Archive for July, 2014
When I was very small, I was fascinated by organizations.
I think it was the formalities of organizations that I liked–orders of nuns, for instance, and the Girl Scouts with their ranks and badges, and college sororities.
I even invented a couple of them, including something I named the Nancy Drew Detective Club, which I based on a book about detective techniques put out by the same publisher, and another one–that I called the Ennead–that seemed to be organization for the sake of organization.
I think we’ve all gone through the thing about how I was a very strange child–I invented the Nancy Drew Detective Club when I was eight–so let’s go right past that part to two things.
First, you’ll notice that all the things I mentioned that existed in the real world were organizations of women and girls. I never seemed to have any interest in organizations for men an boys. The Boy Scouts and the Hardy Boys left me cold.
Second, the fact is that the fascination with organizations has not gone away. I’m still interested in women’s religious orders of the very traditional variety, the Girl Scouts, and college sororities, although I don’t create my own organizations any more.
Okay. I think about it every once in a while.
Today, however, I want to consider these people
They are definitely an organization, but they’re an organization for men.
I stumbled across them about a week and a half ago because I was reading an article that went into detail about Theodore Roosevelt, and one of the things it mentioned was that he belonged, at Harvard, to the fraternity called Alpha Delta Phi.
I looked it up because it was a slack part of the day and I just wanted to check,and it endedup being interesting on a number of levels.
In the first place, it wasn’t founded as a fraternity as we understand fraternities today. It was founded as a “literary society,” and “literary society” is still part of how it describes itself today.
It describes itself as a “literary society” because, at the time it first came to be, literary societies were a hot ticket on college campuses. In an era when no fiction or poetry was taught at the college level except that of the Greeks and the Romans, young men who wanted to know more about Byron or Keats or whoever it was who was the best knew thing in then-modern poetry and fiction had to do it on their own.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. College students do similar things now when they have an interest that isn’t covered in the curriculum.
What strikes an off-note are the circumstances surrounding the founding of the initial ADPhi chapter, and what has become of the fraternity since.
The circumstances are a little vague–there were two other literary societies at Hamilton College at the time, and the student who founded ADPhi joined one of them, but he was unhappy, because he thought both the existing societies used “unscrupulous” methods to recruit members.
What these methods were, I can’t begin to guess, but as a result of them Samuel Ells constructed ADPhi and offered membership to members of both the existed clubs, although not to all the members of all existing clubs.
And that, of course, sounds more like fraternities as we know them today than like a ‘literary society’ devoted to discussion of modern fiction and poetry.
The ADPhi web site’s home page say that it has “retained its focus on its literary roots, by attracting only the best students at the more prestigious colleges and universities in Canada and the United States.
That, too, sounds more like a modern college fraternity than like a literary society, except that recruiting “the best students” doesn’t seem to be what college fraternities are interested in these days.
If you look at ADPhi’s history, you’ll find that “recruiting the best” may have had something to do with the organization’s development. Aside from Teddy, ADPhi boasts FDR and a string of Supreme Court justices and other high-achieving alumni.
It also boasts, or not, Alger Hiss.
And then there’s the persistent rumor that it was the ADPhi house at Dartmouth that provided the model for National Lampoon’s Animal House.
In other words, for all the quirks and foibles–some of its chapters broke off, renamed themselves the Alpha Delta Phi Society and went co-ed–it sounds as if ADPhi is a fraternity much like all the others, where the point seems to be drinking too much and keeping people out.
My question is: why?
I think one of the reasons I so much love organizations is that, in my head somewhere, it seems to me that they should operate differently than the rest of society.
The people who become a part of them should have different motives, different default zones, different beings, maybe, than the rest of us.
By now I have read enough memoirs of ex-nuns, and known enough ex-nuns, I have been a Girl Scout, I have had students and friends who were members of college sororities–
And the bottom line is that organization does not seem to make much of a difference to the human personality, and that the natural history of organizations always seems to be the same.
Where you start may make a difference to how long it takes for that natural history to work itself out, but that natural history always works itself out, and always in the same way.
They become insular and clique-y. They become engines of keeping people out. And they become dominated by their least intelligent and most abrasive members.
Sometimes, I think human beings have a death wish.
I am having one of those days when I just can’t seem to settle down no matter what I do.
That sounds all angsty and portentious, like one of those movies where some woman just can’t stand her successful New York life anymore and goes off traveling to Cordoba and Tibet in search of meaning.
What it most likely is, in actuality, is the one flaw in my favorite tea.
My favorite tea is what’s called Double Bergamot Earl Grey from the Stash Tea Company out in Oregon somewhere. They have a web site at
although there’s no particular reason you should check it out. It’s tea. It’s really good tea at a moderately reasonable price.
It is not ragingly gourmet tea that has to be talked about in the kind of language most people use for wines.
And no. I don’t get the wine thing either.
At any rate, it’s very decent tea and I love it, and every morning I take two tea bags, put them in a 60 ounce cup, pour boiling water over them and steep the whole thing for 15 to 20 minutes.
All of this being the result of the fact that I don’t much like the taste of coffee, but I like the effects of caffeine very much.
Okay. I like the taste of those frappucino things you can get at Starbucks.
The not being able to settle down problem is usually the result of that one little flaw, and that is that the Stash company, being conscientiously environmentalist, uses some kind of material for its tea bags that will, every once in a while, leak.
It will leak little chips of dried tea, which float around in the liquid and which I sometimes swallow without realizing it.
It’s like having a continually steeping tea bag right in your gut, and the caffeine it puts out after a while is truly remarkable.
Of course, Stash tea bags are paragons of structural integrity compared to the tea bags from REAL hippie tea providers, some of which explode on touch.
I say that if I’d wanted to use a strainer, I’d have bought the tea loose.
One way or the other, Stash is the best Earl Grey I’ve found yet, and one of the few that offers double bergamot. It’s not like I’m going to give it up.
The tea jumpiness was exacerbated this morning by the fact that I’ve been reading, over the last two or three days, the Penguin Classics edition of Confucius’s Analects.
I’m stressing the edition because Penguin Classics editions always have at least an introduction, an often have other explantory matter having to do with the work.
In the case of the Analects, there has been more explanatory matter than actual work, which turns out to be a very good thing.
Confucius turns out to be one of those writers of whom I had a vague sense without ever having actually read, but whom I still was convinced I “got.”
Well, not “got” as to specifics.
“Got” as to: this is THAT kind of thing.
The THAT kind of thing I thought Confucius was came under the heading “one of the great religious and moral writers of all time.”
I was aware that Confucius was more moral than religious–that he did not write about God or the gods as much as about the right way to live.
I also had vague ideas about “ancestor worship,” but my sense of that was that Confucius was in favor of it because reverence for ancestors helped keep order and discipline.
What I was expecting–sincerely and honestly expecting–was something like the Buddhist scriptures. Lots of emphasis on self abnegation, doing good to others, being one with our fellow man.
There is, indeed, a fair amount of emphasis in the Analects about what we owe to our fellow man, but it turns out that our fellow man isn’t all other human beings.
People fall into categories in Confucius’s universe, and the two main categories are “our fellow man” and “the common people.”
“Our fellow men” are people like ourselves, born into the educated and cultivated families, destined to take part in government.
“The common people” are everybody else.
Our job, and the job of “our fellow man” is to take care of the common people like a mother takes care of a nursing infant.
There is no other category here–nothing to suggest that Confucius or his disciples even considered the possibility that somebody born poor, or somebody of great wealth who came from a merchant family rather than a government one, could have enough going on in his head to run his own affairs, never mind that of the country.
And this at the time when the Chinese merchant class represented the greatest international traders the world had ever seen.
If you want a possible explanation for why the Chinese invented so much, discovered so much, conquered so much, and never did anything with it–Confucius would be a good place to start.
Socrates was a sage because he taught people to know themselves. Christ was a sage because he taught people to know the mind of God. Confucius is a sage because he knows the principles that, properly followed, will result in our being able to take part in government, at high levels or low.
A lot of what Confucius apparently taught–I say apprently, because there’s actually very little in the Analects about specifics–had to do with what is usually translated “the rites,” but seems to be something more like etiquette.
It is enormously important that the proper format for each and every kind of meeting and contact be carried out exactly. It is so important that someone who fudges this kind of thing is deemed to be unfit for government service, and ONLY government service allows you to be classed among “our fellow men.”
It says something about human nature that a society so constituted could last so long–and it did last long. It certainly lasted longer than the Roman Empire.
My head says that this thing must have operated with more flexibility in the day to day, or it would have fallen apart in no time–but possibly I’m wrong.
China gave us the first of the great bureaucracies, and bureaucracies have a staying power I sometimes find Satanic.
Virtually everything Confucius stresses is about externals.
Where most of the world’s great religions stress the substance rather than the form, the intent rather than the practice, Confucius makes one’s interior life of secondary importance to one’s outward observance.
God rejected Cain’s sacrifice because he didn’ like what he saw in Cain’s heart.
Confucius rejects the most sincere supplicant if the external rules of the ceremony aren’t exactly right.
This is less like moral advice than a networking seminar at the Harvard Business school.
Right now, I’m trying to tell myself that I may be getting this entirely wrong–and I may be. This is not an area I know a great deal about.
Confucius stressed always that the state and the individual (of the right classes) must follow the Way, and the Way seems to be the Tao.
It’s been an unbelievably long time since I read Lao Tzu, and I don’t remember it. Possibly the moral insight I expected to find in the Analects is there, and if I can unearth the thing from the piles of books in this house, all this will begin to seem less bizarre.
Perhaps, but my guess is–probably not.
Christ says that when a man hits you, you should turn the other cheek. Buddha didn’t countenance violence of any kind against anyone or anything.
Confucius says that if somebody does you a bad turn, you should retaliate.
Not only does the person who did you a bad turn need to be punished and corrected, but if you return good for bad, what can you later return for good?
There’s a lot that’s eminently practical in all that.
But it really wasn’t what I was expecting.
Sometimes I sit here and read back over the last few days’ posts and wonder how I got to where I got to.
This morning, I’m chalking it up to lack of sleep.
But since I did manage to sleep through last night, let me give it one more try.
In the initial post on this topic, I stated outright that cases in which people starve themselves through anorexia or multiple plastic surgeries or whatever were NOT what I was talking about when I was talking about having ideals that are unattainable but that you still need to pursue.
I called those things neurotic, which is what in fact they are.
I was displeased with the whole idea of the “body acceptance” thing NOT because I think people should run around trying to be taller, but because I think it represents a strain of thinking in this era that is almost entirely destructive.
“Things are just the way they are and I have to learn to live with them” is a philosophy for misery without hope.
It’s sitting on your butt going, “well, hundreds of kids die of polio and there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to watch then die.”
It’s watching your crops die because of inadequate rain and going “well, that’s just what happens sometimes, we’ll just have to starve.”
Holding impossible ideals and trying to meet them is not subsisting on 40 calories a day and submitting to 400 plastic surgeries.
It’s going “I don’t ever want to see any of my children die of polio again, so I’m going to sit here with this microscope and hammer away at the problem and maybe I’ll come up with a solution.”
It’s “I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but if I study three times as much as everybody else I may be able to learn this anyway.”
I think that there is something inexpressibly shameful about the idea that we should all just sit here and put up with it.
That our response to the world is “well, that’s the way it is, and that’s the way I am, and I might as well not bother trying to change it.”
To Lymaree, the “body acceptance movement” is about talking people out of starving themselves and getting liposuction every two years.
To me, the “body acceptance movement” is that guy who weighed 1,000 pounds getting the roof of his house cut off so that he could be airlifted out the top of it to get to the hospital.
But either way, being human is about NOT accepting that things are just what they are. It’s about NOT being “comfortable” all the time because, hey, we’re just another animal and nothing more can or should be required of us but just being.
And that brings me back to Dating Naked and the people who appear in it.
One of the things I think is required of us is to behave AS human beings, and not as “just another animal.”
Clothing our nakedness is both practical and symbolic.
It is practical because, yes, it does get cold in Finland in the winter, and even in Florida.
And too much sun isn’t necessarily all that physically pleasant, either.
It is symbolic because it is one of the ways in which we distinguish ourselves as NOT “just another animal,” and in doing so show respect for ourselves and each other.
Going on television in front of millions of people stark naked is not about “accepting your body.”
It’s about rejecting your body as an actually human body.
It’s about defining yourself down not only to less than you are, but to less than you’re supposed to be.
And yes, part of that is that definitely that most of us will never even approximate physical perfection.
No, that doesn’t mean that we should never get naked.
It does mean that we should restrict the revelation of our nakedness to people we can trust not just to accept the imperfction of it, but to treasure it.
And, trust me, that won’t be a standard to be met among a million five television viewers.
Showing up on television for a first date naked says we do not respect ourselves enough to protect our vulnerable, and we don’t have enough respect for anybody else to present ourselves at our best for them.
It’s like showing up at your interview at a law firm with dirty hair, grime under your fingernails, torn jeans and a T-shirt covered with mustard stains.
It was one of those odd coincidences. I was reading the comments for the last blog yesterday while I was watching a retrospective on the Apollo 11 moon landing–yesterday was 45 years since we first walked on the moon.
If the two things seem to have nothing to do with each other, give me a minute. Because to me, they’re two sides of the same situation.
Although, I’ll admit, only one side of that seems to me to be a problem.
Someone said that there was no point in striving to meet an impossible standard–and that attempting to do such a thing might even be harmful.
The answer given was “trying to be taller,” which, of course, would be both useless and a waste of time.
But I contend that the example is not pertinent, and the premise is very, very wrong.
1) In the first place, no ideal is achievable. That’s why it’s an ideal.
This history of civilization–of all civilizations, inclusive–is the history of the human race’s war against the inevitable: against imperfection, and decay, and death.
Of course, none of these things is achievable, as far as we know.
But that really is irrelevant. The attempt to overcome those things, the will to perfection at any cost, gets us everything we value and most of what we take for granted in “modern’ societies.
It gets us vaccines and moon flights and wheat that feeds twenty times as many people as the old kind and Homer singing about Hector slain and indoor plumbing and the perfect curve of the David’s forehead. It gets us John Donne and Charlie Parker. It gets us a world where we spend our time fretting that our poor people are too fat.
Sometimes I think I’m the only person left on earth who understands how completely bizarre that is.
So no, I don’t think it’s pointless to aspire to an ideal whose standard we can never meet.
2) For all the talk about what one “culture” or “society” or another considers beautiful, one of the stranger realities of human existence is just how narrow our standards of beauty–male as well as female–really are.
We do this, I think, because we tend to confuse beauty with two things that are somewhat related, but not nearly the same thing: fashion, and sexual desirability.
Fashion is various and changes constantly. The rule there is “let me show how I’m doing something new that is so expensive it proves I’m richer than you are.”
In societies with more scope, there are sometimes subcultures whose standard of fashion is something that proves that they’re YOUNGER than you.
The principle thing to remember about fashion is that, unless you’re dealing with the younger thing, it can be bought.
Sexual desirability runs on an emotional engine that has little to do with looks per se and everything to do with biology.
Most of us are primed to want sex, at least when we’re young, and we are drawn to a wide variety of types and personalities.
But wanting to have sex with somebody, even a strong sexual attraction to somebody, is not the same as finding that person beautiful.
And there are more cases than anybody can count of people, and especially women, with nothing special in the way of beauty at all who still scorch the landscape when it comes to sexual partners.
3) Beauty–as opposed to attractiveness–is something colder and more abstract. It’s also something like a force of nature.
And it never lasts.
Physical perfection is achievable in human beings only in the short run.
As soon as the first signs of death and decay appear–the first small wrinkles in women, the first atrophying of muscle mass in men–the game is over. The perfect is, by definition, eternal. The temporary lacks perfection because it is temporary.
This is not to say that people who begin as beautiful can’t end up as very good looking. Some beautiful people fall into ruin, but others just go on looking great, if without the incredible pull they had in their youth.
Witness Maria Schell.
4) The preference for youth, especially in women, is almost certainly biological.
At the core of each and every one of us is a biological imperative that says: be fruitful and mulitply.
Nature wants us to multiply A lot. And women reach the end of their childbearing years a lot earlier than men.
Lymaree’s observation that “society” says the standard of beauty is perpetual sexual attraction is wrong on two counts. It’s not a standard of beauty. And it’s not society that has erected it.
Like it or not, in every human society everywhere, women past menopause will be the least honored members.
What seem to be exceptions to this rule are actually deliberate and carefully devised attempts to “fix” the problem of middle aged women in one manner or another–and those fixes never more than half work.
We live now, however, in a society where the fixes have all broken down, to be replaced by an emphasis on equality of opportunity in business, academia, government and the professions.
That’s a fix, too, and like all the other fixes, it only half works.
In spite of all that, the fixes are the good news–they’re part of that thing where we don’t accept ourselves as just another animal, but insist on fighting the inevitable.
But half working being what it is, we end up with Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court and bouncy little blondes analyzing the government while clueless on all the cable news stations.
6) I think the real issue here is the fear of many women that to get older–to no longer be sexually attractive–is to become invisible, unloved, alone.
And that’s not a baseless fear. A woman can be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but it’s a status she has to win, and not everybody can win it. In fact, the vast majority of women can’t win it.
What’s more, the traditional hedge against aging–having a large family committed to your welfare–is in direct conflict with earning a place in the professional world that will guarantee you recognition on your own.
Large families have become so unusual that there is very little accommodation for them. And they’ve become so prohibitively expensive, it’s hard to know how they’d get on even there were such accommodations.
But the important thing here is that this problem cannot be solved by “body acceptance” or any of the other fashionable “social” movements that crop up here and there.
The fact that you accept your body does not mean that anybody else will, and it does nothing to change the landscape of the social world into one that asks other things from people than the way they look.
7) I agree that the kind of people who likely end up on Dating Naked do not understand the word “human” as I’ve used it, or even realize that there is that sense of “human” to be.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t understand it.
And that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t understand it.
To not understand–to live the way they live now–is to hit 40 and fall off a cliff.
One of the things that happens to me sometimes is that I get so tired, I can’t get myself to move even though moving would definitely do me good.
That happened to me a couple of nights ago, on the same day I had the terrible headache, and it resulted in what it usually does: after dinner, being completely exhausted, I sat down on the love seat and flipped channels.
Looking for God only knows what, or nothing. Nothing is probably closer to the truth.
What usually happens to me in cases like that is that I flip until I’m staring at the walls, and then I go to bed.
Every once in a while, though, I stumble onto something that attracts my attention, and the day before yesterday, or whenever it was, was one of those.
What I stumbled on was an episode of a new reality show airing on VH1, the rock and rap music station rival to MTV.
This show is called Dating Naked, and it’s about sending newly introduced couples on dates–you guessed it–naked.
Now, there is a lot that could be said here about this particular phenomenon, at least once I got my jaw up off the floor.
There is a very deep seated part of me that is astonished anybody exists out there with so little sense of self that they could expose themselves in that way. I felt the same after reports that Paris Hilton was flashing her vagina to photographers and she walked down the red carpet.
But for the moment I want to get to something else.
Once I’d watched about five minutes of this thing, I posted about it on FB, and also noted that the people in the show were…how to say this?…not very attractive.
This is largely the truth about the people who appear in reality shows of the more embarrassing kind. The casts of Jersey Shore, Party Down South and that kind of thing tend to be personally obnoxious, bone deep stupid, and physically–sort of lumpish.
Either that, or the kind of skinny usually associated with Depression-era photojournalism.
What interested me is that somebody commented by saying that nudism generally was supposed to be “about body acceptance,” and that stopped me dead.
Let me start with a disclaimer.
I understand that there are people out there in the world who have problems with what is fashionably called “body image.” They obsess about their weight. They starve themselves down to 40 pounds and a heart attack. They get multiple plastic surgeries.
People like that are doing themselves harm, and they do indeed need to “accept” themselves more.
And even people without these obsessions ought to at least be onto themselves–to know what they are, and to be able to live with it.
But all this concentration on the neurotics of body image has resulted in a society-wide drive to convince people that they ought to love themselves “just the way they are,” as if feeling satisfied with yourself and in no way compelled to live up to any standard were the highest possible achievement, next to which nothing is necessary.
Let’s acknowledge something true.
Almost nobody looks good naked.
That, far more than warmth or protection from the elements, is why we have clothes.
It is a testament to the power of sex that it can overwhelm any aesthetic sense anybody has ever had, but we are still left with the reality that most men and women lure each other into bed with make up and costume.
The aesthetics of the human body, however, are like all aesthetics everywhere: they’re a counsel of perfection. They are about what we ought to strive to be, not what we necessarily can be, and certainly not what we are.
Even fashion models and actors, people professionally concerned with embodying the ideal, rarely actually embody it.
And when they do embody it at the beginning of their careers, they rarely do by the end.
What’s more important is that they never embody it unless they work at it very hard.
It was the luck of the draw that made it possible for Chris Hemsworth to look like Chris Hemsworth, but he only actually looks like Chris Hemsworth by making a lot of trips to the gym and being very careful about what goes down his throat.
For me, one of the hallmarks of a civilization–of all civilizations–one of the ways we know that what we are looking at IS a civilization, and not just a culture in the anthropological sense, is this business of defining ideals above and beyond what just “comes naturally,” and of insisting that men and women live up to those ideals as far as they can.
Civilization is not about comfort and acceptance, but about discomfort and frustration–about knowing that we fall short of what we should be.
And that until we do as much as we can to be what we ought to be, we are not really living a human life.
The people on Dating Naked seem to me to have abandoned their humanity in any meaningful sense.
They bring nothing to the project of being human.
To the extent that they capture our attention at all, it is as that “human animal” so beloved of the New Atheists–no better than any other species on the planet, nothing special, nothing to see here that couldn’t be seen in an ant colony or a lion pride.
Except that there is something that can be seen, if people choose to create it–and it is a choice.
There’s “The Kreutzer Sonata (Beethoven)” and Michelangelo’s David, the poetry of John Donne and the plays of Shakespeare, the moon landing and vaccines for polio and antibiotics and the Empire State Building and the Taj Mahal.
Yes, we should treat our animals better, but they’ll only survive cancer or the next ice age if we step in to help them.
There is something that is just so damned small about the vision of life and humanness offered up in Dating Naked, never mind the sheer ugliness of the physical aspects of people who firmly believe that being human requires no effort on their part at all.
Or maybe a little–the amount it takes to put in a few piercings and tattoos, most of which start to sag when the skin does, which looks…
If the purpose of things like this is to get us to accept ourselves as we are, I think I’m against them.
As far as I can tell, all the good in the world has come from the people who refuse to accept themselves that way, and insist on doing better, and doing more.
I usually think it’s a very bad sign when I come off writing with a screaming awful headache, and here I am sitting at the computer at the end of the morning with a screaming awful headache.
What’s more, I just went out and put Beethoven on the player, and not just any Beethoven, but Beethoven with pianos.
Have I mentioned before that I really don’t like the sound of the piano?
I make an exception for Thelonius Monk, but what’s playing isn’t Thelonius Monk, it’s “The Kreutzer Sonata.”
I’m very fond of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” but–head pounding; piano pounding.
I’m in a mood.
I’d like you to remember that I’m in a mood before you read what follows, because I’m not really okay with being yelled at.
And some of you are going to want to yell.
I am almost at the end of Tolkein’s The Two Towers, the second part of my foray into reading all of The Lord of the Rings this summer.
All of the people I’m close to who really love Tolkein say that this is their favorite book in the trilogy.
What’s more, all of them feel that this book is the one Peter Jackson got absolutely wrong in the movies, although they didn’t all have the same reasons for feeling that.
One of them told me that, in the book, Sarumon was not a Big Evil Presence but a sort of bureaucratic Nurse Ratched. One of them told me that the Ents had been absolutely defamed.
I like the Ents. The Ents were my favorite part of this book. I hope they find the Entwives.
I have no idea where my other friend got the idea that the Sarumon of the book was more of a bureaucratic dictator than the standard Evil Presence of the movie. Evil Presence seems to me to be exactly what he is in the book, and I’ve come away thinking that Jackson got that part exactly right.
But what really got to me was this–what do people see in this thing?
People have battles. Then they sit around talking about people having battles. Most of the battles they talk about happened a long time ago, and are described in language that sounds to me half faux-Shakespeare and half American Movie Indian circa 1935.
Fortunately for the way I read books, the faux-language stuff in restricted to dialogue and doesn’t last very long. The rest of the book feels very well written.
But–battles? Really? Why?
Before you all start yelling at once–and I know there is going to be yelling–I do understand that I am in the minority here.
Most people seem to find battles very exciting, and to want lots and lots of them, in movies and in books.
It’s been a very long time since either of my children hauled me off to see a movie, but when they did those movies almost always contained long battle scenes with lots of explosions and loud noises and death and destruction.
They took me to Fellowship of the Ring three times.
And, like I said, I’m not unaware that this is what everybody else in the world but me seems to want.
Movies and books with battle and other action scenes make a lot of money, certainly a lot more money than the kind of thing I like.
If I were a studio exec, looking for a movie project that would not bankrupt my studio, I’d defintely be on the look out for something with lots of action in it, and not for this season’s version of Remains of the Day.
And, by the way, there’s a movie that’s better than its book.
But back to the point.
At base, my problem is that I do not understand what people find interesting in action scenes.
Any kind of action scenes. Battles are actually better than a lot of action scenes, in that they tend to be more coherent. But–
In other words, action scenes–in books as in movies–always seem to me to be like sports.
There is some kind of arbitrary goal, defined at the beginning. Everybody spends the next x amount of time running around furiously to achieve this goal, and the person who achieves it first “wins.”
Then my FB news feed is full of people proclaiming the enduring awesomeness of the Cubs or the Packers.
I know there are situations in the real world where I would be more attentive and care more about the outcome of physical contests.
If my country was actually being attacked, I’d find it both important and interesting to know the outcome of the battle.
What it comes down to, I think, is that I don’t find such things intrinsically interesting.
If I’ve got actualy skin in the game, I will definitely find it all very compelling.
But if I don’t, I don’t see what there is about it I should care about.
And I especially don’t understand why I should care about the details.
It’s important to the story to know that Napoleon fails to take Moscow?
Tell me that Napoleon fails to take Moscow and be done with it.
Don’t force me through page after page of prose about who took a bullet here and who had his horse shot out from under him there, and how many yards into allied territory the enemy advanced before being forced back.
It’s that kind of thing that has stopped me from reading War and Peace. In spite of a near absolute commitment to finishing every book I start, I get to the first of the Napoleonic battles in that one and my eyes glaze over.
It’s also why I read my way through the big battle scene episodes of Band of Brothers, one of my favorite video productions ever.
Yes, it is very important that we won the Battle of the Bulge, but I don’t understand why, in order to know that, I have to sit through twenty minutes of big explody noises and people screaming.
A military strategist may need that twenty minutes, but I really don’t.
Of course, as I’ve said, my impatience with this sort of thing is definitely a minority taste.
There is definitely something about battles–maybe I should say physical contests–that draws virtually everybody else’s attention.
And far fewer people find their attention drawn to the kind of thing that fascinates me.
If I was picking the projects for a movie studio, we’d go broke.
But I wish I understood what it is people are looking at when they watch these kinds of things, what they find in them that makes them excited and that feels important.
Because to me, it’s all like that thing from Shakespeare.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Let me ask the kind of question that probably has no answer, and whose result is usually just getting everybody annoyed.
Is there such a thing as an “authentic culture?” And if there is, is everything in that culture equally “authentic?”
I’m asking the question because, after I posted the blog yesterday, there was a development on the matter of refugee children. At least, it was a development in my state, which is Connecticut.
Practically the first story billboarded on one of our local TV news programs was a report about how our Governor, Dannel Malloy, had turned down a request by the Obama administration to house 2000 of the refugee/border children at the old Southbury Training School.
Now, there were some practical considerations happening here. STS was built in, I think, the early 20th century as a place to warehouse adults with what was then called “mental feebleness.”
It’s a beautiful place, even now, at least from the outside: a 1500 acre campus with lots of those academic brick buildings with columns most of us remember from the college movies of the 40s and 5os.
It might even be sort of a fit, since it was built to house 2000 people.
These days, there are fewer than 700 people there as regular residents. We don’t institutionalize people with “special needs” anymore, unless we have no choice.
Part of the rest of the property is used by the state Agriculture Department, I’m not sure for what.
Even so, the majority of the space is unused, and there would at least theoretically be enough space to put in a chunk of the border children awaiting their hearings and with nowhere else to go.
It’s only theoretical because the space is in very, very, very bad repair. Part of the deal the Obama administration offered was all the money it would take to fix the thing up as fast as possible.
Considering the state of STS, I wonder if anybody in the Obama administration had actually looked at it. I know the Extreme Home Makeover people can build an enormous house in a week, but this thing would have taken…well, let’s just say more than a week. Even at full tilt boogie.
When WTNH caught up with Dannel Malloy, however, practical considerations didn’t seem to be what was on his mind.
He made a perfunctory nod in the direction of the mess the place was in and state procedures for determining secondary uses for state property, but mostly he was just plain annoyed.
He was annoyed that WTNH had discovered the story and reported it–the Obama administration offer had come a few weeks ago and been kept out of the public eye until now.
He was annoyed that the Obama administration had ever made the suggestion in the first place, thereby putting him in a politically impossible position right before a re-election campaign in which he will face the same opponent he did last time. That race ended so close, it was a miracle the Republican didn’t call for a recount, or even a rerun.
It’s difficult to understand just how impossible that political position is unless you also understand Connecticut.
“This really isn’t our problem,” the Governor said.
I don’t think that’s actually true, but I think I know where he was coming from.
To the extent that there was supposed to be a political issue at all, it was supposed to be a nice, easy trope for Democrats to bash heartless, meanspirited Republicans. Democrats would gladly take in the border children, if only those nasty Republicans would let them.
That worked until a Democratic Governor of a heavily Democratic state got the chance to take in the border children–and knew that he didn’t dare do it.
Let me clear up a couple of things here, so that we do not get distracted.
Connecticut is a blue state. If it’s not the bluest state in the country, it’s second after Massachusetts.
We’re not dealing with the Tea Party here, or with the religious right. This is the home base of the RINO, Establishment Republicans who are largely VERY liberal on social issues, pro-business but not pro-life.
Although Malloy’s challenger is a Republican, that Republican could probably use Malloy’s refusal to take in the border children against him.
Establishment Republicans are all for immigration reform, pathways to citizenship and all the rest of it.
Granted, they’re in favor of those things because lots of unskilled workers flowing into the country descreases labor costs mightily, but they’re still for them.
So Dannel Malloy didn’t turn away the border children because he thought the Republicans would use it against him if he took them.
Dannel Malloy turned away the border children because he thought that if he took them, the Democrats would hold it against him.
Which is how we get to what is authentic in an “authentic culture,” and why these kids never had a chance in hell of a smooth ride into the country no matter what.
Let me clear away, first, some of the standard debris is these kinds of cases.
That is, the general problems everybody is worried about, even if they won’t say so.
The first of these is the fear of disease. Whenever anybody brings that up, the pack of everybody starts crying racism! xenophobia! nativism!
But the worry is neither racist nor stupid. It’s the result of the fact that there really is diversity among cultures in this world.
Consider the fact that we’ve had mini-epidemics of measles in two separate states this year, caused almost certainly by the decisions of more and more families not to have their children vaccinated.
The border children are coming from countries where vacination, if it is available at all, is available only to the very rich.
One of the first things the border authorities do when they bring these kids into custody is to vaccinate them–and then they sit back and pray a lot, because the worry is not measles, it’s polio.
And then there are the things that can’t be vaccinated for.
It is not racism, or “hate,” to be afraid that your child might die of diseases your own culture eradicated through a lot of hard work and tough public health measures.
You don’t achieve a polio-free society by waking up one morning and sticking a bunch of needles into a bunch of yarns.
It can take generations to wipe out any particular disease, and to keep that disease wiped out takes at least some vigilance.
As long as that disease still exists anywhere in the world, uncontrolled immigration will pose at least something of a problem on the disease front.
How much depends on a lot of different factors, but there’s always a risk.
And the more chaotic and anarchic the immigration is, the higher your risk is going to be.
The immigration situation of the border children isn’t just anarchic, it’s insane. The number of children now crossing the border is so large that it is overwhelming not only the border patrol and the official presence of border control personnel, but entire communities.
There are small local communities throughout the Southwest that can no longer use their own community hospitals and health care clinics, because, with first priority going to the sickest–and rightly going to the sickest–illegal immigrants edge out local residents in the triage line for emergency care.
This is not necessarily an impossible situation to fix under normal conditions, even under what passed for normal conditions before the big influx of children started last October.
But what’s happened since October is that the problem has become so acute it’s been almost impossible to handle.
As a result, everybody is in a hurry, so much of a hurry that a lot of things are (inevitably) beginning to fall through the cracks.
Dannel Malloy is not an idiot, and I don’t think he’s a hard hearted jerk, either.
I think he just realizes that the statistics say somebody is going to end up getting sick somewhere, and if the first case of polio shows up on his watch, Democrats will be no more forgiving than Republicans.
But these are general issues. Almost everybody feels the same way, as I said, even if they don’t say so out loud. Democrat or Republican, if you say okay to the border children in your state, and one of them comes down with polio, and that polio spreads to even a single child in the population at large–you’re going to be toast.
Democrats have another problem as Democrats that Republicans don’t have to worry about.
And that is this: to what extant are they willing, or even able, to accommodate an influx of large numbers of people from cultures that hate and despise any manifestation of homosexuality anywhere, by anyone?
And it’s going to be with gay rights that the culture class is going to come.
On almost any other of the social issues, there is room to maneuver–Central and South American migrants are pro-life, but only on the weakest possible level. They won’t bother you about it if you don’t bother them. They see nothing wrong with praying in school, but don’t really care if they don’t.
But these are cultures that see homosexuality (especially in men) as thoroughly contemptible and entirely deserving of violence. If a gay man gets beaten up on the street, or even killed, for being too obviously gay–well, it’s just what he deserved, and he should have known not to behave that way around decent people.
A number of national gay rights groups out there have recently made me very happy by starting to insist that gay rights have to mean more than rights for gay people in Los Angeles. They want an end to the death penalty for homosexuality in Muslim countries and the more than casual violence against gay people almost everywhere else.
And that’s a good thing, but we’re at a situation where we can’t have everything at once.
A democratic society that accepts tens of thousands–hell, millions–of people first into its territory and then onto its voting rolls is going to have to listen to the way those people feel and think.
And, in this democratic society at this moment, it’s also going to have to “respect” their “authentic culture.”
Which brings us ALL the way back to where I started.
Is the anti-gay violence of places like Guatamala and Honduras part of their “authentic culture”?
Is being accepting of homosexuality and observing the civil rights of gay men and women to marry, to be openly expressive of their identity in public spaces, part of OUR “authentic culture:?
Are some “authentic cultures” more authentic than others?
At this point I am tempted to go with the one thing I can say I have always heartily agreed with Bill Maher about: cultures where women can drive and go to school and gay people can be openly gay without fear are better than societies that do otherwise, and if there’s a conflict between ours and yours, then ours is right and yours is going to have to give way.
He said all that in a rant after 9/11, and for a while I absolutely loved him for it.
Unfortunately, not much of anybody else did.
So we now find ourselves in a situation where the Republicans can’t accept the border children out of nativist concerns they never quite articulate, and the Democrats can’t accept the border children out of concerns they don’t even let themselves think about–
So there may be something we can do for these children, but we aren’t going to do it.
I’ve spent the last week or so watching all the stories of the “children on the border,” and very carefully not saying anything about it.
This is mostly because I don’t think anything can be said that will actually be listened to.
“Children on the border” has become our flavor of the month. The game lines have been drawn between those with “compassion” and the “haters” who are being “mean to children.”
As a scenario, it lacks coherence.
The emotional hysteria hides a very important fact: it’s not just the Meanie Republicans who are declaring that all the children have to be sent back home. It’s also the Obama administration.
Whatever the Obama administration may end up actually doing about the border children, what it’s saying is that it’s going to pack them all up and send them home.
One of the things that would be a good idea is for everybody to stop and think about why that may be the case.
And, to give them credit, some of my liberal friends do manage to notice this, usually just before they post another FB status wondering why we’re all being such sons of bitches.
So let me try to spell it out.
One of the things all the emotional language manages to obscure is the actual situation on the ground, which is nothing like the “six year olds are being kept in detention centers and mean people don’t want them to enter the country” dicotomy.
There are certainly six year olds, and the detention centers are awful. But most of the children are older, and what looks like a fair number of them seem to be in early puberty.
And that matters.
Not because older children are more likely to be violent or criminal. There is certainly some of that, but there is some of that in any group of adolescent males.
It’s the girls who give me pause in this mess, and it’s the girls who should give you pause, too.
Somebody said on FB that some of these girls show up at the border having been victims of sexual assault, and Robert Reich declared that these children were fleeing the drug war we’ve created.
In the long run, the children may be fleeing the cartels. In the short run, their parents are paying them.
That’s not because their parents are bad people, but because in these countries, no business gets done, of any kind, without the cartels’ permission.
And there’s a lot of money to be made–a lot–in the creation of refugees.
And there’s other things to be made, too.
First the “coyotes” charge the families nearly everything they have to take the kid’s north.
Then they charge a little extra. Why not? The parents are desperate. A little short term pain may be worth it if the long term is a life in the US, an education (any education), a chance for the future.
So when the coyote says–sweeten it up, your daughter’s 13, it’s not parental depravity that sometimes says yes.
And even if the parents don’t say yes, once the kid is in the hands of the coyotes, there’s no way to protect a child.
There’s no way to protect a child from the people she meets along the way, coyotes and their guards and other people in the packed-solid box cars the kids travel in along with lots of other people, including older men just as desperate as they are.
Then, when the kids get to the US, it’s not necessarily (or even usually) a safe haven.
There are the dentention centers, yes, but there’s sometimes far worse.
The number of children arriving at the border has increased tenfold in the past five years. We weren’t expecting it, and we don’t have the structures in place to deal with it.
By law, minors are supposed to be released to family members in the US (if they have them) while awaiting hearings on their refugee status.
And many of these children seem to have such relatives–or, at least, we think they do.
We don’t have the resources to check out the claims of family relationships. And every year, hundreds of kids sent to “relatives” just disappear off the face of the earth.
There have been rumors for years, long before the present crisis, that some of the kids who disappear are being sold into sexual slavery,which is why the coyotes brought them into the country in the first place.
I understand the impulse to say that we should just take in these kids, that it’s cruel to send them back to their home countries, that the only reason anybody would want to deport them is “hate.”
The problem is that if you let them in, there will be more, more trafficked girls, more rape victims in boxcars, more dead kids in boxcars and along railroad tracks, dead from malnutrition or communicable diseases or because they’ve been murdered for what little they had.
“Just let them in” is not going to help these children in any way. It’s collaboration with a massive project in human trafficking that will only get bigger the longer it is successful.
The kids who die on the trains, the kids who make it into the country only to be put to use as prostitutes, deserve our protection, too, and they can’t have it as long as their victimizers are successful in doing what they promise–get the kid into the States, at any cost.
To the parents and to the kids.
The emotional demands that we should let in all the children now and if we don’t we have no compassion are like those ill-conceived attempts a few years ago to buy slaves and then free them. The few slaves who were freed were better off, but thousands of other people became enslaved who would not have been, because well-intentioned idiots had created a much more lucrative market for slaves.
This doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, find a way to make the lives of these children better.
It does mean that if we “let them all in right now,” we’ll only make the lives of thousands of other children progressively worse.
The kids who die on the trains, the kids who are raped and exploited there, are out of sight and out of mind.
They shouldn’t be.
Yesterday was my birthday, and as these things go, I had a Grand Plan about what to do with it.
The blog part of the Grand Plan had to do with talking about a book I love that I love just because I love it, if that makes any sense.
I have no sensible reason anywhere for why I as some enamored of this thing. It isn’t any of my usual genres, fiction or nonfiction. It’s not political in any way. It doesn’t help me fill in the gaps in intellectual history I’m always trying to correct for.
It just is.
And so I brought it down to the office and set myself up to do a post yesterday and…
And I had one of those nights where I came awake at two o’clock in the morning and just couldn’t get back to sleep. In this case, it was a night filled with recalcitrant cats, summer quilts that departed for the nether reaches of the bedroom whenever I tried to turn over, and people who insisted on playing music loud enough to be heard in spite of the ear thingies.
I ended up staggering downstairs in what was still the middle of the night, unable to think through a post, never mind write one.
I was better in the afternoon, mostly because I sat down on the love seat after lunch and fell asleep for two hours, but by then there was a birthday cake the size of Montana and people who wanted to sing at me.
Well, that was then and this is now, and I’ve got my Monday morning work done. I’m even what could reasonably be called conscious.
So let’s go here:
The book is called A Mediterranean Feast: The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs, with More than 500 Recipes.
Now, note: I said this wasn’t part of any of the genres I usually went in for, and that’s true, but it needs a qualifier.
There was a time in my life when I was an avid collector of cookbooks, and those cookbooks still lie all over my house in stacks and boxes.
Those cookbooks, however, were not like this one, which is not strictly a cookbook.
What I went in for when I collected cookbooks was what Bill would have called “food porn,” big glossy things with hundreds of photographs of food looking impossibly good.
I liked that kind of thing in spite of the fact that I had spent about a year working a side job as an assistant for a photographer who specialized in food articles, and I know everything and more about why you wouldn’t want to eat any of the food you see in magazine articles.
A lot of it would kill you, for one thing.
At any rate, this book is not like those books.
It has no photographs. It doesn’t even have any line drawings.
The author, Clifford A. Wright, is described as “a cook, food writer and research scholar specializing in the cuisines of the Mediterranean,” and that last bit about being a “research scholar” seems to be what really matters to him. He’s got a master’s degree and part of a doctorate from the New School in philosophy, and he’s a “center affiliate of the Gustav E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles.”
In other words, he’s more an academic writing about food than he is a food writer as it’s normally understood. He may have recipes, but he also has a lot of information.
And it’s very interesting information, the kind of information I didn’t realize existed about food.
I don’t suppose there’s anything odd about the fact that this kind of information exists. It’s just that I didn’t think of it before I saw this.
There are sections on the derivation of ingredients, on the spice trade, on climate and climate shifts, on food in war and peace, on food as a class marker.
Reading this book was, in a way, an awful lot like discovering what went on in the Ag Department at Michigan State.
I have a very healthy respect for Ag Departments these days, although if you’d asked me about them before I went out to the Midwest, I’d probably have laughed.
It was one of those cases where I just didn’t know what there was to know, and because I didn’t I thought it was negligible.
It turns out there is a lot to know about how wheat grows and which flowers will do what when and what you can feed pigs.
And it turns out that there is a lot to know about food and cooking and why and how people did it and what it started as and what it developed into.
And none of it has to do with neoPuritan nonsense about how we should all realize we’re not living on the pampas anymore before we get as fat as pigs and sink into the landscape.
Sometimes I write on this blog about knowledge for its own sake, about wanting to know just because you want to know and not because you see any immediate purpose for the knowledge.
Well, this is me wanting to know just to know.
I don’t doubt that there is somebody somewhere for whom this particular knowledge is utilitarian.
The fact is that this knowledge is not utilitarian for me, but I love knowing it.
The book has been out for years now, and for all I know may be out of print.
But it’s a very good book, the chapters can be read as articles on their own if you’d rather not do the whole 692 pages at a single clip, there’s a good glossary and a list of places to get unusual ingredients if you want to try some of the recipes, and the recipes do very nicely when you make them.
So, for what it’s worth, this is the kind of thing I do for fun.
I am beginning to think that there must be some cosmic reason why so many of the things I start out thinking will be easy to write end up in such a muddle.
Muddled I am, however, and the only excuse I can think of is that there must be some kind of point at the end of all this.
Let’s start with this link
The link goes to a story about the town of Salem, Massachusetts and a small local Christian institution called Gordon College.
For some years now, Gordon College has rented the town of Salem’s Town Hall and also maintained a town museum dedicated to the history of the witch trials.
Everybody was very happy with everybody else until Obama announced his intention of making an executive offer that would forbid any federal contractor to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Gordon College–which is evangelical enough to have a code of conduct that could have done duty in 1835–applied for an exemption from this impending executive order.
Now there are a number of issues here, not least of which is the legal one.
When I first read this story, I thought the legal issue was simple–the 14th amendment grants equal protection. Therefore government entities cannot discriminate, even if private ones can.
On second look, however, I’m not so sure The 14th amendment does grant equal protection, but it grants it on a very specific set of things that does not include sexual orientation. It doesn’t even include sex.
It is therefore entirely possible that if Gordon College decided to file a law suit about this, they would win. The 14th DOES grant equal protection to religion.
As fascinating as all that is, however, what really bugs me about this story comes near the end of the letter from Salem’s mayor, begging the administration of Gordon College to realize how “hurtful” the Code of Conduct is, and not just to the LGBT “community.”
Have I done my rant on how much I hate the word “community”?
Not as much as I hate the word “appropriate,” but one thing at a time.
At any rate, what struck me was the assumption that the “hurtfulness” of ideas is the only basis on which we need to judge them–that beliefs and behavior should be judged first, foremost, and without compromise by whether or not they make other people feel bad.
I’m not going into a song and dance here about how we don’t really mean that all behavior should be judged on whether or not it is “hurtful,” only that some behavior in some circumstances should be.
We would not be having this conversation if Gordon College had declared that the behavior of pedophiles was sinful and unacceptable.
Which, of course, they have. It just wasn’t the only thing they declared sinful and unacceptable.
As far as I can figure out, Gordon College adheres to a fairly standard Christian understanding of the nature of human beings and the nature of human sexuality.
The nature of human beings is fallen. Human beings have a tendency to love evil, and to do it, because the fall of Adam gave them a propensity to sin. In sin is death.
But human beings are something else–they’re made in the image of God, and they’re called upon to realize that image as far as they are able and with as much grace as God will give them.
There are significant differences between the way Protestants and Catholics view this process, but that’s less important here than the fact of it.
We are, as Thomas Aquinas once said, creatures between beasts and angels. Our job is to fight against the beast in ourselves as far as we are able, and to strive always to be like the angels.
Sex is, by definition, part of the beast in us.
In heaven, we will be neither male nor female. We will not be taken or given in marriage.
Here on earth, sex is a necessary evil–we can’t do without it altogether, because we have been told to go forth and multiply unto the end of the world.
But that does not make sex any less part of the bestial side of ourselves. We need to be careful of it. We need to use it properly and otherwise not to use it at all.
Properly, sex is for procreation. Period. If we have sex for any other reason, it is sinful and wrong.
Any other purpose.
During the whole Duck Dynasty-Phil Robertson thing, I was amused to see writer after writer decry the fact that Robertson had compared gay sex with bestiality.
And it was true. He had compared gay sex to beastiality.
The problem was, he had also compared STRAIGHT sex to bestiality, if it occurred outside a consecrated Christian marriage.
In practice, of course, even the most conservative Christian denominations these days amend this line of thinking to “all sex is bestiality unless it takes place in a proper marriage.”
And Pope John Paul II took that idea and elaborated it considerably in what is called his “theology of the body.”
But push comes to shove, that’s where we’re at–sex is for marriage only, marriage is for procreation, and everything else is the same as screwing a chicken.
We can get into a lot of different arguments about this sort of thing, but let’s get one out of the way at the outset.
It’s really NOT safe to try the tack of “well, I’ve looked in the Bible, and it doesn’t say anything about this.”
It’s true that the New Testament says nothing about abortion or homosexuality, but it’s ALSO true that one of the reasons Christianity spread as fast as it did throughout the Roman world was that it vigorously opposed both from its beginnings.
The issue here is something much simpler.
You can like the way these people think or not, but it’s a) possible to figure out what they’re saying and b) possible to figure out WHY.
That is, whether I like what they have to say about sex or not, whether I agree with what they have to say about sex or not, I know where it’s coming from. I know the basis on which they rest their judgment.
With the mayor, I’m left completely without even an intimation of a clue.
Obviously, she thinks behavior is wrong if it’s “hurtful” and “offensive,” at least to some people.
Why is that a value I, or anybody else, should hold?
We live in a world of contested moral systems.
Contested moral systems need to defend themselves on the basis of first principles, precisely because they are being contested.
Gordon College tells us that God has told them what to believe and how to behave, and it can point to two thousand years of Christian theology to back it up.
This does not mean they’re right, but it does mean that I can understand WHY these particular ideas and behavior are something I should follow and base my own judgments on.
The mayor’s letter gives me no idea why anybody would want to take “be nice” as a moral commitment.
And no, it’s not “obvious,” not by a long shot.
It’s not enough to explain THAT we should behave one way or the other.
You have to explain WHY–and by “why,” I don’t mean things like “because everybody will feel better” or “because more people will be happy.”
Because then you’d have to explain WHY everybody feeling better is a good thing.
Maybe the mayor of Salem needs Gordon College to teach her how to argue her own point.