Saturday, February 17, 2018

a brief thought on a failure of Francis Schaeffer in The God Who is There and the rest of his trilogy

As I get older I can't help thinking that Schaeffer did ... okay in the visual art/plastic art overview but that he was going to be okay on that front by way of Rookmaaker.  His take on philosophy seems ... slapdash.  It strikes me that he was going for the big name highbrow philosophers as a pastor without having the acumen to tackle them.  That fellow Christians consider Schaeffer to have butchered Kierkegaard and others is not something I want to exactly tackle in a short post.

No, I think Schaeffer missed the boat by failing to adequately address highbrow culture in the 1960s when he could have more gainfully engaged what was going on at a more middlebrow and even lowbrow level.

Let's play a game where we imagine if Francis Schaeffer chose to publicly tackle Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces rather than get sloppy attempting to thumbnail sketch Heidegger.  What if Schaeffer had spelled out a case to Christians that Campbell's monomyth was a bad joke as comparative anthropology that was a distillation of American narcissism that, if suffused throughout popular culture, could lead to a cultural monomyth in which everything is about "me", the hero? 

Now, obviously, Schaeffer didn't do that.  But besides not addressing Campbell's monomyth there was the cosmogonic cycle and that ... well ... even a conservative like Roger Scruton could say in The Ring of Truth that what Wagner did was tell the story about our stories.  The idea of an art work about our works of art; a myth about our myths, that was something Scruton says Richard Wagner was attempting to do in the Ring cycle.  Scruton thinks Wagner succeeded at conveying ther sacred in the absence of the reality of gods. 

I think Schaeffer made a giant mistake in arts history by ignoring Wagner altogether.  The Romantic era didn't die, it hasn't died.  We're still living with the total work of art as a utopian vision of a better society and humanity that doubles up as a critique of contemporary society.  We can see it most clearly not in the highbrow circles where in a post World War II world it's shameful to have such a work as an objectively observable work--no, for the highbrow the total work of art has been transubstantiated into an ideology like post-Marxist thought or neoliberalism.  The cults of art in the lowbrow are where Wagner's ideal of the total work of art reflecting the Folk thrives. 

Any competent pastor could inveigh against the cult of the Superbowl as an alternative Sunday gathering of course. 

But Schaeffer could have addressed a mixture of Wagner's legacy and Campbell's legacy and probably have done more good than coming across to highbrow scholars as if he were nothing more than a reactionary fundamentalist pedant. 

Of course ... that wasn't he Francis Schaeffer we had in the legacy of Anglo-American Christian thought.  Schaeffer had some ideas that, were they taken as a starting point, could have been fun and exciting as a catalyst for explorations in the arts and literary scholarship.  But, alas, Schaeffer's worldviewism tends to be taken as a conversation stopper by people who will invoke worldview talk to say this or that artist doesn't have a Christian worldview or just has a "postmodern worldview" and that's the end.  No need to even get into how or why such a set of ideas (which are themselves not even always explained) are manifest in the art work potentially under discussion.  Nope, just say X created Y which is a reflection of the Z worldview that X has that in general terms is implicitly or explicitly not Christian and the Christian school report is done!

But the most striking reason I've come to believe that Schaeffer's approach of assessing everything in light of a Christian worldview is not "just" because it tends to not define what a real Christian worldview is, often tacitly in terms of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant default mode that favors Americanist cultural ideals that no Christian needs to feel hugely obligated to, it's also because, as I've demonstrated elsewhere at this blog, a Francis Schaeffer condemnation of a John Cage can read pretty much the same as a condemnation of John Cage and his music leveled by a Maoist Marxist like John Tilbury or Cornelius Cardew.  With the end of the Cold War it's possible, and I suggest also necessary, to regard one of the shortcomings in Schaeffer's whole approach as being so busy fretting about America being a post-Christian nation (as if Christendom and its salvage were the only path forward for Christians) that he could not imagine a form of Christianity that is not wielded toward the end of American revivalist ideals.

A postmillennialist theonomist and a Marxist do not seem different to me in terms of their overall teleological conception of history.  Since the Presbyterian wings of American Christian thought still have some folks committed to some variant of this stuff it's a reason I've considered writing a few things to demonstrate that with the passing of the Cold War you can turn to a Schaeffer or a Cardew and find that they can both blast Cage for the same reason despite seeming to formally be on opposing sides within the context of the Cold War. 

Meanwhile, Wagner's legacy lives on so vibrantly within Hollywood that I can see a trailer for Infinity War and where the 19th century had Wagner's Wotan wielding the Ring of the Nibelung to govern the world that eventually falls due to the curse of Alberich upon the Ring; whereas Frodo and Sam take the One Ring to destroy it to save the world; now in our century we've got Thanos seeking the completion of the Infinity Gauntlet so he can remake the cosmos according to his own whims. 

At no point did Schaeffer, in his various writings, tackle what would turn out in the last forty years to have been the most potent and pervasive art religions.

Nor does it seem he anticipated that these art religions would become so numerous that evangelistic efforts could transform or translate popular cultural tropes and brands as if they were in some sense dim pointers in the mode of the altar to the unknown god in Athens described in Acts. 

semi-incubation part 2

Some of the projects I wanted to tackle are more time intensive than I'd hoped.

The Justin Dean book review now needs to be informed by his podcast promotional activities, for instance.

Still mean to discuss PR Matters this year, but the history of Mars Hill Church public relations controversies is ... a little formidable.  Some of the more memorable issues predate Justin Dean, of course.

Atlantic--post Bill Clinton it's like we all stopped pretending we cared about the fidelity of politicians compared to their results

Right up until 2016 or so, there was a clean narrative about political infidelity. Back in the day, the story went, politicians had affairs with abandon—John Kennedy, of course, but also Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and plenty others. (It’s a curiosity that Richard Nixon, the most famously unethical president, is one of the few without serious allegations of infidelity.)

Here we can pause a moment to consider that Richard Nixon's scruples could be questioned without questioning his fidelity to his wife, and by extension, looking back on the controversies that surrounded a former local megachurch leader, it was possible to regard him as having had a number of ethical shortcomings and misuses of power and influence despite having never cheated on his wife.  Suggesting that Mark Driscoll could be thought of as a Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors is unflattering but, since a journalist mentioned that Nixon was never credibly charged with cheating on his wife, it's an instructive moment evangelicals and conservative Protestants could benefit from considering--you can be a very, very bad leader even if you're a faithful husband and family man.

Moving along:

“If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else,” Matt Bai argued in a 2014 book on Hart. “By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods.”

Or so the story went.

But this narrative looks dubious these days. Friday morning, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published a long, detailed account of how Trump’s friend David Pecker, the head of the tabloid empire that includes The National Enquirer, killed the story of Trump’s affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal by buying the rights. The Wall Street Journal previously reported on the Pecker’s move to suppress the story, but Farrow adds a great deal of detail, and obtained a contemporary written account by McDougal of her relationship with Trump, who was early in his marriage to his third wife, Melania.

And Farrow’s story comes the same week that Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, admitted he “facilitat[ed]” a payment to Stormy Daniels, a porn star who also alleged an affair with Trump, in exchange for her silence. Cohen had previously denied this; his vague statement did not really rule out Trump having been the source of the $130,000 payout, though it was clearly intended to give that impression. Friends of Daniels promptly told a celebrity news site that she felt this disclosure sprung her from her agreement to be silent.

There’s simply no plausible deniability that Trump is a serial philanderer—each of these stories has contemporaneous evidence and hush-money agreements, to say nothing of Trump’s history of infidelities. There’s also no reason to believe that the latest story will change much. In the old era, voters didn’t know about infidelity and what they didn’t know didn’t hurt them. In the interim, they knew, and it drove lots of politicians from office. And in the new era, voters know and they just don’t care.
If this is true, however, it didn’t start with Trump—he simply represents the apotheosis. Instead, it began with Clinton, who previously appeared to be the high-water mark of the middle period. Clinton was caught with his pants down (not quite literally, but close) having an affair with a White House intern. He lied about it, including to his closest friends and cabinet, but most consequentially to a grand jury. That led to Clinton’s impeachment in the House.

But a strange thing happened. Clinton wasn’t convicted by the Senate, and he didn’t resign. He didn’t show much shame at all. Oh sure, he apologized for lying, he bit his lower lip, the whole nine yards, but he more or less forged ahead. It worked. Voters knew—and it turned out they didn’t care. The highest approval rating of his presidency came around the time of his impeachment, and it stayed high, around 60 percent, for the rest of his term.


But even if Bill Clinton has, by 2018, been deemed too toxic to be thought of as an asset, his legacy is inseparable from her legacy.   If in the wake of Bill Clinton's impeachment infidelity and even deceit were not deal breakers then what might be left by which to assess a political figure's success?  Perhaps something like blunt policy implementation.  If Trump were to keep even a third of the things he said he'd do, let alone half, then anyone who had concluded that the post World War II status quo was not working for the working class or for middle class whites might just throw in with Trump not so much because he was considered a person of good character or even as someone who might necessarily fulfill campaign promises but because if the last twenty years of political dynasties such as Bush or Gore or Kennedy or Clinton or whomever got things to where they were in 2016 then to vote for Trump was to vote for someone and something different. 

Democrats could hardly show Al Franken the door and still keep Clinton around as if he wasn't a liability in a #MeToo moment.  But twenty years later presents its own difficulties on the Clinton legacy and, more pointedly for me, what is not in question is whether or not the Clintonian legacy is being shifted to the side while making no fundamental reassessments of policy.  If Trump has had no observable shame about not being a faithful husband the precedent for this not sinking a public figure began decades ago with Bill Clinton, who managed to go through an impeachment process and come out the other side still popular. 

Take this ...

“Bill Clinton’s a former president of the United States, and in his administration, we took an economy that was in the tank and built an economic engine that had been unparalleled. Did he make significant mistakes? Of course he did,” Perez said. “People will make judgments race by race about who are the best surrogates to come down and advocate.”

So maybe Clinton did some bad stuff.  Maybe he wasn't a faithful husband.  Maybe during his watch aerial bombing in the former Yugoslavia kept happening when anyone with any passing knowledge of military history could suggest that bombing the daylights out of a nation never does anything in strategic terms (it's one of a few things about Clinton's legacy I considered ghastly and evil at the time even while I still considered myself both a Republican and even a hawk on national defense, bombing the former Yugoslavia was an idiotic and immoral policy but I digress a bit).  But for the people who felt like Bill Clinton's years fixed the economy it was all good.  Sure, maybe we could look back on a decade of the internet boom and perma-temp and contract work with no medical coverage and weird hours in the Puget Sound but, hey, those years were awesome for some people, I have to assume.  Just not me.  For those people who just want to throw on a graphic about how under the Clinton years more jobs were created and we didn't have any officially announced military actions, if that's your thing I won't be able to change your minds. 

John Halle had a blog post not o long ago where he discussed how Democrats reacted to the Paula Jones allegations twenty years ago and how that sinks the foundation for moral outrage on the part of Democrats who might have backed Hillary Clinton with respect to the character of Trump.  Not everyone thinks that how Clinton or Trump handled married life is worthy of emulation but within the confines of the big two parties it seems clearer and clearer that in spite of some observable differences about implementation of certain goals relevant to a pax Americana, the modes of operating, the basic ends in mind are shared.  And, to that end, it seems we may be at a point where the two parties have shown what levels of pragmatism they have been willing to endorse in the last thirty years (and further back, obviously) to get their goals achieved.  Even an attempt by the DNC to distance itself from Bill might be as much pragmatism as principle. 

Not feeling particularly trusting of either of the two parties at this point, though. 

from The Atlantic, on college debt but without the degree

Amid all the coverage about people with student debt who do get the degree, there's not as much coverage about the people who get all the college debt but don't manage to finish the degree.

thinking back on authors at Slate saying we shouldn't pay down the national debt (2000), or default on it (2011) and on a crisis in higher ed to do with exploitive lending

About 18 years ago someone at Slate argued that 2000 was not the time to start paying down the national debt.

The entire thing was formulated in terms of you, the taxpayer, not in terms of the national debt itself.  The only question in consideration from a national fiscal policy perspective was whether the tax cuts would happen "now" or "later", not whether or not the possibility that no tax cuts would be made, still less that taxes might be raised and spending also cut to do something like paying down the national debt.

What a difference a decade makes ...

The question of the United States simply defaulting on the national debt was considered in 2011 by Brian Palmer.

So what would happen if the government did default on its debt? Well, there are two kinds of default. In the first scenario, the government simply wouldn't be able to cover its interest payments—in other words, what ordinary people mean when they use the word default. The results of this would be catastrophic. When creditors suspected that things might play out this way in Argentina in 2001, that nation's interest rates rose 5 percent [PDF] in a matter of months. A similar spike in Uncle Sam's average interest rate would increase the federal deficit by 30 percent in the first year, with a snowball effect going forward. The good news is that we're a long way from reaching that kind of crisis. Last year, the government paid $213 billion in interest on its publicly held debt. That accounts for just one-tenth of government revenue.

The second default scenario is more likely. In that case, the government would have enough money to pay interest to its creditors, but not enough to issue Social Security checks or pay soldiers' salaries. There's no analogue to this kind of default—if default is the right word—in the private sphere. Economists disagree on its significance. Secretary Geithner insists that it's "default by another name," since it would indicate the country's willingness to walk away from financial commitments. Others have argued that prioritizing debt-service payments, and walking away from entitlements or discretionary spending, would actually make us seem more reliable (and deserving of low interest rates), since it would establish just how seriously the U.S. takes its debt payments. At this point, it's not clear how, exactly, this would play out.


Neither seemed likely to happen then or now.  The first type of default would, well, guys like Rod Dreher say we're Weimar America as it is.  No point in belaboring that observation.

The second default scenario of paying the debt but gutting Social Security or military salaries sounds pretty bad, too.  What could possibly be the risk of deciding to not pay soldiers' salaries or Social Security checks?  Would American soldiers and the elderly be so philosophical as to not take action?  But then since either type of default seems moot as an action taken by us the first default seems, ultimately, more likely than the second.   It might take longer for the United States to reach such a point but it's not necessarily going to be a decision for the United States to make as if it controls that outcome.  Wouldn't a moment of default arrive not merely because the borrower decides to default but because the lender takes an action to get paid back?  I.e. there could be such a thing as a default default on debt, the kind of defaulting on a debt that could lead to ... say ... a default decision. 

You can read how this thing can happen with stuff like student loans. Taking on a large amount of debt for an educational certification of dubious value on the job market has been considered a crisis for years, even by some other people who write for Slate.

I don’t question the importance of higher education. But the detrimental effects of crushing debt shouldn’t be the shared experience of millions of young people and their families. Currently, about 40 million Americans owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and it continues to grow. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, students who borrow graduate with an average debt of $29,000 for a bachelor’s degree. In 2014, 69 percent of graduates had student loan debt, and from 2004 to 2014, the average college debt grew at more than double the rate of inflation. Even with smaller amounts of debt than mine, starting a life quickly becomes very hard. So how do people get to this point? We’ve debated student debt for decades, but our understanding of how it shapes a young person’s experience—from naïve teenager to indebted young adult—is still limited. Here’s what happened to me.

If the proposed solution is that the government pays for all education Americans need to consider that in those lands where the state pays for all your education they frequently take an interest in telling you what your professional career is going to be.  That is the part that I suspect Americans will not tolerate.  They may love the idea that Uncle Sam foots the bill for you to study whatever you want, but to be a cog in the national industry machine?  That seems oppressive!  What if a standardized career test says that you should be a horticulturalist when you want to go into something more literary?  I ran into that in high school taking one of those standardized career tests. 

Reading about a law under proposal that would require students to apply to at least one college ... I'm admittedly a pessimist about American higher education at a couple of levels.  Requiring high school students to apply to a college when the higher education debt situation seems as bad as it is seems like it's suggesting that telling American high schoolers they HAVE to apply to a college to  make sure enrollments don't drop at a state school sounds unscrupulous.  j

If so many who get advanced degrees struggle to find jobs that can pay back that debt then wouldn't insisting that students apply do nothing to fix that?  So what if a student applies?  If they don't get accepted they're made to apply and that could glut admissions assessment.  If they get accepted after they have applied that does not really mean they have to actually enroll, does it?  You could apply and get accepted and then just decide not to go because there's not enough financial aid or you never had the money to begin with but a requirement for a student to apply takes no consideration of capacity to pay in advance, does it?
Overall it seems that the nature of the American national debt is such that the moment of default is probably not going to e the moment that we decide it's going to be but the moment the creditors decide they want their due.   Precisely to whom this national debt is owed doesn't even seem to ever come up in a venue like Slate. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Sadists with heartstrings--Richard Brody on the gleeful sadism of the new Peter Rabbit film and its conflict with the life-lesson moralizing of the character arcs, the day of a shooting in Florida

Richard Brody's piece about the new Peter Rabbit film was published the same day as the shooting in Florida so he may have been reported to some degree as Brody was writing.  Since he doesn't mention the shooting it's not possible to be sure, but the juxtaposition of Brody publishing his short rumination on Peter Rabbit the day of the shooting was an interesting coincidence. 

The "rascal, rebel, rabbit" marketing lost me at the first two trite words.  Seeing that this was written and directed by Americans had me not-sold from the start.  Every American protagonist is a rascal and a rebel, male or female, in so very many films. 

Brody's piece is worth considering as a whole.  Anyone who could regard Susan Vernon as other than the villain of Love & Friendship is someone I'm apt to disagree with a lot of the time, but as the old saying has it, a broken clock is right twice a day.  Because, perhaps, Brody has children and has children who have food allergies to boot, he couldn't completely remove the parent perspective in considering this recent film.  For a film critic who has lamented moralism in mainstream film it could seem that ... well ... sometimes he feels a bit moralizing.

The Real Problem with “Peter Rabbit” ’s Allergy Scene
 By Richard Brody
February 14, 2018
Last Saturday, a day after the opening of “Peter Rabbit,” Will Gluck’s new and free adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s stories, Kenneth Mendez, the president and C.E.O. of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, issued both a statement on Facebook and an open letter criticizing the film’s makers and its studio, Sony, for one particular scene. In that scene, Peter and the four other rabbits, who are being threatened and pursued by Tom McGregor (the heir to the venerable Mr. McGregor’s garden), adopt a new strategy to fight him: knowing that he’s allergic to blackberries, they use a slingshot to shoot blackberries at him, and one goes directly into his open mouth. He begins to choke, feels an anaphylactic episode coming on, reaches into his pocket for his EpiPen, injects himself with it, and keels over in exhaustion. [emphasis added]
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation criticized the filmmakers for making light of a life-threatening allergy and for depicting the use of an allergen as a weapon against a gravely allergic person. The statement warned that the movie could be “disturbing” to children with serious allergies; some people advocated a boycott. In response, Sony offered an apology. As a parent of children with severe food allergies, I wish I’d seen the movie before the controversy broke out, because I’d be curious to see whether I would have reacted strongly to the scene without having been alerted to it beforehand. Under the given circumstances, I found that I agree that the scene spotlights an unpleasant insensitivity, even an ugly obliviousness, on the part of the filmmakers. Yet, even more, it throws into sharp relief the over-all tone and import of the film, and, in the process, reveals other peculiarities that make “Peter Rabbit” exemplary of recent movies and of the times.
Peter Rabbit” is a boisterous comedy in which live action (human characters in realistic homes, landscapes, and towns) is blended with C.G.I. as seamlessly and as persuasively as in “Paddington 2.” The film was made by a comedy director (Gluck directed “Easy A” and “Friends with Benefits”) who, in the script, which he co-wrote with Rob Lieber, has taken extreme liberties with Potter’s stories. Peter and his family live in a hollow beneath a tree in rural Windermere, England, and gleefully filch produce from the garden of their nemesis, the elderly Mr. McGregor. When Mr. McGregor suddenly dies, the house and garden are inherited by his great-nephew Tom (Domhnall Gleeson), a Londoner and a neat freak who is even more hostile to the rabbits than Mr. McGregor was. But his battles against them are inhibited when he makes the acquaintance of his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), an artist who is the rabbits’ defender and protector (and also their portraitist). Bea and Tom fall in love; knowing that Bea also loves the rabbits—and, especially, their ringleader and brightest personality, Peter—Tom has to do his rabbit hunting on the sly.
Peter and the other rabbits take advantage of Tom’s self-enforced restraint to run rampage through his garden and make his life miserable; Tom, for his part, stealthily takes increasingly forceful action against them. That’s when, facing real danger, the rabbits prepare to unleash the blackberry attack, knowing full well its potential consequences. Peter calls it “the endgame.” For that matter, a bit earlier, as they plan the attack, the other rabbits are hesitant; Peter’s mild-mannered cousin Benjamin says that “allergies are serious” and adds, “I don’t want to get any letters.” (The line wasn’t inserted into the movie after the controversy arose; it was always there.) [emphasis added]
What’s peculiar about “Peter Rabbit” is that, along with its quippy, often self-referential humor and plentiful (often clever) visual gags, it features an unusual quantity and degree of violence, which link it to classic-era Looney Tunes cartoons and Three Stooges shorts. When the elderly Mr. McGregor keels over, Peter examines him by poking his eyeball—and, after declaring him dead, gleefully takes credit for killing him. (Mr. McGregor actually died of a heart attack.) Tom comes slamming at the rabbits with rakes, hoes, and other garden tools. He installs an electric fence against the animal intruders, only to have the rabbits rewire it, electrifying his doorknobs with shocks that blast him, cannonball-like, against hard stone walls. The rabbits plant snapping traps and rakes around Tom’s bed, leading to pinchings and clobberings; they leave various fruits on staircase landings, sending Tom tumbling down. There’s a repeated gag in which one of the sisters enjoys taking a hard fall and breaking one rib after another, and a climactic bit, involving dynamite, that’s nearly apocalyptic.
In another sense, though, the story owes nothing to the action-heavy, character-thin antics of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd or Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Rather, Gluck’s “Peter Rabbit” is thoroughly composed and intricately characterized; the rabbits, no less than the humans, are given elaborate backstories and large emotional arcs that the plot is devoted, at length, to illustrating, explicating, and resolving. Peter and his sisters—Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail—are orphans; their father was killed and eaten by Mr. McGregor, and Peter’s familiar blue jacket is actually his father’s. Their mother died, too, making Bea is the closest thing to a parent that the rabbits have.
Meanwhile, Peter is a mischievous, temperamental, vain, proud hothead, who, in a quiet moment, acknowledges that it’s his “character flaw” to do “stupid and reckless” things. [emphases added] (Oddly enough—or perhaps not oddly at all, given that the movie is written by two men—Bea is given the least backstory.) When romance blooms between Bea and Tom, Peter’s response is partly one of a practical worry for the rabbits’ safety. But, as the violence ramps up between Tom and Peter, even Benjamin wonders whether Peter has an ulterior motive—jealousy. In other words, with Bea as Peter’s virtual mother, Peter Rabbit” is something of a story about Peter trying to come to terms with a stepfather; the comedic drama links Peter’s mean streak to his emotional deprivation and trauma, and it takes him carefully through the paces of his rise to self-recognition and maturity.
It is precisely this strain of emotional realism that makes the allergy subplot, slight though it is, so repellent. The movie’s other varieties of violence are exaggerated, cartoonish, not just in depiction but in substance. Few kids have experience with electrical engineering or have dynamite at home; most kids know other kids with severe allergies. (Despite its explosive extremes and intricate, Rube Goldberg-esque calculation, there are no guns and no knives; Gluck clearly knows that certain things aren’t to be trifled with.) Meanwhile, the same emotional realism turns “Peter Rabbit” didactic, dutiful, tedious. Its mechanistic moralism, seemingly distilled from screenwriting classes and studio notes, is the sort that marks so many movies now—ones for adults as well as those for children—imparting values in the form of equation-like talking points, which prepare viewers not for life but for more, and similarly narrow, viewing. [emphases added]
Gluck clearly relishes the slapstick action that the characters incite, the situations inspire, and the technology enables, and he invests it with his own sense of exuberant discovery, which is minor but authentic. When it comes to life lessons, however, he dons his official hat and, far from doing any learning in the course of the action, merely dispenses the official line. That’s why the scene involving a life-threatening allergy is all the more conspicuous: while the rest of the movie marches in lockstep with its edifying narrative, that scene is out of place. It doesn’t follow the script.
The shooting occurred the day this was published and I wonder if Brody couldn't have gone further.
The pat moralism of cinema that celebrates and takes delight in sadism and the possibility of murder even in a children's film that is an adaptation of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit may say something about American culture.  If Peter's "father wound" just gets addressed and he has enough empathy and emotional support then his capacity for premeditated murder can be brushed aside. 
I'm not going to say that Brody could have opted to be more direct and more sweeping.  He tends to be sweeping in describing cinema trends rather than society, but his complaint about the pat moralism stops short of explaining what could be so repellent about it.  The emotional realism may have made the allergy subplot repellent to Brody but we could step back and consider that emotional realism does not necessarily require that characters be "good".  An emotionally realistic story arc could, depending on how things were written, have had Peter and associates escalating activity to remorseless murder.  The man dies of a food allergy and the rabbits are safe and things are fine.  End of story.  Brody is probably right to highlight a tension between the glee with which American film revels in violence and spectacle but it seems he finds the moralism rote and unconvincing. 
But the mechanistic moralism distilled from screenwriting classes can't really be completely separated from a film industry that gives us stuff like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, can it?
It could be Brody's seen enough films aimed at adults that when he sees the mechanical moralism of children's movies that, as he puts it, prepares a child only to view more of the same kind of movie rather than prepare them for life, he's aware that what Hollywood does is mechanical moralism but where it's heart is truly at is in sadism, cruel humor, and stuff like that.  Thing is, even when the moralism is completely serious or sincere it's not altogether clear if someone like Brody would be on board with it.  Film critics may have the weakness of having to watch too many films.  My own pondering in the last few years is an idea that if you feel that there's nothing new going on in movies or in music that may signal not so much that there's nothing interesting going on so much as that you're consuming too much and need to scale back consumption.  The dividing line between creative artistic activity and consumption artistic activity may sometimes be too great for people. 
Now we could (but probably won't) ban or regulate access to stuff like AR-15s, but there are other things at play.  We could talk about how violence in video games is not likely to manifest in actually violent behavior in a majority of cases.  I wouldn't say violent video games are things people should seek out because desensitization seems like a real possibility.
But I wonder if the problem is the disconnect between the rote moralism that Brody complains about in films and the lively sadism in the said same films.  What if wwe Americans want to believe that "we are not like this" when, a good chunk of us are?  The pat moralizing is the mask we want to wear over our cruelty and mockery that can neutralize it, if not to the point of keeping others from being harmed, to the point where we can look in the mirror and convince ourselves that we're good people, even if we've done a few innocent jokes now and then and made some sport of people.
Perhaps I could, as a blogger might, suggest that the sadism that briefly created a stir from the Peter Rabbit movie is a better tell as to who "we" really are than the screenwriterly moralism that is expected.  Maybe Peter Rabbit American-style isn't dealing with some father wound and needs to come to peace with his surrogate mother bringing a stepfather into his life, maybe he's an evil vindictive asshole who represents what Americans really are, and the bid for what Brody calls emotional realism is just the rationalization for why the humor derived from cruelty and premeditated murder can be excused because nobody we care about or may see regularly dies on screen.
Because if we don't see it on what some call the "second screen" these days, did it happen?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Bard as Borrower, research and arguments continue on the matter of just how much Shakespeare refined and appropriated the ideas of others

I tend to think of myself as ... maybe not cheerfully anti-Romantic in my aesthetics and convictions (I mean ... I admire a couple of the Puritans, am a Calvinist, and love the string quartets of Shostakovich) but I dislike a lot of stuff about the art and music but, most of all, the ideology about art as replacement for religion that took shape in the 19th century in Europe and the United States, basically the West.

The idea of the lonely misunderstood genius does not seem to me either an accurate understanding of how creative vitality works, nor do I think that it's a sustainable myth the more we learn about the ways in which ideas persist and get transformed in the stream of human creative activity.  What seems revolutionary in one time and place could simply be the recovery of elements that had fallen into disuse or creative presentations of relatively rare combinations in this or that work of something that, if we were to bracket it out into its respective elements, is full of things that could be considered even pedestrian.  The body may be new, you see, while capillaries and nerve endings and skin color and skin type might all be fairly "normal". 

So if it turns out Shakespeare made use of, and significantly reworked, ideas and works from his time and place, that fits what my understanding of the creative process is, as a kind of collaboration even when it seems to be just one person surveying an art form and its idioms and traditions and developing something. 

So, there's continuing research to suggest some more details about some relatively overlooked places for appropriation for the Bard.

This week, scholars Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter announced that they had discovered a new major source of Shakespeare’s plays. Using plagiarism software and literary analysis, McCarthy and Schlueter are preparing a new book in which they argue that the forgotten A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by the even-more-forgotten George North was a key point of inspiration for 11 of his major works. As reported by the New York Times:
The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In [a] passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and “trundle-tail,” to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”
The article, and the book, have many more examples of places where the words of Shakespeare and North intersect. Even though plagiarism-detecting software was used to make this discovery, McCarthy and Schlueter want to make clear that they are not accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism. Instead, they’re simply arguing that North’s writings were an inspiration for him.
They needn’t bother. By our standards, Shakespeare, who lived before modern ideas of authorship, plagiarized constantly. The discovery of North’s influence on Shakespeare is a welcome opportunity to remember how the Bard of Avon’s genius actually worked, and how much his methods are at odds with our own ideas of artistic greatness.

Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.

His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.

This is, generally speaking, not how we think about Shakespeare or, given limited classroom time and the emphasis on close textual reading, how he is taught. Many of his predecessors’ plays are lost, and his peers among Elizabethan playwrights aren’t read, taught, or produced nearly enough, making it harder to see the connections between his work and his contemporaries. Even when Shakespeare’s sources are mentioned, rarely is much time spent on reading them to see the influence clearly.

Thus, we look at Julius Caesar and marvel at the incredible rhetoric but don’t see it as in dialogue with plays about Rome by other Elizabethans such as Thomas Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War, and we don’t look at Plutarch’s accounts of Brutus and Mark Antony’s lives, which served as the source for both Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The result is that our understanding of both Caesar and Shakespeare is impoverished. By looking at his sources, we can see what he kept and cut and changed. By looking at his context, we can see the debates and cultural moments that he was responding to.
What emerges when you do this is a richer appreciation of the plays and a more down-to-earth view of their writer. Shakespeare wasn’t a God, and he wasn’t unique, even if he was the best. He was an artist responding to his time the way artists actually do, through opening themselves up to influence and creating out of the materials around them. There’s a practical side to his work as well. He wrote for a company, which means he wrote to the particular skills and limitations of his actors. He wrote prolifically, which necessitated recycling ideas, themes, and bits of dramatic business. As a part owner of his company, he also had to respond to practical matters like trends, government censorship, and the need to fill up to 3,000 seats a night.

A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone. If it worked so well for him, perhaps we should stop being attached to ideas of originality that have no bearing on how art is actually made

and so T. S. Eliot wrote that immature poets imitate and mature poets steel ... but transform whatever they've taken into something better or different from the original meaning or implication of the thing they took. 

We may still be stuck with a number of powerful vestiges of 19th century Romantic ideological commitments to a certain conception of genius.  Certainly in music pedagogy and historiography regarding 19th and 20th century music the favor is given to whomever is considered daring and innovative.  Those considered conservative or traditionalist tend to get bypassed.  This can sometimes happen even in cases where a fairly clear counter-argument could be made.  Richard Taruskin described Anton Reicha as having a conservative approach to defining musical forms like sonata, if memory serves.  School teachers can tend to land that way but Reicha's theoretical writings, as Kyle Gann has mentioned them, speculated on the viability of quarter tones and Reicha wrote a fugue in 5/8 in which a subject in A major is given an answer in E flat major, the sort of weirdness that Beethoven found a bit too far afield for him to consider such works fugues.  As Gann has put it, the 18th century for what we call classical music was a much weirder and more experimental period than traditional music history tends to give it credit for.

We could approach the history of an art form focusing on innovators but as our era proliferates in recorded music and preserved scores and stuff like, oh, suits about songs like "Blurred Lines", one of the ways to remedy what may be an overemphasis on originality is to remind ourselves that there are only so many variations on "I love you" or "I don't like that".  There's something to be said for considering an arts history of innovators, but there's something to be said for considering an arts history of consolidators and refiners, too.  J. S. Bach didn't exactly introduce any new forms or styles or ways of composing.  What he did was to refine and comprehensively explore what was possible within the realms of the styles and idioms he lived with. 

As more scholarship gets done on where Shakespeare got his ideas it might be worth noting that he can be understood as a consolidator and a refiner rather than some revolutionary. 

suit against Taylor Swift dismissed on grounds that phrases that appear in Swift lyric too banal to be considered infringeable material

For anyone who has heard "Shake it Off" the suit that was recently dismissed had to do with

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday that accused Taylor Swift of copyright infringement on her hit song “Shake It Off.”
Songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler brought the suit last fall, arguing that the chorus of the song borrowed from their 2001 composition, “Playas Gon’ Play.”
In his ruling, Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald held that combining the phrases, “Playas gonna play” and “haters gonna hate,” does not entail sufficient originality to warrant copyright protection.
“By 2001, American popular culture was heavily steeped in the concepts of players, haters, and player haters,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The concept of actors acting in accordance with their essential nature is not at all creative; it is banal.”
The plaintiffs’ song includes the following line in the chorus: “Playas, they gonna play, and haters, they gonna hate.” “Shake It Off” includes the line, “Players gonna play, play, play, play, play, and haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
Though short phrases are generally immune from copyright infringement claims, the plaintiffs argued that combining the two thoughts was sufficiently original to claim copyright protection. Fitzgerald disagreed.
“It is hardly surprising that Plaintiffs, hoping to convey the notion that one should persist regardless of others’ thoughts or actions, focused on both players playing and haters hating when numerous recent popular songs had each addressed the subjects of players, haters, and player haters,” he wrote. “In short, combining two truisms about playas and haters, both well-worn notions as of 2001, is simply not enough.”
“In sum, the lyrics at issue – the only thing that Plaintiffs allege Defendants copied – are too brief, unoriginal, and uncreative to warrant protection under the Copyright Act,” Fitzgerald concluded.
The case was dismissed with leave to amend, but Fitzgerald advised the plaintiffs not to refile the suit unless there are as-yet-undiscovered similarities between the two songs.
It doesn't really seem like there's a clear similarity beyond a couple of repeated phrases.
there's this ...
and then this ...
"The verdict in this case threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works," states the artists' brief authored by Ed McPherson. "All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process. The law should provide clearer rules so that songwriters can know when the line is crossed, or at least where the line is."

The amici say this case is "unique" because the two works at issue "do not have similar melodies; the two songs do not even share a single melodic phrase."

Instead, they suspect that the jury perceived similarity in the overall "feel" or "groove," which harks backs to the very first filing in the lawsuit. They point out that Gaye himself was heavily influenced by Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Nat "King" Cole, James Brown and others. They tell the 9th Circuit that there's a "bright line" in film, television and book copyright cases, but that the realm of music hasn't produced any legal clarity about what are "ideas" free to be used by anyone and what's "expression" that's off-limits to be misappropriated.


One of the things I hadn't read from the side that has been against the "Blurred Lines" verdict was how the case got catalyzed.

With the caveat that lawyers are lawyers ...


How did the “Blurred Lines” case come to you and why did you decide to take it?

It was referred to me by Mark Levinsohn, the transactional lawyer for the Gaye family. If you remember correctly, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke sued the Gaye family [seeking a declaratory judgment that “Blurred Lines” didn’t infringe Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”] We had a very strong musicology report, and I felt it was a strong claim.

Some of the media coverage focused on the idea that a win for your side would open up a can of worms, so more current songwriters could be sued by the owners of old compositions.

I could not disagree more. You have to check the source and realize that those who say that in an article may have an agenda. That was their pitch at trial and it has been the entire story of their legal team. It’s just not true. It is based on standards that have been in place for decades. When the Isley Brothers sued Michael Bolton [for infringing their copyright to the song “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” on his song of the same name], there was the same outcry: "This is going to stop the original creation of music." It didn’t happen then, and it’s not going to happen now.

Where’s the line between influence and infringement?

There are real standards. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me saying someone copied their song and I sent it to a musicologist and they said it wasn’t original or it wasn’t compositionally similar -- I turn down 80 to 90 percent of the cases that come to me. But we have a case involving Lil Jon and DJ Snake [who are being sued over "Turn Down For What" by Golden Crown Publishing for infringing the Freddie GZ song of the same name]. And we just settled a case involving Ed Sheeran [that involved a lawsuit brought by songwriters Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard over his song "Photograph"]. There are standards you have to meet -- and the “Blurred Lines” case met them.

One of the conundrums of our era is that so much popular culture is under copyright or trademark in some fashion.  Rather than argue, as some people do, that intellectual property itself is the problem or bad, some better education on what is in the public domain and what the public domain is for seems like a good idea.  But then as a classical guitarist and a composer I guess I'm already steeped in a style of music that goes back for a century or two.  I'm not sure, I'm afraid, that many people want to immerse themselves in the styles of music for which nearly every identifiable thing is public domain. 

Theodore Gracyk once made a distinction between music that is "ontologically thick" and "ontologically thin".  It's an academic distinction in that kind of jargon but the easiest examples would be classical music and pop music in the 20th century.  To say a music is "ontologically thin" is to say that it is transmitted and preserved and presented in a way that involves a communication system that is not hugely dependent on any one performer, any one style, and can be retained over a long period.  A music score for a string quartet would be considered "ontologically thin". 

"Ontologically thick" music would be basically any Beatles song or a pop song, music that is concretely tied to specific sounds, specific people, particular ways of generating sounds and that there is some "definitive" version.  You can identify that Prince himself as distinct from anyone else is performing a Prince song.  Similar specificity applies with any other pop star.  This is rather broadly what Gracyk's definition of "ontologically thick" music is.

Well, one of the biggest legal pitfalls with ontologically thick music is stuff like license and copyright.  If popular music could gain (or retain, really) connections to ontologically thinner music than itself and if, in turn, the concert music or "classical" idioms or post-classic idioms retained some connection to ontologically "thicker" performance idioms both styles of music would seem to have a better chance of retaining some vitality.    One of my soap box concerns for anyone who's read this blog in the last twelve years. 
So, anyway, a bit of musical news

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

an occasional haiku inspired by an attempt at satire

if brevity is
the soul of wit, then rambling
aborts a satire

I.e. some writers should please, please stop trying to write stuff they think is funny.

I'm not even against writing something satirical in a literary vein with a bunch of links.  I've done it myself. If you'd like to read how I think you should write a satire about the paradoxes of political ideals, ideologies and stuff from the New Left you can go over here.  If you want another example, you can go here. Another one applicable to both political and other kinds of empires can be found over here.

Admittedly, the only poetic idiom I've been playing with in the last few years is haiku, like over here

If that post was actually supposed to be a satire of Pulpit & Pen, well,  why don't we try something else, something with a bit more brevity and a bit more wit.

O Pulpit & Pen
you're the Dale Gribble of the
Christian blogosphere


Even though I have written a few posts making fun of the Frankfurt school advocates in the present day as people of privilege participating in the very culture industry the Frankfurt school would likely condemn, I'm still actually reading some of their stuff.  Walter Benjamin's more fun to read as a stylist but less focused than Adorno (but for the obvious reason that Benjamin never finished The Arcades Project); conversely Adorno is focused but he goes down trains of thought without considering collosal blind alleys.  All his advocacy for the necessity of twelve-tone music collapses the second you simply question why on earth we have to be married to the chromatic scale with twelve equally divided half-steps.  Reintroduce just intonation and split the octave into more than twelve tones (which was an idea proposed as far back as the early 1800s by Anton Reicha and later by Lizst) and the "necessity" of twelve-tone music vanishes, becoming instead just one of those things you could play with if it inspires you.

But in order to make that sort of point you'd have to take Adorno seriously enough to actually read him, which is not something I have gotten the impression anyone at Mere Orthodoxy has done or even plans to do.

That there's a Christian Industrial Complex in which power brokers wheel and deal seems pretty easy to establish.  I wouldn't make fun of Pulpit and Pen as somehow actually being wrong about that part, more along the Dale Gribble lines, that the nature of the conspiracy theories can seem petty and fixated on relatively surface details . One of the things that was probably shocking and disturbing to many former Mars Hill members and staff was the wave after wave of revelations about how the leadership culture conducted itself in terms of Result Source or disciplinary protocols such as nondisclosure agreements and other things.  The power brokering and intimidation behind the scenes began to be so at odds with the public presentation and stated ideals that the culture of Mars Hill began to crumble from within.  I don't think it was a case of Mars Hill withering before the onslaught of liberal/secular media.  Only an incompetent tool could take that idea seriously, but the idea that the gap between presentation and practice; or between façade and reality made members and staff conclude that Mars Hill had become a worldly branded thing that needed to die is easier to take seriously. 

And that the Christian media industry across the board seems to have no use for any serious engagement with what actually happened beyond a few pious bromides from a few years ago means that even if Pulpit & Pen can be easy to make fun of on many details, if they feel that a lot of corrupt power-brokering that damages the Gospel is going on among the big names I'm not really interested in disputing that even if I did just compare them to Dale Gribble of King of the Hill.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

a few extended thoughts on Alastair Roberts' writing and the inevitable male/female questions he grapples with

Over the last three years I've intermittently read the blog of Alastair Roberts, and with decreasing interest.  I still read it from time to time but as his career progresses he seems more shunted into a rote part that can be played by any number of conservative Christians in the Anglo-American idiom.  This part is the social observation guru and the matters of social observation tend to fall into one of two categories--sex/gender/sexuality on the one hand and politics on the other. 

Well, there's also occasionally stuff at a platform like Mere Orthodoxy where the question of why there aren't Christian intellectuals comes up but that's arguably peripheral to Roberts' commentary. 

In the last few years it can sometimes seem that despite his reading Roberts can get, well, lazy.

Take this old piece about the problems with "strong female characters", published at Mere Orthodoxy about a week after the trailer for Rogue One dropped.  In an era in which thanks to steady reshooting activity in late production such as happened with the Star Wars film and has happened regularly with tentpole releases, building a commentary around a few bad lines of dialogue (from a Star Wars film, no less, a franchise whose established reputation for howler dialogue would seem pretty well established after forty years) seemed precipitous.  We live in a time in which what you see in the trailer may end up being footage or scenes that never even appear in the movie, reshoot schedules can be that tight.   As to arguments against the cliché of the strong female character Overthinking It handled that in such a magisterial fashion back in 2008 after the first Michael Bay Transformers film came out Roberts wasted his time. 

Unless, of course, the magisterial rebuke needed to come from somewhere roughly to the "right" rather than a "left" on the issue of gender and social convention, in which case some kind of conservative Anglican response would be in order.

So there was a case made about attempts to shoehorn traditionally and conventionally masculine arcs from the hero's journey onto a female character that did violence to the teleology of our gendered existences.  Now I own most every Hayao Miyazaki film ever made so I'm never going to debate Roberts on the merits of one of the most brilliant creators of animated film of the last half century.  And I enjoy Jane Austen novels, too. 

But in the twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a thing on TV feminists have managed to come around to articulating a criticism of Joss Whedon's waif fu as an ultimately negative influence on popular culture.  There's not a whole lot in what Roberts had to say that hadn't already been articulated in a more cogent and readable fashion by, well, feminists. 

Take this, though:

The recurring characterization problems with such Strong Female Characters arise in no small measure from the struggle to show that men and women are interchangeable and can compete and cooperate with each other on the same terms. As I have already noted, this falsehood serves no one. It sets women up for frustration and failure as they have to justify their agency on men’s terms and it produces an embarrassment about male strengths that should be celebrated rather than stifled. It reflects a drive towards intense gender integration and de-differentiation in the wider world.

The traditional world of women—typically a different existential and intersubjective mapping of spaces that were shared with men—has been reduced through the migration of work away from the home, the expanding social role of the state and its agencies, the shrinking and contracting of families, the thinning out of neighborhoods, and the removal of much of the burden of domestic labour through technology. One’s value in society has also become increasingly contingent upon advanced educational attainment, career, wealth, and consumption. Within this new situation, women have had to forge new identities within worlds created by men and which play to male strengths. Shrunk to a sentimental reservation of domesticity, there is relatively little dignity to be found in what remains of traditional female worlds in most Western societies.
I remember one of my relatives saying to a coworker that he got the impression that the vision of feminism was that women could and should rise to the highest levels of management and strategy as a way of achieving equality with men, not by way of doing the thankless shitty jobs at the bottom of the company pecking order for low end wages doing the things that somebody has to do but that people find boring.

To borrow lingo from Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey is supposed to involve the call to adventure and challenge and discovering the boon.  It's not expected to take the form of you punch in for your day job, punch out after you've done the day's allotted work (maybe), and then go home and live that way day after day, week after week. month after month, and then year after year for so long as you can stand to do the job for the compensation you get.  The traditional world of women, whatever Roberts imagines it to be, was not a world in which everyone in a post-industrial economic system could be construed as interchangeable cogs in a production machine. 

But let's suppose the hero's journey and the trope of adventure itself is the greater, deeper and more pernicious lie--in that case then the problem with the strong female character isn't really that she is somehow bidden to have the hero's journey by way of Rey that was supposed to be Luke Skywalker (or "Jake" Skywalker), the problem is that the call to adventure only means anything to those people who imagine themselves to be some kind of John Galt in a world full of abject mediocrities.  We're told by way of movies and literature and TED talks and self-help books that we can discover the Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or maybe, too, a Princess Leia or Rey inside us when, in fact, we live in a world and work in a world where we're more likely to be a storm trooper (and not Finn) or Porkins or maybe Boba Fett in the "gig economy".  We might have a killer costume and then get unceremoniously knocked into the Sarlac by a blind guy with a stick who isn't named Matt Murdoch.

There is relatively limited dignity to be found in any rank and file job these days, regardless of gender.  Anyone who has moved far enough along in academia to get a master's degree or a doctorate is going to be ensconced in that kind of culture.  It's not always necessarily a bad thing.  Yet, to make this in a pointed way, some guy who was a preacher here in the Seattle area used to quip about guys who had seminary degrees but no real world experience.  He, of course, would go on to get a master's degree in exegetical theology without so much as demonstrating by way of his sermons that he could exegete a Hebrew text without perhaps consulting a lake of secondary literature--but the argument could be made all the same, that there's a point past which academic achievement involves a journey inward towards an ivory tower where the theorizing you pick up from study has nothing to do with a bunch of guys whose job it is to swing a hammer for a living. Something similar could be said for people in cubicle work whose 9-5 or 8-4 or whatever the hours are existence leaves little room for being agentic  and all that. 

Roy Baumeister has written that one of the traits of masculine socialization and social groups is that the burden of proof is upon you, as the individual man, to make a case you should even be part of the team, and that broadly speaking the threshold beyond which a boy becomes a man is simply that he produces more than he consumes.  In that sense, a crisis of masculinity would seem completely moot.  So long as you produce more than you consume you have become not just a man, but arguably simply an adult, regardless of gender.  But ... of course ... without rites of passage to communicate clearly that such a threshold has been reached how do you know for sure that you've attained that point?  Most of the attempted jokes at "adulting" have never landed as funny to me over the last ten or so years.  When I was a kid I was not sure that whatever this being "grown up" was supposed to be about that it was much to speak of.  That's not to say that growing up and becoming a responsible adult isn't important or necessary, it's saying that when I was a kid and heard other kids tlk about how much better everything was going to be when they became adults I didn't believe that then.  I don't believe it now.  People become adults but there's no necessary advantage to becoming one, just a different set of responsibilities to be navigated.  Not everyone navigates those responsibilities and in some cases those responsibilities in the form of social expectations can be hired out to be done by other people.

And there's a cottage industry of self help books to help you figure out how you want to tackle that "adulting" stuff if you feel you're not up to all or parts of it.

It's not that Roberts doesn't have moments of lucid observation.  He can sum things up well enough:
Summing up, Dr Bradley’s thread puts its finger on the key issue of male shame and identifies part of the reason why Peterson so resonates with young men today. However, I believe that he doesn’t go far enough in identifying its causes. Male shame chiefly results from the subjection of isolated men to increasingly unattainable and contradictory demands that set them up for blame-ridden failure. Men’s struggles also can’t be understood apart from a recognition of the loss of male community and the individualization of male identity. Peterson recognizes men’s stifled natural hunger for virility and speaks to it, holding out to men the possibility of attaining a true manly dignity, while relieving men’s burden of shame in the process.

The increasingly therapeutic framing of masculinity is largely a result of the lack of male community in a gender-neutralizing society. Denied such community, masculinity will increasingly be experienced as a wound that needs to be tended. People like Peterson may be helpful in enabling some men to recover a measure of manly dignity. However, they really can’t substitute for the organic reality of male community. The response to the contemporary crisis of masculinity is not going to be a new and better theory or self-help programme for individuals (which, for all his strengths, is where Peterson largely leaves us), but must be a recovery of robust, deep, and enduring intergenerational male community pursued in meaningful and productive activity.

The patriarchy can, even with a pejorative definition, be understood as the propensity of enough males with power and influence conflating what is in their best interests with the interests of common human flourishing.  In other words, even if one isn't a feminist it's relatively easy to understand the shorthand that the patriarchy entails, a reference to white anglo-saxon protestant imperial cultural expansion as a herald of what was regarded as the spread of "universal" human values and human rights that, in rather simple historical terms, accrued mainly to a set of aristocratic castes.  I don't think a person even has to be in any way feminist to get that that's the concern of feminist scholars about what they regard as patriarchal systems.

Let's briefly consider an idea here, that there's potentially no such thing as "inherent" human dignity.  You can't just assert that you have dignity and expect to be treated with dignity. Dignity is imputed. It can be received but it cannot be coerced into being given to you by someone else if you don't have it. 

And there may have always been a crisis of masculinity ever since ... Genesis 3.  A robust, deep and enduring intergenerational male community pursued in meaningful and productive activity sure happened, for a time, at Mars Hill ... and we saw how that played out.  I think we need to have some fair warning that the first time in Scripture we see a bunch of men across generations (tacitly noted in the text) pursuing meaningful productive activity out of a concern for legacy was builing some tower on the plain of Shinar.  Sure, there was that family project of building a boat ... but that wasn't quite the same thing. 

As to the process of subjecting isolated people to increasingly unattainable and contradictory demands that set them up for blame-ridden failure is probably also applicable to young women today, too.  In a contemptuous write-up about a Billy Joel album, Robert Christgau once noted that Joel said that anything less than everything was a cheat and that this, Christgau speculated, reflected the overweening entitlement of the Baby Boom generation.  No generational bias there, eh?  But let's go back to Joseph Campbell's "boon" that the hero recovers.  Campbell's debt to Jungian ideals was cleared up within the first fifty odd pages of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It would seem, paradoxically, that the Jungian stream of influence on popular culture mediated through the likes of Joseph Campbell has made the hero's journey so prescriptive at the level of popular culture that being some ordinary man or woman who is a citizen of a society and works quietly is in many respects off the table.  You can't just be a normal person but a god or goddess whose actions and agency reshape reality as we know it. 

Let's just throw out an idea for people to chew on, post industrial capitalism has no real use for gender differentiation except as a locus for differentiating market demographics.  Never mind the patriarchy theorizing on one side or the endless handwringing about the enervating influence post-gender modernity with its deleterious effect on the virility of men in vague and abstract terms.

If you formulate a rite of passage that has a specific goal in mind and rites of recognition, which was what Driscoll and the leaders of Mars Hill managed to do with Dead Men as the stage two of Pussified Nation, you can create a, for a time, tight knit community of men agreed upon a purpose.  But even here Roberts noted the Driscoll video of "how dare you!?".  He speculates at length as to how and why the shame-based motivational method is popular with conservative preachers and teachers.  This seems less complex or profound than Roberts' posting makes it seem--per Roy Baumeister's taxonomy of male sociality and rites of recognition, if a boy becomes a man by producing more than he can consume, and if participation in a male social unit is predicated on demonstrating that by way of competency and/or group loyalty you have a reason to be admitted into and recognized as part of the group then the shame based motivational speaking approach has a very, very simple goal in mind--it's a warning to those men who may be considered to have failed the goals of production-over-consumption and deserved competency-based and character-based in-group participation that their membership card can and possibly soon will be revoked.  If women have social groups in which the threat of ostracism over a failure to perform successfully leads to shame-based motivational speaking then so it goes, but the implication or invocation of half a dozen reasons as to why men get shame-based motivational teaching and instruction seems overcooked. 
It's not that hard to understand that in a male social system your membership card could be revoked, you could get kicked off the team.

For the most part (as yet) Roberts has not been in a rush to articulate what a positive formulation of male society might actually look like.  In that respect he's less useful than someone like Mark Driscoll was, who at least was point blank enough to say his goal was to find those males he considered capable of forming the establishment of the future, courting their interest, and giving them something to do for Jesus' fame, if for a Jesus who was carefully reverse-engineered to look astonishing like Mark Driscoll's own interests and agendas. 

Roberts said so himself he prefers to not bee tooo very detailed about exactly what healthy iterations of masculinity have to look like because things will look different in each case.  At one level that's prudential, yet at another level it's a fairly epic cop out.

I think our approach should be a prudential one that brings together a number of considerations: 1) the gender roles on offer within our specific culture; 2) the Christian teaching that has bearing upon male roles; 3) the specific form of our own maleness [emphasis added]; 4) the natural and moral criteria by which the effectiveness of any culture’s gender roles can be measured. I believe that we should ideally practice a form of masculinity that is grounded in our context, enabling us to enjoy kinship with other men in our cultures. These models must be leavened by Christian virtues, which challenge much that passes for masculinity in various contexts, unsettling macho cultures, misogynistic cultures, and many forms of male honour culture. Christian teaching also pushes us towards a masculinity of service. Then we consider the sort of men that we are, and how we best develop and live out our own maleness in our very specific context. Manliness for each of us starts and ends by taking dominion in the selves and the situations within which we find ourselves (this is why Peterson’s ‘clean your room’ is such a good starting point).
Now it's quite possible to suggest that one of the signal problems feeding into a crisis of masculinity in our times (bearing in mind there's always going to be one) can be that the gender roles on offer within our specific culture (whichever one that is) can often (as noted earlier) be impossible to fulfill in light of the specific form of our own maleness.  This tension between the expectations inherent in 1 and the possibilities that can be realized in 3 was something I remember hearing friends from my Mars Hill period expressing extreme frustration about.  There were men who knew what the culturally endorsed script of masculinity was supposed to be and despaired of ever attaining it.  I tended toward the surmise that since the script was unattainable and probably ultimately insane there was no point in even attempting it.  Why try to go do what can't be done?  But there was a tension and the tension, for anyone who heard even two of eighteen years worth of Driscoll sermons, was that Mark (and Grace, too) explicitly and implicitly held themselves up as embodying and successfully attaining the goals and benchmarks of the prescribed modes of masculinity and femininity articulated in teaching and preaching.  That was why as the narrative presented in Real Marriage had time to marinade in the public sphere doubts about whether Mark and Grace Driscoll had really lived up to and lived out any of the ideals they espoused became a real question for members and probably even staff. 

That gets us to 2, ,and the problem being that a great deal of what passes for 2, ,Christian teaching that has bearing upon male roles can often seem to be nothing more than a ratification of a set of categories from 1, the gender roles on offer within our specific culture.  The possibility that the specific form of our own maleness might put us, so to speak, completely at odds with either 1 or 2 is not necessarily something Roberts has addressed but I don't doubt that for those former Mars Hill attenders and members attending gay friendly churches a tension between what 2 was in the teaching of Mark Driscoll and the 3 experienced by men and women with same sex attraction could reach a breaking point.  Roberts 4 is, in many practical senses, a completely meaningless category.  Is the baseline of measurement individual flourishing, social cohesion or something else?  The tensions inherent in 1 through 3, at this point, have been noted. 

The other reasons 4 doesn't particularly matter ... is in Roberts' comment as follows:
I am very much opposed to aligning myself with any one particular vision of masculinity. We should be practicing many different forms of masculinity and practicing these different forms of masculinity in ways that differ according to the men that we are and the contexts in which we find ourselves. Every model of masculinity our there is broken in some way. However, we should work to redeem healthy visions of masculinity in the contexts in which we find ourselves. This will almost certainly look very different for you than it looks for me.
If you refuse to put a label on it then what you're saying can't be pre-emptively dismissed as appealing to an ideology or asset of stereotypes.  At one level that is good inasmuch as you're not attempting to distill everything to be said on the subject down to a set of bromides and formulas.  Granting that there is not necessarily any one ideal for masculinity and that the forms of masculinity on offer by the world are marred by sin is a useful and necessary observation.

But then there is the rather simple and blunt question of why, if this is so obviously the case, someone like Roberts should have any answers at all as to what masculinity in a healthy form is as distinct from what it isn't.  For all sorts of non-Marxists the problem with Marx was not so much that he failed to articulate what the problem was with the capitalism of his time and place, the problem was that as non-Marxists see it, Marx's proposed solution was nothing more than a hand-waiving proclamation that there would be a revolution and things would get fixed.  That is, well, not so different from an eschatological crisis event that ushers in a new utopian era and ... don't we have the oracles of the prophet Isaiah already?  So it is with someone like a Roberts, it's easy enough to point out what the toxic modes of masculinity are, indeed all sorts of progressives have been talking about toxic masculinity for a few years now, so there's nothing much to be said for observing that masculinity can be like capitalism.  The question of what the healthy vision of masculinity is going to look like is less clear. 

But ... this is the same Alastair Roberts who wrote about why women should not be priests and had concerns about the cliché of the strong female character inspired by a reaction to a trailer for a movie in which one of the more memorably stupid lines in the trailer didn't actually end up in the theatrical cut of the movie, i.e. Rogue One.  I saw Rogue One, I even liked Rogue One, but what sold me on a matinee wasn't the Jyn Erso character but the fact that Donnie Yen was in the film and I dug Iron Monkey and the Ip Man trilogy and thought Hero was decent.  Before I heard the news I wasn't interested in Rogue One, and then when I heard Donnie Yen would be in it I decided, sure, now this interests me. 

Overthinking It had a more interesting rebuttal to the strong female character cliché more than a decade ago when it hit a notable low in the form of Megan Fox talking about her character was a strong female character in the promotional campaign for the first Michael Bay Transformers film. If Micaela Barnes could be a "strong female character" then the cliché had been drained of practical meaning even in terms of cinematic fantasy.  Now ... there's a case to be made that Optinus Prime was constantly getting saved by late-stage adolescents for the entire franchise but that's an argument for some other context.  One of the more salient jabs in the piece, if Alastair Robert read it he might remember it, too, was made by way of observation--sure, the damsel in distress was a damsel in distress in the old films who had to be rescued by some guy but the some guy was generally played by a Cary Grant or a Humphrey Bogart or, in more recent films, by a Harrison Ford.  So it wasn't all bad. 

Then by Michael Bay's Transformers Micaela is the trophy for ... Sam Witwicky?  Shia Labeouf?  Ladies, we have a problem.  When this is the guy who gets the trophy girlfriend ...  something has gone awry.  Roberts could probably agree something has, in fact ,gone awry, when a whiny petulant weasel-boy with an entitlement complex is the protagonist of a story whose only avenue to participation is, as gets demonstrated by the end of the fifth film in the franchise, functionally a celestially granted birthright dating back to the days of King Arthur.  If anything that particular case study becomes more terrible as the franchise has rolled on.  In the end, the "strong female character" is window dressing for some far more conventional trope to which the female character is generally expected to eventually conform to in the action genre, at least in Anglo-American contexts.  Michelle Yeoh movies are ... not quite the same thing but that's not really something I want to post about just now.

And as Overthinking It's author put things, it was a bit more vividly illustrated why the "strong female character" trope was not just stupid but insultingly stupid to both men and women alike.  Roberts' objections amount to artfully assembled bits of browbeating invocations of clichés about socialization and gendered norms. 

And this is why what he writes, as much as I often agree with it, comes across like a set of useless, generic bromides. It is also why, should an egalitarian read what Roberts has to write about these topics, he comes across like a fusty English man of the sort who doesn't want to just concede he's fundamentally appealing to a series of rote clichés about gender in the foundational nature of what he's ultimately arguing for, and is only able to avoid this charge by dint of being so deliberately vague as to preclude the possibility of being identified as appealing to natural law and essentialist accounts of identity.  Even progressives who fully on board with LGBTQI causes would grant, pretty readily, that the complex of variables that socially and biologically inform sexuality and gender in any individual are complex. 

There could be two ways in which to understand what's presented as a crisis of masculinity in contemporary post-industrial Western society, rather broadly construable at the level of class. 
As noted earlier, there’s an unresolved tension across 1, 2 and 3 that isn’t addressed. There’s a tension between the gender roles on offer within our specific culture at two levels, first with Christian teaching that has bearing upon male roles and then with specific forms of maleness.  I.e. more and more males in the middle class don’t WANT to fulfill their culturally scripted roles as they have been handed down in culture (I.e. the slacker bro).  Males in the lower classes are finding that they CAN’T fulfill those roles or scripts of masculinity that are proffered as the passage into adulthood for men, though it is precisely those masculinity scripts on offer that are least practically attainable for these kinds of men that people in formal teaching positions with academic or ecclesial clout keep making a point of telling men they should be fulfilling.  Depending on the nature of the cultural scripts for manliness on offer the can be, arguably,  roles on offer that are considered inimical to Christian teaching that has bearing on gender roles.   

At the level of the middle and upper classes there can be a crisis perceived in the way that those men who could embrace the scripts of masculinity on offer in 1 are simply not doing so or, for Christians, the men who are embracing the scripts on offer are doing so in a way that violates 2, or that insists that 3 is completely up to what amounts to consumer power because it doesn't really exist and 4 is right out.  For those who are part of those classes that are capable of shaping cultural discourse that's not seen as a problem and, if anything, the problem is perceived as an unwillingness on the part of any number of groups to not regard 3 as a consumer option. 

The crisis of masculinity at a more general level of presentation within Anglo-American Christian discourse could be construed as a crisis of the failures of the underclass males to live up to roles expected of them in category 2, though roles in 1 are dwindling in the post-industrial West in terms that fit 2 and if males are caught on the horns of such a dilemma in which 1 and 3 don’t seem possible or 1 is obtained via 3 in a way that subverts 2 then we’ll get a bunch of males making the social and economic decision to do that, as the neo Reformed have been bleating about for decades.
Roberts is, however, aware that capitalism and its attendant social changes have had a role to play in the emergence of things like feminism.
§  1. a. No, I think that would be a simplistic claim. Male tyranny is part of the picture, but there is a lot more to it than that. Much contemporary feminism wouldn’t exist were it not for the technologically advanced capitalist society that we live in. The Industrial Revolution and subsequent developments led to the radical disruption, destabilization, or breakdown of the gendered social orders that preceded it. These old orders often involved a great deal of abuse (much as the new order involves a lot of abuse), but it wasn’t the supposed structurally abusive character of the old patriarchal order that gave rise to feminism, so much as the situation that arose as it crumbled before other forces (as Marx observed, wherever the bourgeoisie gained the upper hand, they ‘put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations’). Familial bonds and the societal structure arising from that were eclipsed by detached market relations between individuals. Labour rapidly migrated from the domestic and related realms to the capitalist workplace. As a result, women were increasingly marginalized and the household, no longer the primary site of production and social reproduction, became a reservation ever more detached from the meaningful life and activity of society.
So if we get all those women married off and back in the kitchen things will get better? The proposal that industrialization and capitalism combined to marginalize women might be a contested way of reading history there.  We're a century past the suffragette movement and some of those figures were admirable and some of those figures were basically terrorists.  Whatever was thought lost with the emergence of modernity, modernity isn't going away. 

This next part could be particularly contentious for at least some feminists and a number of women I know.  Roberts proposed there was a trade off ... :

Women have traded the sort of sexual power that they generally enjoyed in less developed societies for an independent economic power that allows them to compete more directly with men as detached, yet weaker, individual agents. In both societies, women had to deal with male power, which can often be abusive, but feminism is in large measure an adaption to a situation where the dynamics of male power creation have seriously unsettled the sorts of order that exists in less developed societies. The Industrial Revolution was a sort of radicalization of the male libido dominandi, through which it became increasingly untethered from the female creational calling. Where the male libido dominandi so sets the terms, women are faced with the choice of merely submitting to their marginalization, finding some way to tether the sphere of male action more firmly to the sphere of female action so that they might better overlap and intertwine again, or abandoning traditional female spheres to compete on men’s terms and realms, and perhaps feminize male realms a bit. The chosen trade-offs mean that women are largely competing at a disadvantage on the same terms as men, rather than exercising a different species of power over against them. It means that, rather than being arrested, a radicalized libido dominandi is made a largely unrivalled principle of society’s life, even though in the long term it is probably unsustainable.
b. The virtues are manly because they are the virtues that are sine quibus non for the realization of mature manhood. While such virtues can clearly be found in women too, they are not so distinctively prominent in the firmament of ‘womanly’ character. Manliness is, in practically every society, recognized to be a matter of realized agency. A man must ‘prove’ himself to be a man, while women’s entrance into womanhood generally takes a different sort of form, in which tests and demonstrations of agency are less prominent (although some measure of proof of agency is necessary for demonstration of adulthood). Self-mastery, competence, honour, and other traits like them are all features of well-developed agency, of a man’s capacity to function as a force out into the world. Manliness also takes masculine traits and elevates them to a more honed and realized form, ensuring that virility is expressed in a self-controlled but powerful manner. Manliness enables men to realize the calling that especially falls to them, as the task of dominion and subduing the world are placed more heavily upon the shoulders of men, while the tasks of fruitfulness and multiplication are placed more heavily upon women. [emphasis added]
At this point I've written a lot on the matter, more than I had initially intended to, but I would propose that the tricky phrase in the end of this excerpt is "the task of dominion".  If the dominion mandate was not revoked by given difficulty (i.e. an impossibility) of fulfillment then perhaps we could note that the desires and aims of men and women are subjected to mortality and judgment, whatever those desires and aims might be at, if you will, an archetypal level. 

But if not all Christians presuppose the legitimacy of what’s colloquially known as The Cultural Mandate then that’s part of the problem.  IF the expectation of manliness is defined ultimately toward a teleological view of maleness that envisions men as having an obligation and opportunity to subdue the world and exercise dominion then any man who sees his role as NOT exercising that dominion or defining that dominion differently could be misunderstood.  I.e. there's an eschatological question lurking within a dominion mandate as to what the dominion mandate is for if the world in this present form is passing away.   If the world in its present form is passing away, if we are enjoined to not love the world nor the things of the world, then there's a tension within an application of the a cultural mandate or dominion mandate as an outworking of the commands from Genesis in the creation account. 

The idea that men have the burden of establishing dominion and subduing the world while women have more a burden of fruitfulness and multiplication sounds great to people already disposed to take the dominion mandate as applicable regardless of any potential eschatological break that may have been introduced by Christ's death on the cross. 


There's a difference between writing thousands or tens of thousands of words about what would be beneficial to young men in their character formation and giving them some kind of job.  At that level of practical distinction a Christian conservative or traditional response at the level of theory to defend a traditional role of some kind can simply be "be warm and well fed" if there's no concrete assistance.  That there are young men who are willing to eat but not work is granted. :) Those guys have always been around, too.

POSTLUDE 2-12-2018

Not that Roberts is in any way unique expressing concern about how contemporary culture produces childish men but when the benchmark for functional adulthood can so regularly be conceived as being in terms of married life and childrearing for men and women alike it's a script that gets ... predictable.  There have been times over the last twenty years I've listened to and read socially conservative Anglo-American Christian scholarship and social analysis and have wondered whether or not at some level they would, if it weren't going to violate the first table of the Decalogue, throw in Hera as a goddess to be venerated.  That the goalposts of functional adulthood so steadily get cast in terms of married life and childrearing isn't so much a bad thing as a predictable script.

That social conservatives tend to focus verbiage and attention on those men who are presumed to be in a position where they "could" marry but don't rather than discuss practical instruction for those who for various reasons may feel they can't marry is something I've noticed over the last ... twenty years.  Within the scene of the former Mars Hill there wasn't a shortage of men who wanted to be married but the perennial vexation of many of those men was that they couldn't find a woman willing to marry them.  There could be a point at which what socially conservative Christians might want to do instead of keep talking about all the reasons that men who "could" marry aren't marrying and thus putting off adulthood, they could take a page from Richard Baxter's writings and lay out all the reasons that a man should not consider getting married. Despite the fact that the apostle Paul did not lay down a law amidst writing what he thought was beneficial regarding marriage and non-marriage, socially conservative Anglo-American Christians have seemed pretty determined to argue that, basically, Paul was wrong or that Paul was really arguing that unless you are called by God to smuggle Bibles to non-white people in a foreign country where Christianity is not the state religion you should just become a real grown-up already and get married.  In earlier epochs of Christian life it seemed there was some understanding that if a man was not cut out for marriage there was a fairly large body of literature advising those men on how to live in a Christian way ... although that body of literature might not necessarily be largely or distinctly Protestant, perhaps.