Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The First Stone and the Futility of Debate

A little while ago I wrote a post about The First Stone, by Helen Garner.  I've now finished the book, and I have to say that it's basically a train wreck.  The book starts by describing two incidents that allegedly happened on a college campus during a party, which was attended by students and faculty.  (This happened at a British-style "residential" college in Melbourne, Australia, and I honestly don't know what that means in terms of social structure.  However, the man alleged to have harassed the women was clearly a figure of authority.)  What he is alleged to have done is (1) squeeze one woman's breast multiple times, in an unwelcome way, while dancing with her at the party, and (2) invite the other woman to his office, lock the door, and suggest sexual intercourse.  The man denied the allegations, and the women ultimately brought criminal charges.  He was not convicted on either charge, but he lost his job at the college.

Garner spoke several times with the man, his family, and his other defenders.  She never spoke with the accusers (and didn't speak much with their supporters), but this was not for lack of trying.  A theme running through the book is that Garner just can't get access to the women to get their side of the story.  This is a constant source of frustration and bafflement to Garner.  But to her credit, she actually explains why this happened right at the front of the book.  Immediately upon learning of the criminal charges, she sat down and wrote this to the accused:

Dear Dr Shepherd [this was the pseudonym that she used for the accused man],
I read in today's paper about your troubles and I'm writing to say how upset I am and how terribly sorry about what has happened to you.  I don't know you, or the young woman; I've heard no rumours and I have no line to run.  What I want to say is that it's heartbreaking, for a feminist of nearly fifty like me, to see our ideals of so many years distorted into this ghastly punitiveness.  I expect I will never know what 'really happened', but I certainly know that if there was an incident, as alleged, this has been the most appallingly destructive, priggish and pitiless way of dealing with it.  I want you to know that there are plenty of women out here who step back in dismay from the kind of treatment you have received, and who still hope that men and women, for all our foolishness and mistakes, can behave towards each other with kindness rather than being engaged in this kind of warfare...
"Dr Shepherd" or one of his supporters photocopied the letter and distributed it widely, so that his accusers and their supporters all saw copies of it.  So then, imagine why they might not speak to this woman!  She has announced, essentially in public, that she thinks that whatever the truth of the allegations, they are prigs who are engaging in ghastly punitiveness.

The whole book is essentially propaganda.  We have on the one hand bluff, honest, down-to-earth people who say that this was certainly not gentlemanly behavior, but the women never should have gone to the police, and then on the other hand we have vindictive, incoherent feminists who come right out and say that it's good to punish the accused man regardless of the truth of the allegations, as a way of sending a message to the real misogynists out there.

The book definitely makes me pessimistic that these issues can ever be discussed in a way that is remotely rational or constructive.  In a way, Garner's book is very honest.  She openly admits sending the letter quoted above, and she acknowledges that her opinion may stem from her own psychological idiosyncrasies.  So if anything she is more honest than the typical propagandist, but of course that doesn't salvage the book.  I don't know.  Very sad!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Map and the Territory

One way of looking at the world is that there is this thing out there, called reality, that is not directly accessible but that we can suss out with the help of our senses.  Things like persistence and predictability are indicators of reality.  This is how we know a dream isn't real:  it doesn't follow the ordinary rules and it doesn't persist.  As fallible humans we may only deal in models that approximate reality, but there is something out there that we are (one hopes) asymptotically approaching.

Another way of looking at things is that "reality" is a kind of tag that we put on things when they are persistent, predictable, etc.  These are not indicators of reality, they constitute reality.  A dream that is persistent is not a dream.  (We are inclined to think that dreams don't matter, and so a persistent dream would still be just a dream.  But I think that is only because they rarely matter instrumentally—we can't navigate them, and we wake up soon.  But dreams do matter to us directly.  They can terrify us, they can give us orgasms.  We would have no reason to discount a persistent, rule-bound dream the way we do our ordinary dreams.)  Our models are "imperfect," but that is because of our limited resources, not because they are "only" models.  A perfect model wouldn't be a reflection of reality, it would be reality.  By way of analogy:  A life-size, fully-functioning model of the United States is not a model.  It is the United States.

(I want to emphasize that none of this is remotely original.)

I think the stakes are only metaphysical.  But it strikes me that my preferences, my values, my desires...  these things are not real in any sense.  They are not persistent, and they resist prediction.  They might as well be dreams.  Of course this is true to some degree for everyone.  But it feels as though I especially don't have a center, anything that grounds my identity and makes me human.  Moment to moment, it's like walking through a dream.  What desires should I try to satisfy?  What plans should I make?  It barely seems to matter.  Everything will have changed anyway.  "All changed, changed utterly."  It's as if we could only build bridges at a geological pace—the river will be gone by the time we are done, or it will have swept us away.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"Clouds Through a Window"

It gives me no pleasure
But only an empty kind of satisfaction,
A little reassurance that some part of my mind still works,
That I knew, watching the discrete, solid little clouds
Floating across the sky,
That because they were floating in the wrong direction—
East to west—
The sky would soon be gray.

Now it's all pancake clouds,
Where before they were biscuits,
And the blue has gone away.
I already miss them:
Those clouds that, yes, looked something like biscuits,
Though they also looked tattered on top,
Little clouds with the tops of their heads blown off,
The bone sheared off,
And brains that didn't stay.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

God I Hate Myself

God I hate myself.

The Past Is A Foreign Country

I kind of wish we lived in an era when you could write a headline about "divers divers" trying to find a gun in the Hudson River.  Anyway, the gun has apparently been found.

Many People Can Be Good Parents, Not Very Many People Can Write Novels Like Franzen's

In fairness to Jonathan Franzen, some of his answers to Terry Gross's questions in his Fresh Air interview were thoughtful and intelligent.  But one of his answers made me howl (Terry Gross has asked whether Franzen's childlessness was an intentional choice) (note, I've modified the official transcript somewhat in brackets, where I think it misses something):

And I've been reading George Packer about the situation with Iraqi refugees, and I knew that the war had orphaned and continued to orphan a lot of kids and I suddenly thought we need to adopt some kids so that we have a family. And this will give - because it was just too [much] pressure to just be a writer. I thought, you know, I come out of family, I want to have a family. And I was all fired up about this for six weeks. And then I was talked out of it quickly. I was brought to my senses by my New Yorker editor who said, why would you do this, essentially - don't you have other work to do? So I got past it. So there were these couple of moments when I realized I really have lost something. I see my brothers. I'm close to my nephews and you know, many of my friends have kids. And I see that something changes in a relationship and also in a person's life through the process of having kids. And mostly it has not been an issue for me, but every once in a while I feel like well, that would've been an interesting, good experience to have, and one that would be really kind of right for me.
GROSS: What makes you think in retrospect that it would've been [a bad] idea to adopt Iraqi orphans?
FRANZEN: Well, what my New Yorker editor said was many people can be good parents, not very many people can write novels like yours. So what I would've lost was an opportunity to really devote myself to digging ever deeper in my books. I think it would've - I would've become a different kind of person and maybe, you know, and maybe a better person.
 Plenty of ammunition here for Franzen-haters.  Even his final thought, that maybe as a parent he would be a better person, is all about Franzen.

Gross On Urine: Urine Not Gross?

On a fairly recent episode of Fresh Air, Terry Gross and Jonathan Franzen had the following back-and-forth (they are discussing characters in Franzen's new book, Purity):
GROSS: OK, let's move to an example (laughter) of - like you said, Tom almost, like, tries to not be a man and that doesn't work. And Tom's marriage to the transgressive artist who sees herself as, you know, a feminist. She says to him at one point - and this is probably the paragraph that's gotten the most attention from your book, you know, for whatever reason, but I want to ask you about it - she says to him that he needs to stop peeing standing up because it creates too much splash on the seat of the bowl, on the bowl itself, on the floor around it, and she can't expect him to clean up every time he goes. So she's going to ask him to sit down. And she basically says if I have to sit down, then you should have to sit down, too. And honestly, I really didn't know how to interpret that because I know - I'm pretty sure that Freud used to say that women had penis envy and that they wanted to be able to stand up. And, like, outside of situations where there's, like, a really filthy bathroom, I don't (laughter) - I don't think that's really an issue for women, that women envy men like that. And so I'm kind of curious hearing how that kind of made it (laughter) - made it in and what you're going for there.
FRANZEN: Well, that has to be taken in the context of his wife's whole personality. She's an extreme person. She has sort of a borderline personality, frankly. But it also has to do with this crazy idealism of youth, where the wish is to be identical, to merge, to have nothing, no differences between them. And for her, this is a difference. So yes, she talks the talk of feminism. But what's going on there is she's desperately afraid of being abandoned, and she has this kind of crackpot youthful notion, which many young people do, that, you know, if we can totally merge our souls and be alike in everything, then I will never be abandoned. So I got an interesting email this morning from a friend in Holland who says that all Dutch mothers teach their little boys to sit down (laughter). And I was like, really? That's interesting, tells you something about Holland. And that's merely to take one dimension of that particular scene. There is Tom's response to it. And to me, the whole description of that doomed marriage is a comedy. And it is - not everyone has been in a relationship with a difficult person that they felt trapped by, but many people have. And the friends I have who have get that that's a comic chapter. It's a very dark comedy of what happens when two people get together young and have this - this notion of total sharing - no secrets, no differences. And, you know, what you do in a comic novel is you exaggerate. You put salmon in the character's pants or you have this scene where one of the people in the relationship is being really, really irrational and difficult and asking for something that nobody should ask the partner for because it's funny. And because - because it - and because it's memorable and because it tears up the surface and gets at deeper things. And yeah, maybe the Freud stuff is in there and the envy, but I don't - I don't actually think that's what is going on for Anabel. Certainly, not - not in my mind. I wasn't thinking of Freud in that. I was thinking she has - has taken a particular self-pitying version of feminism and is using it kind of to abuse her boyfriend.
GROSS: Do you think a woman would ever do that?
FRANZEN: Do I think a woman would ever do that? I certainly believe that Anabel did that.
GROSS: OK, right. (Laughter) Fair enough.
FRANZEN: She does a lot of things. You know, she does a lot of things that not very many people would do.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new novel "Purity" was published today. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
Now, I think this shows some weird kind of generational gap, because I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask a man to sit down to urinate, if the alternative is that he's going to spray urine everywhere—on the seat, on the bowl, on the floor...  I mean, Jesus!  I would say it's unreasonable not to demand a bathroom free of urine splatter.  I suppose the thing you could say is that if he's willing to clean it up every single time, so that the woman can't tell the difference, then he can stand up if he wants.  But that's unrealistic, right?  Is he really going to wipe the seat, the bowl, and the floor every time he pees?  If those are his choices, he's going to sit down to pee.

And notice that Gross cites this as an example of Franzen creating an unfair caricature of a feminist:  "Do you think a woman would ever do that?"  I hope most women would do that!  Christ!  It's totally unacceptable to be leaving drops of urine everywhere!  This isn't really about feminism, it's about basic human decency.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Nicholas Kristof has a column up entitled "The Breast Milk Elixir," which I hope against hope is a cocktail recipe.

Relatedly:  All milk is breast milk.

Changing the Rules

I picked up a book off the sidewalk the other day called The First Stone, by Helen Garner.  The book tells a fictionalized version of a story that made news in Australia in the early 1990s.  Two women accused a university official of sexual harassment.  The man was accused of repeatedly groping a female student's breast while dancing with her, and of propositioning another woman (a student or former student, it's a little hard to tell), as well as groping her breast.  Both alleged incidents occurred at the same party, which took place at the college and was attended by both students and faculty.  The first alleged incident occurred on the dance floor, in a public area.  The second alleged incident occurred in his office, allegedly behind locked doors.  (Bear in mind, my only knowledge of the incidents comes through the book, and I can't be sure which aspects were fictionalized.)

I haven't finished the book, but I have a pretty clear idea where it is headed:  the author basically thinks that the women should never have gone to the police, but rather should have toughened up.  Perhaps they were entitled to an apology, but it was totally out of proportion to get the legal authorities involved.

The book was written in 1995, and obviously attitudes have changed a lot since then.  It seems to me that there is an issue of fairness any time there is a sharp change in social expectations (although in this case the man's conduct, if the allegations are true, was bad enough that I don't think the unfairness perceived by Garner was very severe).  So for instance, it's shocking when reading Robert Caro's books to see him use the word "Negro," which he does throughout at least one of his books on Lyndon Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Path to Power).  I believe that book was published in 1982, presumably at a time when the term "Negro" was used much more widely, and with no intent to give offense.  (As evidence that the word was once widely acceptable, consider the name of the United Negro College Fund, an organization devoted to the welfare of black people.)

Now of course Caro would never use the word "Negro" today, except in a quotation of someone else.  But there must have been a transitional period during which people like Caro might be caught using the term when it was already considered unacceptable by some significant segment of the population.  And I think it would be legitimately unfair to treat it as an indictment of Caro's character, because there is no indication that Caro ever intended to give offense.  But of course, once the new rule is firmly in place, and after people have had some time to learn of it, then people have to conform themselves to the new standard, or they will rightly be seen as assholes.  (Just to be clear, I'm unaware that anyone ever criticized Caro for using the term.  It just seems like a risk that he was running by writing the way he did in the 1980s.)

This reminds me of the doomsday machine in Dr. Strangelove, which is designed to destroy all life on Earth if a nuclear strike is carried out on the Soviet Union.  As Dr. Strangelove explains, the machine only works if you tell people about it!  (Which the Soviets failed to do until it was too late.)

The same goes for social norms.  If you want to stigmatize behavior that was previously considered acceptable, then you are effectively setting up a mini-doomsday machine.  In fairness to its potential victims, the new rules should be clearly communicated.  But of course, in real life the new rules can't just be "communicated," because in fact they are hotly contested, and they are usually not formally adopted by an authoritative body but rather slowly accepted by a growing segment of the population.  So there is a real issue of fairness during the transitional period, especially in a culturally fragmented, decentralized society.  Some of the "resisters" will not be merely ignorant of the new standards, but will be actual participants in a culture war, which complicates the fairness determination.

Now, as I said, I think the behavior sparking the drama in The First Stone doesn't strike me as a good example of what I am describing.  When was it ever okay to grope a woman's breast absent permission or at least some indication that it would be welcome?  Maybe I'm unable to imagine it because the world has changed dramatically in the last 20-25 years.  I don't know.  (Bear in mind these people weren't, like, on a date.  I can imagine cases in which it might seem that a caress is welcome when it turns out not to be, and no one is really to blame.  That's a separate battle being fought right now, I believe, in the form of "affirmative consent."  But that's not what was at stake in The First Stone.)

My real concern is not with the events in the book, but with romantic relations today.  In addition to the fairness issue mentioned above, I think there is also a legitimate question about whether the "new rules" are fair or wise.  It should be remembered that reducing discomfort for one segment of the population may impose burdens on other segments of the population.  A lot of the "low-hanging fruit," by which I mean social norms that have out-sized benefits relative to their costs, have already been achieved.  Certainly today any man who gropes a woman's breast out of the blue must realize that he is taking on significant risk if the action is unwelcome—essentially, if the woman complains, then he is toast, and rightly so.  (Note, I am assuming the facts are uncontested.  A man shouldn't be toast merely because he is alleged to have groped a breast.  That is a question about establishing the facts, and we should account for the possibility of false allegations.)

But many of the contested issues today are far more nuanced.  Take, for example, the proposition that men shouldn't flirt with women in gyms.  The main beneficiaries of this rule would be women who are made uncomfortable by men hitting on them in the gym.  As a secondary matter, men who are relatively bad at hitting on women in gyms might benefit because they won't have to compete with men who are good at it.  The main losers are women who want to be flirted with in gyms, and men who want to flirt with women in gyms.

So how do we weight these things?  If we treat female discomfort as the most important consideration, then the rule will seem like a relatively good idea.  It seems to me that this is a common approach today.  Women simply shouldn't be subjected to discomfort as a result of men's behavior.  But I wonder if this approach is really sensible.  Momentary discomfort is not necessarily worse than the steady elimination of venues for romantic pairing.

Possibly what we have is a situation much like interest-group politics, in which women who dislike a particular form of flirtation are vocal and motivated, while women who generally prefer to be flirted with are unmotivated to get involved in any particular dispute.  We also live in a culture in which victimhood is given special status, but certain kinds of victimhood (like never receiving any romantic interest from men) are not recognized as valid.

Now I'll admit that one solution to all of this is to adopt social norms making it flatly unacceptable to communicate romantic interest to anyone except through particular internet sites and mobile apps.  This is a neat solution in the sense that it's generally very easy to modulate your own participation in those platforms.  There doesn't need to be any ambiguity about who welcomes what kind of attention.  (Of course that kind of attention may be unpleasant for some women, but maybe there could be some way to filter messages so that unwelcome advances, like uninvited dick pics or whatever, are excluded.  For women who don't like electronic communication at all...  well, that's pretty much untenable in the modern world.)

But this imposes its own kind of poverty on the world.  Couples would no longer meet serendipitously or through shared interests (except to the extent those function as categories on dating apps).  I mean, it would happen occasionally, as a kind of tacitly tolerated violation of the rules.  But in terms of numbers, the "liquidity" would all move to the internet.  To some degree this is already happening, and maybe this represents progress.  I have to admit I find it to be an unsatisfying solution, but then, I'm a dinosaur when it comes to these things.

This blog post is brought to you by my splitting headache and need to procrastinate.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Liberal Party of Canada

In the wake of the Liberal Party of Canada's extremely pleasing electoral victory, here is Wikipedia's description of the party, with some citations and punctuation removed:
The party dominated federal politics for much of Canada's history, holding power for almost 69 years in the 20th century—more than any other party in a developed country—which resulted in its being sometimes referred to as Canada's "natural governing party". Among the party's signature policies and legislative decisions include universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, peacekeeping, multilateralism, official bilingualism, official multiculturalism, patriating the Canadian constitution and the entrenchment of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Clarity Act, restoring balanced budgets in the 1990s, and making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

In other words, in many ways the party is Canada.  It is responsible for the policies that make Canada so Canadian.  It's like Gladstone and Victorian Britain, except it is even more dominant.  (It also makes me happy to see an old-fashioned Liberal Party in power somewhere.  The modern descendant of Gladstone's Liberal Party is the Liberal Democrats, a hapless party with no real prospect of ever governing.)

I have a lot of admiration for the leftist parties of the 19th century.  In a lot of cases they were remarkably modern and humane.  I believe the German Social Democrats were the ones who first referred to anti-Semitism as the "socialism of fools."

Of course it wouldn't be healthy for the Liberals to run Canada 100% of the time, but it still feels really good to see Canada back in the Liberals' hands.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Enthusiasm About Not Letting Muslims Govern Themselves

Egyptian "elections."

Enthusiasm About Technocracy


Friday, October 16, 2015

Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims

I didn't see anyone make a big deal about it, but this week the 4-week moving average of weekly initial unemployment claims decreased to the lowest level in over 40 years.  (The graph at Calculated Risk doesn't quite show the level clearing the low that was set in early 2001, but the number is lower.)  I'm not sure this tells us much that we don't already know from the other unemployment statistics, but it's still pretty remarkable, especially given how much the population and workforce have grown since the 1970s.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


This Onion article is something I can really get behind.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Should We Bank Our Own Stool?

Should We Bank Our Own Stool? asks an op-ed in the New York Times.  Of course, I've been doing this for years, but now apparently some people are doing it for health reasons.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Goodbye Paul Prudhomme

RIP Paul Prudhomme, at whose restaurant I ate the best meal of my life (all the more remarkable because it was eggplant, a food I'm generally unenthusiastic about).  The man was some kind of genius.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The New York Times on Trump on Twitter

The New York Times explores Donald Trump's Twitter appeal here and here.  It really isn't a fair fight between Trump and someone like Jeb Bush.  I wouldn't try to generalize too much, though.  Trump has mastered Twitter like no one else.  Most campaigns shouldn't even try to match him, they should just aspire to use Twitter a little better than the other non-Trump campaigns.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Updating Matthew Arnold

for the world, which, after we've had our morning coffee, seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new...