Archive for December, 2014
So, it’s Sunday, and because it’s Sunday, I’m spending my morning trying very hard not to think of anything serious, and failing.
I’ve got The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Gustav Leonhardt, playing in the background, and Thomas Aquinas talking about Aristotle waiting on the loveseat, and I just–I don’t know.
Let me start by saying that this is going to get back to something contemporary, but first I want to highlight something I noticed in the Aquinas a couple of days ago.
If you go off today and buy a few modern books by modern philosophers talking about ethics and morality, you’ll find volume after volume that concerns itself with WHAT we should consider moral.
If by killing one person we can save five, what is the moral thing to do? If we know that a child we are about to give birth to will be born with severe illness or disability, are we morally obliged to give birth to him and care for him, or to abort him and save him a short life of pain?
These are the kinds of things modern moral philosophers spend their time thinking and writing and teaching about, and this is the kind of thing we think of moral philosophy being about.
This is not, however, what either Aristotle or Aquinas thought moral philosophy was about.
It would not be entirely true to say that Aquinas and Aristotle agreed on all the particulars of what a moral action was. There are a couple of places in Aquinas’s commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics that are almost funny. For instance–Aquinas’s attempt to prove that virginity and celibacy are a mean between two vice and not vices in themselves by being an extreme, the “too little” sex as opposed to the “too much,” each less worthy than “the right amount.”
In spite of that, however, neither Aquinas nor Aristotle feels any need to discuss IF some actions are moral and under what circumstances.
The general moral landscape is simply assumed to be everywhere evident to everybody. One of the reasons it was possible for Aquinas to “baptize” Aristotle is that, with the exception of a few squiffy places on the edges, everybody pretty much “knew” the difference between right and wrong.
And even the squiffy areas around the edges were fairly easily taken care of–if Aristotle and the agents didn’t realize that when they sacrificed to “secondary divine” powers they were worshipping demons, that was because the demonic nature of those entities was one of those things that could not be discovered by reason alone and needed revelation to point out.
Therefore, the ancients, not having access to a revelation that hadn’t yet occurred, could not be faulted for their worship, because they didn’t intend to worship evil but to give glory to God, and acted as best they were able to know.
Yes, I know. We don’t worry much about this stuff anymore.
My point here, though, is that there is a continuity in Western moral thought, one that lasted certainly well into the 20th century, at least among the vast majority of the people living in every Western culture.
I’m not talking here about specifics like, say, whether we should consider homsexual sex to be morally right or wrong, but about big ticket items like justice and truth, guilt and innocence.
Not only are there virtually no points of contention between Aquinas and Aristotle about these things, there are virtually no points of contention between anybody about these things. The same standards of justice and truth, guilt and innocence were used to excoriate Nazi behavior as had been used by Aristotle to excoriate the tyrants of his own time.
And even the people who wanted to be allowed to cheat–say, the fellow travelers and other Communists sympathizers of the years after 1917–assumed that the first necessity in their cheating was to hide what the Bolsheviks were actually doing, because everybody (including themselves) knew it was morally wrong. The fellow travelers had just decided that they needed to do wrong to get what they thought was a greater good.
At the same time, they experienced that cheat as shameful, and did their best to hide the reality of it from the rest of the world.
What is going on now, though, is something very different, and I find it difficult to figure out either how we got here or how anybody can think this way without having their head explode.
In one of the articles I’ve posted over the last few days on the Rolling Stone rape story and the Lena Dunham mess, a student at Oberlin College refused to allow a Breitbart reporter access to the files he needed to corroborate a portion of Dunham’s story by saying that at Oberlin they weren’t “so much into justice” as “supporting the victim.”
I mean, look at that for a minute, and tell me if it even qualifies as linear thought.
If the allegations are not true, there is no victim to support.
How do you “support the victim” unless you know who the victim is, or if there even is one?
This goes well beyond the common modern abomination of simply insisting on believing that all allegations must be true unless they are somehow proved not to be.
This is a declaration that the speaker inhabits an alternative universe where the real has become irrelevant.
I am fairly sure that the young woman who said these things does not actually believe what she seems to be saying she believes.
My guess is that she’s latched on to the less esoteric doctrine–the idea that all rape allegations must be true.
That is hardly something to celebrate, but at least its in the realm of the sane.
To declare that somebody is a victim even though they have not in fact been victimized is the sort of thing that makes doctors prescribe heavy duty meds.
Granted that bad thinking drives out good, and that this young woman had not only not be taught “critical thinking” or any other kind–how, exactly, did we get here?
The train of thought is almost instinctually wrongheaded.
It is not only wrong in a way that I don’t think any other culture has ever been wrong, it’s practically gibberish.
The problem is not that not enough people take rape seriously and so people who do have to insist on ideas and procedures that make it more possible for victims to prevail when they make accusations.
That’s a debatable issue, although the standards these people want are not the ones that anybody with half a brain could support.
The issue is a “moral” construct in which the most virtuous thing to do is to punish people who not only haven’t done anything wrong, but who haven’t done anything.
It’s like a morality made from quantum mechanics–things appear and disappear at random, without rhyme or reason.
It’s obvious from the text that this young woman thinks she is behaving morally.
In truth, she isn’t even behaving immorally.
It’s like you asked her how far it is to her house and she said,
At the moment, I’m sitting in this office desperately attempting to put the finishing touches on this final exam, so the students can read it beforehand, which they won’t do, even though they all say they want an A.
In the meantime, though, I’ve been watching the whole rape allegations mess, and it has been getting messier by the second.
In case you haven’t been paying as obsessively close attention to this thing as I have, there are actually three centers to this particular storm: the UVA thing, the Cosby thing, and this:
If I haven’t said anything about this so far, it’s because Lena Dunham, as a person, leaves me completely befuddled.
She apparently has a successful cable TV show about–well, about “girls.” I haven’t seen it, and the descriptions of it I’ve read don’t make me want to see it.
She’s also written a memoir for which she received a seven-figure advance. I have read some excerpts of that, and all I can say is that the damned thing seems bizarre to the point of…I don’t know what.
In one place, she seems to describe a set of incidences that happened when she was a small child and her sister was even smaller, where she performs a set of sexual acts on that sister that, these days, would be unambiguously labeled criminal rape.
It’s possible that I’ve gotten that all out of context, so we’ll leave it be for the moment. The l ink above concerns another possible incidence of rape, this time the rape of Lena Dunham herself by a college Republican named Barry while they were both at Oberlin College.
And, like the story of “Jackie” at UVA, the story is coming apart at the seams.
By now most of you must know that Rolling Stone has at least partially retracted its story about UVA, hemming and hawing a lot about how it turned out that “Jackie” wasn’t credible.
A number of commentators have pointed out that the fault in the story is not what “Jackie” said, but RS’s handling of it–that the blame falls not on “Jackie” but on the fact that RS’s editorial staff can’t tell the difference between journalism and pumpkin pie.
And that’s true enough–but I think it’s secondary to what is probably going on here.
I think RS is “throwing ‘Jackie’ under the bus’ (as one article put it), but to divert attention from something that is potentially much more series–not that “Jackie” fabricated a rape story, but that the RS reporter fabricated “Jackie.”
Before you start jumping up and down yelling “but people have talked to Jackie! People have talked to Jackie!”–one of the more egregious incidents of the Stephen Glass mess at The New Republic concerned its editor talking to the head of a firm called Jukt Micronics, thereby “corroborating” the story (“Hack Heaven”) that finally brought Glass and his fabrications down.
The problem was that there was no such firm as Jukt Micronics, and the man TNR’s editor was talking to was Stephen Glass’s brother, who had agreed to play pretend to try to save Stephen’s ass.
I think we’re about to see both these stories explode in a very spectacular way.
The Cosby thing I don’t think will work out as well, for Cosby or for us–not because I think the women accusing him are telling the truth, but because that whole thing is about money. The lawsuits have already started being filed, and that won’t end until they’ve bled the man dry.
Although want to note one thing–am I REALLY the only person who finds something creepy about a black man whose life is being destroyed by a bunch of white women claiming rape?
And given that that trope has history, shouldn’t we be even more diligent in demanding substantive evidence than we would be otherwise?
But what I always come back to is this–
You could say that people like administrators at colleges and universities or prosecutors or people at the DOE take up these claims because they’re looking for power.
You can’t say that about the people who MAKE the false claims–that is the people who claim to be victims.
And there are a lot of false claims out there, by no means mostly about rape.
In the last five years or so, there have been a slew of claims of racial hate crimes on college campuses that turned out to have been committed by the complaining “victim” his or herself.
And then there was the professor in Wisconsin who claimed to have been run off the road and threatened after he’d had a letter published in the local paper about the evils of religion.
By and large, the people who make these false complaints have no chance in hell of attaining power of any sort, and no chance in hell of getting Lena Dunham’s seven figure advance.
And that’s part of the reason why such people are usually taken seriously at the beginning–why would anybody do that if they weren’t going to get money and power from it?
One reason, of course, is that although these people do not get power or money, they do get lots and lots of attention, and it’s wrong to underestimate the need some people have to get other people to notice them.
But I think there are a couple of other things going on here that would make sense to pay attention to.
1) This is a perversion of Christianity, or possibly Christianity and Judaism.
Most societies do not valorize victims. Almost everywhere in the world but in the West, to be a victim is to be dishonored and contemptible.
Even when victims are pitied there’s no relief from the general opprobrium–pity is not a good thing to evoke from other people in societies where it is the stamp of your own failure and worthlessness.
For complicated reasons, we have taught a generation of people–and maybe more than one–that “victim” is a status to be aspired to, especially if you haven’t got much of anything else to offer.
2) Faith based system that rely heavily for their legitimacy on their ability to explain the world engender a lot of panic in their believers when reality refuses to get in line.
One of the reasons why these false accusations fail so often is that one of their underlying assumptions–not the one that says rape and racism exist (they do), but the one that says that the rest of the world is so misogynist and racist it just doesn’t care–is false.
The first thing that happened after the RS article came out was NOT that people started questioning “Jackie”‘s allegations, but that both UVA and the local police launched serious investigations.
It was only AFTER those serious investigations began to turn up not just discrepancies but outright impossibilities that anyone started questioning “Jackie”‘s story.
And once people start questioning the faux victim’s story, it’s all over but the shouting.
3) And that brings up a somewhat depressing point.
More than somewhat, really.
Indoctrination trumps experience.
These things have played out often enough by now that the faux victims OUGHT to have noticed–getting all the attention you want means getting a lot more attention than you want.
And the play isn’t going to work.
4) But even more depressing than that is the inevitable reactions of so many of the people who were taken in by the hoax.
Instead of realizing that such hoaxes actually CREATE the very indifference that doesn’t now exist, they decide that the truth doesn’t matter at all.
We’ve just got to keep on believing and supporting the victims.
Even if they aren’t actually victims of anything.