Noah Millman

Inherent Vice

I understand what Damon Linker is getting at in his latest column, on the steady advance of marijuana decriminalization and legalization. But I’m developing something of a peeve against his framework, according to which the advance of “moral libertarianism” makes it impossible for us to understand the moral arguments against legalization:

Americans increasingly believe that individuals should be free to engage in behavior that harms no one besides the person who consensually chooses to engage in it, especially when the harm is either minimal or wrapped up with traditionalist religious convictions that (supposedly) have no business being backed up by law and the coercive power of the state. Once the solvent of moral libertarianism is applied to just about any contrary argument, that argument’s cogency dissolves right before our eyes.

And then we are left with an absence of reasons not to engage in behavior that was once presumed to be both immoral and justifiably illegal.

I understand his argument, and I like John Stuart Mill as much or more than the next guy. And I’m aware that a juvenile libertarianism according to which, “who says?” and “you gonna make me?” are treated as powerful arguments has gotten more popular. But I’ve still got a peeve, and my peeve, like Linker’s argument, has multiple parts.

First of all, what is Linker referring to when he talks about “behavior that was once presumed to be both immoral and justifiably illegal.” What, exactly, is immoral about smoking pot as such? I can only understand that view within a framework according to which a wide variety of other worldly pleasures – drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, probably even wearing fancy clothes and eating fancy food – are grouped under the rubric of “vice.” Now, that’s a perfectly fine framework; it served our Puritan ancestors well, and it serves the LDS Church, the various Anabaptist sects, and other groups pretty well today. But it’s simply not true that we must choose between this kind of framework and “moral libertarianism” according to which “do what thou wilt” is the only law (provided you’re not hurting anybody else directly). There are a variety of moral frameworks that view the enjoyment of fleshy pleasures in moderation not merely not as vice, but as essential to health – while still caring about the health of the individual, and not just his or her freedom of action. Epicurus was not Anton LaVey.

Once that is granted, though, the question of legalizing pot becomes a practical, consequentialist one. All of Linker’s arguments against legalization are, as it happens, consequentialist ones - and the thing is, they have consequentialist answers. Does the state tutor virtue successfully when it prohibits a practice that is so widely indulged in? What impression does it make on the impressionable when nobody will defend a widely-flouted law on the merits, when the only defense is: change is risky? As for the poor, who do you think bears the brunt of the war on drugs? Those 1-in-20 arrests that are for marijuana possession – who do you think is being arrested? Burke, who did not oppose all change, is more readily enlisted on the side of decriminalization than on the side of prohibition, for the same reason that he is more readily enlisted on the side of same-sex marriage: in both cases, the law would not be driving social change but recognizing a social change that has already occurred. There’s nothing particularly Burkean about using tradition as an excuse for refusing to face that fact that a given custom is now honored largely in the breach.

None of the above arguments require some kind of inherent, principled objection to the state trying to encourage moral behavior. Nor does that fact that an existing prohibition on pot feels less and less sensible mean that there’s any less receptivity, socially, to new restrictions on personal freedom in the name of improving society. The same society can simultaneously legalize pot and put more restrictions on gun ownership, or on casual sex on campus, or on speech deemed hateful or subversive. From the perspective of a true Epicurean, repression and overindulgence look like two sides of the same coin.

At bottom, I’m just unconvinced that “moral libertarianism” is the right way to describe the guiding ideology of our day. I don’t think that our general attitude towards drug use is an indifferent tolerance edging toward encouragement of experimentation (which is what I would imagine “moral libertarianism” ought to mean). We do not say, “hey, if he wants to kill himself with liquor, that’s his business” so long as the drunk isn’t harming anybody else directly. We have no problem, as a society, in saying that addiction is an objectively bad state, or in saying that public policy should aim to reduce the number of people in that state. Drinking, gambling, sex – name any traditional vice you like, we have a public discourse that goes beyond the sacrosanct nature of personal choice in talking about those activities. Most distinctively, we identify an internal problem that directly affects only the afflicted – the psychological experience of a loss of freedom – and we see that as an objective evil we call “addiction.”

This shift in emphasis does have consequences for how we think about policy. The concept of “vice” imputes objective power to the indulgence itself. Gambling, alcohol, pornography: these are vices; they have an inherent allure, an inherent power, which some people will fall prey to more readily than others. And so we need to keep that power in check by hedging it in, even if we know it cannot be extirpated outright. The concept of “addiction,” though, emphasizes not the power of vice but the weakness of the individual. The first “step” of the original twelve-step program read:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

It’s not that alcohol was powerful – it’s that we were powerless. The problem is us, and we have to solve it – not alone, not without help from others, but by changing ourselves. That’s a highly individualist approach to these matters, but it’s not “moral libertarianism” as I understand Linker to be using the phrase.

Or perhaps I misunderstand it.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , . 14 comments

A Clinton Coronation Benefits the GOP Establishment


The consensus seems to be that 2016 will feature a broad and deep field on the GOP side. At a minimum, you’ll have Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Chris Christie. Jeb Bush will likely run as well, and if he doesn’t Marco Rubio will, in either case running as “Bush III: This Time We Won’t Be Incompetent.” John Kasich may compete with Christie for the role of moderate, electable governor; Mike Pence may compete with Scott Walker for the role of hard-line conservative governor. Ted Cruz may run just to be annoying. Somebody more plausible than Ben Carson will run as the standard-bearer of the religious right.

Over on the Democratic side, the most-likely scenario is that Hillary Clinton will face only token opposition, not even the level of competition that Al Gore faced in Bill Bradley back in 2000.

There’s a real debate to be had over whether this is good for the Democratic Party, and I think the best of the argument is that it is not. A primary contest is how a party hashes out, in public, what it’s all about at this point in time. Clinton has been through enough that we know she can take the heat. But she hasn’t ever beaten back a serious challenge. Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that a hard-fought primary makes it hard for the party to unify behind the eventual nominee – if the party goes into the primary basically knowing what it wants – and little evidence that avoiding such a primary helps if the party basically doesn’t. The Democrats united just fine in 2004 and 2008 after tough contests. They had a tougher time uniting in 2000 after a near-coronation.

But I’m interested in a different question: how would a serious challenge to Clinton, even if it failed, affect the Republican contest?

It seems to me that a Clinton coronation makes life much easier for those who don’t want to think too hard about what the GOP stands for. The GOP would really like to run a largely negative campaign against the Clinton-Obama record without having to declare itself too clearly on any issue. A Clinton coronation would make that easier, because it would take away the need for Clinton to define herself in any specific way.

Take foreign policy. Clinton is at the extreme hawkish end of the Democratic Party. She pushed hard for the intervention in Libya, favored a more forceful and earlier intervention in Syria, a tougher line on Iran, and so forth. If she faced a serious primary challenge from, say, Jim Webb, she’d either have to defend that record forcefully, or moderate her stance. Now, if she did the first, then what happens on the Republican side at the same time? First, Rand Paul says he agrees more with Jim Webb. Second, the other GOP contenders have to decide whether they want to echo Clinton, echo Paul, or come up with an alternative way of explaining their views while remaining hawkish. Whatever they do, they have to provide more clarity.

What if she did the second, and tried to portray herself as more moderate? Well, that would give the strongest hawks in the GOP the opportunity to define themselves as more hawkish than the Clinton-Obama Democrats. But that, in turn, would open up space for a real foreign policy argument on the GOP side. By contrast, if Clinton never has to define her views in the primary, the temptation on the GOP side will be to avoid an argument that has the potential to divide GOP voters, and stick to arguments and slogans that will resonate more broadly because they mean less.

I think the same thing is true on any other issue – Clinton’s coziness with the banking sector, for example. A populist challenge on the Democratic side would open up space for Republicans to actually argue about whether they have a populist argument to make. If nothing else, it would be glaring if they didn’t. By contrast, a coronation would make it easy for GOP contenders to posture in a populist direction without actually arguing about what they would actually do.

What I guess I’m saying is: I assume Michael Brendan Dougherty isn’t going to vote for anybody the Democrats nominate. At best, they might nominate someone who convinces him not to pull the lever for the GOP – and that’s probably a pretty easy bar to clear. But that doesn’t mean he’s just a concern troll. A healthy debate on one side is good for the prospects of healthy debate on the other side. And that’s good for the country, no matter who winds up winning said debate.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 3 comments

Double Feature Feature: Walking Shadow Edition

Michael Keaton and his winged shadow in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman"
Michael Keaton and his winged shadow in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman"

About half an hour before the end of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” our hero, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), walks out of a cheap liquor store to the sound of someone declaiming, with monotonous vehemence, Macbeth’s famous “tomorrow” soliloquy from Act V of Shakespeare’s play. As Riggan walks down the street taking pulls from his bottle, he passes the bum speaking the speech, and the bum notices him passing, and calls out to him – “Is it too much? It’s too much, isn’t it? I’m just trying to give you a range . . .”

The line is a call back to a moment near the beginning of the film. Riggan is the director and star of a play (which he wrote), adapted from the famous Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But twenty years before, he was a huge movie star, most famous for playing a comic book hero, Birdman, in three installments of the eponymous franchise. This late-career theatrical outing is Riggan’s bid for artistic redemption – his way of proving that he can do work that matters, that is “important” and not just remunerative. That homeless soliloquizer’s line is a quote from the rehearsal of that play – it’s the last thing one of the other actors says to Riggan when he sees Riggan’s disappointment with his over-the-top line reading. Next thing that happens, a light falls on the actor’s head, and he’s out of the show – an accident that Riggan is convinced he caused, using Birdman’s powers of telekinesis.

It’s almost a throwaway moment, but in a way it’s a synecdoche for the entire film, its method and its message. Macbeth was kind of Shakespeare’s Birdman, when you think about it: a hero with quasi-magic powers capable of chopping foes in half with a single blow. And this speech, by a murderous tyrant learning of his wife’s death, is about the death of feeling: feeling like you’re just an actor, walking through a part. You may make a lot of noise, but it doesn’t mean anything; knowing that, you feel nothing at the passing of the only person you ever really loved. But, of course, that speech has to be delivered by an actor – and, as it happens, it’s a really hard speech to deliver convincingly, to deliver not as a “speech,” but as something genuinely felt. And it’s not just because the speech is famous; I suspect it has something to do with the double-consciousness the actor must have at that moment, that to be in that moment, he must be out of it, using the feeling he has when he thinks about what on earth the point is of what he is doing, right then.

And that double consciousness is what “Birdman” is most fundamentally about.

That’s not all, of course. On one level, the film is just an exquisitely snarky showbiz satire, something to be watched alongside “State and Main,” “Barton Fink” and “The Player” – and that might be readily deflated by “Sullivan’s Travels” – and on that level it’s a whole lot of fun. The key supporting performances, by Ed Norton as a “method”-mad stage actor, Naomi Watts as his vulnerable co-star and lover, Emma Stone as Riggan’s pouty daughter and assistant, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s own lover, and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s put-upon lawyer, are all poised perfectly on the knife-edge between outright satire and emotional realism – they are exaggerated for exactly the right amount of effect to make us laugh without ever letting us distance ourselves completely. Only Amy Ryan, as Riggan’s ex-wife, plays her part without a hint of show – a choice which I’m sure was deliberate, as it provides us with the necessary ground to read Riggan himself as a real person, and not merely the cartoon he so often sees himself in.

On another level, “Birdman” is just a self-conscious tour-de-force, Emmanuel Lubezki‘s bid to retire the cinematography Oscar once and for all – and, not incidentally, a clever argument-by-illustration for film as a medium in explicit contrast with theater. The illusion that 90% of the film is a single take is breathtaking simply as a stunt, but it’s also making a point – that film can make us feel like we are there, feel the same tingle at a flawless performance played out in real time that the stage can. But film can also keep us in a character’s world, in his mind, can give us a point of view in a way that the stage is not optimally suited to do (though there are certainly plays and productions that try - The Glass Menagerie comes to mind as an obvious example). We’re not “with” Riggan is comprehensively as, say, we are with Travis Bickle in “Taxi Triver,” but the world the film explores is overwhelmingly his, even when he isn’t engaged in literal flights of fancy.

But to take this comedy seriously for a moment, it’s about whether art, particularly the art of performance, matters at all. And, by extension, whether life matters at all, since all we are doing in our lives is playing one or another part, and the measure of artistic success in performance is whether it doesn’t read as a performance, but feels as real as life.

In this, as well as in its method, it reminded me of another film about making theater: “Synecdoche, New York,” Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant directorial debut, and the film that for a while looked like it might have ended his career. I’ve been meaning to write something about “Synecdoche” for a long time, and have managed only to allude to it – which I will no doubt do again, as it’s a very important movie to me. But “Birdman” helped me contextualize it differently – and see better the ways in which it’s telling a story that’s easy to mock, and how it might have benefitted (as “Birdman” has) from greater self-awareness of that mockability.

“Synecdoche” tells the story of mopey theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). At the beginning of the film, he’s just staged a radical re-imagining of Death of a Salesman. (As with Carver in “Birdman,” the choice of material speaks volumes about the hero; but that’s a subject I’ve written about before.) His wife doesn’t like the play, which lets us know something is wrong there, and sure enough she leaves him almost immediately thereafter, taking their young daughter with her. Immediately after that, Caden gets a “genius” grant, and decides to use it to create the most comprehensive theater piece ever conceived: a theater piece that will contain the entire world, or at least the world of the creator and all he touches. For the rest of the film, Caden, in an abandoned warehouse, creates this work, hiring actors to play himself and the various people in his life – and then, as he descends further and further into his own work, actors to play the actors who, because of long association, have become important people to him in their own right. The work grows and evolves, but is never staged before an audience. It ends as a ruin of its once-fantastical self, with Caden’s own death.

Obviously, the conceit isn’t intended to be taken literally. Caden’s theater piece isn’t a real theater piece; it’s his life – the life of an artist who, perforce, creates art out of the materials of his life, and whose life over time becomes more and more dominated by that activity, increasingly populated not with “real” people but with people engaged with him in that same act of artifice. But that missing audience, ironically, becomes more powerful and awful if we think of it in metaphorical terms than if we take it straight. Taken straight, it’s a joke – this guy has spent his life creating a work of art, but who is it for? Nobody is watching! But taken as a metaphor for the artist’s life, it’s more terrible: this guy has been living his life, as an artist, but who has he been living it for? Is anybody even there?

And that, in turn, is the question “Birdman’s” Riggan asks at the end of his play, in a flashback to the scene of violence that Carver’s story refers to but doesn’t show: Ed’s bungled suicide. “I’m not even here; I’m invisible,” the character says – and then shoots himself. One of the delights of “Birdman” is seeing how this ending, and his play generally, changes with each performance, shedding new light on what it means for Riggan – just as one of the (far more elaborately developed) delights of “Synecdoche” is the repetition of scenes, first in Caden’s life, then on his “stage,” then riffing and transforming as Caden’s life moves on, and his art gets more and more tangled and impacted by that life.

I don’t want to give away too much about the ending of “Birdman,” but I’ll say this. Birdman himself, the character Riggan played and who follows him around for much of the movie taunting him in voice-over, has his own notions of what it’s all about: it’s about giving the audience what they want, and thereby becoming bigger than human, big enough to give them all of what they want. They want blood, they want excitement. You might say they want to know you love them so much you’re willing to kill somebody for them. That’s what the characters in the Carver story are debating. And that’s what, ultimately, Riggan gives them on stage.

And what about Caden? He has no audience. So why is he doing it? Where’s the love, even the twisted love, even what ultimately amounts to self-love, in the kind of art Caden is creating? Caden’s art is made out of his life, but it isn’t made for anybody. The deaths that happen in his world – there are two of note, one a suicide and one a comically foreshadowed accident – feel like extravagant attempts to get his attention, not ours. The solipsism of Caden’s world is so complete that the ending of the film recalls the Housman poem:

“Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.

I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth’s foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.”

I don’t mean to dump on “Synecdoche,” which means a huge amount to me, or to build up “Birdman” to something bigger than it is. Part of the difference between the two films amounts to the fact that “Synecdoche” is ultimately closer to the consciousness of a writer, while “Birdman” is about an actor. Part of it is that “Synecdoche” has a much bigger canvas – a whole life, a whole world – and a much looser method. Both films play with the boundary between reality and cinematic or theatrical representations thereof, and both films also play with our sense of time and space, but “Birdman” holds a much tighter rein on its conceits.

But I’ve put these two films together as a double feature not just because they are doing certain similar or comparable things, but because they are very different in spirit, and consequently have something to teach each other. And what “Birdman” could teach “Synecdoche” is the unexpected humility of arrogance. ”Birdman” knows that all it’s showing us is the life of a middle-aged movie star in all his pompous self-importance. It knows how we’re going to take him down a peg, and it gets there first. This makes Iñárritu’s film, on the one hand, seem more purely entertaining than Kaufman’s, which wears its pretensions to importance on its sleeve. But because the film has already taken Riggan down a peg, we’re free to actually identify, where Kaufman’s Caden actively pushes us away – one reason for its commercial failure, I suspect, is that only those already inclined to fear their own comprehensive solipsism were drawn in. “Birdman” is about absurd and willing victims of celebrity culture, and it doesn’t take their ambitions particularly seriously. But they take them seriously, and we’re free to let it ramify for us beyond the world of celebrity culture, to have it mean something to us.

“Birdman’s” range is, ultimately, as wide as you’re willing to let it fly.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . One comment

Voting My Pique


I’ve declined to say much about the midterms until now because, honestly, I barely paid any attention, so I’m in no position to opine on the surprise or lack thereof of the result. But I can speak to my own mentality going into the election, how it affected my vote, and how the results have played with me since.

This is the first time I can recall going into the voting booth to vote my pique, and not much else.

Usually, I take a “lesser-of-two-evils” approach to elections. There’s almost always someone I prefer of two serious alternatives, and I vote for that person. Sometimes I vote in a partisan manner, paying little attention to the individual and more attention to party identification; sometimes I do the opposite. Occasionally, I’m actually excited to vote for a particular candidate.

This year, my motivations were quite different. I voted entirely out of civic obligation, and made my selections in an entirely negative manner.

I think Andrew Cuomo has been a decent governor. We’ve certainly had worse. I just can’t stand him. So I didn’t want to vote for him, or his party. I saw no reason to vote for the Republican alternative. In another year, I might have voted for the Democrat on the Working Families line, or for either the Republican or Democratic candidate on the Liberal line, as a way of lending support to their particular influences on the political process. This year, that wasn’t an option. I’m particularly annoyed at the Working Families Party for capitulating easily to the governor. So I voted Green, knowing nothing about that party’s candidate. It was a pure pique vote.

Then I voted Libertarian for a couple of other offices, just to make sure nobody thought I was some kind of pinko. And that’s how it went down the ballot. When I couldn’t find a hopeless third alternative, I wrote in my friend Sid, who I am confident would discharge the responsibilities of any office in a conscientious manner.

When it came to the ballot initiatives, I voted against the redistricting plan because I didn’t want to endorse any supposed reform supported by the powers that be. I voted against the bond issue for school technology because I have no confidence that this is a sensible use of funds. Basically, I voted “No” to everybody and on everything except distributing legislation by email. Functionally, I didn’t behave very differently from someone who didn’t vote.

This was not a strategic move. I wasn’t trying to “send a message.” It was an affiliational move. I didn’t want to be affiliated with anything or anyone on the ballot this year.

I’m not particularly proud of that. I do wonder whether I would have voted differently if there had been any meaningful contest at stake locally. I probably would have. But that affiliational element would have stuck in my craw, regardless.

From a systems perspective, I think of politics as a game in which elites compete to capture a portion of the electorate in order to secure office. The results of elections have no greater meaning than who now holds those offices. There is no “people’s will,” and no such thing as a “mandate” – it isn’t even possible to send a “message” because pragmatically the game is always about the next election. The premise of democracy, in this way of thinking, is that governance will be improved if those elites have to fear direct accountability to the voters – if they don’t do a job that voters approve of, they may get tossed out unceremoniously. If that’s basically what politics in a democracy is, then I shouldn’t feel bad at all about my mentality going into this election. Voting your pique is pretty much what you always should do.

But I am stubbornly attached to another vision of politics, according to which political life is paradigmatically where we decide on what terms we are going to live together. Voting my pique doesn’t feel so good if that’s what politics is. Who wants to live with someone that cranky, on any terms? And my distaste for political affiliation, which has been growing year by year, feels rather too much like a withdrawal from the polis as such.

I’m not saying, by the way, that a libertarian “leave me alone” politics constitutes withdrawal. “Give each other lots of space” is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question, “on what terms shall we live together?” But there’s a difference between agreeing that we’re each going to do our own dishes and throw out our own trash, and simply sitting on the couch, staring at the television, ignoring our infuriating roommate whenever he brings around the job wheel.

Anyway, hopefully I’m in a more familiar, less-alienated frame of mind by the next time two evils are competing for the title of which is lesser.

 Tagged , , , , . 14 comments

Publishing Problems


A piece appeared at some point over the past couple of days under my name that was not intended for publication. I’m not sure how exactly it got published; I’m investigating that question right now.

I frequently write draft posts to explore one or another thought that then decide against publishing because – well, possibly because I don’t think they are well-written, possibly because I’m not sure I agree with my own argument, possibly because I’m still working out what I’m trying to say.

In any event, if anyone is puzzled where the last post went – that’s where.

Post a comment

Esoteric? Or Poetic?


I think I’m going to need to read Arthur M. Melzer’s new book, because I admit to being somewhat confused by just why Damon Linker thinks his argument is so important.

Here’s how high Linker rates the stakes:

Melzer has written the most compelling, surprising, and persuasive defense of [Leo] Strauss’s thought that I have ever read. It deserves a wide and appreciative audience. And if it gets one, the consequences could be enormous.

Because if Strauss was right in the way he interpreted the Western philosophical tradition, then much of modern scholarship — and, by extension, our civilization’s understanding of its intellectual and political inheritance — will need to be radically revised.

Why? Because, following Strauss, Melzer argues that the classics of Western philosophy were written “esoterically.” That is to say, they appear to be saying one thing on the surface, but the attentive and truly philosophically-inclined reader will discern a deeper meaning that, on close examination, is profoundly at odds with the surface meaning. And, presumably, we moderns have been reading these classics all wrong because we’ve forgotten how to read this way.

My first puzzlement is to say: really? We have? We no longer prize “indirect, implicit, ambiguous modes of speaking and writing” the way all other societies in history have, and do? William Empson would certainly be surprised to hear it, as would much of the rest of the literary-critical profession. Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, sounds to me like a textbook example of what Linker, citing Melzer, calls “pedagogical esotericism.” Assuming I’ve understood Fish correctly, his argument is that while on the surface Paradise Lost appears to be a story about the Fall of Man – and in that story, appears to make Satan a surprisingly sympathetic figure (which is how Blake read it) – in fact that very experience, of being surprised by sympathy for the devil as a dramatic character, recapitulates the Fall within the heart of the reader. And, by putting the reader through that experience, the reader will truly come to understand the Fall and how it could have happened in the first place.

I deliberately didn’t point to Lacanian, New Historicist or other schools of reading that divorce the text from any notion of intentionality because it seems important to Melzer’s (and Strauss’s) claim that these works were intended to be read esoterically. But clearly these other schools, following Freud and Marx, have found (or imposed) all kinds of esoteric meanings on a wide variety of texts. And it’s not obvious to me why the point about intentionality is telling if the question is: what do these works mean now, as opposed to the historical question of what they meant then.

In any event: medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers were well-acquainted with the idea of reading texts – particularly sacred texts – on multiple levels: reading for the plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the mystical “esoteric” meaning, etc. Straussian readings of the classics – which, I will own, I have had only passing acquaintance with – have always struck me as comparable. Maimonides, Aquinas and Ibn Rushd aimed to reconcile Aristotle with scripture. This required some novel readings of scripture – and also some novel readings of Aristotle. Strauss, it seems to me, wanted to reconcile Plato with Nietzsche, which required similar stretches. What’s puzzling is the necessity of reconciliation. Plato, after all, isn’t scripture. Nietzsche may actually have learned something that Plato didn’t know. “What did Plato intend his readers to understand?” is ultimately a historical question, not a philosophical one. “Is mathematical Platonism correct?” on the other hand, is a philosophical question – and one that has relevance whether “mathematical Platonism” as philosophers of math use the term actually corresponds precisely to something Plato “intended” or not. Either way, the value of reading Plato as if it were a sacred text is, well, obscure.

My largest puzzlement, though, is that the defining characteristic of Western philosophical thought at its origin is the opposite of esotericism. Socrates, after all, was put to death precisely because he directly questioned whether anybody knew anything, and thereby (in the view of the Athenian citizenry) corrupted the youth and led the community into disaster. His method wasn’t esoteric teaching – it wasn’t teaching at all. It was relentlessly interrogatory. Is it plausible to read much of Plato as an esoteric response, an attempt to preserve something of Socrates’s philosophical achievement without ultimately suffering his fate? Perhaps – but the more salient fact, it seems to me, is that Socrates’s example is still there as the fundamental challenge to any philosopher to come after. That’s what’s distinctive. Read Plato however you like, you will never turn Socrates into Lao Tzu for sheer esoteric inscrutability.

Here’s the heart of Linker’s appreciation of Melzer, and of Strauss:

Take the account of the “noble lie” in Plato’s Republic. In this passage of the classic dialogue, Socrates tells his conversation partners that the perfectly just political community they are constructing in speech will require a four-part foundational lie or salutary myth: that all of its citizens are born from the ground on which the community makes its home; that all citizens are brothers; that each citizen is born as one of three races (gold, silver, or iron/bronze); and that each comes into the world along with certain tools that indicate the job he was meant to do in life.

On Melzer’s reading (which closely follows the interpretation of Strauss’ student Allan Bloom), each element in this myth is meant to expose a lie that can be found at work in every human society, even our own.

Every society denies the fact that the land it occupies was taken by force from some group of human beings who was there first. (Hence the need to teach the lie that citizens are literally children of the land the society occupies.) Every society arbitrarily grants the rights and benefits of citizenship to some people and denies them to others. (Hence the need to teach the lie that all citizens are members of a natural family.) Every society allows some people to rule over others — in a democracy, the majority rules over everyone else — and attempts to justify this arrangement as founded in the natural order of things. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the metals.) Finally, every society requires that certain undesirable jobs be done, even when they are harmful to the individuals who do them — coal mining, for example, or soldiering. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the tools.)

In sum, every society makes use of myths and lies to cover over injustices that are coeval with political life as such. This isn’t to deny that liberal democracies strive to lessen these injustices in some areas. In comparison to most societies in history, for example, the U.S. permits a relatively large number of immigrants to become citizens. The upward mobility fostered by capitalistic exchange likewise alleviates the worst economic injustices.

Yet we still exclude people from citizenship, and we still need some people to do dangerous or otherwise harmful jobs. There is no complete solution to the problem of political injustice. Even though every society uses a variation on the noble lie to convince itself that it has somehow achieved exactly that.

Strauss didn’t teach his students to tell lies. He taught them how to liberate themselves from the lies we tell ourselves.

If this is how Plato intended to be read, it can only be because his students were already Socratic in their orientation. Compare the above to my account of Fish’s “reader-response” reading of Milton. Unless you already are oriented in a Christian manner, and understand sympathy for the devil’s party to be an index of sinfulness, you won’t be “surprised” in the manner Milton intended. The poem won’t work its greatest magic. So: a philosophically-sophisticated reader of Plato, Melzer is saying, will read Plato’s account of the “noble lie” and, rather than take it at face value (“clearly we should continue to promote such lies, for the good of the community”), or engage in self-congratulation (“thankfully, we modern liberals have outgrown the telling of noble lies”), will turn the process inward, (“hmmm . . . the teacher says that the ideal community is founded on noble lies . . . our community seems pretty ideal – I wonder what lies we are founded on?”) But if this process is going to happen at all, though, it is because the student already sees Socrates as the philosophical exemplar. That is to say: she already thinks the right way to do philosophy is by questioning everything. Absent that fundamental orientation, how would it ever occur to the student to ask that question?

Milton, writing a Christian poem for a Christian audience, presumably wasn’t being “esoteric.” He was writing poetry – great, highly sophisticated poetry that (assuming Fish’s reading is correct) could not achieve its fullest effect except by the means he employed. If Strauss/Bloom/Melzer’s reading of Plato’s noble lie is correct, then the question is whether Plato was writing poetically or esoterically? Was he writing as he did, in other words, because a more sophisticated approach was more powerful? Or because he didn’t want to be understood by non-initiates?

The two possibilities have very different implications for how we think about Strauss’s implicit politics. The latter is properly what “esoteric” writing should mean, and is why Strauss gets the negative rap that he does. “Liberate yourself from believing lies” is perfectly compatible, as an injunction, with continuing to tell them, and the surface reading of Plato – according to which the path of relentless inquiry is only available to the elite, and is dangerous for society as a whole – would certainly seem to provide adequate justification for continuing to tell them. But my question is: what would Socrates do? The founder of Western philosophy didn’t head out to the suburbs to teach selected initiates. He asked annoying questions of whoever entered the Agora. And when that earned him a cup of hemlock, he drank it.

I’ll be more convinced that Strauss is actually following Socrates when I hear more from Straussians about the lies philosophers – including Straussians - tell themselves about what they are really doing.


 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 22 comments

Chickens**t Nation?

As an inveterate Netanyahu-hater, I’ve been mildly gratified by chickens**t-gate. I am far from alone in always having seen Netanyahu as a short-term, un-strategic thinker and a deeply insecure person, someone whose politics are almost exclusively the politics of fear, and who is, himself, consumed by fears of possible negative consequences to himself of any risky decisions – but blithe to the consequences to his country’s political life of any of his self-protective maneuvers. Chickens**t is as good a word for him as any.

But, once upon a time, this was a reason why Netanyahu seemed like an unlikely figure to dominate Israeli politics. Israelis themselves could see how small he was, how inadequately he represented them. They might vote for him if they felt they had to, but they wouldn’t feel good about it – not even right-wing voters who might have voted enthusiastically for Begin or Sharon. Most other Likud politicians held him in poorly-concealed contempt.

That has changed, and I’m not sure Netanyahu’s foreign critics – or even some of his domestic ones – fully appreciate that change. Last week, Daniel Larison weighed in on why the Obama Administration leaked such contemptuous language, and the best he could come up with is spite: the Administration has given up on any progress and is just trying to make Netanyahu’s life difficult as payback for Bibi’s own meddling. But are the leaks having the desired effect? Netanyahu doesn’t seem to think so – he seems to think he gets a political benefit from being attacked by President Obama. And the evidence of recent history backs him up on this. Organs of American Jewish opinion are also starting to wonder whether the Netanyahu government has come unmoored from reality, as have a host of retired officials from Israel’s military and security services. None of this criticism shows any signs of moving the needle of Israeli public opinion in the direction the critics desire.

One may debate to what extent the Netanyahu government is to blame for the state of the Israeli public psyche, and to what extent he merely benefits from accurately reflecting the tenor of the Israeli times. But the fact remains: he does reflect it accurately. The Israeli public is not pushing the government to address its growing international isolation because it has fully internalized the notion that all-but-universal hatred is inevitable. Criticism from American Jews, even from traditionally more center-right quarters, falls on deaf ears because such criticism just proves that American Jews, safely an ocean away from the front lines, don’t understand the risks Israelis face. The circle is closed.

Obviously, not all Israelis feel this way; there’s a spectrum of opinion everywhere. But in my view, Netanyahu is correctly assessing the domestic political environment he faces. He helped create it, after all. This is not 1991, and Netanyahu is not Shamir. And those who think that Israel is pursuing a course with grave long-term risks have a much tougher task than simply leaning on a particularly recalcitrant leader.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , . 18 comments

Making a Scene

Dallas Roberts, Alex Hurt, and Arliss Howard play Johan opposite Roslyn Ruff, Susannah Flood, and Tina Benko (all of whom play Marianne) in Emily Mann's English version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, directed by Ivo Van Hove, at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© Jan Versweyveld)
Dallas Roberts, Alex Hurt, and Arliss Howard play Johan opposite Roslyn Ruff, Susannah Flood, and Tina Benko (all of whom play Marianne) in Emily Mann's English version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, directed by Ivo Van Hove, at New York Theatre Workshop. (© Jan Versweyveld)

One of the most harrowing theater pieces I’ve had the recent privilege to experience just finished its run at the New York Theatre Workshop. Scenes From a Marriage, based on the film and television miniseries by Ingmar Bergman, closed this past weekend, but it will not leave the consciousness of those who’ve experienced it for a very long time. I hope it travels elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world; it deserves to find larger audience, and, by its nature, cannot do so except by doing what it does again and again in similarly intimate spaces. In the meantime, I hope I can do the experience some justice by description.

I was nervous about the idea adapting Bergman’s film for the stage, for two reasons. First, although I found it an incredibly powerful work when I first saw it a year or so ago, the film is very much a product of the 1970s, and I worried that presenting it on the stage four decades later would make it feel like a period piece. Second, while this is a very talky film, Bergman is such a cinematic director, so compositional, that I feared for what would happen without him to direct our eye.

I needn’t have worried. Ivo Van Hove’s production (of a English text adaptation by Emily Mann) dealt very cleverly with both problems, creating and populating a theatrical space that deftly communicated universality without ever sacrificing specificity. First of all, he divided the first half of the story, leading up to the breakup of the marriage, into three scenes that play concurrently, by three different couples, in three different portions of a triangular space. There’s a great deal of shouting and door-slamming in this play, so we overhear the more heated portions of the other scenes even as we’re watching our own segment of marital trauma. And through windows we can see into an inner triangle of space that characters may flee to or emerge from.

One consequence of splitting our couple in three – and three very different couples in terms of both physical and personality type – is that the audience can process them simultaneously as three different couples, but also as the same couple at different points in a relationship breaking down. The three scenes also play two ways: as successive points in a line of descent into divorce but also as parallel “origin stories” explaining where things went wrong. This is particularly the case because the audience is also divided in three, so they will see the scenes in any of three possible orders. And because the scenes bleed into one another, the parallelism operates in time as well as space. These are three couples; they are one couple; they are all couples – these scenes happen in order; in no order; they all at once and always.

Each of the scenes provides adequate explanation for the marriage’s end. At one scene, a dinner party collapses when the visiting couple get drunk and have a screaming row. In the aftermath, the very girlish-seeming wife (Susannah Flood) reveals to her hipster husband (Alex Hurt) that she has gotten pregnant again – something he had thought she was taking the necessary precautions to prevent. Dancing between the possibilities of keeping the child or having an abortion, the husband steers his partner with increasing firmness toward the latter choice, one the wife suspects she’ll never get over.

At another, in the marital bedroom, a much older seeming husband (Arliss Howard) comes home to announce that he’s leaving his shocked wife (Tina Benko, who I cannot in a million years imagine wanting to leave) - the next morning – to go to Paris with his mistress. He has no particular hope of happiness from this choice, but at least he’ll escape what has become an unendurable misery. And at the third – the second, in terms of the story’s chronology; the first, in terms of my own experience of the piece; and the most-difficult for me personally to endure – an anxious and sexually closed-down wife (Roslyn Ruff) and a bored and resigned husband (Dallas Roberts) tiptoe around the silences that have come to dominate their lives together, each gesture by either toward seriously confronting the empty heart of their marriage triggering a sudden ferocity in the other.

As another gesture toward universality, both place and time are cheerfully indeterminate. The land-line telephones are of a pre-AT&T-breakup vintage, but the husband carries an iPhone, which he reads rather than coming to bed with his wife. Costumes have elements that recall the 1970s (Benko’s jeans, Ruff’s dress) and elements that seem more contemporary, without ever declaring firmly for either. There are lifestyle elements that seem to suggest a Swedish locale, while others wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn. Hove never calls attention to any of these ambiguities; he simply lets them be. The effect is something like a good modern-dress production of Shakespeare: we simply don’t think about the history or sociology, and focus on the characters.

The emotional violence of the piece, and the audacity of its staging, reach their peaks in act two, in a brilliant variation on the first act’s triptych. The audience returns from intermission to find the thin, temporary walls that separated the three scenes of Act I have come down, revealing a larger triangular space, wherein we will see this couple’s marriage finally come to an end. Wife and husband (now bereft of his mistress) meet in her office to sign the papers and finally complete their divorce. But, after a bit of reminiscing, a bit of sexual revisiting, and a bit of recrimination, the husband declares that he won’t sign. Things spiral downward from there, until we have to watch as the husband, by now quite drunk, becomes outright violent, dragging his wife across the room, throttling her, and of course spewing all kinds of verbal abuse as he does so.

And we have to watch this horrific scene three times at once, as each of the three couples we met in Act I is present in that room together, playing out the same scene, but differently, each as their particular personalities imply they would – occasionally even switching partners in the middle. Amazingly enough, instead of a cacophony, what emerges from the echoing and reverberating lines is music. That combination of specificity and multiplicity, the same lines given different readings by different men and women, flowing over one another in a kind of wretched fugue – if Hove wanted to communicate that this scene is essential to the human condition in marriage, I can’t imagine a better way to do it.

Only three scenes, that I recall, break this fugal pattern. In Act I, the wife (Ruff) meets with an older client (Mia Katigbak) to discuss her divorce. (The wife is a divorce lawyer, a fact she comments on bitterly as she is trapped in her office with her abusive husband – how many times has she advised her clients not to put themselves in such a vulnerable situation?) Why does she want one? Because there is no love in her marriage, and never has been. The scene is a bleak one – the woman has no hope of happiness, she just wants to escape a particular misery that she finds no longer bearable. Then, in Act II, a different wifely avatar (Benko) meets with her mother (played again by Mia Katigbak) to ask about her marriage to her husband, the wife’s father, now-deceased. And, lo and behold, she also didn’t really think she loved him – the love of her life was another man, but what can you do. And then the daughter asks her why she was so unsupportive through her painful divorce, and her mother answers: I don’t remember it that way. It’s an awkward dance of closeness and distance, but that tone of renouncing love, and that renunciation being somehow part of marriage, at least for this older generation, tolls ominously throughout.

And finally, in the last scene of the play, we see the couple (played by Benko and Howard), meeting for an annual tryst, a ritual they’ve settled into years after their divorces and remarriages. For the first time, they are comfortable with each other – physically and emotionally. They’ve become friends. They can talk to each other. The wife says at one point that this is the very thing that is essentially absent from marriage – she’s very happy with her new husband, loves him, has a great sex life with him, etc. But she just can’t talk to her spouse the way she can to her ex-husband, now that he is her ex-husband. The stakes are too high. Too much honesty can do too much damage.

As I write this, and think about the play, it sounds like I’m saying the play is making a “case” against marriage. And I don’t think that’s true. First of all, it’s a play, not a brief; it isn’t making a case for or against anything. But if it is making a case, it’s the painful one that the things we want, that we crave most deeply, may be mutually incompatible. We want love, both erotic and familial. We want friendship, the kind where you can reveal yourself safely, over and over again, without fear of destroying that bond. And we want the fundamentally inextricable bond that we call marriage, that ties two people together in ways that can never really be unraveled. And these things get in each other’s way. The knot that cannot be untied can fray, and can be cut, and fear over its fragility inhibits the honesty essential to friendship. Meanwhile, the very comforts of friendship can mute the intensity of erotic desire.

Marriage is full of scenes – perhaps we have to play them out in order for the marriage to breathe, and live, and grow. But play them badly, and you may find yourself on an empty stage, with an empty bottle, and a sheaf of papers.


 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . One comment

Reading Myself and Others

Jason Schwartzman does not want his picture taken with this book.
Jason Schwartzman does not want his picture taken with this book.

As someone with a taste for films with thoroughly unpleasant protagonists, and with a fondness for Jason Schwartzman, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I quite enjoyed Alex Ross Perry’s latest film, “Listen Up Philip,” in which Schwartzman plays about as unpleasant a protagonist as he’s ever assayed.

That protagonist is Philip Lewis Friedman, a notable (or is it noteworthy? Philip actually muses about this question) young New York novelist who has just seen his second novel come out. Philip celebrates the happy occasion by telling off his ex-girlfriend (for being late to meet him), and his ex-roommate (for not having held up his end of their pact to become great writers together), and his publisher (for no obvious reason; he simply announces that he isn’t going to do any promotion for his own book, and that’s that) – and then, having cleared his calendar, fleeing his supportive-in-more-ways-than-one-but-starting-to-lose-patience current girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss, giving an expressive performance with great economy), with and on whom he has been living for two years, to hang out upstate with his Philip Roth-esque literary hero, Ike Zimmerman (a pitch-perfect Jonathan Pryce), who is in need of a protégé to tutor in the ways of misanthropy and misogyny.

So far, so satiric, and the satire is biting indeed. Philip is an exaggerated character, but the stunts he pulls and the demands he makes are all familiar enough to anyone familiar with the lives of writers (though few are quite as relentless as Philip is). Philip isn’t just a colossal narcissistic jerk; he’s both clever and clueless – clever enough to know that telling a girlfriend “I’m telling you this to hurt you” will actually be effective at disarming her of any possible response, clueless enough actually to be surprised when another girlfriend, with whom he hasn’t spoken in months, decides that is no longer her status, and changes the lock. The pervasive visual satire is the funniest, and never funnier than when sending up the look of Zimmerman’s dust jackets through the decades.

The satire gets considerably juicier all around when Ike Zimmerman enters the scene, and we can observe the contrast in narcissisms between the literary generations. Zimmerman is a monster of ego, who has fully earned the hatred of his daughter (the luminously furious  Krysten Ritter), but he can fairly claim to have labored to satisfy his voracious appetite, whether for women or literary acclaim. I believed his daughter’s fury – but I also believed that she can’t quit him in spite of all. Philip is fully his equal in ego, and – in a nice departure from the too-common trope of the whiny Millennial slacker – respectably if not extraordinarily productive. But rather than assault life to salve his essential loneliness, as Zimmerman does (ineffectively, in the final analysis), Philip sips his bitter cup in silence, daring life (women, publishers) to rescue him. And he’s clever enough for it to be believable that he’s genuinely talented, and therefore for us to believe that he can get these women to put up with him. But only for a time, and it’s hard to picture any of them ever wanting to bear his children.

Though the story is ultimately Philip’s, the narrative gives ample time to Ashley and Zimmerman – enough time that we begin to truly see them as separate people, not devices who exist for the sake of Philip’s story line. But when I step back, it’s clear to me that this impression of separateness, too, is a device, that even the contours of Ashley’s independence from Philip are driven by the demands of the central narrative. I use that word, “narrative,” with particular emphasis, because this story is not just shown, it is narrated, in voice-over (by Eric Bogosian) so exceptionally heavy-handed that one can only conclude the filmmaker wanted to be absolutely certain we would be conscious of it as a device, and ask how it should be “read.” If “Listen Up Philip” were a novel, a narrative voice this strong would beg to be interrogated as to its reliability; we would be forced to ask whose voice this is, and what its agenda might be.

Well, given that Ike Zimmerman is a Philip Roth stand-in, and that the titles are in a famous Roth font, and that Roth has a strong penchant for writing novels narrated by characters named “Philip Roth” or by transparent surrogates like Nathan Zuckerman, and that he wrote a novel, The Ghost Writer, about the relationship between a rising young writer and a bitter older literary lion (modeled on Bernard Malamud), that bears a striking resemblance to the premise of this film . . . well, when you put it all together, it feels like the movie’s voice-over is begging to be read as the creation of Philip Lewis Friedman (or, whatever hypothesized persona is Roth to Philip’s Zuckerman). In other words, the film’s view of Philip – as unrelentingly selfish and arrogant, and therefore doomed to misery – is Philip’s own. As is the larger view of the world: a place where men are uniformly miserable (they are young and lonely, and either grow old and bitter, or they commit suicide as another rising writer does), and where women are uniformly made miserable by these narcissistic men (and can only find peace if they settle for the affections of a cat they are mildly allergic to).

When I describe the world of the movie that way, in all of its comprehensive male self-pity, it seems all the more plausible that Philip is the author of the film. Which raises the question: what kind of response is that author trying to get from us? Is the “real” Philip so much like the Philip we see on screen that we can view this entire film as one of his clever manipulations of our emotions, daring us to rescue him from his own misery by watching it, analyzing it, praising it, wanting to meet him and ask him whether we got it?

I guess it worked.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Post a comment

Libertarians, Virtue and “Yes Means Yes”

MGM (1940)
MGM (1940)

I’ve got somewhat unsettled thoughts about the whole California yes-means-yes law myself, with sympathy for multiple sides in this debate, ranging from Ezra Klein’s much-maligned piece defending a law he himself thinks is lousy, to Fredrik deBoer’s critique of the law as more likely to be used against the innocent-but-weak than against the most successful campus predators, to Heather MacDonald’s piece back-handedly defending the law as the restoration of Victorian relations between the sexes. But as is my wont, when I’m not sure what I think, I look for a proof text to interpret. This time, I came up with two.

The first direction I went, in thinking about the law, was to wonder: what’s the libertarian take on the question? It wasn’t obvious to me. On the one hand, libertarians tend to be highly skeptical of intruding the clumsy hand of the state into the private sphere. And this intrusion is going to be pretty darned clumsy. On the other hand, libertarians tend to have pretty strong, even absolute, views on private property rights. Such absolutism makes, if anything, even more sense when it comes to the use of our own bodies than if we’re talking about, say, the right to use groundwater. And in general, if you own property, nobody has the right to use that property without your affirmative consent. If I’m your neighbor, and we have basically friendly relations, been to each other’s barbecues and borrowed each other’s lawnmowers, I still can’t presume the right to draw groundwater from your well without explicitly asking and getting explicit permission.

And – as it happens – I found a proof text for precisely this question, from one of the foundational libertarian works: Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. For those of you who were not quite such dire sci-fi nerds as I was as a pre-teen and teenager, Heinlein’s novel is about a revolution on the moon, prompted, as it happens, by ecological concerns, but intended by the author to demonstrate the viability of a society without law or government as we understand it. His Luna is a prison, but, being practically impossible to escape from, the wardens don’t really do anything to police the populace. Since they won’t allow anything like a government or a police force to develop either, though, the populace has, perforce, come to customary solutions to a variety of social problems that are enforced in an ad hoc fashion rather than through a process of positive law. For example: relations between the sexes.

In Heinlein’s imaginary lunar society, there’s an imbalanced sex ratio as a consequence of the predominance of males among the deported convict population. As a consequence, in his imagination, the “clearing price” of female consent to sexual relations is very high – and, as a consequence of this, women wind up basically having complete control over sexual relations. In his words, put into the mouth of a native Lunarian trying to explain Lunar society to a tourist from Earth who nearly got himself killed by a gang of teenage toughs for making a pass at “their” girl:

“You have no choice, she has all choice. She can hit you so hard it draws blood; you dasn’t lay a finger on her. Look, you put an arm around Tish, maybe tried to kiss. Suppose instead she had gone to hotel room with you; what would happen?”

“Heavens! I supposed they would have torn me to pieces.”

“They would have done nothing. Shrugged and pretended not to see. Because choice is hers. Not yours. Not theirs. Exclusively hers.”

Now, it so happens that this fantasy of Heinlein’s bears absolutely no resemblance to what societies with highly skewed sex ratios actually look like. Heinlein presumes that the spontaneous order that would arise in the absence of authority would treat women not merely as valuable prizes but as agents. If you don’t make that assumption, and instead think about any other scarce, high-priced resource and how it would likely be allocated in a state of nature, it doesn’t look much like Heinlein’s fantasy. In reality, a high proportion of women in highly-skewed societies like North Dakota’s oilfields work as sex workers employed by men to service other men rather than as free-spirited women freely choosing to spend their “valuable” sexual services in whatever fashion maximizes their own personal utility function. The dynamic is undoubtedly different at, say, Cal Tech – but toxic misogyny, the too-frequent refuge of men who see themselves as losers in a ruthless contest for female attention, is not exactly unknown in those precincts.

More to the point, it’s worth noting that Heinlein’s vision for what a spontaneous order would look like is heavily dependent on assumptions about how male violence specifically would play out. Though the women of Heinlein’s Luna are fierce fighters, he isn’t really fantasizing about Amazon women on the moon. He’s fantasizing about men enforcing a collectively-beneficial norm granting women complete control of sexual relations through fatal violence against men who violate that norm. In other words: even in this libertarian fantasy, female agency is underwritten by an implicit cartel between men relating to how their violence will be deployed. Men who don’t understand what a woman’s love is worth, or never expect to experience it, are not going to join that cartel.

None of this is to suggest that female agency has no role on the “lawless” frontier. I cite “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as my proof-text for that aside. But where I really want to go next is to another filmic proof-text.

Because: if I’m right that even deeply libertarian thinking about the question of relations between the sexes necessarily smuggles in questions of character - male character specifically – under the radar, then what kind of character are we actually looking for? Is Heather MacDonald right that the feminists are kissing cousins to the Victorians, and that what is really wanted is a return to the “default no,” and a much higher risk premium associated with sexual exploration?

I’m doubtful. And I cite “The Philadelphia Story” as my proof-text this time.

In that classic film, Katherine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a furiously moral woman who left her first husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) because of his drinking, and is now  preparing to marry a completely different man: George Kittredge (John Howard), a highly moral self-made man who puts her on the same pedestal on which you might imagine she places herself. But you’d be wrong. Over the course of what is, at times, a quite painful film to watch – the movie is downright cruel to Lord at times, particularly when her father returns to the scene to berate his daughter for being the cause of his infidelities (you heard right) – Tracy Lord learns that she wants something quite different than she thinks. She doesn’t want someone who is good, who is upright, who behaves rightly, and who worships her as a proper object of neo-Victorian veneration. She wants to be loved.

She learns this by getting sloppy drunk with yet another character, an impoverished but brilliant writer and disgruntled hack, “Mike” Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart), with whom, when the dawn finally breaks on a very long night before her scheduled wedding, she’s convinced she’s just had a sordid one-night-stand – a realization which fills her with self-loathing.

But she’s under a misapprehension. Her virtue is intact. And her dialogue around the revelation of that fact is instructive:

Connor: Kittredge, it may interest you to know that the so-called ‘affair’ consisted of exactly two kisses and a rather late swim . . . All of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the memory of which I wouldn’t part with for anything . . . After which I deposited Tracy on her bed in her room, and promptly returned down here to you two – which doubtless you’ll remember.

Tracy: Why? Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding, or something – that – ?

George: Well, this is fine talk, too.

Tracy: I’m asking a question.

Mike: You were extremely attractive, and as for distant and forbidding, on the contrary. But you also were a little the worse – or the better – for wine, and there are rules about that.

Tracy: Thank you, Mike. I think men are wonderful.

Now, your average undergraduate is unlikely to measure up in wit or presence to the likes of Tracy Lord or Macaulay Connor, but that’s not the point. When Mike says Tracy was both a little the worse and a little the better for having drunk too much, or when Tracy worries that perhaps Mike didn’t take advantage of her incapacity because he wasn’t attracted to her (or worse, was afraid of her) – that’s not the shallow, sordid dynamic that George Kittredge thinks it is. For her own good, Tracy Lord needed to lose control, needed to let herself take some stupid risks.

Nonetheless, the scene would have played out very differently had Mike not understood that “there are rules” about the situation he found himself in with Tracy. What underwrites the happy outcome isn’t Kittredge’s Victorian rigor, but an altogether warmer version of male restraint – a version that can delight in being with a woman who’s a little out of control, while remaining enough in control himself to be able to imagine what she will ultimately regret or resent, and to bring that imagination to bear on his actions.

I don’t know about men in general, but Mike specifically is wonderful, and a wonderful model to hold up (and a more plausible one for most of us to emulate than the magisterially aristocratic C. K. Dexter Haven). But there’s still that asymmetry. The safety that makes it possible for Tracy Lord to find herself is underwritten by Mike’s basic human decency. The opposite is no doubt true as well – indeed, Liz’s frankly superhuman patience with Mike in the very same film is a necessary contributor to his freedom to find himself. My point is that in each of these situations, this asymmetry obtains. My freedom to explore depends on your willingness to show patience, restraint, maturity that, in some measure, exceeds mine. And vice versa.

This isn’t an order that can arise spontaneously. It’s also not an order that corresponds to a neo-Victorian assignment of essential sex roles, nor to “pink police state” regulation. The “rules” that Mike is talking about aren’t laws you follow for fear of punishment or shame, but rather the internal evidence that you have the moral imagination, and moral courage, to be a decent human being. That has to be taught – and it has to be taught by everyone.

Not everyone can learn how to be a decent human being – but I have faith that most can. The bulk of the harm “yes means yes” is intended to correct is inflicted by a small minority of predatory individuals. But in a world where decency is commonplace, and we mostly know what it looks like, perhaps the truly predatory will be a little easier to spot.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . 31 comments
← Older posts Newer posts →