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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

April 28, 2009 | 65 Comments

Gay marriage and tradition: a continuation

In Big Jake , John Wayne and Bruce Cabot ready themselves for the final battle against the bad guys.

Wayne: Well, Sam, they say the elk in Montana are as big as buffalo this year. We outta go hunt ’em when this is over.

Cabot: I look forward to that. (Sighs). I wish they were buffalo.

Wayne: Yeah. Times change.

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Let’s return to the idea of tradition as it is used in arguments for gay marriage, which we can define as the marriage of two—and only two—men or two women.

Last time, we acknowledged that the modifier “only two” in our explication of marriage was the implicit resultant of tradition, by which we meant the customary practices of a people, or activities driven by a common set of beliefs, that is, a culture. This definition is loose enough, God knows, but will be close enough for us.

Fascinatingly, if an opponent of gay marriage brings up the point, “Why not more than two in a ‘marriage’?”, he is usually told he is being absurd or foolish or he is laughed at—which proves that people aren’t thinking deeply enough about the subject, because no matter how disingenuously the question might have been asked, it is exactly the right one.

Tradition forms the largest part of the debate on gay marriage. Obviously, it is not in our tradition to accommodate such unions, but some want to contravene tradition by urging acceptance for gay marriage. This plea is, at least, consistent with itself (but it is not clear how it would not apply to any other tradition; abandon tradition here, and why not abandon it everywhere?).

The difficulty begins, and the argument suddenly becomes inconsistent, when the same people who ask us to abandon tradition want also to embrace tradition by insisting on the word “marriage” to sanctify their vows.

Are you with me? If you want to claim (as some of us have) that we have “evolved” beyond tradition and have no need of it, you cannot consistently and simultaneously seek the blessings of tradition.

Let’s be more specific. Some states have constructed laws which award similar, even identical, legal status as marriage confers (burial rights, powers of attorney, etc.) to partners in a same-sex couple should they ask for it. Strong arguments for these new recognitions have been made, though still with a mind towards tradition, because these laws always talk about “couples” or “pairs”.

Why is this legal recognition not good enough? Why, that is, do people still hunger for something beyond “civil union”? Why the word “marriage”? It is, is it not?, just a word. Why is it such a powerful one?

The reason is obvious: tradition is not so easily abandoned. It is a deep need for humans to have ties with the past, for ceremony and ritual. It is also important to stress that marriage is not just a legal contract between two people, it is an understanding between a couple and society, largely governed by understood rules.

But what, it is now natural to ask, about those places that allow men to take multiple wives, or have customs that differ from ours? Well, if their customs are not our customs, then unless we are seeking to intervene directly in those peoples’ culture (in the form of war, say), they are none of our business. However, the consideration is not entirely irrelevant.

Montaigne writes on a clothing custom in Rome: “When they wore the busk of their doublet between their breasts, they maintained with heated arguments that it was in the proper place; some years after, it has slipped down between the thighs, and they laugh at their former custom and find it absurd and intolerable.”

The banal message—and one we already knew—is that customs and traditions change. An argument on the proper placement of a doublet appears to us trivial, and we also feel that (dangerous) sense of superiority when we regard history: they argued over doublets for goodness sake? How silly. But change the argument to whether jeans should be worn and it becomes immediately relevant and contentious. This point is made so that we can see that there are two things to consider: the relative degree of importance of a custom and the rate at which it is modified.

It is already apparent the degree to which marriage is important. How about that custom’s rate of change?

Certain states and municipalities have sought recently, by extra-legislative means—by, that is, judicial fiat—to mark an abrupt divergence in marriage custom. Judges looked into their constitutions and said, “Aha! We have found hiding in a corner where nobody thought to look before, the right to same sex marriage. It’s a good thing we checked.”

The consequences of these rights hunts are well known. People knew they were being spun (to use the modern term) and, as in California and Iowa, voted the rights back out of existence. Many were still howling over these democratic (and traditional) actions when along came Vermont, which used the same (and now warmly accepted) democratic actions to change their marriage custom.

“Well”, I have heard some say, “that’s Vermont. Those people up there are different.” And if your answer, like mine, is a variant of “Exactly”, then you will have understood this article’s arguments.

April 25, 2009 | 51 Comments

A poor argument for gay marriage

James Randi, and the rest of the psi-cops, have increasingly strayed from their original—and self-appointed—role of policing pseudoscience and the paranormal, and are instead intent on doing battle with any and all religious beliefs—as long as they are Christian.

The psi-cops, or members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), have nothing else to do, the paranormal no longer being the urban blight it once was. So they have turned their energies into campaigns to remove “In God We Trust” from currency, and to sniff around The-Federally-Recognized-Holiday-of-December-25th-that-shall-remain-nameless trees on government property for whiffs of religiosity.

For example, today I received my Randi-gram, a weekly email, in which was quoted John P. Stoltenberg from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, who gave Randi a list of suggestions he wishes us less enlightened folk would adopt.

I don’t want to argue for or against gay marriage—be very clear on this point—nor do I want my opinion on the matter to distract anybody from thinking about what is actually of interest, which is the logical status of an argument often used in this debate.

Here it is:

If you don’t believe in gay marriages, don’t have one.

If you are of the left, upon hearing it, you are required to chuckle. Not laugh out loud, mind—because that would come across as maniacal—but you should let a warm glow infuse your features as you nod and fill yourself with congratulation for being in on an unanswerable zinger.

The argument is stupid. Stoltenberg himself—and Randi as his explicit endorser—while not knowing it, must have felt a nagging tickle deep inside that would not let him leave it alone, because he included as an addendum this gem:

If you don’t believe in euthanasia or in physician-assisted death, then die your own way.

It’s the same flawed argument, and if Stoltenberg (and his many followers) would have abandoned his smugness and taken it one step further and applied it to something he did not devoutly wish, he would have seen it instantly.

Here is the same argument, the same guts of it, applied to two different subjects (Stoltenberg used the first):

If you don’t believe abortions, don’t have one.

or

If you don’t believe in murder, don’t comment one.

Or phrased more fully: look here, unenlightened person, let those of us who enjoy murder have our fun. If you don’t like it, just don’t kill anybody for fun or for profit.

Still don’t get it? Then how’s this?

If you don’t believe in child molestation, stay away from playgrounds.

The argument is now splayed open, its logical cancer obvious. It is the same as saying, “I want my way, let me do what I want, and if you don’t like it, don’t do what I do.” Anybody whose mind wasn’t excessively muddled by Mill would blush coming out with that naked statement; but dress it up in “rights” language (never responsibilities) and it somehow becomes beautiful. Truly, clothes make the argument. That few recognize its limitations must be because of our ever-increasing slide toward self indulgence in every aspect of public life.

For future reference, and because it’s used in other debates besides gay marriage, we’ll need a name for this line of reasoning (one might already exist, but I don’t know of it). Let’s call it the gimme argument, because it means “give me what I want because I want it, regardless of whether what I want is right or wrong.”

To gay marriage supporters: you accrue no benefit by using an argument that is not just flawed but ridiculous. The job of an argument is to convince, not to bludgeon, obfuscate, or distract, as this one does. It is doing you no favor.

But thinking about it, I understand the inclination to the gimme argument in this case. Let’s imagine this conversation to see why.

A: “I want gay marriage.”

B: “What’s marriage?”

A: “A union of two people, etc.”

B: “Why two people?”

Here, A is stumped. The only recourse A has is to history and tradition, which are in his favor (in most places in most times) in agreeing marriage is between “two people”, but utterly against him for saying “between two men” or “between two women.” You can’t invoke the authority of tradition for the first part of your argument and then claim tradition has no meaning for the second part. So A is reduced to saying “I want it.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad line of reasoning, as long as it is conjoined with supplementary statements that support it. What does not support it is to say, “And I should get it, even though you say it is wrong, because I want it.” Then it becomes the gimme argument.

April 21, 2009 | 16 Comments

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell

Recommendation: read

When Fussell wrote in 1982 (and published in 1983), he said that acknowledging the class divisions that exist in America exist was poor form and that doing so would likely lead to argument. Florence King writes, “The subject skims across our minds like a hair blown across the face: a constant ticklish irritation, invisible but very much felt.” Class distinctions are as alive as ever and the subject is as taboo now as then—our fierce egalitarian heritage guarantees this—but a certain amount of fun can be had in their study.

We’ll look at changes in the specific indicators that Fussell chose to characterize his class taxonomy, in the fine distinctions between tiers, of which he found three:

Top Center Bottom
1. Top out-of-sight 4. Middle 8. Destitute
2. Upper 5. High Proletarian 9. Bottom out-of-sight
3. Upper Middle 6. Mid-Proletarian
7. Low Proletarian.


Class book cover

Those at the apex never earn their money, nor do inhabitants of the nadir. Both groups are rare and avoid public notice, and are thus difficult to study. Class is only weakly correlated with money. New money separates upper and upper middle from top out-of-sight. The truism “money can’t buy class” explains why high “proles” like actors and pop singers are barred from the upper classes despite their wealth.

Where you lived, in 1982, was a reliable indicator of class. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, “upstate” New York, Connecticut implied a higher class than those who lived in Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and “Parma, Ohio, a city of 100,000 without a newspaper, bus system, hotel, or map of itself.” These locations have not remained static, as the uppers have discovered the West, at least for their vacation residences.

Like it or not—and we have seen that most do not—Fussell insists appearance matters. The top and bottom tiers are skinnier than those in the middle. The lower the rank, the less likely a man is to wear a jacket. The top tier layers its clothes: shirts over shirts, shirts under or over sweaters, and of course jackets. Softer, earthier or pastel “preppy” colors are preferred, and the clothes, while elegant, are lived in and constructed of natural fibers.

A definitive marker is a purple garment: only proles wear them. Jeans and black outerwear begin at the middle-class, as does the use of polyester (it was Dacron in 1982). Fascinatingly, there is a sociological term called legible clothing; that is, clothes and accessories displaying words or logos. Proles don sweaters that plead, “Ask me about my grandchildren”, or hats and t-shirts carrying advertising for automotive products or sports franchises. The middle-class, anxious to separate itself from those below and desiring to emphasize their aspirations to climb higher, carries tote bags from NPR with Beethoven’s image, t-shirts with university names or logos, and bags touting expensive shops. This hasn’t changed. I regularly see female commuters use Victoria Secret bags as supplementary purses.

Language use, particularly pronunciation, is a firm separator. Fussell enjoys the example patina: those in the top tier emphasize the first syllable; the others stress the second. I imagine straining to hear this word while you are out class watching guarantees a lengthy wait.

Better is the demarcation made by those who use house (top tier) and its alternative home. Proles will say limo, middles limousine, while uppers use car as in, “We’ll need the car at 10, please, Jones.” I think that limo is now the most common usage. Middles talk about traveling and uppers discuss summering.

If a woman does a lot of knitting for family and friends [indicating copious leisure time], chances are she’s upper-middle-class. But if when she finishes a sweater she sews in a little label reading

     Handmade by Gertrude Willis

she’s middle-class. If the label reads

     Hand-crafted by Gertrude Willis

she’s high-prole.

Proles and below drop gs. Upper middles and above avoid euphemism and curse as freely, but more creatively, than proles. It’s the middle-class that is most anxious to appear sophisticated and so routinely “complexifies” and softens its language. They prefer utilize to use and would rather utilize the bathroom than the toilet. A man is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol and is not a drunk. The more syllables packed into a phrase, the better.

In 1982, there was a greater emphasis on the university one attended. Harvard, Yale, the other Ivies, and Stanford indicated top tier. Attendance there is no longer a perfectly reliable class marker as these schools have significantly expanded their student bodies. However, the choice of school still matters.

The assumption that “a college degree” means something without the college’s being specified is woven so deeply into the American myth that it dies very hard, even when confronted with the facts of the class system and its complicity with the hierarchies of higher learning.

In other words, Fussell says, graduating from Syracuse, Seton Hall, University of Wyoming, or Virginia Tech (“a good basketball school”) indicate middle-class. Those universities, which until recently were colleges, and before that were normal schools or teacher’s colleges, are attended by proles.

Finally, Fussell tires of the traditional segregations and hopes that more people will voluntarily join “class X”, a group which has changed more than any other, and which can best be described as those who live in Ithaca, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, CO, or Park Slope, Brooklyn. Creativity, intelligence, independence, pleasantness, and willingness to engage in “experiments in living” were and still are reliable markers of this group.

In 1982, these folk were not as political as today, where they now comprise the vocal left. An enjoyable test of X-hood is to say to your subject that you noticed something on FOX news. If your listener, who is ordinarily lucid and tolerant, begins an excited, extended rant about that network being “reactionary”, then she is likely an X. More evidence is if she wears a knit skull cap, dresses down, sports an Obama decoration, drives a hybrid, eschews makeup, or boasts of shopping at Whole Foods to buy “organic” food.

Fussell argued that Xers rightly did not give a damn about class distinction, and this is still true but in a different sense. Just as Uppers believe they culturally superior to the upper middles, who are sure of their ascendancy over the middle-class etc., Xers are convinced they are more enlightened than everybody else.

This, then, is the overt reading of Class: a hierarchical strata of semi-permeable class boundaries exists. Escape from a stratum is unlikely: though it is easier to descend than to climb or to become an X. The struggle to better or to differentiate oneself determines most behavior. Not all neatly fit into a slot: for example, engineers of every stripe and physicians exhibit significant cross-class deportment.

Covertly, the work can be called a guide to proper behavior and style. Fussell writes approvingly of top tier demeanor and acerbically of displays by the middle-class and proles. He laments prole drift, which is the (inexorable?) tendency of culture to devolve. He says, for example, Princeton

used to be a great center of wit, but now it’s subject to prole drift…Everything in the modern world drifts prole-ward all the time. Even the better classes have to wait in long lines, the quality of food degenerates, airline seating grows more cramped.

Whether or not cultural decay is true in all areas, as Fussell maintains, prole drift has had vicious consequences in music. You cannot go anywhere today without being aurally assaulted by vile, vesicated music.

Fussell proudly accepts the damning insult of elitist. But he doesn’t want us to interpret the word pejoratively. There are aspects of culture that are better than others. One painting can be superior to another (compare any Caravaggio with your best reproduction of it). A novel by Twain rates higher than one typed by Nora Roberts. Our system of justice is sounder than China’s. What really distinguishes the classes, Fussell says, is the ability to know and acknowledge these distinctions and to aspire to what is better or best.

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Update: I forgot to tip the hat to Arts & Letters Daily, which last week linked to this article reviewing Fussell’s book.

April 16, 2009 | 10 Comments

Title IX in Science and Engineering

Your university’s science and engineering programs might be “Titled nined” if Those That Care have their way.

Title IX, or the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act”, is one of those government programs that sounds like a good idea to busybodies: mandate diversity in college sports so that just as many females as males play.

It turns out, in our horrible past, some universities that received federal funding had more males engaged in sports than females. This led to ill feelings on the part of some females who wanted to join intermural competition but found that football was closed to them.

So was born the enlightened legislation Title IX, which more or less says that athletic opportunities by sex must be substantially proportionate to the student enrollment.

All evidence of Title IX “discrimination”, or disproportionality, is statistical. Count up the enrolled males and females, take that ratio, which must equal the ratio of male to female athletes. If these ratios don’t match, the university is guilty of discrimination, and a lawyer somewhere smiles.

Let’s be clear. If disproportionality exists (in favor of males of course), there are two ways to fix it.

  1. Increase the number of females engaged in athletics
  2. Decrease the number of males engaged in athletics

Large, wealthy schools, with fairness in mind, have a go at (1) first. But after a while they, and at a start the smaller schools, opt for (2), because it’s cheaper and easy. (Cut the men’s table tennis funding, for example.) Well, losing a program or two is OK, because universities probably spend too much on athletics anyway.

Now it’s obvious to everybody that more males than females opt for science and engineering degrees—for whatever reason. But it will not be easy to attain proportionality in these fields as it was in sports.

For sports, a college could create a new program, say volleyball for females, where none existed before, thus boosting the number of females in line with option (1).

But this ploy can’t be done in science and engineering because there is no way to create a new chemistry. Unless, for example—and I hesitate to prophecy—“feminist chemistry” is defined to be “science”. (Postmodernist humanities programs had a go at these kinds of redefinitions, but their investigations appear to be on the wane.)

You can’t force matriculating females to select science and engineering as a major. But you can limit the enrollment of males.

Most universities probably—but only probably—won’t be as daring as to say “No more males in mathematics!” But they will be able to, for example, cut the meteorology program, or limit enrollment of males in electrical engineering.

I’d prefer that, if forced to by law, universities opt for method (1) and redefine science and engineering. Call English “the systematic and scientific study of literature.” Such a move would probably not only balance the proportion of males to females in “science”, but even boost it in females’ favor.

Who cares what is called “science”? It’s just a label, and often a misleading one. You often read “the science shows this” and “the science shows that.” “Science” doesn’t show anything, and can’t. A physicist might create a useful, predictive model, or a mathematician might prove a theorem, or a biologist might show what happens when organism A meets chemical B.

But those are just facts of a similar nature gathered under a description. Odd thing is that the description gets the credit, “science” is what is said to cause the results. Far better to let the facts and the people that discovered them get the credit.

So call the study of how to shelve and catalog books “science” and Those That Care can go on to care about something else.