they were in their forties, and had had twelve children with ten living, and the youngest kid was just six, Dickens basically kicked his wife out of the house and "all but forbade the [nine younger] children to see their mother."

How does something like this happen?  How can you have twelve children with someone you can't bear to live with?  Lepore says about this that "domestic tragedy, like domestic happiness, is ineffable."  But, you know, not in Trollope it isn't.  If Trollope were writing the story of Dickens's life, he'd easily describe this story to you so that it makes sense that two seemingly normal people can come to despise one another so deeply, despite having lived in such intimacy for so long.  It's Dickens who can only tell this story by making the wife into a shrew, or the husband into a monster.

The one thing in Lepore's article that gave me insight into why the Dickensomania was a quote from Thomas Carlyle, who said that in Dickens the reader finds "dark, fateful, silent elements . . . the elements of death itself."

Darkness and death:  there's something to that.  Certainly the character of Miss Havisham makes you feel the dark and the death.  Remember Miss Havisham?  Jilted at the altar as a young woman, she spends the rest of her life in her wedding dress, with the clocks stopped and the wedding cake uneaten at the table.  Frightening.

Miss Havisham, drawing by Harry Furniss

It's true, there's nothing like this in Trollope.  The main jiltee of Trollope's fiction is Lily Dale, and though she never really recovers from being jilted by the only man she loves, Lily has a very normal life:  she's a companion to her mother; she helps out her friends; she makes a second man who wants to marry her very miserable, because she can't give up her love for the first.  She is, indeed, utterly determined to live out her life as a reasonable and friendly, if sad, person.

The standard reason people give for why they think Dickens is great where Trollope isn't has to do with politics and class:  it's true that Trollope writes mostly about the aristocracy, and Dickens writes about poor people.  That's all to the good in its way, I'm sure.  But I can't help but feel that among poor as well as the rich, there's a million Lily Dales for every Miss Havisham. 

I mean, to live out your life being a good friend and helpful person, trying to be cheerful despite some very bad luck and some deep sadness:  that is a completely universal experience, and not at all restricted to the upper classes. 

Lepore quotes a camp attendee who says that the reason Trollope was so exasperated by Dickens was that "Trollope mistrusted rhetorical power."  It has to be admitted, as Trollope admitted, that if we go by literary fans and majorities, Dickens clearly has the more succesful rhetorical style.  But maybe in this case the majority is just wrong. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Capitalism And Fraud

Recently I read Michael Lewis's book The Big Short, which tells the stories of a few people involved in the financial shenanigans that led to the economic crisis of 2008. 

It's a complicated story with a lot of parts, but one of the recurring elements is intentional deception.  I mean, cases in which banks and investment companies intentionally mislead, lie to, and try to deceive their trading partners and customers. 

This got me to thinking about lying and fraud in business in a more general way, and about why you're not supposed to do it, and about why any particular business person would be motivated not to do it.

When you're in a normal moral context, it's natural to think of morality as a kind of "looking out for the other guy."  I mean, you take other people, and their needs and desires, into consideration when you think about how to act.  From that point of view, the reason not to lie is pretty obvious, because you're in doing so you're harming someone else or their interests.

Does this normal moral context disappear when you're in a business context?  Sometimes it doesn't.  Some transactions, like selling coffee or whatever, don't seem in tension with that point of view.  If I have money, and you have coffee, and we want to exchange, we're each going to be better off after we do so, and this is consistent with each of us looking out for the other guy.  So you might have some interest in putting the best face on your coffee that you can, but there would be nothing strange about your telling me the truth about its particulars and why you want to sell it. 

But what Lewis describes in the finance industry doesn't quite seem like that, because everyone wants the same thing -- money -- and everyone's just making different and competing judgments about the best way to get it.  If your reason for wanting to sell me certain stocks for money is that you think they're going to be worth less in the future than they are now, then there's a sense in which our interests are opposed, and it makes no sense to "look out for the other guy" in quite the same way.  Why would you reveal your reasons for thinking the stock was going to go down?  Doing so would make no sense.  In this context, it would be strange for you to tell me why you want to sell.

So the prohibition against lying must have another source in that context.  And I take it it does:  the system depends on people being having good information about what they are buying; the system doesn't work when people lie; the mechanism of capitalist exchange, investment, and all the good things that come with it are only possible if people tell the truth. 

But if that's the real reason why one ought not lie in finance, isn't it really unsurprising that in the absence of meaningful oversight and punishment, people do, in fact, lie?  Because, really, even though I take it this is a powerful and good reason not to lie, it's also an awfully abstract and emotionally non-pressing reason.  A reason it's pretty hard to get motivated by.  There might be some people who might be worse off at some unspecified future time?  Whatever.

And the temptations to lie must be significant:  you're trying to keep up, and your job depends on making a certain amount of money for your company or its shareholders, and everyone else is making money, and you think that everyone else is lying.  Against these temptations you have something like: it's wrong for me to lie because if people lie the system breaks down?  You'd have to be Mr. Spock to put that sort of reasoning into action against your own immediate self-interest.

It might be thought that the motivation not to lie, even in the absence of oversight and punishment, comes from some self-interest:  that the person who lies is going to get a reputation for lying and people won't do business with them again.  But this would only be true if a lot of people had information that -- especially in the absence of oversight -- people just don't have.  Without someone looking over your shoulder, you can actually get away with it.

One of the other main themes of the book, of course, is how pathetic and weak any actual oversight is these days.  But that's another story.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Social Networking Anxiety

You've heard of Social Anxiety.  But what about Social Networking Anxiety?

The possibility that I had Social Networking Anxiety first flitted across my mind when I signed up for Facebook.  As I chronicled here, I felt immediately that Facebook was too much for me.  Too much information, too much immediacy, too many minute decisions to be made about how to interact with people. 

I said to myself, "Facebook, it's not me, it's you.  You're the one trying to ferret out where I went to school a million years ago -- what's it to you, Mister Aggressive?  You're the one with the conversation skills of a two-year-old -- I mean, who doesn't know that putting funny pet pictures next to reflections on national tragedies is in poor taste?  You're the one with the gall to pick on my poor friends for not having a wide enough social circle -- you think I didn't notice that plaintive and pathetic call to 'help So-and-So find his friends?'" 

I'll have you know that So-and-so is an interesting, personable, and savvy guy.  He's just not that into you.  So you don't have to act all superior.

Then I met Google Plus, or as he likes to be called, Google+.  He's like Facebook, but with a little more social tact, a little more reserve, a little more cool.  He doesn't try to push stuff down your throat, but kind of lets you take the lead.  More of a gentleman, I guess.  And we're definitely getting along better. 

Still, I retain a feeling that social Networking is too much Social and too much Networking for me.  The other day I saw a post by an old friend -- something innocuous and nice, and there was a comment by a person I haven't communicated with in over twenty years.  My mind was filled with highly charged emotive thoughts.  Warmth:  remembering this person and how cool they were when I spent time with them.  Guilt:  that I never do anything to keep in touch.  Fear:  that I'd be called on to say something kind and warm and thoughtful, something that could reach across the decades to show I still care.  Dread:  because honestly, I don't really like communicating with people I never see and I'm not close to, and I don't want to do it. 

All this mixed together with a longing to just log out and get back to what I'd been doing before. 

When it comes to posting, profiles, and all that, I fear being That Person.  You know, the one who posts "Just got back from my interview with MSNBC! Heading off to Nobu!"  Or That Other Person, the one who is always posting about their involvement with some super-cool, totally unknown band.  Not that I ever do those things, but you know what I mean.  And if you're not one of Those People, what are you?  Just living a boring life, out there on the web for all to see?

I used to think Social Networking Anxiety was very rare, and I was almost the only person who had it.  Because almost everyone uses Facebook.  But then I started to notice something odd. 

Because I work in a University, and go to a lot of coffee shops, I often walk by people engaged in actual Social Networking.  I mean, I catch a glimpse of their laptop screens, and more than anything those screens say "FACEBOOK" and the person is staring intently at a list of tiny pictures with tiny bits of text next to them.   

And these people Social Networking, how do they look?  Do they look happy? 

No.  In fact, their faces are often masks of anxiety.  They look pained.  They look nervous.  They look like they're measuring out their lives with the measuring tape of other people's success.  Oh, look.  So-and-So was interviewed by MSNBC.  Um, cool. 

So now I think Social Networking Anxiety isn't one of those rare dysfunctions.  I think it's more like a Silent Killer Epidemic.  What it's going to do to all of us I don't know.  But assuming we keep social networking, and I'm sure we will, whatever it is will not be good.