Saturday, August 09, 2008

Is “Duty” A Dirty Word? by Anthony McCarthy

Or just a corrupted virtue?

In the decay of our imperial culture, words are primary aspects of the general corruption of thought and language in service of privilege. Theft and usurpation by the rich have to be called something, after all, they will not only be noticed and discussed, in order to effect them, defend them and, ultimately, to render them unillegal, words must be used. The corrupt actions have to be talked about in order to do them and to defend them but they can’t be called what they are. The malignant actions have to be glossed over if not disguised in order to make them seem to fit into the role of virtues, or at least benign entities.*

And the opposite happens too. Whatever inhibits theft and corruption can’t be called by its rightful name. Misidentification of virtues is, if anything, an even more pressing problem for the systematic and universal corruption of life. Nothing can be allowed to get in the way of acquisition and the amassing of wealth by the wealthy and nothing endangers the most successful branch of organized crime like the old-fashioned, named virtues. No words have been more vandalized and twisted by liars in service to the crooks of the ruling class than those dealing with morality. Duty is divorced from morality and turned into an opportunistic citation of conventionalized role playing. Listening to the media or the Bush regime talk about duty in the context of today’s military adventures is to experience a truly pornographic gut punch.

We live in a country in which the language of morality and moral indignation are twisted and stretched to the point where corruption is called reform and personal morality is deformed into mild guilt over eating chocolate and a highly selective, unlikely and baldly hypocritical moral indignation over the private sex lives of Democratic politicians.** And that’s only the most easily taken form of it. When given lip service at all, moral duty is transfigured into that kind of ABC-Disney film of corn sweetener that renders just about anything it covers emetic and pathogenic.

For others, outside of the military, the idea of duty seems to be particularly corrupted as has the idea of actual moral responsibility in general. On one hand, these necessities of a civil society have been mostly deformed into impossible burdens for unarmed civil servants, guaranteeing their failure. It would be interesting to consider how much of the corruption of the civil service is generated by that intentional sandbagging. On the other hand, these burdens for the highest of those, in the judiciary and elected office***have been considerably relaxed from past ethical requirements.

For the general population, duty and moral responsibility are to be seen as pathologies and harmful inhibitions to be discarded, character defects and signs of personal weakness, with the exception of those mentioned in the second paragraph above. In recent pop-psych the resultant inhibitions were held responsible for the increase in cancer rates. Those limiting the frivolous and irrational consumption of vendible junk and the borrowing to service that consumption have been suppressed until just recently. The patriotic duty to buy and borrow is a truly bizarre concept.

While there are exceptions to this, I think it is more the rule that moral duty, the obligation to put the needs of other people and living beings over our personal desires and whims, the obligation to face and tell even the unprofitable truth, the obligation to protect the weak and unable over the strong and powerful, are despised and derided in our late stage empire. Those who try to systematically practice these unfashionable virtues are seen as chumps or derided as anal retentive kill joys. On the blogs it is often met with the order to “lighten up”, or some equivalent admonition.

Any ideas on this?

* I suggested once that words used like that be called “Millerisms” after Judith Miller.

** eg. Sally Quinn on Bill Clinton’s sex life. The racial and gender differences in the definition and application of morality are ever present too and deserving of continued treatment.

*** There are few ideas as stress worn by flexing than “Conflict of interest”, especially in the context of the upper reaches of the judiciary and Senate that confirms them.

Note: This was written before the invasion of privacy in yesterday’s news. Note the difference in media handling between the Edwards scandal, involving private business, and McCain’s relationship with a lobbyist who was doing business before his committee.

Georgia's Lost Territories (by Phila)

Danger Room has some background on the conflict in Georgia:
Since 2002, the U.S. military has been providing Georgia with a serious amount of military assistance, beginning with the Georgia Train and Equip Program in 2002....

When I returned to Krtsanisi in early 2006, the place had been transformed into a model base. It even had a sparkling new KBR-style dining facility. The Georgian troops were smartly decked out in U.S.-style uniforms; they were preparing for a troop rotation in Iraq.

Officially, SSOP was supposed to prepare Georgians for service in Iraq. But Georgian trainees I spoke to in 2006 at the Krtsanisi training range saw things a bit differently. A female sergeant told me: “This training is incredibly important for us, because we want to take back Georgia’s lost territories.”
There's more here:
As Sergei Shamba, the foreign affairs minister of Abkhazia, told me in 2006: “The Georgians are euphoric because they have been equipped, trained, that they have gained military experience in Iraq. It feeds this revanchist mood… How can South Ossetia be demilitarized, when all of Georgia is bristling with weaponry, and it’s only an hour’s ride by tank from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali?”

One of the U.S. military trainers put it to me a bit more bluntly. “We’re giving them the knife,” he said. “Will they use it?”
Perhaps so, since all Georgian troops are leaving Iraq:
Georgia will withdraw its entire 2,000-strong military contingent from Iraq within the next three days to join the fighting in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, a senior Georgian military official said Saturday...The US military has agreed to help with the logistics of the Georgian redeployment, Maisuradze added...

Last year, the Georgians raised the number of troops in Iraq from 850 to 2,000 at a time when most non-American contingents were cutting back — a move that won them points with US commanders.
Sounds like a tense situation. But I'm more worried about larger issues, like whether John Edwards' infidelity will rob Obama of the moral authority he'd need to carpet-bomb Tehran.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Online dating (by Suzie)

         Anyone who needs reminding that people can be anyone they want to be on the Internet should try online dating. If I ever do it again, shoot me I need to put in my profile: "I enjoy investigating. Do not contact me if you have something to hide."
        One man had a long history of hiring women to act as his girlfriends, called the “girlfriend experience” in prostitution. After we broke up, I thought of sending him an invoice.
         Then there was the man who had to leave his job as a high-school teacher (and his marriage) because he wanted to continue a relationship with a 17-year-old in his class, even after her mother had taken out a restraining order. Last I heard, he was getting a degree in counseling.
          Women also lie to men, of course. But this isn't a battle of the sexes in which both teams are equal and the playing field is level. Women who lie can hurt feelings and waste time. But a lying woman is not as likely to be dangerous to a man as vice versa.  
         I dislike that most men are looking for younger women. A WaPo article says many women now want younger men. This is the hook of the article, which goes on to acknowledge that men want younger women, which is dog-bites-man.
         The article describes eHarmony: “… members are matched according to a psychological profile and personality characteristics.” I was matched with men who had nothing in common with me other than we were all carbon-based life forms.
         One site asks about your politics. Because “sort-of-radical feminist” wasn’t an option, I put “very liberal.” I quickly learned that many men read “very liberal” as “easy” or “kinky.” I had to explain to “very conservative” guys that I would never have sex with them because I was very liberal.
         In hopes of finding other progressives, I signed up at Act for Love, “the largest matchmaking site for Democratic singles.” The slogan “take action, get action” should have tipped me off that this was not the place for me. (As a feminist, I really, really don't want a man who is taking political action in hopes of getting laid.)
          In one profile, I made the mistake of answering honestly the question:  “What are you reading?” I was reading feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky’s “Femininity and Domination,” which I highly recommend. Surprisingly, I did not attract philosophers.
          Any day now, I’m becoming a political lesbian, I swear.

Ani DiFranco as teacher (by Suzie)


        For those who have trouble understanding the anger or fear that some women feel, in regard to sexual abuse, please read the lyrics to “Parameters” and “Hide ’n Seek.” I can’t find any audio or video, but the words are powerful enough on their own. As she says in another song, "Feminism ain't about equality. It's about reprieve." 

Feminist men (by Suzie)

        Can any man say he’s a feminist? Should women accept what he says without question? Is a feminist man who does something bad to a woman worse than a Joe Shmoe who does the same thing?
        The answer: If Camille Paglia can call herself a feminist, anyone can. There’s no credentialing committee. I’m sure people can become feminists by mail, without any actual study.
        Second question: Of course, people have the right to question anyone’s credibility as a feminist. In fact, it’s a minor sport. I give women more benefit of the doubt, sort of like extra credit for experience in the field.
        One complication is the different definitions of feminism. But this is more than a question of semantics. Because of the Kyle Paynes of the world, women should always have the right to question a man’s feminism. I’m not saying male feminists are suspect, but for our own safety, we have the right to ask questions whenever we have doubts.
Kyle Payne was a rape crisis advocate, women’s studies student, and resident advisor at his university. While “looking after” an unconscious drunk student in his care, he undid her shirt and took a photograph and video of her breast.
         This comes from Lauredhel, who has gathered other comments on him. The description above is what Payne has acknowledged in a plea agreement, in which assault charges were dropped. Payne also inspired various posts in the 61st Carnival of Feminists. There are a number of sites that discuss men and feminism in general. Some good ones, such as XY, can be found in this recent Twisty thread.
         To answer the third question: Yeah, I think Payne is worse than some other guy who did the same crime because he makes it harder for women to trust male allies. 
         ETA a second time: A colleague didn't think I should mention a commenter by screen name and so, I have deleted that passage. 

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mutterings and Stutterings

Josh Marshall has posted a video compilation of McCain's bloopers. The campaign must be hard work and I understand that the candidates must "misspeak" just because of fatigue. But I'm still a little bit concerned about the number of various types of errors McCain has made.

Tacky Tactics

Are often suggested on the comments threads of political blogs. For instance, when the wingnuts attack Michelle Obama, the frequent recommendation I read on liberal blog threads is to counter the attack by going after Cindy McCain. It's as if the wives of the presidential candidates are part of their husbands' private property and therefore a fair target in the campaign battles. You know, like trying to destroy the artillery units of an opposing army. But spouses are not artillery units.

I'm aware of the American political tradition here and also of the fuzzy line between public and private roles of, say, the presidential candidates' wives, and I'm often worried about possibly crossing that line inappropriately in my own writing. But I'd say that character assassinations of the candidates' family members certainly cross that line. Inappropriately.

Today's Deep, Deep Thought

It's about certain types of comments on the Internet, especially on YouTube and it's by the Onion:

"We are blessed to be living in an age when we have a global communications network in which idiots, assholes, and total and complete wastes of fucking human life alike can come together to give instant feedback in an unfettered and unmonitored online environment," Mylenek said. "What better way to take advantage of this incredible technology than to log onto the Internet and insult a complete stranger?"

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Buffalo Chips and John McCain

Funny how memes are created in the media. It's mostly the right-wing memes that seem to stick in that so-called liberal media. Even the progressive/liberal blogs spend much of their time refuting the right-wing memes instead of making up new ones and on the whole that helps the memes to stick more. Sad, is it not? Also the reason why today's topics are whether Obama is too arrogant or too inexperienced and young. And all the time the alternative topic of McCain being too out-of-touch and too old just sits there, like an invisible elephant on your living-room couch. We "libral demon rats" have avoided the easy schtick of ageism but nothing of the sort holds back the right-wing meme machine. So now we can discuss Obama's age but not McCain's age.

Here's my offer for a nice meme about McCain which has nothing to do with his age: He wants his wife to participate in a beauty pageant of this sort:

This is the Buffalo Chips beauty pageant at least a year ago, having to do with bikers and biker chicks and consisting of various things, including pretend fellatio of a banana. John McCain would like his wife Cindy to participate in a similar pageant:

On Monday, John McCain appeared at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a veteran-friendly event that featured Kid Rock, Def Leppard, REO Speedwagon (?!) and a biker beauty pageant called "Miss Buffalo Chip" that the presumptive presidential nominee may or may not have known featured topless women.

"I encouraged Cindy to compete," he told the crowd. "I told her [that] with a little luck, she could be the only woman to serve as both the first lady and Miss Buffalo Chip."

Now to parse this all: It's obviously McCain's attempt to make a joke and I'm pretty sure that he didn't know Cindy would have to suck a banana in that competition.

But note that he didn't bother to find out anything about the pageant beforehand and he hasn't bothered to apologize for his statements afterwards, or at least I found no mention of such an apology. Yet he was violating family values in a way which I'd think the fundamentalist right would deplore, as a minimum, and he was also telling us in no uncertain terms that respect towards women is not high on his pyramid of values. Anything to get a cheap laugh beats that.

Here's the fascinating aspect of all this: Imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama had cracked this joke about Michelle? Or if Hillary Clinton had earlier offered Bill Clinton as a participant in some semi-naked hunk competition? The media treats McCain as if he was fragile and above all criticism. Even something as juicy as this story gets no traction as a meme.

Guys On The Pill

Is that ever going to be the norm? A piece in Time discusses the reasons why we should all be quite pessimistic about the likelihood of a male contraceptive pill or injection or something of the sort. To create a safe and effective form of male-controlled birth control (other than the condom) is tricky for both scientific reason and cultural reasons. The latter have to do with both the assumption that not enough men are interested in having access to medical male-controlled birth control and that women wouldn't trust men to take care of contraception in the first place, unless they can see it happening with their own eyes (as is the case with the condom).

The Time article also mentions the high costs of developing new forms of birth control. If the market just isn't there the costs are not justified. But is the market there or not? I can see the reluctance of anyone (including us women) to possibly mess with the health of their bodies just for the sake of birth control. But many women do exactly that, and one might think that men might also be willing to do so because of the many advantages that control has.

As examples of those advantages one might mention the ability of a man to take over contraception when his partner can't tolerate the pill or uterine devices and when the couple doesn't like or trust condoms. But perhaps more importantly, a man cannot be the "victim" of paternity suits after one-night stands if he used good birth control himself. I would think that the Men's Rights Activists would be loud and vociferous in their demands for better male contraceptives. Wouldn't you?

If it is indeed true that the market for the male pill, say, is insufficiently large, the reason might be the simple fact that we already have the female pill. There is less need in general for additional forms of contraception. But note that the recent Bush administration attempts to equate the birth control pill and the intra-uterine devices with abortion might change that comfortable status quo. A male pill would do the prevention inside the male body and no stretch of pro-life imagination could make that into abortion!

Wouldn't it be weird if that was what made the male birth control pill a reality?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

From My Self-Promotion Files: Do Women Have An Inner Glass Ceiling?

You might like to read what I have to say about the scarcity of women in American politics. I worked very hard for the piece, by the way, even going out and playing girl reporter.

Peace and Punditry

Picture from Scarlet. More here.

Wouldn't peace be nice right about now? We could then focus on arguing about all the nitty-gritty stuff, such as rebuilding the dangerous infrastructure of this country. Of course Banana Republics require a dangerous infrastructure and as a Banana Republic seems to be on the plank of the Republican Party as the future of this country I guess that we won't see those bridges fixed. Could someone tell me, please, how much work has been done since last summer's bridge collapse? And how much money has been spent in Iraq during the same time frame?

On the other hand of the scales of victory, there is a new Kentucky Fried Chicken store in Fallujah.* So the troops can come home now and start fixing the bridges, right? I love being a naive goddess.

Naive goddesses don't understand why the coverage of the presidential campaigns is like this:

For those who can't watch the video, the pundits go on about how saintly McCain is and how much he is isolated from what really matters which is discussing Obama's arrogance (who does he think he is?) and his use of the race card and how all that was created by the meanies in McCain's campaign while McCain was just being all honorable and stuff.
* The store appears to be an unauthorized knockoff, not part of KFC.

One Day in the Life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I wonder if he would have selected his last day for a book with that title? I'm ripping off his famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, of course, a book which captured the odd taste of happiness as extremely relative. As anyone who has been very ill knows, a small reduction in the symptoms can give you the highest high of your life. Similarly, Ivan Denisovich could be happy in his horrible prison experience, because on that particular day there was just a little bit more bread, a little bit more time, a little bit more independence.

Or so I recall that book. I read Solzhenitsyn pretty early in my life, around the age of fifteen. Indeed, my first book essay at school was on the Cancer Ward. I loved writing about death and the gloominess and so on, and the teacher was a bit concerned until he got to the end of the essay which had an ode to the victorious human spirit. So that was all right.

Much has been written about the political meaning of Solzhenitsyn recently and a lot less about his actual talents in writing. His message about the horrors of Soviet communism struck a cord with his co-patriots and obviously with the other side in the Cold War, and his currency soared high. Later the reverse happened, because Solzhenitsyn's forced exile in the West revealed his hatred of the West and because he decided to become a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox on his return to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

These political waves may have brought him first too high and then too low. I tend to think of his actual literary merits as somewhere in the middle. We shall see what the future will say about them. At least he doesn't have to worry about being now forgotten for his gender. (I just had to turn this all into a feminist discussion,didn't I?)

Knowing the opinions of a living author always makes the enjoyment of her or his work more difficult, especially if those opinions are unpleasant. It's a little like being invited to see a wonderful artistic piece of furniture in the context of the workshop. There it stands, beautiful, but surrounded by sawdust and bits of lumber and tools all helter-skelter and the smell of varnish and paint remover and dust everywhere. It's hard not to look at the room instead of the furniture, and it's probably true that the state of the workshop does tell us something about how carefully and well the piece was made. But mostly we'd prefer to see the final work of art against some more neutral background.

Monday, August 04, 2008

From Austen to Dowd

The most recent Maureen Dowd column is called "Mr. Darcy Comes Courting." It employs Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as the pattern into which Obama's election campaign is to be fitted. Yes, you guessed it: Barack Obama is Mr. Darcy. Who is Elizabeth Bennet, then? That's a tad unclear.

Dowd ends up arguing that the United States is Elizabeth, but most of the column is spent on berating Hillary Clinton, the women who voted for her, working class women and American women in general. That's Dowd's usual m.o. and somehow based on the idea that she might, after all, not be a woman herself. Good luck with getting the guys to accept her honorary guyness.

I shouldn't be writing about Dowd's misuse of Jane Austen's book. Molly Ivors has put together an excellent literary response, but I would still like to say a few small words about this bit from Dowd:

The odd thing is that Obama bears a distinct resemblance to the most cherished hero in chick-lit history. The senator is a modern incarnation of the clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious Mr. Darcy.

Jane Austen belongs to the history of chick-lit? Only if you are willing to see Rembrandt or da Vinci or Rubens as the forerunner of your family snapshots. Note, by the way, that this is not in any sense intended to demean the writers of chick-lit (if such a genre really exists in the first place); only to point out that Jane Austen was one of the few great geniuses of the English language and that her books are not about love-and-marriage anymore than Rembrandt's paintings are about trying to take photographs before photography was invented.

Here's an interesting question: Does Maureen Dowd herself write the kind of chick-lit she deplores? I rather suspect so, given her obsession of turning everything about politics into a teenage drama, replete with cheerleaders and burly guys playing football and rather nasty geeks who shouldn't get the girls. All this made me Google what else she may have said about Jane Austen and chick-list. This is what I found in a 2007 column titled "Heels Over Hemingway", a piece deploring the omnipresence of chick-lit, its pink covers turning bookstores into a sea of pink in which the testicle-driven Important Classics are drowning:

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn't find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine's Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys' club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of "The Devil Wears Prada." The blood-red high heel ending in a devil's pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.

I even found Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.

"Penis lit versus Venus lit," said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. "An unacceptable choice."

"Looking for Mr. Goodbunny" by Kathleen O'Reilly sits atop George Orwell's "1984." "Mine Are Spectacular!" by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over "Ulysses." Sophie Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling.

Even Will Shakespeare is buffeted by rampaging 30-year-old heroines, each one frantically trying to get their guy or figure out if he's the right guy, or if he meant what he said, or if he should be with them instead of their BFF or cousin, or if he'll come back, or if she'll end up stuck home alone eating Häagen-Dazs and watching "CSI" and "Sex and the City" reruns.

Weirdly enough, Dowd in that column warns us all from confusing chick-lit with Jane Austen's love-and-marriage stories. I guess she has changed her mind about that.

But do you spot something else fascinating about those paragraphs I quoted? Do you spot one of the oldest tricks in the tool kits of us propagandists? Suppose that I wanted to make the reverse argument from Dowd's point. How would I accomplish that?

I'd pile the books in a bookstore into two imaginary piles, one consisting of Lady Murasake's The Tale of Genji, the books by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and so on and the other consisting of potboilers written by guys: books all about killing other guys and about having sex with lots of women, with a few military cartoons and Superman stories thrown in. Then I'd compare what's in the two piles and conclude that bookstores are drowning all the important classics written by women in this horrible sea of testosterone, whatever its color might be. And that's the trick Dowd uses except in reverse: She compares the best of male authors with female authors from a genre that she dislikes.

Time now for a very different literary metaphor, one having to do with Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. For those of you not familiar with this cartoon, Lucy repeatedly holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but every time she lifts the ball up at the last moment, causing poor Charlie to fall back after kicking into air.

Charlie never learns the lesson not to kick. Now replace Lucy with Maureen Dowd and Charlie with me and what do you get? A setup where every stupid column written by Dowd elicits an angry response from me, and that's exactly what the New York Times wants from their opinion columnists: The loonier the better! Bring them all in: Brooks, Kristol and Dowd! They can always be trusted to say something vile and nasty about womankind and that's how we like it here at the Gray Lady.

No wonder that Maureen Dowd as Lucy is one of their favorite girls. Just see how many people e-mail Dowd's columns to each other. Sadly, most of them probably feel like Charlie Brown, wishing that they could stop reading the dratted thing.

Sigh. Let's return to the idea of applying Pride and Prejudice to this election campaign, if we must. Who in the book is John McCain? Dowd suggests the wily Wickham, but I think a much closer model would be Mr. Collins, the boring and calculating clergyman with friends in high places. He was even quite a maverick, easily switching to a different woman when Elizabeth Bennet refused his courting.