Links: Bogus authenticity, radicalizing the romanceless, universities, destiny, and more

* “Realer than you: How did authenticity become the hot new status symbol?” The contemporary obsession with travel as a somehow soul-enhancing experience is my favorite example of this general trend. Here is my review of The Authenticity Hoax.

* “Radicalizing the romanceless.” Maybe. Though this is my favorite link from this patch.

* “Promising solution to plastic pollution,” an underrated problem.

* “U.S. Is No. 1, China Is So Yesterday,” which is another underappreciated problem: demography is destiny.

* A totally indecent, untraditional, radical proposal: “universities should prioritize academics.” This may also ameliorate some of the current elite university admissions madness.

* “Kindle Unlimited pisses off Amazon authors;” note that this is one danger of competing on price.

The Dan Savage Interview Problem

Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:

Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.

Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.

Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.

Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.

It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.

The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.

We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.

Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.

Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.

I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.

Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this  direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?

How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too, and it concerns a question allegedly given by a high school biology teacher on a high school test about genetics:

“LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess” the biology assignment prompts students.

The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?”

As I go on to say in the post, this question comes from media accounts, and we should be skeptical of what we read in the media. But, with that in mind:

Let’s attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.

We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?

A friend saw the post and he called the big bootie incident a “reverse Poe’s Law,” and while I’d never heard of Poe’s Law it’s brilliant: “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

The teacher in question, however, might not have been trying to deliberately parody excessive cultural awareness. Being a teacher has taught me a lot, and one thing it’s taught me is that if people have to make thousands of micro decisions in a given year, as teachers do, some are going to end up being wrong. That’s true of me and it’s like true of you in your own life and occupation.

In class, for example, I usually try to err on the side of being entertaining rather than boring, but that has the side effect of being potentially offensive. I’m sure that if someone had a mic on me every time I teach, that person could take something out of context and throw it in an article and make me look bad. Yet I’ve had to sit through insufferably dull classes, which is totally inexcusable in many literature classes, and I don’t want to inflict insufferable dullness on captive students to the extent I can avoid doing so.

Nonetheless in the current media climate, and in a climate in which it’s impossible to tell in advance what’s going to be acceptable to everyone, the risks of being interesting and real are real. The friend who linked to Poe’s law says that the dangerous class on his campus is “The Biology of Sex.” As he says,

If you teach it straight, you end up giving a plumbing lesson. My favored approach is to treat it more like a stand-up routine, but then you run the risk of offending someone. You can usually get away with a lot if you have built up a rapport with your class.

But, on the other hand, he says that no one knows anything about the subject and that students study hard because no one wants to fail sex (the phrase “study hard” may be an expression of my friend’s sense of humor).

I’m inclined toward the benefit of the doubt where possible because we’re now living in a world where a small number of hypersensitive or humorless activists can cause a disproportionate amount of grief. Academic novels have largely traced this development—Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one good example; Francine Prose’s Blue Angel is another—but they seem to have had little impact. Too bad. Paglia’s descriptions of shrinking violet students is distressingly apt.

As “being reasonably sensitive” transitions towards “being unable to function in a reasonable way” for a small but noisy number of people, we’re going to see more stories like “The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law:”

Imagine a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood. What should his instructors do? Criminal-law teachers face a similar question with law students who are afraid to study rape law.

Much of this issue is academic, because when people hit the real world they’ll often find that clients and customers are indifferent to their feelings or comfort and want their problems solved, whether that problem is rape prosecution or human sexuality or writing or whatever.* Some big companies are intensely bureaucratized and can still have a large institutional feel, but the majority are small and just trying to make it however they can. In which case an excess of sensitivity can be an excessive liability.

EDIT: See also “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”


* This is one reason it’s often not worth arguing with academics.

Links: Demography, arrests, books as art, are marriage and porn substitutes?

* The Shit Test Encyclopedia; note as always that linking does not imply endorsement and that often the most interesting pieces are ones in which I do not find plausible many claims. Adam Phillips’s book Becoming Freud falls into this category, though it is the only book by or about Freud that I’ve found palatable.

* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an underappreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society.

* “The Innovative Art of the Book-Preserving Underground: How do illustrations for new editions of Fahrenheit 451 or Breakfast at Tiffany’s stay fresh? Artists for The Folio Society remain true to the text.” I’ve bought Folio Society books.

* “Americans aren’t getting married, and researchers think porn is part of the problem,” which must be read skeptically.

* “The Henry Ford of Books,” about James Patterson, who is not good at sentences but perhaps he knows as much: “he is philosophical about his critics, in particular critics of his craft. Patterson decided long ago that he’d rather be a successful popular novelist than a mediocre literary one.” I have often been told that I should be writing nonfiction, and perhaps my own smaller circle of critics are correct. I’ve started a couple of Patterson books without finishing them.

* “How to be an expert in a changing world,” which, like many Graham essays, is about more than it appears to be about; this for instance applies to artists: “Good new ideas come from earnest, energetic, independent-minded people.”

* “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.” Here is me on Birdman and note too that the author is nostalgic for a time when movies were central to the culture, which hasn’t been true for at least a decade.

Loneliness and revealed preferences

Philip Greenspun starts a post:

Nearly everyone in the U.S. has Internet access. Many online dating services are inexpensive or free. Many people are single and say that they would prefer to be partnered and/or married.

From the above facts I think it is reasonable to infer that online dating services are not very effective (see my 2011 posting on the subject).

I left a comment, however:

1. The term “revealed preferences” was invented for moments like this.

2. Most people would probably prefer to be partnered and/or married with a person of sufficiently high status, however the first party defines “status.” But many if not most of us have contradictory desires or preferences or dreams.

3. People who can make reasonable compromises do not appear to spend much time alone, especially because they tend to find other people who can make reasonable compromises. We live in a society that valorizes rejecting the existing order and heroically going it alone. In some circumstances that is probably good and probably works, but in many others it’s probably bad and doesn’t work real well.

From points 1 and 2 I infer that the online dating industry may be working reasonably well but that a) search costs are high, b) people don’t want to admit who they can “get” given what they bring to the table, c) a lot of people want novelty more than security regardless of what they say to others, and d) a lot of people are full of shit.

Links: Drinking among faculty, demography, arrests, Michel Houellebecq and more!

* “Think binge drinking is bad among students? Try going to a faculty party sometime.” This hits a point that I often make: teenagers and adults often want to do the same things, for the same reasons.

* Famous Rolling Stone article about alleged campus rape is actually made up.

* “Demography Is Rewriting Our Economic Destiny,” an underappreciated and significant issue; this can be read profitably in tandem with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

* Welcome to paradise, on legalized prostitution in Germany.

* “Decades-long Arrest Wave Vexes Employers: Companies Struggle to Navigate Patchwork of Rules That Either Encourage or Deter Hiring Americans With Criminal Records;” if a third of Americans have arrest records something is seriously wrong with our society.

* “The Department of Labor’s “American Apprenticeship Initiative” (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds” is the rare Grant Writing Confidential post likely to interest Story’s Story readers too.

* The new Michel Houellebecq novel, which is of course self-recommending.

* Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink, author of The Wallcreeper, which I ordered based on the interview:

Whatever I was writing at the time, I knew there was no market for it and never would be, because there’s never a market for true art, so my main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think. So after I got out of college I worked construction, mostly. I waitressed some in winter. I was a very excitable waitress, but management valued me for my strange talent of taking drink specials seriously. They would order us to sell fuzzy navels at lunchtime, and I would obediently sell twenty fuzzy navels while the other waitstaff ignored them. My life changed forever in 1989, when a friend of my mother’s shanghaied me into taking the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s test of clerical aptitude. Apparently 98.9 percent was an unusual score. As I recall, it was a test of visual acuity and short-term memory involving long sequences of numbers. I started getting these blind, cold-call job offers in the mail from places like the Defense Logistics Agency. Working full-time in construction was really wearing me out.

Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.


* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

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