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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Oe, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

Another entry in the political uses of children in literature. This is a postwar Japanese novel that inverts Lord of the Flies to emphasize the innocent morality of children's society against the venality and cruelty of adult society. This also has a precedent, in Huckleberry Finn, for example, where Huck's naive sense of justice illuminates by contrast the sophisticated injustice of Southerners. Children are used as a kind of stand-in for or reminder of natural justice in moments when adult justice has grossly miscarried and adult society has failed. In Huck Finn, that failure is slavery, and in Nip the Buds, it's the war.

But not all children can be relied on to demonstrate this native moral purity, because if adults are corrupt, then surely some of their corruption will have rubbed off on their children. So it is only children who are somehow insulated from adult influence, and by extension from civilization, who can remain pure: orphans like Huck, or virtual orphans like the reformatory boys in Nip the Buds. Such outcast children appear to polite society as uncivilized and wild, but this is only because the adults have the wrong perspective and don't see that it is they who require civilizing. What they perceive to be wildness is in fact natural morality, to which they, in their gross immorality, have become blind.

To accept this device, you have to accept some version, religious or secular, of the view that children are born free of sin. And there are secular versions of this and its opposite: Hobbes and Freud are modern, secular proponents of children-as-sinners, at least in the loose sense that this kind of literature requires. They view the child as the father of the man, and the disorders of civilization as contained in miniature in the primitive, unrestrained passions of individuals. The Hobbesian, Freudian argument of Lord of the Flies is that the source of injustice and disorder is in our nature, and that the artifacts of law and government - adult artifacts - must be imposed on that nature in order to suppress or channel our innate tendencies towards injustice. Nip the Buds, and to some extent also Huck Finn, follows from the competing premise - that the child is naturally moral (and further, natural morality is good), though susceptible to corruption by adults. But where adult corruption has grown very great, we can still turn back to the instincts of children to guide us back to our natural state of goodness. 

I am at best ambivalent about this device. Empirically, I have little doubt that it is wrong, and that children (especially children in groups) are not naturally or instinctively good to others or one another in the absence of adults. But it has some literary merits: emphasizing the purity and innocence of childhood adult political injustice. And even Oe is not fully Rousseauian: in the end, the idyllic mountain-top commune of reformatory boys commits injustice when faced with the prospect of death. Still, it is a device based not just on a kind of noble lie about childhood's goodness, but one that potentially distorts the truth about nature and morality in order to heighten the poignancy of certain political injustices.

Also, I don't think I've ever read a modern parable of this sort - set somewhere unknown, taking place outside of time, populated by unnamed and half-drawn characters who represent moral ideas more than actual people - that wasn't, at bottom, kind of schmaltzy. The Lottery, The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, The Plague, even Animal Farm. They're engaging, intriguingly ambiguous, highly-assignable course material to get students thinking about political theory without realizing it. But because they're ambiguous and sketchy, they always seems to end in an edifying condemnation of injustice arising out of a totally ungrounded hope that society could be better if we just put our minds to making it so. But things can't always be better, especially if the injustices are part of us or inherent in living together, and not just the unfortunate imposition of particularly horrible grown-ups.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Political correctness as a revival of etiquette

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a short talk at my advisor's book event in DC about the parallels between the recent speech-related demands from campus and online activists and the prewar rules governing social etiquette that the left had worked to subvert because they were hierarchical, artificial, constraining. Since then, I've come across two similar versions of this argument, from James Bowman and from Damon Linker. Linker writes about something I've been considering for a couple of years, since the Title IX controversy began:
Understood in this wider sense, we've been living through an extended libertarian moment since the early 1960s. Moral libertarianism presumes that no authority — political, legal, or religious — is competent to pronounce judgment on an individual’s decisions, provided that they don’t negatively effect other people. Thanks to this assumption, a grand edifice of inherited moral and legal strictures on sexuality have crumbled over the past half century, leaving individuals free to live and love as they wish, as long as everyone involved gives their consent.
Religiously traditionalist conservatives have rejected moral libertarianism from the beginning, while losing just about every political and legal battle over its spread. But left-wing dissent has been selective and sporadic...That may be starting to change.
Now, Linker overlooks the ways that the right has also appealed to so-called "moral libertarianism" during the past 50 years. What he's calling moral libertarianism is actually the principle of liberal neutrality, amenable to all partisans precisely because it transforms partisan demands into neutral rights. So, for example, in the 1970s and '80s, one argument for the legalization of homeschooling was that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit, provided that they do not harm them or anyone else. Although this argument was advanced mainly by "religiously traditionalist conservatives," it was framed in a way that applies to anyone who wants to homeschool his children for any reason.

One of the most significant morally libertarian principles of this period has been the popular view of free speech. That view goes beyond what even the First Amendment permits, although First Amendment jurisprudence since the '60s has also expanded the limits of free speech. But I think the popular view is that speech should not only have no legal limitation, but that even moral or social sanctions are suspect. People shouldn't lose their jobs or even their friends just for expressing their opinions, especially their political opinions. Of course, this hardly reflects reality, where people are socially sanctioned for being disagreeable all the time, but it's a not uncommon aspiration. And it reflects a neutral or morally libertarian view of speech, even though everyone who holds it preferentially applies it to his own fellow-partisans. But, since it's pretty obvious why "free speech for my side only" is not sustainable, even partisans frame freedom of speech as a neutral right: the "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" principle.

Linker is down on moral libertarianism when it comes to sex, but I suspect he's more content with it in the realm of speech. But he's right that the moral-libertarian consensus, embattled as it may always have been, is starting to break down in every realm. In some cases - the pornography with which Linker is concerned, for example - breakdown will mean a change in the laws. But in others, it must mean a change in - or, more accurately, a revival of - manners. These manners, as both Linker and Bowman point out, are a distinctly "progressive" attempt at etiquette, but they're not in purpose and sometimes even in substance all that different from the etiquette that moral libertaranism overthrew. Before, for example, men had to avoid vulgarity and displays of sexual aggression around women, and now, men must...do exactly the same thing. Before, this was to defend women against offense. Now, it's to defend women against offense as part of a vague strategy to liberate everyone from gender sometime in the distant future.

Of course, you could easily point out that since conservatives love manners, they should cheer all these speech demands made by social justice activists, and form a strategic alliance like the one between the anti-porn feminists and the socially-conservative right in the '80s. Perhaps. But as Bowman points out, there is another axis to consider here that runs perpendicular to the left/right opposition, which is the many/few opposition. Manners are inherently exclusive; they always preserve a division between mass and elites.
Social elites have always defined themselves—and justified their elite status—by their manners. I think we must have forgotten this since the word “uncouth” became, well, uncouth. Originally meaning “unknown” or “unknowing,” the word was in common use by the eighteenth century to indicate someone who was unfamiliar with the manners of what was once called “polite” society...The manners of the postwar American elite do not admit of any such overt exclusions, which are now seen as wrong and undemocratic. But the elite would not be an elite if it did not retain some means of excluding the uncouth—something that it has accomplished in our time by turning its manners into morals. 
This is what so-called “political correctness” is all about. Now we are meant to show our fitness for membership in the elite by knowing that you must refer to “people of color” but never, ever “colored people,” a locution which, dating from the benighted past, is deemed to be racist and offensive... But the dictionaries would not be doing their job if they did not warn you off committing such social faux pas as these and others with the discreet notation: “Considered offensive.” 
Offensive, you may wonder, to whom? Not necessarily to the members of those minorities towards whose feelings the dictionaries have become ostensibly solicitous. You may be sure that The Washington Post’s recent discovery that the term “redskin” is not considered offensive by 90 percent of the American Indians it surveyed will not be taken into account the next time the dictionaries are revised. That is because the feelings that matter are not those of the minorities alleged to be offended but those of the elite who have moralized our linguistic manners so as to be able to exclude the unwanted and the uncouth—that is, those who do not signal their fitness for inclusion in it by adopting the elite’s vocabulary. Lacking the means of excluding such people merely on social or aesthetic grounds, the elite must turn the social and aesthetic into the just and ethical so as to be able to exclude them on moral grounds.
Because they're elitist and exclusive, manners - progressive as well as traditional - are anti-democratic and run counter to the populism of both the left and the right. Bowman thinks the main challenge to the elitist progressive effort to revive a moral code of conduct is conservative populist opposition (or just Trump, our great savior). I'm not sure. Why wouldn't the deep tension within progressivism between populism and elitism, the effort to reconcile these into an inclusive and egalitarian code of conduct that will continually result in exclusions, issue in a more thorough demise?

Another plausible, completely different explanation for all this is David Brooks's account of "shame culture."

Friday, June 03, 2016

Marks of adulthood

In the years just after I finished college, when I was working full time and living in DC, I was very concerned with the question, "Am I an adult now?" I very badly wanted to answer in the affirmative and worked hard to make it so, but when so many other people your age are still behaving like children, it's difficult to distinguish yourself as invisibly more mature. So I was always wondering when I would reach a point where my adulthood would be incontrovertible. Then I went to grad school, where the adulthood project had to be aborted as a matter of necessity.

But now, it is a lot easier to see the marks of adulthood. For example, I am drinking a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Ever since I started drinking coffee in college, I used to wonder at decaf coffee drinkers - for why? Coffee doesn't actually taste good; it's essentially a low-grade productivity drug to help you read more books and write more words, faster. Drinking decaf coffee is like taking placebo aspirin for a headache.

But now I see things differently. It's like the hat/elephant drawing in The Little Prince. Children are defined as those who see the elephant in the gullet of a boa, adults as those who see a hat. Neither can satisfactorily explain their perspective to the other.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Love and Friendship

We went to see this, and it was very enjoyable, but I still think Whit Stillman is adrift. His first four movies were all commentaries on and against contemporary manners, and in this sense they had a purpose and an argument. But everyone (except me) hated Damsels in Distress, because they dismissed his apparently whimsical argument about the importance of dancing for social life and for bringing the young together in an innocent but auspicious way, and his complaint that we've failed to create a suitable substitute for it, to the detriment of the social lives of the young. (Notably, he made exactly the same argument Last Days of Disco, and no one was contemptuous of it then. I suppose it was more subtle there, but not that subtle, given that Josh has at least two monologues about the importance of disco for his generation.) But I think that, in the first place, Stillman is serious about this argument, and in the second, he's right, even though I am a terrible dancer and doubt that I would've personally benefited from a youth culture to which social dancing was central.

Anyway, it seems like the poor reception of Damsels unmoored Stillman. First, there was the Amazon TV pilot that went nowhere, though according to his Twitter, it's not dead and Amazon is just waiting for him to actually write the rest. Now, there is Love and Friendship, which is very clever and witty, but doesn't have any clear point. Or the point is just that Whit Stillman loves Jane Austen and wants everyone to know it, and he demonstrates his love by filling out one of her unfinished novels instead of adapting Austen's style and intentions to the social world of the present, as he had been doing before.

The filling is mostly good, with some dialogue that seems anachronistic (for example, at some point, one of the characters refers to a relationship "dynamic" - probably not an eighteenth-century usage), but there's something a little narrow and academic about the project. It doesn't have a broader argument or any real connection to the present. There is a kind of Machiavellian moral (or anti-moral) point within the story, that those who are always abuse friendship probably should not rely on the sincerity of their friends, and the manipulators are the ones who least expect (and so are most likely) to be manipulated themselves. There are worse things to make than a clever fable in period costume, but also better things, like Stillman's other movies.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Yes, this is the first time I've read Dostoevsky, even though when I was college, it seemed like everyone was taking a class on one or another of his books every quarter and then writing a thesis on him. I kept my distance from all that, just as I kept my distance from the Jane Austen enthusiasm, only to discover soon after college that Austen was in fact as good as the enthusiasts claimed. So sometimes Miss Self-Important is wrong, or too quick to dismiss. When I happened upon this old Commentary article by Gary Saul Morson a few weeks ago, I decided now was the time to be wrong about Dostoevsky. And I was, but not as much.

Here's the thing: Austen is for young women. Not exclusively, since no excellent novelist is so narrow, but I suspect that the greatest direct pleasure and edification to be gotten from her major novels will occur between the ages of 18 and 28. After that, you can still appreciate the wit, craft, morals, and aesthetics, but it no longer has immediate application to your life. (Come at me, geezers!) So Austen's popularity among college students is fitting. But what about Dostoevsky? Who is Dostoevsky for?*

Here is who Dostoevsky is not for: mothers. No one among his collegiate enthusiasts mentioned to me that Dostoevsky assiduously collected lurid stories of child abuse because they tested the limits of Christian faith, and he put this collection to use in his novels. Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you. So even though this was a great book in some cosmic sense, I think the main thing I will remember is the one not particularly important line from Ivan's Grand Inquisitor speech about a Turk tickling a baby to make him laugh and then shooting him. I will not quote it here, in the unlikely case that you too happen to suffer from the defect of faint-heartedness.

The book is about other things, like the Russian obsession with the decay of the aristocratic order with its nobility of character (of both the actual nobles and the peasants, for we must not forget the subtly-named peasant Platon in War and Peace) into cold, bureaucratic stupidity on one hand, and boiling, revolutionary stupidity on the other. And Christianity.

Maybe someday, once I've re-hardened my heart, I'll go back to the Grand Inquisitor passage because it was important to Arendt, and the book will work on me more effectively. But for now, all you get is this half-hearted post and no further interest in reading Dostoevsky.

*I don't mean to leave this hanging as some great unknown. It's pretty easy to answer. Dostoevsky is for young men alienated from modernity having a theological-political crisis. So, young men who read books.

Monday, May 16, 2016

High school impostors

Two new, bizarre stories in my favorite genre, one involving an old guy masquerading as a high school student, the other a high school student masquerading as an old guy. The fake doctor story is funny, but ultimately there isn't really anything so shocking about a kid pretending to be an adult with a good adult job. It's fraud, sure, but it suggests that society is working ok, instilling sufficient and even overweaning desire in the young to grow up and be respectable. But Miss Self-Important does love this defense of the kid, advanced by his father:
“He’s not out doing drugs, he’s not out trying to rob nobody,” Robinson said. “He’s trying to do something constructive, and if he did do something and the paperwork wasn’t right — he can get ahead of himself sometimes and he may have been trying too hard, but he had good intentions.”
The old guy who posed as a high school and also as a fake teenaged son to an actual married couple though, that one is much weirder, but it's hard to know from the reporting which parts of this scheme were his idea and which were his "parents'," and what the goal of the charade was. Was it just the most bizarre way to stay in the US illegally that anyone has come up with, or was there some other motive? The article has him playing the clueless foreigner card, so who knows. But since both of these stunts have already occurred in film (recall the great Drew Barrymore vehicle, Never Been Kissed) there isn't even anything ultimately original about even the old guy's weirdness. We can thank Drew Barrymore for her culturally pioneering work normalizing creepy old guy impostordom.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on baby sleep

1. When strangers strike up conversation with me about the baby (the sharp increase in unsolicited stranger interactions is an additional benefit of having a baby), the order of their questions is invariably: what's her name, how old is she, how's she sleeping? I know baby sleep is a fraught topic, but how could strangers have any real interest in my baby's sleep patterns? I have no interest in anyone else's sleep patterns, not even my friends' (sorry). I oblige them with a response (pretty well), but the prevalence of the question continues to puzzle.

2. I actually don't know if Goomba is sleeping pretty well. I only know that she sleeps the requisite number of hours per day that the baby books suggest. But I also think the baby books are full of lies about sleep training. They're all like, "Just toss your kid in the crib and shut the door and plug your ears. Don't worry, she won't cry for more than 40 minutes! And she'll sleep through the night (except for the 90% chance that she'll wake up at midnight to eat). And within three days, you won't even hear a peep out of her when you put her down. She will practically be begging for naps! She will learn to talk just so she can say, 'May I please be put to bed now, Mother?' It's gonna be great!" This is a lie. It is true that Goomba has never cried for more than 40 minutes and that she sleeps for many hours after crying. But it is not true that she doesn't cry. "Sleep training" is a false advertisement. There is (eventual) sleep, yes, but no training. Or, at least the baby is not the one being trained. If anything, it trains parents to withstand willful baby crying and to enforce baby sleep. Which is fine if it's all that can realistically be achieved with a pre-rational creature whose driving passion in life is to be held all the time, but the sleep-training gurus should just admit that. When you read further into the books, there are some disclaimers about how maybe the magic won't happen quite as quickly as three days, and maybe you just have to keep at it for a while until the child finally achieves protest-free sleep. I suspect that will occur closer to 10 years than three days.

3. Up to about five months, Goomba would fall asleep as if by spontaneous collapse. There was no gradual drifting off like an adult, but instead, normal activity or even howling one minute, unconsciousness the next. This was especially funny in the cases of howling. Now she drifts off, in principle, except she mostly prefers not to sleep at all. I miss the days of spontaneous collapse. It was the cutest thing.

4. Before the instruction to put babies to sleep on their backs became widespread, it was apparently very common to sleep babies on their stomachs. But most babies hate "tummy time" until pretty late into their first year, when they're already rolling and sitting and therefore not stranded like sad, overturned turtles when they're put on their stomachs. How then was it possible that a majority of infants used to be put to sleep on their stomachs from birth? This question has been bugging me for many months.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The prototypical American adolescent is from Skokie, IL

I re-watched Sixteen Candles the other day and realized for the first time that it takes place in Skokie. The school bus reads, "Maierhofer Bros., Skokie, IL" and one of the geeks wears a Niles East jacket. Indeed, the schools scenes were filmed at Niles East before it was torn down. I knew that many John Hughes movies had been filmed in the north suburbs of Chicago, but I didn't realize that this included specific places in Skokie. I'm sure it's been noted many times before that those movies generated the sort of defining image of American adolescence for at least for the next two decades, if not still today. Adolescence is suburban, middle-class, white, angsty, anti-intellectual, dominated by social cliques and anxiety about sex. Later teen movies tended to be set in vague southern California suburbs, which was probably more convenient given the location of studios, but continued to work from the basic template created by Hughes. It's kind of nice to think that the prototypical American teenager created by Hollywood, who has been so important for the self-understanding of so many actual teenagers*, was not the product of some generic Burbank soundstage, but was instead modeled on the particular inhabitants of, of all places, my home town.

It's at least better than having to identify Skokie as, "the place where the Nazis once had a march that almost became a Supreme Court free speech case," which is how I do it now. Henceforth, I will say, "the place where the epochal film, Sixteen Candles, was filmed."

*I can't exactly say this self-understanding is an especially good one, but since it's bound up with my home and my childhood, strong feelings of partiality prevent me from criticizing it too much. Besides, whatever the shortcomings of Hughes's movies, you must admit at least that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a piece of comedic brilliance.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On lullabies, part 2

During further research into "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," a song that Goomba loves even though it denies its narrator's scientific curiosity, I discovered what must be the greatest lullaby of all time: "Ah! Vous dirai-je maman." It shares its melody with "Twinkle, Twinkle," and a number of other children's songs across a surprising number of languages. But the main thing is that the words are brilliant:

Ah! Vous dirai-je maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne.
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.

All lullabies should aim at this standard of naivete and irony to depict how children and adults regard one another. 

Friday, April 01, 2016

Pressing questions of our age

Do we think that the Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats song, "S.O.B.," is intended to be a parody of doo-wop and acapella?