Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Well, That's Just Filthy

The great, great Tom Lehrer once introduced a song by telling his audience: "I do have a cause. It is Obscenity. (Pause) I'm for it." The song, "Smut," then went on to revel in the harmless pleasures of erotica: "Some have a hobby / Like tennis, or philately; / I've got a hobby: / Re-reading Lady Chatterley!" Good man, Mr. Lehrer, not simply because his lyrics are the finest example of satiric wit since the death of W.S. Gilbert, but because the moral stance--and it is a moral stance--in favor of pornography is one that has to be taken. Not just because of that whole "First Amendment Freedom of Expression" thing, but because--call it what you will: porn, smut, adult entertainment--erotica is very much part of the warp and woof of human nature and American culture, and seeking to deny it--or worse, suppress it to the point of outright censorship--is a disturbing and frightening agenda that's never quite going to go away from our public discourse.

The only recently died-down brouhaha about Ms. Janet's "wardrobe malfunction" (yeah, I know, you just haven't heard enough of this endlessly fascinating subject) reminds us that this country is profoundly disturbed by the existence, much less the exposure/discussion of sexuality. I mean, we have the world in uproar over the two-second partial exposure of a breast (something that nursing mothers are free to whip out in any public forum, it seems) during the half-time show of a game in which we are cheerfully free to see events like Joe Theisman's leg getting snapped in two like a bread stick. The MPAA, as Troy Parker and Matt Stone, among others, have pointed out, is perfectly fine with scenes of evisceration, beheading, maiming, vaporizing, torture, slashes, gouges, every Tarantino-esque permutation of Sadean excess imaginable--these things will only get you an "R" rating. Puppets having sex? "NC-17." Call me wacky, but I find it an ugly and disturbing facet of our culture that human butchery is more permissable than, say, soft-core Cinemax porn, which is basically just a montage of naked people dry-humping, with nary a penis nor a money-shot in sight. (Not that I ever watch those films. Ever. At all.) (Oh, please--of course I do--why else would I be writing this?) Violence is acceptable, sex is not. Representations of violence are acceptable, representations of sex are not. It's OK to kill a woman on camera--hell, flay her alive and dip her in acid if you want--but just don't f--k her--that's a no-no. John Kerry, let us recall, engaged in acts of near-massacre in Vietnam, a fact that came out at an inopportune time a few years back. He recovered nicely, to the point where he had no problem getting the nomination of a major political party for president. Imagine if it had turned out that instead of killing a bunch of people, he'd taken part in an orgy. He'd've been dead in the water, folks. We hate sex. Or, at the least, we're ambivalent about it. Men love to brag about their conquests. Women love to watch "Sex and the City" and dream, oh, dream about such a life, such sophistication, such freedom to be a total slut and for this to be the mark of a strong, independent woman--which, come to think of it, it may well be. So we're not too ashamed of having sex. But we are ashamed of watching it. Nobody watches porn. Ask around. Nobody does it. Nobody. Never. No, never. Really. "I don't need it," boast the men. "I just think it's gross/stupid," say the women. Pornography is the red-headed stepchild of American culture--shameful, embarassing, only engaged in furtively by seedy men in soiled trenchcoats.

And yet pornography is a $12 billion a year industry in the U.S. alone. ($57 billion world-wide.) Pornography makes more money than all professional sports income, combined. Pornography makes more than all three major television networks, combined. Clearly, we're being very Victorian about the erotic--condemning/ignoring it in public, indulging in it wildly in private. Strange that pornography has so few public boosters, then--I mean, the only people who openly defend it are people in the industry. Is that because it's still seen as something only used by people who can't get laid? (I imagine every guy out there is flashing back right now to the moments of agony he's faced in the video store trying to summon up the courage to take the naughty title off the shelf and bring it up to the front--always in line behind mothers with small children renting "The Lion King" and "Shrek"--and hand it to the clerk who's invariably a young, attractive woman with an expressionless face that we just know is covering a combination of revulsion and mockery.) Shouldn't we start to defend the use of porn? Shouldn't we admit that we like porn and we're not going to shrink from admitting it? Shouldn't we say, boldly and--dare I say--proudly, that porn is a pleasurable and significant part of our lives? Shouldn't we?

I mean, I won't, God knows, but shouldn't you? Come on, go ahead--take one for the team!

Well, all right, let me try to do this much--I will join with Mr. Lehrer in my defense of erotica. Of adult entertainment. Of pornography. (I'm going to swap terms around interchangeably--some are judgmental, some approving in tone, some neutral--but a rose by any other name, etc.) I for one am glad it exists. I think it's a healthy facet of our culture. And I don't buy the attempts of various social watchdogs to persuade me otherwise.

N.B.: A word at the outset--and we may come back to this subject later--there's porn and there's porn. I am obviously not attempting a defense of child pornography--a $3 billion a year industry, I'm horrified to report--or of pornography that is the result of force/coercion--though I still think that Linda Lovelace was exaggerating with her "gun-to-the-head-just-off-camera" tales of horror--not saying she made it all up, but, hey, when we tell stories about ourselves, we all make things more interesting to make ourselves seem less guilty/more important. It would have helped if there'd been, say, one person to corroborate her scandalous version of events. There's no such thing as a marketed, distributed snuff film, according to the Feds and all reliable sources--the only thing that comes close is the work of serial killers who create videos of victims as 'trophies'--but if there were, I wouldn't defend that. I'm not crazy about porn that centers around violence and rape, but I loathe even more the use of such porn by odious people like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin as examples of 'typical' porn. Such porn I defend grudgingly and with the strict proviso that I defend it only as a visual experience in vicarious pleasure, not as a 'how-to' guide on gender relations. And so forth--you can probably think of some form of pornography that's so cruel or harmful that it shouldn't be defended--though simply being 'gross' won't cut it; I couldn't watch filmed scat or felching without losing my lunch, but as long as it's performed by consenting adults for consenting adults, I can't not defend it. All forms of pleasure are subject to being turned into vile abuse--I'm here to defend the category of porn, rather than those who turn it into something evil. End of caveat.

Seems to me the objections to porn are threefold:

1. Religious.

2. Feminist.

3. (for lack of a better term) Sociological.

Let's take them in order, shall we?

1. Religious. Well, where to begin? I suppose we might start with the fact that erotica is largely used for self-gratification--I know Playboy has tried to sell its video and TV products as something that 'couples' can share for their 'mutual pleasure,' but come on, folks, let's recognize that for the wishful thinking it is. And so we go all the way back to Genesis 38:7-9. Onan is younger brother to Er (whose parents were apparently so stuck for a name that they went with the noise of hesitation they made when asked by the Rabbi), and when Er dies, Onan is ordered by his father to marry Tamar, Er's widow. But because, according to cutural tradition, the children of this new union would be considered Er's, and not his, Onan chooses instead to "spill his seed on the ground," in violation of his duty as a son, a husband, a tribal leader, and basically as a decent human being. And because he did, well, we'll let the King James finish the story, shall we? "And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore He slew him." So, naturally, this passage has been read as a condemnation of masturbation, a.k.a. "onanism." I mean, makes sense, right? It's not that Onan was being a general pr--k to his family, his community, his wife, to his role as a member of the Lord's chosen flock who therefore had a profound moral obligation to allow that flock to flourish and continue. No, he was beating off, and God killed him for it. Is anybody out there buying this? I thought not. Even most modern religious exegesists read this passage as, at best, a condemnation of marital coitus interruptus. So much for masturbation being a sin. There's no real doctrinal law against it--it is mentioned nowhere in the endless catalogue of "Do"s and "Don't"s that make up the latter 2/5 of the Pentateuch--so to hell with that. It's not morally wrong--not by Biblical standards, anyway. (You non-Judeo-Christians will have to excuse my ignorance.) For a truly hilarious rebuttal to my reading, please read the work of Brian Harrison at http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt67.html. I've rarely seen worse logic outside of an Ann Coulter column.

So much for the, um, application to which erotica is put. But that's not the only religious objection to the filthy stuff, of course. Where it really comes in for a moral spanking (heh) is in the work of that coldest of Biblical authors, Paul--probably the sourest joy-killer in the whole Bible, guaranteed to rob Christianity of any sense of spiritual fulfillment or warmth. Here's how it boils down: Paul, though he never admits as much, is a Platonist. Plato, for those of you unfamiliar with his works, viewed the material world as an inadequate imitation of the world of ideas--the ability for humans to recognize an essential similarity between disparate objects (one bed looks like another looks like another looks like another) means that what links these disparate objects in our minds is an ideal--a 'perfect' version of the bed from which all these other beds are derived. It is this 'perfect' bed, the 'true' bed, the 'real' bed, which is to be preferred before all other lesser imitators--the beds we perceive with our inadequate, corruptible senses. Hence, the world of the senses--and those things that appeal to the senses (like sex) are to be deplored, rejected, controlled. So a love between minds is infinitely better than a love between bodies, and sexual desire, which "lowers" us from the abstract thought of philosophy, which distracts us from the pursuit of immaterial truth, is bad. Hence, "Platonic relationship," which these days generally refers to one in which the guy wants it really bad and the girl "just wants to be friends."

One can easily see how this thinking translates into Paul's Christian ideology, which turns our natural readings of the 'real' and the 'unreal' topsy-turvy. For Paul, the things of this world, the solid, physical material world we experience with our senses, the things we perceive and experience as "real," are, in fact, the illusion--what is really real is the meta-physical, the ideal, the spiritual--that which eludes our senses and which leads us to the knowledge of that most transcendant ideal: the will and love of God. In this inversion, our senses exist largely to delude and to ensnare us, to tempt us to devote ourselve to the lie of the material, and therefore sex--even sex within marriage, mind you--is a bad thing. From 1 Corinthians: "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?" The end times are coming, says Paul, and so there's really no need for the only purpose of sex--procreation--because this generation will see the second coming of Christ, and the translation of the imperfect, material world into the perfect world of God. Chastity--all rejection of fleshly appetite--is therefore to be preferred above all other bodily conduct, as Paul points out by modestly using himself as a model of ideal conduct: "I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." If you must bump uglies, you weak, filthy little infants, you better do it to a wife/husband, or else. If all the material world is a lie, then all bodies are bad, all sex is bad--basically everything you've ever seen, felt, smelled, tasted, heard, and enjoyed--is bad. And so erotica is bad. QED.

Well, if you believe this line of reasoning, I can't argue with you. I mean, I can, first because Paul mistimed the end of the world by at least two millenia, which means that sex became a necessity so that mankind could, you know, be around for this important event, which means that it can't just be a necessary evil, since nothing that leads mankind to the fulfillment of God's divine plan can be anything other than good, right? Also, Paul's argument conveniently ignores the fact that if the material world is all lies, then his own existence is a lie, and everything he says--existing either as material words on a page or material waves of sound--is only perceivable through our senses, which he tells us are constantly lying to us--well, basically, if we take Paul at his own word, we can't take Paul at his own word. Certainly it ignores the possibility that the pleasures of this world, taken in responsible moderation, are quite probably God's compensation for the fact that life generally sucks quite a lot. Lord knows, that's always been my view. Regardless, if you're a Pauline Christian, then the body is filthy and all non-marital, non-procreative sexuality is damning, porn included, and that's that. Obviously, I think this line of thinking is crap. Sexuality can be a vice, just as any activity that, uncontrolled, can be when it causes harm, physical or emotional, to others. But that does not automatically make it sinful. Neither is chastity automatically virtuous. It's simply a morally neutral choice, no more significant than any other bodily denial unless it leads you, somehow, to a more virtuous frame of mind/conduct. A pedophile who practices chastity because he is aware of the devastating consequences of acting on his desires is being virtuous, because to act on his sexuality would cause unspeakable harm to another. A homosexual who practices chastity because he is too cowardly to acknowledge his own desires or to face their consequences is not being virtuous because he is living a lie that supports the idea that who he is is evil--at best, he's choosing one form of self-interest over another--not a virtue, that. And a guy/gal who makes use of porn is no better/worse than one who doesn't--imagine a guy who watches porn, sees what he likes, goes to his girlfriend and decribes what he's seen, and she's up for it too, and they recreate it themselves, and it's the greatest ever, and they fall even more deeply in love. This versus a guy who shuns porn because he doesn't need to be told how to have sex with his wife, who he's sure is perfectly content but who in fact is dying a little each day in total sexual misery. See the difference? One guy uses porn, and he's a good guy for doing so, one guy doesn't, and he's a d--k.

Look, obviously my argument here is secular; I can't argue with people who condemn erotica on doctrinal grounds--who view the making or viewing of sexual imagery or narrative as inherently sinful because the Bible says so--one can't argue with belief, because belief transcends logic, and all argument is based in logic. I can, therefore, only defend the existence and availability of pornography in American society to these people thusly: Inasmuch as your condemnation of erotica is based on your religious beliefs, that condemnation falls under the rubric of "freedom of religion"--that is, you are free to condemn it--but you cannot ban or otherwise forbid its dissemination for precisely the same reason--"freedom of religion" also protects those whose spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) permit the production or enjoyment of erotica. You may ban it on other grounds, to be sure--and we'll get to those grounds in a moment--but you cannot ban it solely on religious grounds, just as we cannot ban murder, theft, and other obviously socially destructive behavior solely on religious grounds. There must be additional justification--a logically defensible reason that the consequence to the behavior in question that proves that it must be forbidden in a social environment. Clearly, murder and society can't mix--if we cannot be sure of our right to life, we cannot co-exist without assuming that our lives are in danger 24/7, and we must, therefore, resort to violence at the slightest provocation to defend our lives. No social order can survive this state. Scratch most laws, and you'll find a pretty good reason behind most of them (prohibition of drugs and prostitution to the contrary.) But in a society that divides Church and State, that reason cannot be religious. We must, therefore, seek elsewhere for our objection to pornography. Religious condemnation of the erotic is an illogical objection, and therefore, argumentatively speaking, no objection at all. Since I can't defend it on such grounds, I don't have to. Convenient, no?

2. Feminist. Now we're getting somewhere. Feminism and the fact that 99.999% of "adult entertainment" means "stuff that guys can get their rocks off watching" is a fertile ground for ideological--and, indeed, logical--dissent. (Though a quick scan of the internet suggests that literary erotica has a wide female readership--and, let's be honest, Harlequin Romances and their ilk are just big-budget porn movie adaptations with plots, and I don't know any men who read those. But nor do I know of any substantial feminist objection to romance novels--I mean, I'm sure the humorless brigade of "can't see the forest for the trees" feminists have published reams on the subject, I've just not been subjected to them--and inasmuch as such condemnation is disseminated from the pulpit to the choir, I don't really credit it with much signficance.)

Now, as far as I can tell, feminist condemnation of porn boils down to two objections, the first of which is deeply insulting to men, the second of which is deeply insulting to women. (Frankly, my firm belief is that hard-core feminists--not the ones who believe quite sensibly that men and women are of equal value and ability in terms of their mental and emotional faculties and that they therefore deserve to be, say, paid equal salaries for doing the same job--I mean the ones who view anything less than a fanatic hatred of men and an equally fanatic worship of feminity as vicious bigotry akin to Klan membership--are simply closeted misanthropes who can't come to terms with the fact that they're people who function largely on the driving force of hate and who therefore find refuge for their consciences in their delusional politics. This also goes for PETA members and anti-abortion loons--you know these are people who hate people because the objects of their passion and sympathy are beings who are unable to disappoint them emotionally--cute little kitties and itty bitty babies can't question or challenge them, so they're perfectly safe to "love," the equivalent of pet rocks in terms of models of emotionally one-sided 'relationships.' But I digress.)

The first objection is pretty simple: Men watch Porn, and as a Result, Men A. Objectify Women and B. Think That Women Are All C-m Crazed Sluts Who Want It And Want It Bad And Yes Means No And It's OK To Slap Them Around A Little To Bring Them To This Realization. OK, as to A., well, yes, it's a fair point that pornography does encourage us to look at women as objects. Not that we need much help in this area--I mean, we come into the porn experience pretty much primed to objectify women. We do it, roughly, approximately, as a general rule, all the time. All the time we're awake, that is. But--and this is the part that lunatic feminists can't quite wrap their heads around--this objectification does not define our entire attitude towards/ interaction with these women. We can--brace yourself, womyn of the world--objectify a woman while still respecting her as a person, a mind, a feeling human being. Really. We can. Is your paranoia on this subject derived from the fact that you can't do this? Just askin'.

So, so much for the issue of objectification in general: 1. It's gonna happen anyway, and 2. That's not really a problem since we're socially equipped to handle it. Now, as to the objectification prompted by porn, which, admittedly, is a wee bit more extreme than your everyday, garden-variety, checking-someone-out-in-the-condiment-aisle-at-Costco objectification. So, admittedly, porn prompts us to objectify women. True. Unarguable. But which women, specifically? All women? Oh, I think not. Is it really the feminist contention that we watch porn, swing by the retirement community, and immediately begin sizing up the octogenerian ladies: "Yeah, check out them support hose! You know she's got in goin' on under them babies! She rides that walker real fine, umm-hmmm..." Clearly not. Perhaps--and I don't want to propose anything too radical--the only women we objectify when watching porn are, in fact, only the women we're watching in porn. Maybe? Possibly? Yes, we do objectify women as a result of watching porn--we objectify porn stars. Oh, I know what you're thinking--we're men, we objectify women outside of porn (and again, it's true, we do), and so we automatically transfer our objectification of the porn stars onto our comparatively benign objectification of other women until the world is just one big badly-lit porn set filled with bicurious, ravenous whores. There's only one thing wrong with this hypothesis: it pretty much depends on the notion that Men Are Freaking Morons. That we cannot distinguish between 'fantasy' and 'reality,' and--more to the point--that we have no sense of decorum. That we cannot recognize that the conduct and the attitude towards women displayed in the context of porn does not translate into, say, the context of the workplace or the church social. Which is like saying that we can't distinguish between relating to a stripper, a co-worker, a nun, and our grandmother. Guess what? We can!

Alas for the feminists, porn does not, in fact, teach us that "all women are sluts." First, porn doesn't teach us anything, anymore than watching cartoons "teaches" us that if you hit someone in the head with a frying pan, his head will assume the shape of that frying pan, only to pop back into shape a moment later. We have, strange to say, the ability to distinguish between the pleasing illusion of porn, between what may be appealing but which we know to be impossible and unreal, and the truth. We don't walk out of Superman believing that such a man exists--and you know what? We don't walk away from porn thinking that such women exist. We just don't. At best, if there is a 'message' we take away from porn, it's that women in porn have fake sex the way we'd like to have real sex. But--brace yourself, Andrea, Catherine, we know it's fake. We know they're acting. Trust me--we have to sit through the dialogue portions of filmed porn, so we know it's fiction, since the level of writing acting is only slightly less stilted than a 1st grader's Christmas pageant. And despite its presence as a consistent motif in every skin mag out there, none of us--but none of us--have ever seen a naked woman spread-eagled on the hood of a sports car. Such things do not happen in real life, and we know this. So, yeah, we suspend our disbelief long enough to become aroused and attain release, but our brains really are capable of distinguishing between the objectification of the pornographic experience and that of, oh, I don't know, flirting over after-dinner drinks with our dates. And you know what, it's insulting to suggest otherwise. Sure, some men choose not to make this distinction. Some boors tell themselves that the women they see in porn are what all women are really like underneath, and all it takes is a little forceful coaxing/Spanish fly to get them to 'open up and admit it.' But you know what? Such a--holes would be a--holes without porn. Admittedly, porn might confirm their prejudices, but without it, they'd still be abusive, hateful people who don't care who they hurt in pursuit of their feeble little orgasms. Banning porn because of such men is like banning white sales because some women choose to make the bargain bin the site of a bloody arena where only those with the will to shed blood are fit to make it to out alive with their prizes in hand--check out that thread count! Only had to kill two soccer moms to get it, too! So, let me say this to the proponents of Objection 1: Bite me--I'm not a moron, and I'm insulted by your sexist bigotry and I refuse to concede that the worst behavior of my gender is 'typical' of the gender as a whole. Porn stays--we know how to use it responsibily, thank you very much.

So, Objection 2--pretty much a natural corollary to Objection A--Inasmuch as Porn Objectifies Women, All Women Who Participate In Its Production Are Either Dupes Of The Repressive Male Ideology Or, Worse, Unwilling Victims Of What Amounts To White Slavery. Again, see Linda Lovelace's autobiographies Ordeal and Out of Bondage (hint to the late, lamented Linda--if you're going to name a book decrying pornography, try not to give it a name that makes it sound like a porn flick), or better yet, read Joe Bob Brigg's obituary of her: http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-briggs042502.asp. I'll address the White Slavery thing in a moment, but let me say this about the "Dupe" part of the objection: just how seriously frigging insulting is that? Why is it that when a woman wants to have freedom over her body in order to have an abortion or to kill enemy combatants, she's defended and admired, but if she wants to f--k on film, she's a traitor to her sex and/or a victim of the--what?--abusive phallocentric power structure. (Again, why is it that destruction/death are good things to do, but clapping the erasers is not? What the hell?) I'm sorry, but on this point, the conservatives are right: these people are in favor of people making the Right Decision (i.e. a decision they agree with) not the freedom to simply make a choice. It's just shudder-inducing, the more so because it's a recreation of the sexist villainy against which they're theoretically fighting. Is a woman who works in porn living up to her full potential as a human being? Well--first, I've seen many porn actors interviewed, male and female, and my overall answer would be, "Wellllll..." and then I'd politely change the subject. But all right, suppose the answer is no. Let me respond by asking, which of us is living up to his/her full potential? I know I'm not. I know the janitorial staff where I work is not. I was taught high school physics by a man who had to flee Iran under the Ayatollah, where he'd been the Head of Physics at a university in Tehran--was he living up to his full potential? Answer: maybe not, but I'm still damned grateful for his presence in my life; hell, he was the reason I nearly majored in Physics at UCLA! Likewise, I'm grateful for the women of porn, who may not be reaching to the utmost of their grasp, but who are filling a deep, serious social need. The ugly truth is, virtually none of us live up to our "full" potential, and it's not just because most of us are lazy, but because the world demands that we fulfill roles that stifle our potential greatness. Such is life. So women who do porn aren't at Fermalab studying the fundamental principles of physical existence. Neither are angry feminists--and let me add, as one inside the Ivory Tower, it's really incredibly easy to be an academic bitcher-and-moaner--if I can do it, anyone can. If women choose to do porn, that is their choice, and though--like the religious objectors--you are free to dissuade and complain, you do not get to forbid. The End.

"Well, would you want your daughter to be a porn star?" A fair point, though it does beg the question of my having a daughter, a thought that's more than a little giggle-worthy. (On the other hand, I'd be precisely the kind of awful, dysfunctional parent who'd produce the stereotypically emotionally crippled young woman who runs away from home and finds herself in the Big City, drawn inexorably into the vortex of drugs and porn. Regardless--) An honest answer would be "No, but I would recognize that the choice was hers to make, and if she sat down with me and explained that choice in rational terms, I'd allow myself to be convinced, and in any event, I'd still want her to call on weekends and visit during the holidays." So, that.

And what about the "mutilation" (read, radical plastic surgery--folks, mutilation is what happens to young women in Africa--let's pick our terms carefully, shall we?) that women undergo? Well, I'm not really in favor of it, frankly. I think it's a shame that women feel the need to subject themselves to it--and I disapprove of producers who "encourage"--i.e., professionally force--women to have these procedures. So you won't get arguments from me here. We agree. Shocking, I know. But wait--I will solve the problem of coerced surgery momentarily!

Now, as to the White Slavery issue. Well, I suppose in world as full of evil as this one, there must be women who do porn against their will. But then, there are women who stay in marriages against their will, and we're not going to ban marriage. See, it's the underlying problem of violent coercion that needs to be addressed, not the fact that the coercion is focused on getting the women to do porn. Because--and I think we can all agree on this one--most porn stars are doing this because they want to; whether or not their choice is erronious or self-destructive, it is a choice. But the environment of porn does, I admit, allow for abuse of greater or lesser severity to occur with some frequency. Alas, porn is an unregulated industry, and as any student of 19th century labor practices--and aren't there just millions of you out there?--can tell you, unregulated industries are breeding grounds for often horrific mistreatment of employees. Alas again, porn's lack of regulation does much to vindicate the MacDworkin view of porn as sexual slavery; granted, it's one of the few professional venues in which female performers generally make more than their male couterparts--did I say "generally"? I meant "invariably." But let's not kid ourselves--the producers have all the power--they do the casting, they sign the checks, and they decide who gets promoted and who does not--that means, at the end of the day, they've got all the power. And any business in which management has all the power is not going to be worker friendly. And so porn stars--male and female--get screwed over on a regular basis. Sad, but true. For a bleak portrait of this state of affairs, see the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999) --be warned: this is not a date movie, as, after viewing it, your girlfriend will never want to have sex again--and really, neither will you, gents. Also recommended, though hard to get ahold of is the English documentary Hardcore (2001). Both films support the MacDworkinite notion that many porn actors are in fact the walking wounded, serious messed-up individuals in a degrading life, working under horrible conditions. But I would argue that, much like the stories of violent coercion, such films reveal not that it is porn itself that is degrading to women, but the conditions under which it is produced. I would further argue that porn needs to come out of the shadows of the San Fernando Valley--where, perversely enough, it's been forced by the social disapproval it receives from, among others, the feminist community. It needs to be regulated--supervised--subject to minimal conditions of fair treatment and fair pay. Its performers need to be unionized and be able to file grievances, just like members of SAG and Equity. Porn, in other words, needs to become an open business--available to official scrutiny for equitable treatment of employees by management. When that happens, trust me, the horror stories will evaporate--not die away completely--there are self-destructive, self-loathing loons in every walk of life (hell, stand-up comedy is staffed by nothing but)--but when contracts are mandatory, and when actors can shut down a production for a violation of those contracts, I assure you, people will no longer be able to screw over sex workers just because what they do is 'dirty.' Legal recourse is a wonderful thing, and it's time the porn industry had some--like, say, women having it put into their long term contracts that they will not submit to so-called 'surgical enhancements'--that they'll either be hired as they are and kept that way, or they'll take a walk across the street and sign with someone else. And when that happens, why, porn production will no longer be a feminist issue--it'll be a labor issue, attracting the scurrilous attention of angry Marxist academics. Much better...

3. (for lack of a better term) Sociological. This one's harder to nail down--it's really the category that people in categories #1 and #2 turn to when they need 'scientific' proof of the social damage caused by pornography production/consumption. An example would be the phenomenon of--what's it called?--"porn creep"?--where a man who indulges repeatedly and exclusively with pornography as a sexual outlet loses the ability to relate to real women sexually. Which may well be the case--heck, Rousseau complained about a similar problem in his own sex life--but the problem with such objections--the ones that are based on what porn 'does' to people--people who make it, people who read/watch it, people who become addicted or numbed to it--is that such objections are an attempt to render normative the world of sexuality, which is about as individualistic as taste in ice cream. Sure, there are one or two really popular flavors--chocolate, vanilla, large breasts, strawberry, sustained erections, pistachio, lots of foreplay, giving a rat's ass if your partner comes, chocolate chip--but even these do not meet with universal approval. Arguments that "porn does harm" or "porn encourages violence towards women" address a highly personal thing--what turns you, just you, on--like it's a universal given. Yes, sex, as a drive, as an instinct, is hard-wired into almost all of us. But that's about as universal as it gets. After that, sex starts to get real specific--varying case by case, person by person. In a world in which dressing up in plush animal costumes for sexual roleplaying is enough of a wide-spread phenomenon to merit conventions, I don't think we need to be making any hard-and-fast rules on the nature of human sexuality. Some of us can be categorized, some can't. Some of us are trained by abuse, or worse, pre-programmed to want and to do horrible things--but not many. Not enough to merit the kind of paranoia created by the anti-porn forces. Because what seems to unite these people more than anything else is a hatred of the body--a hatred of its desires, and a hatred of the fact that those desires are very often needs. Porn is, I hate to say it, one of those needs.

The need to fantasize--to fantasize viscerally--is really quite indispensable to what we are as creatures of intellect and instinct. And that's what porn is. You may not like what it says about people--you may like to think of people as motivated solely by 'higher' thoughts; you may like to think of women as simply minds without bodies. But you'd be kidding yourself. Porn is simply the material expression of who we are--it's an outlet for what we desire with our less intellectual but no less significant part of ourselves. And we need it. We need it. Because without it, we lose the ability to know ourselves in that intimate, sticky, vital way that helps us move towards genuine happiness--happiness that isn't entirely physical, of course--but which doesn't exclude the physical just because the Forces of Moral Condemnation don't like it. So: Cruise the net. Stop into your local Adult Video/DVD retailer. Snoop around that section of the news-stand where all the magazines have to shrink-wrapped and placed out of the reach of children (something I'm in favor of, by the way). Find your porn. Enjoy it. And don't be ashamed--because your porn is an important key to who you are. And that's always a good thing to know.

But I repeat: I never, ever touch the stuff myself.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

An Idle Followup

HonEB's points in response to "An Idle Query" are well taken--it's rather hard to imagine any politician spending his capital and almost certainly ruining his career over the legalization of drug-use. This despite the fact that you would think, really, that the Republicans would be all for it, since it fits squarely into their "keep the government small and uninstrusive" and "don't spend money on worthless social causes" agenda. Oh, wait, I forgot that this platform kinda fell by the wayside with the whole "let's legislate sexual activity between consenting adults" thing. If I was anything less than truly lazy/distracted, I'd bother to learn how in the hell the 21st Amendment ever got discussed, much less passed--I do know Fiorello LaGuardia testified before Congress about what a flaming crock Prohibition was, for which he gets a doff of my imaginary hat--but then, the liquor industry already had deep roots in the American economy before the 19th Amendment, so it's easy to imagine that those who still had an interest in restoring the ability of America to booze it up might have paid a few politicans to speak up in defense of the demon rum. Narcotics, alas, have no such place in the economic infrastructure--we prefer to leave controlling authority to foreign nationals whose business methods make the Cosa Nostra look like the Ladies' Rotary. (Kind of like our national energy policy, really!)

Plus, of course, there's the issue of race. I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, and God knows, I hate to place myself in the same camp as the truly lunatic Rep. Maxine Waters (a fixture of an almost wholly black Congressional district who maintains her position in pretty much the same way folks like Jesse Helms maintained theirs--appealing to the racist bigotry of her constituents), but the fact is, the real 'victims' of drugs are minorities, because of course they're far more likely to do viciously hard time for possession/distribution. Plus, of course, Marx was wrong. Religion isn't the opiate of the masses. Opiates are the opiate of the masses. So the miserable underclass (a disproportionate number of which are, surprise surprise, of the non-lily-hued variety) are perversely encouraged to numb/revitalize themselves with narcotics, which, kept illegal, ensure that they will live their lives forever on the borders of society. I'm not saying "it's a plot"; my problem with most conspiracy theories--like, say, the Oliver Stone version of Kennedy assassination, which apparently involved everyone in the Western hemisphere except for Lee Harvey Oswald and Jim Garrison--is that they require large numbers of people to behave in a consistently intelligent, discrete, efficient manner. A small amount of reflection on the limits of human character will reveal this to be an unlikely if not impossible state of affairs. I just think this is one of those state of affairs that developed largely of its own accord, nudged now and then by those in power--like those who created mandatory sentencing guidelines that made crack (used by vastly greater numbers of African-Americans than whites) punishable by a much harsher standard than powder cocaine (used by whites as their stimulant of choice.)

So let's see: the Drug War ensures that men of evil will rule small, terrified local communities, that minorities will suffer disproportionate amounts of prison time, that vast amounts of money and man-power and the lives of federal agents will be lost in the futile attempt to prevent the importation and production of narcotics--and which, despite all this, has done essentially nothing substantial to prevent the availability and consumption of the very thing it was determined to stamp out. Meanwhile, we have models of nations--thank God for you, the Netherlands--who show us that relaxed drug policies do not yield the fall of Rome to the Visigoths. So we're doing this because...WHY, EXACTLY???

Of course, thanks to crank--is that what they're still calling crystal meth?--I suspect something will have to be done about drug policy. I mean, marijuana has to be grown--and the good stuff has to be grown under special environmental conditions. Cocaine, heroin--these things have to be imported with all the trouble involved with the Coast Guard and swallowed condoms that break mid-flight and whatnot. But meth? Shoot, it's easier to make than moonshine. There's a HUGE demand for it. And anybody, anywhere, can make it--because the ingredients are all legal. This I like. This I love. A drug that proves conclusively that you cannot control drugs. A drug that forces even the stupidest of authorities to confront the fact that prevention is impossible, and that the only hope is treatment and dissuasion. A drug that forces peace, because it cannot be fought. Yes, I've praised the French, and now I'm praising crystal meth. What's next, pornography? (Hint: Yes.)

Thursday, November 18, 2004

An Idle Query

I suspect there will be nothing new in this blog--then again, according to a reliable source, "there is no new thing under the sun," so what the hell, I guess redundancy is unavoidable. By 'nothing new,' I mean that nothing I say here, the opinions I express or even the phrasing I use, will be original. Why, then, waste my time spouting off on what you've already heard? Because, he said, in the phrase that only barely covers the sin of banality, It Bears Repeating. To Wit:

This country is governed in a profoundly stupid manner. Not always--perhaps not even most of the time. I rather despise the stereotype of Washingtonians as bucket-headed slack-jaws who run around with their shoe-laces tied together as they try, with their shriveled, almond-sized brains, to figure out ways to dither and stall and ignore and screw over and generally make bad situations worse and good situations impossible. Fact is, they're a pretty savvy crew--the people we elect and the people who work for them are sharper than most of the pencils in the box--not as smart as some of the people in the private sector, perhaps, but shrewd as hell compared to Joe and Jane Average. All bureaucracy is going to contain an element of inefficiency--yet try running things without a bureaucracy and you'll discover the true meaning of the term. So when I say this is a stupid country, I don't actually mean that, person to person, we're a nation of dolts, run by a crew of sub-dolts. There are a lot of stupid people out there, to be sure, but sometimes stupidity takes on a life of its own--stupid ideas create a kind of morbid, impersonal national consciousness for which nobody is really responsible and which become nearly impossible to address because there's nobody to argue with. And most of this stupidity is old--modes of thought that were created so long ago that we can't remember who started them or why and just sort of assume that it's always been so. Professional sports, for instance--I have no interest in them, but I don't really judge those who do (except for people who paint themselves the team colors and who make huge, badly phrased signs to display--you actually went to the trouble of getting a huge post-board and decorating it with glitter and smiley faces on the off-chance that a camera would be trained on you for three seconds?--and don't get me started on those "John 3:16" jackasses--we've got the message, thanks.) Point is, though, nobody ever stops to say: "Why do we really care about this stuff? Why, in a post-industrial age, is the ability to play an athletic game something that interests--indeed, captures us? And why these games? Why these rules?" "Why," in other words, is the most underused of our internal queries, and it's because of this failure that stupidity takes on a life of its own.

Which gets me around to my point:


They're illegal, why exactly? I mean, the idea of legislating the consumption of narcotics is just so...odd. It never would have occurred to the Greeks. Or the Romans. Or even the repressive regimes of the Middle Ages. Or the Elizabethans. Or the rulers of the Enlightenment. I mean, sure, you might tax the importation of tobacco and coffee and such--no government in history has forgone the opportunity to make a buck off of public demand--but now it's the policy of most of the free world (and non-free, too, come to that,) and I want to know: Why?

"Because drugs destroy lives." That, so far as I can tell, is the bottom line of the anti-drug policies of the world governments. And of course, that's true. Drugs destroy the lives of those who take them--those who love those who take them--and (and I suspect that this is really the primary justification for their illegality) the lives of those who are stabbed in their stairwells for their wallets by those who want to buy them and those who are run down and dragged 700 feet on the asphalt by those on them. Fair enough. The thing is--can't all these things happen absent the use of drugs? I mean, all it takes to destroy your life and the lives of those around you is being an a--hole, right? And there's no legislating that, is there? (And let me add, on a personal note, thank God--I have no desire to do hard time and be forced into sexual slavery by a hirsute neo-Nazi--I mean, I might like it, and then where would I be?) And, of course, the stabbings in the stairwells happen because drugs are prohibitively expensive because of their illegality, and while there's no excuse to run someone over, the proliferation of cell-phone related accidents and the dearth of criminal charges attached to the use of said devices whilst driving would suggest that clearly just running someone down due to your selfish carelessness doesn't in and of itself merit legislation beyond the crime itself, reason for said carelessness be damned. I'm just not really sure on what grounds--what real, solid grounds--we forbid the use of narcotics. I mean, yes, genuinely socially transgressive activity surrounds drug use: robbery, murder, violence, prostitution, the equivalent of slavery, etc. But A. these activities are, as I've said, largely created by the illegality of drugs rather than the effects of drugs on one's behavior, and B. just because an activity makes one more inclined to commit a crime, doesn't mean we still have the right to forbid it. Taking part in a political demonstration makes one more likely to engage in mob violence, but we're not about to ban that right. Owning a gun makes it a hell of a lot more likely that you'll use it to commit a crime, but we ain't giving up the second amendment. I'm not suggesting that we have a Constitutional right to drugs, but I fail to see on what grounds the government has chosen to deny us this "pursuit of happiness," warped though it may be. Drugs primarily injure the drug-user. Since self-destruction is legal--one's body is one's own property, and one may to/with it whatever one likes, provided whatever that is doesn't impinge on the property/person of another--then why can't I, if I choose, chase the dragon? (Especially since I'm still perfectly free to kill myself with booze and cigs and bathroom cleansers.)

"All drug use is drug abuse." Why, exactly? I mean, the Stoics would agree--Plato would agree--the Puritans would agree, but let's not play the P-card, shall we? If you believe that life is best lived through clarity and reason and believe that the unaltered mind is the path to such clarity and reason, then any escape from this state represents a moral/intellectual failure. Fair enough, and I'm not sure I disagree. But even if all drug use is abuse, so what? I'd argue that the practice of, say, tattoing oneself is a form of self-abuse, but I'm not prepared to outlaw it--to the contrary, those who chose to self-express in this manner are quite free to do so. (Although what's with all the skulls? Seems as if a guy gets more than one, one of them's gotta involve a skull either in flames, pierced with a dagger, superimposed over a bleeding rose, or entwined by a snake. Enough with the skulls. Get creative, folks. And ladies, enough with the butterflies.) People have the right to abuse themselves--self-flaggelation is self-abuse, but it was statement of profound morality throughout the Middle Ages. I won't even get into the subject of drinking oneself blind or smoking a carton of Camels over a 24 hour period. These are things people shouldn't do, but they should be able to do them all the same. Because if we criminalize one form of self-destructive folly, we have no pretext not to criminalize them all. (And don't get me started on prostitution--I know, I know, "it degrades women and encourages dehumanization and its consequential violence and blah blah blah," but I still come back to the old point that if you can give something away for free, it shouldn't be illegal to sell it. Which forces me to approve of the sale of organs for transplants, but again, though I'm not thrilled by the prospect, I have to go along with it--personally, I'll still donate my giblets for free when I get run down and dragged 700 feet across the asphalt, and I'm pretty selfish, so I don't know that it'll automatically mean that only rich people get the good stuff.) Self-abuse is legal--it has to be. And if so, the automatic labelling of drug use as abuse is just moot.

"Pilots will fly planes stoned. And surgeons will operate on smack. And fire fighters will show up tweaking." No, they won't. People in really important jobs tend to take those jobs quite seriously. Witness the number of pilots who fly, surgeons who cut, fire fighters who operate while drunk. Not too damned many, actually. And if you want to require mandatory, regular drug screening for positions of such responsibility, then do it. Otherwise, you're convicting people of criminal behavior prior to any action on their part. And that's just creepy.

Not too funny, today, I realize. But I do mean this as an Idle Query--I really don't get the illegality of drugs. I mean, I get that the pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco and alcohol industries are funding the living s--t out of organizations that call themselves "Families Against The Moral Devastation Of Society" and put out public service messages that equate pot-smokers with the 9/11 highjackers. I get that the illegality of narcotics is really based on market sharing, and the fact that those who squeeked in under the "legal" wire want to keep their monopoly as nice and tight as they can. But what's the argument? Is there any one that holds up to logical scrutiny? Help me out here, people...

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Why My Life is So Much Fun Right Now

Couple more signs of interest from hiring universities. Feeling better about my worth as a human being, but on the other hand, these are just the early stages of the process. For you non-Academics--you lucky things, you--here's the way getting a Professor-ship works: The Modern Language Association (which acts as both professional association and job-placement center) puts out a list of potential hirees, universities that list an opening in their hiring circular. You weed through the list of said hirees (actually quite easy if you use the on-line job list), you find the (relatively) few for which you might maybe possibly kinda sorta be qualified. You send them (usually) a long letter of application describing your dissertation and general areas of expertise, and a very short CV--hard to claim a lot of academic experience when you've never had a real job. Then you wait. And wait. And wait.

And then, almost grudgingly, you get a slow trickle of responses, usually in the form of e-mails asking for 2 things: letters of recommendation, and a "writing sample," which is usually an abbreviated adaptation of a chapter of your dissertation, designed to prove that, you know, you can string together a sentence or two. (You may also be asked to provide stacks of teaching evaluations--those 'fill in the bubble' sheets that your students fill in right after you've given them a low grade on their final paper, describing you as a teacher and taking their revenge in doing so--or an official transcript, just to prove that, yes, in fact, you did attend graduate school and receive your Ph.D.) You send these off--you spend a lot on postage during this period--and then wait again. And wait. And wait.

And then, if you're very lucky indeed, you'll be invited to interview at the MLA convention, held this year in beautiful Philadelphia in the dead of winter. Joy to a Southern California native to myself--"What's that grey, slushy stuff I keep slipping on? And how come I can't feel my extremities and my nose and ears just fell off?" Assuming you impress them there, you then get to visit the college itself, and probably either present a paper to a roomfull of people scrutinizing everything from academic acumen to dress and deportment--no pressure there, especially when they get to ask questions of you afterwards: "How do you see your work reflecting the influence of [Unrecognizably Foreign Name of Literary Critic You've Never Heard Of]?" "You do realize that that same argument you just made was published in the latest issue of [Obscure Literary Journal]?" And so forth. I plan to sweat freely, thank you very much.

And then you go home. And wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. This part can take weeks or months. Who knows? You're down to the final cut, which means you have, at best, a 25% chance at the job. And then the call comes. Exultation or devastation? Who knows? If it's the latter, don't despair; you get to do it all over again next year! Hurrah!

And I'm still at the 'slow trickle' stage. Miles to go before I sleep...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

An Update

Grudgingly, I have updated my "personal profile." Enjoy knowing ugly and trivial details about my life.

BBC Voters are Capital "W" Wrong

A quick note as I recover from the grading--worse than I imagined, but then, when is it not, and I've got the feeble number of job market responses to worry about now--60 applications out and so far only a trickle, 5 or 6, of signs of faint interest--not good--anyhoo:

The news is semi-old by now but what the hell, in case you hadn't heard: an online poll (always a bad place to find accurate analysis) of BBC viewers determined that the Beatles' "Ob-La-Dee, Ob-La-Da" was, and I'm not kidding here, "The Worst Song Ever." Let me say that again: Ever. Ever. This finding is so...I mean...it's not as if the song is brilliant, you understand, but...oh Jesus, people, it's not even the worst Beatles song ever! Christ have you listened to "Number 9"? Or "Yellow Submarine"? Or "Paperback Writer"? Folks, the worst sin of "Ob-La-Dee" is that it's a bit treacly, and, admittedly, John and Paul didn't exactly break their backs with the lyrics. (Though this could be said of some of their more popular numbers, like "Love Me Do" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." And nobody seems to want to bitch about them.) But the Worst Song Ever? Ever? No. No, no, no, no, nonononono! Unacceptable. I mean, dear God, if you want to hate the fact that you have hearing, try anything that McCartney did in collaboration with Michael Jackson--"The Girl Is Mine" will actually cause you to consider pulling a double-Van Gogh. As for John, well, let's face it, when he switched from collaborating with Paul to falling into the siren clutches of Yoko--I mean, there's a reason that "Imagine" is the only song of his we remember, post-Beatles. Great song, but an exception to the rule.

And when we move beyond the Beatles catalogue--when we start to consider the work of, say, Paul Anka, and Celine Dion, and every single boy/girl-band EVER--well, then, oh please. Please. I mean, seriously: PLEASE. If I wind up in hell and I'm forced to choose between being sealed in a room where "Ob-La-Dee" plays on an endless loop and the Violent Femmes' "Blister In The Sun" plays on an endless loop, I won't have to so much as pause for thought. Lock me up with Paul's smooth-toned banalities, I'd rather face that than grating idiocy any day.

To sum up, These People Are Wrong. Not "entitled to their opinion." Not "misguided but otherwise understandable in their mistake." Wrong. Wrong. And wrong enough to advocate corporal correction, frankly. So, if you're one of those voters, do what's right. Take your hand, place in the nearest door-frame, and slam it. Hard. There. Now the universal scales of justice are balanced. All is well.

And for the record, that Alvin & the Chipmunks piece of s--t Christmas dirge is the worst song ever--"Christmas, Christmas time is here, Time for joy and time for cheer..." Oh, it's guaranteed to make you steer into oncoming traffic just to end the pain. QED.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Leave it to the Germans to come up with a word describing pleasure in the misfortunes of others. "Schaden" = "Damage", "Freude" = "Joy", so "Schaden" + "Freude" = Joy in the damage sustained by others. It's a good word, and it's an interesting lacuna of English (supposedly the biggest and most detailed of languages) that we lack a word for such a fundamental component of human nature--maybe it says something about the degree to which emotional nuance escapes us, which is why we have to turn so often to French (joie de vivre, esprit de coeur) for our linguistic self-espression. But this one the Germans nailed: Schadenfreude. I mention it because, on another blog somewhere, I read the comment that for those of us still brooding over Nov. 2--come Tuesday, it'll already be two weeks! seems shorter, no?--the only pleasure of the next four years may be confined to Schadenfreude--the pleasure of seeing the Bush admin's idiocy and cruelty and greed come around to bite them on the a--.

I myself am dubious of this notion, since the degree to which life has insulated Bush and Cheney and Co. from the uglier consequences of malfeasance (bottom line: they're all rich, and the rich don't have to pay for anything, oh the not-really-irony) suggests to me that they'll leave as cheerfully untouched as they are right now. I don't really believe in Hell--the Bible is remarkably vague on what would seem a pretty important subject, though I understand it's considerably more explicit in the Koran--I think the idea of endless punishment for temporally finite sin is just silly in its unjust but imaginatively satisfying illogic--but one does wish for something like it at times, just so that people who didn't really suffer sufficiently in this life get what's coming in the next...On the other hand, I'm willing to forgo such satisfaction if it means that I myself can avoid the eternal bonfire that no doubt awaits me. Which brings me (tortuously) around to my point: it occurs to me that Schadenfreude is the compensation for Envy.

Because here's the thing about Envy: it's the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins that's completely devoid of pleasure. For those of you who aren't David Fincher fans (or readers of Dan Savage), let's review: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, and, yes, Envy. (Frankly, I don't get why Cowardice isn't in there. I mean, a guy who has an extra helping of dessert before running into a burning building to save a kitten and feels excessively good about himself--so good, in fact, that he goes home and fornicates with his girlfriend--he gets my vote before someone who abstains from dessert, loathes himself, and doesn't even think about women, but lets the kitten burn.)

Save Envy, pleasures abound in the Seven Deadlies. Pride--an abstract pleasure, perhaps, but feeling really, really superior to other people is a visceral rush known to every misanthrope and crank and vegan and church bake sale coordinator. Greed is again abstract, but as any arbitrageur will tell you, it's not the having, it's the getting. Wrath? Well, we'll get around to that, but anyone who's ever kicked the living s--t out of an appliance that refuses to work according to the incredibly inscrutable instuction manual will tell you that the feel of foot against metal, the sound of shattering plastic, the shrieked obscenity that folks in the next zip-code can hear--oh, these are things that put the joy, joy, joy, joy down in one's heart. The pleasures of Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony are so obvious as to require no explication. And then there's Envy.

Envy is comfortless. Envy is self-torture. Envy is based entirely on an ugly, cold bitterness. (It can't be 'hot,' because then it turns into Wrath.) Nobody enjoys being envious, while everyone enjoys being slothful, greedy, gluttonous, and lustful. Except...

Except for Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is not part of Envy. But Schadenfreude is derived from it. Schadenfreude is what we feel when those we envy suffer. Schadenfreude is not, I think, derived from Wrath--Wrath (which, by the way, is not Anger--it is excess of Anger, just as Gluttony is excess of Appetite, Sloth is excess of Restfulness, and so forth) is an active sin--Wrath moves us to act--to cause suffering. Envy is passive--Envy is not desire for what another has, it is hatred of another for having it. So all Envy can do is wait, and enjoy the suffering that comes, when it does, from the having.

And that's what they think we've got to look forward to in Bush's second term. The pleasure of seeing them squirm under the weight of the power and responsibility they've seized. I don't know, though--the press is so thoroughly (sorry, ladies) p--sified that we really can't count on them to give the Bushies the screwing they've so abundantly earned. I'm afraid that even the cold comfort of Schadenfreude may be denied us. Which is too bad, because we're just eaten up with Envy these days. And we need some way to satisfy that monstrous little toad in our hearts.

But then, that's true of all the sins, isn't it? We've all got one or two, and we've all got to find some way to live with it/them. As for me, I'll 'fess up; my sin of sins is...drumroll, please...Wrath. Odd choice, perhaps, but I note that it's becoming increasingly fashionable in this era of Fox News and flamewars.

Lust? Well, sure, I have it, but thanks largely to the godd--ned medication I'm forced to pound by the fist-full in order not to go self-destructively nutsy, my libido is...diminished, to put it mildly. So I can't claim any moral superiority for this one--it's just holier living through chemistry. (Which, since I'm pleasantly married yet surrounded by nubile and impressionable--read: easily manipulated--young co-eds all the time, is probably a good thing, really.)

Gluttony? Yes. True. I eat more than I should, and I enjoy it a wee bit too much. (I also rarely compensate with exercise, which makes me truly inadequate.) Call that a back-up sin--I say back-up because my gluttony isn't, you know, offensive--by the standards of my fellow Americans, I'm fairly abstemious. I do eat fast food, I don't eat junk food. Fine distinction, but I'm inclined to be Jesuitical about this, as Evelyn Waugh would say.

Sloth? Well, I do love sleep, though I can no longer spend the better part of 24 hours doing so. I do love to fritter away the time (or, as my sainted mother would put it, to f--k the dog), but I'm also an anal retentive lunatic who absolutely positively cannot rest until all my obligations are met immediately. So I am Slothful, but only when I can afford to be--any sin that's controlled by guilt isn't really a sin, since one is in a constant state of contrition and thus A. avoids it, and B. counter-acts it. No, I think I get a pass on Sloth.

Pride? Well, God and the readers of this blog know that I'm about as snotty, priggish, and arrogant as they come, but I'm also absolutely consumed by self-loathing. Consumed. Which, I think, balances things out to a morally neutral stance--sure, I think I'm smarter than everyone else, but I don't think I'm better than anyone else. Except for Karl Rove. And Dick Cheney. And Laura Schlessinger. OK, maybe Pride is a problem for me.

Greed? Not really, no. I mean, my choice of careers (Educator, for God's sake) pretty much sums up my worldly priorities. I don't really give a damn about 'nice cars'--just a way to get from Point A to Point B so far as I'm concerned--or a big house--don't have a big family, so it'd just be empty space--or, well, frankly, anything money can buy except books and DVDs and computer games. And those things don't cost a lot. So, Greed? No.

Likewise, despite my current focus on the subject, Envy. I just lack that Chromosome, I guess. I have friends, colleagues, who are, by loose standards, rich--who have the marks of wealth and success--I have friends who managed to get plum jobs and fellowships I didn't, for reasons of bad timing, nothing more--I am surrounded, in short, by people who have things that I might want, but--but--damned if I don't think they deserve those things. Would I take anything away from them so I could have it? Would I enjoy seeing them lose these things? Do I wish them ill in any way because they have them and I don't? No, no, and no--I mean, that kind of thinking strikes me not just as evil, but really alien--I just can't imagine thinking that way. If there's one sin I'm truly free of, it's Envy.

Not so for Wrath, though. Oh, no. Which may strike those who know me (my wife aside) as odd. But my temper--my ability to fly into absolute, blood-tinged rage in the blink of an eye--is, I dare say, unmatched. And oh, how I love it. How I love to be angry--to have that dark energy, that black lightning flowing through me. How I love to vent--to scream--to curse. I swear, it's lucky I'm pretty much of a egg-headed wimp. It's lucky I'm not strong and dumb--because I'd probably be violent. Against people. Strangers, mostly. And the degree to which my Wrath is barely kept under wraps is, at times, a wee bit scary to me. Particularly when I'm forced to wait. Most particularly if I'm forced to wait in line. As in, if I'm at the grocer's, and there's a woman at the cashier taking an unseemly amount of time writing her check and reviewing her receipt and voicing an opinion that's irrelevant to the transaction, I literally have to restrain myself from coming up from behind and punching her in the back of the head. No warning, no shout of anger. Just punch, and maybe a kick when she's down. And if you're at the head at the line at Starbuck's, and you don't know what you want--oh, sweet merciful Lord, I will kill you a dozen different ways in my mind before I come up with just the right way (it usually involves using the plunger from a nearby coffee press like an ice-pick to the base of the skull). (My only comfort at this truly horrible fantasy is that if I did it, I suspect everyone else in line would respond with an inner round of applause.) When it comes to Wrath, I am a bad, bad person. (My favorite superhero, since the age of none? The Hulk, of course.) Please don't fear for me and the lives of those I surround. My Wrath is largely under control, and completely confined to inanimate objects in its choice of victims. I'm ashamed of my Wrath--guilty--and guilty in advance--so I really am quite unlikely to snap, for the same reason that a guy who wears a seatbelt is less likely to fly through the windshield than a guy who isn't. But part of the reason I don't drink much is that I worry about that seatbelt coming off.

Well, this got uncomfortably dark, didn't it? Seriously, folks, I'm not a psycho. I'm just easily angered. Too easily. And too inclined to enjoy it. But that's what I think we all have to do with our sins of choice--find them out--identify them--and learn how to live with them. For me--I have my head shrunk twice a month and vent on a blog. For middle-aged housewives stuck in failed marriages to philandering alcoholics, Wrath is controlled by spending 87 hours a week on the stairmaster at the gym. For barely employed steelworkers who get reamed out by their MBAed, pencil-necked bosses every day, Wrath comes out while watching professional sports at a bar, where Reichian screams are socially permissable. Wrath, in many way, is the scariest of the Sins--it's the one that's most immediately dangerous to you and everyone else. But it's also the easiest to recognize in yourself. The easiest to control--to sublimate. And that, I think, is the point of this blog-entry. Schadenfreude is the outlet for Envy--ugly, but better than letting the poison fester. We all need something like that--something to keep our sins in check--not suppressed, but expressed in ways that keep our worlds spinning forward smoothly. So what's your sin? And how do you hold onto it?

Monday, November 08, 2004

We Deeply Regret...

...any intellectual inconvenience, but I've got another massive stack of grading to do, so there may be a delay of approximately a week (maybe less, if I'm diligent, but who're we trying to kid with that?) whilst I claw my way to the bottom of the pile. Pray for me...

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Thank God for the French

Now there's something my revered ancestor would probably never have said. (Dryden recognized the contributions France had made to world culture, but that didn't stop him from engaging in the perennially English habit of loathing les grenoiulles.) But I love the French. Or rather, I love the fact of the French.

Let me start off by saying that anyone who claims to hate "the French"--or indeed, the whole of the inhabitants of any nation--is an idiot, and your response to such an assertion should--nay, must be to turn your back and walk away once these words are spoken. Don't say anything, don't look back, just let the gesture of complete dismissal speak for itself. Claiming to hate "the French" is like claiming to hate tall people. Or left-handed people. Or people with green eyes. It is predicated on the assumption that the entirety of some subsection of the population is hateful, and if I have to explain to you why that's stupid, then you're not reading this blog. Similarly, claiming to love the French is equally stupid, which is why I tweaked it by saying that I loved the fact of the French.

Why? Because "the French"--and by that I mean their governmental spokespeople, their media, their homme sur le boulevard--are openly and nakedly contemptuous of American foreign policy, of America's leaders, of the American role in the world. And this is a very, very good thing indeed. Like the jester in the court of the King, the French stand up and say what nobody else can--that we are, in fact, the 800 pound gorilla of the world. Not just in terms of strength, but in terms of subtlety, intelligence, caution, and wisdom. We're a big, dumb ape, and everybody--but everybody--thinks so. Only the French have the courage to actually say it.

And here's the cool thing: much as our more red-neckish and purple-faced populace decry them--Bill O'Reilly actually scorns anything and anyone simply by virtue of any association with the country, proof that we should, as one, turn our backs on him and walk away, and nice how I came full circle on that one, eh?--much as we'd love to scorn them and ignore them and call them ugly names that would stick--we can't. We can't. Because when it comes to Europe, and to France in particular, we're deeply deeply deeply insecure. We may hate them, but we also--in our deepest gut of guts--admire them. We know that they're smarter, more cultured, more refined--that their table manners are better, that they're wiser about sex and booze and the finer things, that Paris is in fact the city to which all must go in order to have truly lived, and that EuroDisney was a bad idea. We know, in short, that they are cooler than we. Way, way cooler. Versailles. Monte St. Michel. Chartres. Notre Dame. The Louvre. Deep inside every single NASCAR watcher, every single Wayans-Brothers-movie-goer, every Huckabee's diner, there is a small, ugly voice that says that what they're doing marks them--brands them--as low. Not just low class--low. That they should be listening to opera, reading Proust and Joyce and Nabakov, dining on caviar and coq au vin, watching films with subtitles--because that's what the 'smart people' do--what the high people do. And that as long as they lead lives of pro wrestling and cheap porno (Swank and Jugs, maybe Hustler if they're in a wild mood) and domestic beer and frozen pizza and takced-up posters of s--tty metal bands--as long as they do what they do--they're no damn good. And the French--the French are. Or so we think in our collective imagination.

We tell ourselves, with pathetic and overcompensatory frequency, that we're the greatest country on Earth--but secretly, we think that France has got something that we don't, and we can never have: Culture--all that high-brow-ness that we like to think we're too "down to earth" to care about but which we really know we should like--they've got it, we don't. And so of course we hate them--we hate them the way Iago hated Othello, the way Uriah Heep hated David Copperfield, the way Humbert Humbert hated Claire Quilty (read a book! or, failing that, see a movie that doesn't have explosions in it!) We hate them because they make it look so damn easy to be polished and smart and with-it. We hate them so very very much.

Which is why we can't stop howling about them. When the President gets burned in effigy in Iran, we do not give a rat's ass. Why? Because Iran sucks, and we know it. (It's full of brown people, for God's sake!) Should the Prime Minister of Indonesia rail against us in the U.N., we don't care--we couldn't find Indonesia on a map, and we know nothing about it. (Note: I do not, in point of fact, know what the hierarchical nature of the government of Indonesia is--whether they have a Prime Minister or not. This lacuna in my erudition is, I admit, embarassing. But I can find it on a map. And I know that Java is an important island therein, and that they have monkeys, and maybe orangutans.) But the French? They're civilized. They're white. They're like us, only cooler. And so when they tell us we're ignorant f--k-ups, when they tell us that Bush is an ignoramus who's in way over his head and that the war in Iraq is so stupid they want no part of it, when they, in short, stand up before the world and scream that America f--king sucks (it sounds better in French, of course)--we listen. We have to. We don't change course, naturally, no more than Lear does when the Fool tells him he's an idiot. (Again, read a godd--n book!) But it stings. Oh, it stings. And that, folks, is a good, good thing.

We need the French. We need a buzzing fly in our ear to remind us that while we may have the power of a god, we don't have the knowledge or wisdom of one. We need the jester. We need Thersites (I'm only going say this one more time: Read. A. Book.) And even though their criticism may have a contrary effect--though it may prompt us (well, Bush, really) to persevere in stupidity and self-destruction--well, that's not a bad thing either. Because only by plunging into the depths of stupidity and folly, only by becoming so ridiculous and pathetic in our conduct, can we as a nation--red states and blue states alike--be confronted with undeniable evidence that we, not the French, are the true fools of the world. And then, we can begin to work towards the wisdom of patience and peace. Or, you know, we'll just go screaming over the edge and drag the world with us into Armageddon. But if that happens, f--k it, we had it coming.

Either way, Thank God for the French.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Bitter or Depressed? Decisions, Decisions...



OK, then.

Four more years, four more years.

You know, as bleak as that prospect is--and it is bleak--in retrospect, I think the re-election was inevitable, and it was remarkable that it was as close as it was. Bottom line: September 11 scared the living s--t out of the country (and rightly so.) And that made it easy--oh, so easy--to turn it into the issue of the campaign. (Although certain polls suggest that folks in Ohio felt the main issue was jobs, which makes that state's decision to go with Bush so irredeemably stupid that I think we have to stop making 'Florida' jokes for a while and switch to "How Many Buckeyes Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb"-based humor.) And since the Bush administration has managed, with the collusion of a spineless (or conservatively owned/operated) media, to depict our occupation of Iraq as 'a war' in the Campaign Against Terrorism, it's only reasonable to assume that jingoism and fear would combine to give Bush the win. Also--seriously--Democrats have got, got, GOT to stop nominating liberal New Englanders. The last one of them to win was Kennedy, and he had to steal the election. Stop it, guys. Southern governors. Those are the guys who win. Stick with them. Incumbents usually either win big (Reagan, Nixon, Clinton) or lose big (Carter, Bush the First)--I find it fascinating that Bush only squeaked by, and that this fact argues that he has, in fact, divided the country into entrenched, unyielding, hostile camps. Hurrah for the Union.

What Bush's victory means, in addition:

The Chief Justice is on his way out. Scalia will undoubtedly get the nod, and be supplanted by an equally lunatic conservative. Good, if you're of the "F--k the fag--ts," "F--k affirmative action," "Abortion is murder," and "Worker Protection is the equivalent of Communism" sector of the population. Bad, if you're, you know, not.

We will continue to have our pollution monitored by the polluters. No comment necessary.

Tax cuts will continue, the deficit will grow, our grandchildren will have to consider selling their children into slavery in order to be able to retire with enough money to buy their daily ration of Soylent Green.

Prescription drugs will continue to rise in cost--yay, I get to spend more each month to keep my neurotransmitters balanced enough to prevent suicidal impulses! Canadian providers of said drugs will be treated as if they were fourth-world sub-humans cooking up leech-based poultices made of the filthy run-offs of slaughterhouses. Advice: Buy stock in Glaxo-Smith-Kline.

The national discourse will continue its decline into verbal thuggery. It will grow shriller and nastier and we will lose the ability to achieve the nuance of compromise. Both sides will be to blame on this issue, so let's not pat ourselves on the back, liberals--but on the other hand, we're not the ones claiming that the other side is pro-terrorist...I repeat, both sides have formed polarized and mouth-frothingly vitriolic camps, and we will increasingly feel good about hating our fellow citizens. But hey, country music will thrive. (So, too, will whiny alternative rock. Oh, goody. Remind me to have my car radio uninstalled.)

We will stay the course in Iraq. No substantial comment necessary, except to say this: if you are male and 18-24 and you voted for Bush, I hope you enjoy the prospect of involuntary military service in an overseas desert. 'Cause guess what, chuckles? Iraq's gonna need a lot more body-bag fillers over the next few years, and it's awful hard to recruit people to march into a suicidal quagmire. Now, I'm not saying there will be a draft--I'm not that good a prognosticator--but though Bush swore there wouldn't be one, he now no longer has to run for re-election (or indeed, any public office, ever), and he's got a lock-step friendly Congress, so there's no reason for him not to break his promise. Have fun in Fallujah!

We will continue to be completely and utterly and totally dependent on foreign oil--odd, isn't it, that the Bush administration seems so utterly determined to tell the rest of the world to, in the words of our Vice President, "go f--k yourself," whilst engaging in an energy policy that essentially makes us the Middle East's prison bitch? Oil men run the show, folks, and there's no reason they'd want us to switch from their product to something we can make here at home. So get used to having to care about murderous Muslim fundamentalists--they'll be the ones we have to suck up to in order to gas up our Hummers.

I could go on, but why? Jimmy Breslin once wrote of Ronald Reagan that he was "so shockingly dumb that by his very presence in office he numbs an entire nation." Bush has had the same effect. We are numb. We do not care. I can only hope that those who voted for him suffer as much as those of us who did not. But will they? I doubt it. Polls show that 75% of Bush supporters believe that A. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and B. Hussein was behind--via planning and financial assistance--Sept. 11. In other words, they voted for Santa Claus. They voted for a vision of the world that does not exist--but that they really want to believe in. And why wouldn't they? Isn't it more comforting, more snuggly safe to think that we got the bad guy and we're all safe and sound and that Poppa Bush will take care of us--and, by the way, f--k the French? Isn't that much, much nicer?

To get back to my earlier, allusive point: As bleak as the prospect of four more years of Bush is, that's not what has me stomach-knottedly disturbed. It's the fact that both Houses of Congress went further into the red. Which means that the Republicans now have a solid grip on all three branches of government. Which is a fact so nightmarishly at odds with the whole 'balance of power' that the tripartite structure of the government was supposed to ensure that the only question is whether or not I should muffle my screams. It means that we no longer have debates--no longer have give-and-take, checks-and-balances. It means that there will be no stopping the appointment of Ashcroft-chosen federal judges (not mention Supreme Court justices.) It means that legislation like the revoltingly named "Partial-Birth Abortion" ban get passed without a whimper. (Note to opponents of this procedure: It is only used to save the life of the mother. Only. Only. Nobody likes to see a mostly-finished semi-baby extracted and dismembered. Nobody. Not NOW. Not Planned Parenthood. Nobody. But this procedure is done only when it is a choice between letting the baby die, and letting the baby and the mother die. That's it. It is never ever ever used as means of voluntary birth control. Never. So opponents of the procedure are essentially saying they would rather let women die than permit any kind of premature--however inevitable the fetus's death--termination. And that's just...eerily monstrous.) But such things will happen, because now there is no one to stop them. Look--I'm not saying I like the idea of the Democrats in charge of everything. Edmund Burke was a liberal--a Whig--but he's known as the father of modern conservatism because he acknowledged that slow, careful progress is better than revolution, which tends to wind up with heads tumbling into baskets. So we need the brakes of conservatism, no question. And no one wants to live in a world of radical liberalism--a world run by PETA, and ACT UP, and the ADL, and Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, and Louis Farrakhan. Nobody wants to live under a fascism of tolerance. But neither should we be forced to live in a world of fundamentalist zealotry--isn't that what we're fighting overseas? And yet, that's what we've signed up for.

By the way, let me just give a shout-out to all those states who passed Anti-Gay Marriage laws. Congratulations, guys. You really won one for the Marriage Is Sacred team. But why stop there? I mean, if the institution is so godd--ned sacred, why quit at simply cutting off the whole 'same-sex' option? Surely, if it's so precious, and so sacred, we can't just preserve it by keeping people out--we've gotta regulate people who get in! So let's get really serious about making marriage permanent--let's make sure the iron shackles of matrimony--wedlock, right?--are so restrictive that Houdini couldn't get out of them. Remember, guys, according to Christ--who's presumbaly the one who's putting the "Sacred" into the Institution--you can't dump the ball and chain unless she screws around on you, and, ladies, no matter what, once you're married, anybody after Husband Number One makes you an adultress. (Unless he's dead, of course--hint, hint.)Let's fine--no, imprison!--fornicators. And as for adulterers, hell, break out the scarlet "A"s. Come on, you defenders of the Sacred Institution of Marriage--put your legislative muscle where your big fat mouths are. Of course, it may be that you don't really give a s--t about marriage--that you're just riding on the sleazy coattails of bigotry to achieve political relevance. But hey, more power to you--worked for George Wallace! (Until God got even by rendering him an agonized cripple with a nasty case of Parkinson's.)

Bitter. I'm going with Bitter, rather than Depressed. And I'm done, for now. Let me just close, though, with this: Conservatives love to claim that liberals hate America. If that's true, it's because conservatives have turned America into a hate-filled, hateful nation. And we let them do it. Shame on all of us.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Oh, So Predictable

Been an awkwardly long while since posting, but the truth is, I've been utterly bereft of things to spout off about. Apart from--and this is really why I've been silent--the damned election. And I know you don't want to hear any more about that. I've voted, so my part is done--of course, since I'm in Orange County (Republican central, which means all the local votes--Congressional Representative, say--are predetermined--two more years with Chris Cox!), and I'm in California (overall, Democrat controlled, which means all the national votes are predetermined--we're going for Kerry, and Barbara Boxer will continue to serve as Dianne Feinstein's sidekick for six more years), it was hard to get too vitriolic/misty-eyed/enthusiastic about the whole thing. I will say that my polling station was staffed by friendly folks who helped me vote despite my having recently moved, and thus not really knowing where the hell I was supposed to show up. (All I had to do was fill out a major amount of paper-work and then a paper-ballot, which I prefer to those weirdo touch-screens anyway.) So that's that for me. I'm not inclined to predict the outcome. (Especially since who wants to risk looking foolish the next day, when there's really no upside to being right? It's so close that calling it for, say, Kerry, and being right, shows no more precognitive skill than calling the right side of a coin toss.) And yet I do care who wins. The fact is, I really, really think that Bush is a bad president. Not because "he's stupid," which I tire of as a slam against him. Oh, he's not smart, God knows, but we've lost the ability in this country to recognize that there's this category called 'average.' Everything either 'rules' or 'sucks.' People are either 'brilliant' or 'morons.' Well, Bush isn't a moron. He's painfully inarticulate, and disturbingly ignorant about history, and military policy, and diplomacy, and economics, and--well, he knows some stuff, but the stuff he doesn't know is what draws the eye in studying him.

But his policies are intellectually and morally offensive, and more to the point, his perspective is profoundly limited by beliefs that don't jibe with the world as it is. He thinks America can't be wrong. Ever. Now, while there's a lot to be said for giving one's own country the benefit of the doubt (something lunatic liberals can't seem to do), there's also a lot to be said for behaving as though we could screw up--since it's the only way we can behave in a fashion designed to avoid screwing up. Sigh. I'm sorry--I could fulminate on the man, I really could--he's obviously proud of what he doesn't know--I really despise him as a person. But I try--I try--not to let that be the reason I vote to unseat him. (And, obviously, it would also be nice to vote for a candidate, rather than simply against one. I like Kerry OK, and I agree with the Democratic platform more than I do the Republican, so he's got my vote, but I admit, I am drawn to the "Anybody But Bush" mindset.) I'd just rather have a really, really smart president with no principles (Clinton, Nixon) than a dumb-to-average one with unshakeable principles (Bush, Reagan.) The smart one will pull some creepy, ugly s--t, to be sure, but he'll also recognize that what's best for the country is best for him--and thus will see to it that, if it hits the fan, we're all OK. Put it another way: Nixon was scum--but he went to China and got us out of Vietnam. Bush would have done neither. Heavy sigh. Here's hoping nobody tries to steal this one...