"Stories to Masturbate to"

— I'm proud to report that the Fly Bottle is #2 in this search on AOL, just after “A Special Weekend” by D. at Spinkle's Golden Showers! [WARNING: For the love of sweet Jesus DO NOT READ “A Special Weekend” by D. at Sprinkle's Golden Showers!!! Just don't.]

[To National Review Readers: Sorry about this, didn't know you were coming. I repeat: DO NOT READ THE STORY. I mean it.]

Giving a Whit about Convention

— Julia Magnet's thoughtful paean to the films of Whit Stillman moved me to dwell on tensions in my own character that reflect, I think, the uneasy integration of fairly traditional (read: conservative) values and the values of the “sexual revolution.” Magnet enthusiastically approves of Stillman's rearguard defense of traditional conventions, and his indictment of the move to overthrow them in an attempt to, you know, liberate us from their strictures, to free us to strike out boldly on the journey of self-actualization. I too approve, sort of. But not at all enthusiastically. I am composed of too much of what they condemn.

Despite my own selective conservative streak, conservatives often make me uncomfortable, because they so often lack the sort of discerning judgment they laud. (This is, needless to say, not a lack exclusive to conservatives.) In her discussion of the characters of Metropolitan Magnet writes:

What really riles Charlotte is the fact that Alice still has standards, judges people, and rejects postmodern equivalency. “I'm sorry,” Alice unhesitatingly pronounces, “but I don't consider the guy who did the Spider-Man comics to be a serious author.” In Stillman's eyes, what makes Alice so attractive is just this refined capacity for judgment.

Perhaps refinement is required to omit Stan Lee from the Canon. But this sort of judgment is very often rote, reflexive and unrefined, not unlike Magnet's casual use of 'postmodern' as an epithet. I've met enough St. John's and Hillsdale grads, quasi-Straussian pseudo-intellectuals, and martini quaffing, cigar puffing, Burke quoting suspenders-wearers, to see that, these days, endorsement of a conservative weltanschaung may be no more than a particularly luxurious form of transgression, and that the stoutly anti-postmodern judgments that Stillman and Magnet so admire may be simply what one says.

It's true, conventions allow us to coordinate and constrain our behavior so that we are able to pursue our various ends without coming to grief. But it's also true that conventions retard, stultify, and oppress. The trick is judging which conventions do which, or if they do the latter, whether there is a compensating benefit. Such refined judgment is surpassingly attractive because it is surpassingly difficult. However, I worry that it is in the nature of conservatism to be indolent in judgment about the cultural patrimony. Some, perhaps many, of our conventions are worth defending, and so conservatives will often be right to defend them — but right by default, and not by any discernment about the particular case. Yet some of our institutions are “peculiar,” as they say, and demand our unreserved opposition. The Grimke sisters', for example, were not wasted lives.

Discussing Stillman's lament over lost mores in The Last Days of Disco, Magnet write,

The adherents of the sexual revolution presented a world without consequences. Freed from the restrictions of convention, we would satisfy our every desire and increase the store of human happiness. This proved to be a lie: sex has profound consequences–emotional, moral, and physical–as Stillman dramatizes in the final twist he gives to Alice's story. Her one encounter scars Alice for life–Tom gives her herpes. Though Tom imagines himself a critic of the sexual revolution, in this instance he embodies its wounding irresponsibility: he knew he had a venereal disease but took no precautions, assuming that Alice?s promiscuity excused his carelessness.

This is a powerful, perceptive scene. But Magnet betrays a lack of refinement in her insistence on overstating its lesson. Convention as such was never abandoned. Traditional conventions were effaced and transformed to create new ones. That sex has profound emotional, moral, and physical consequences was never in dispute. The question is whether it's marriage or nothing. Few believe that wanton promiscuity adds to “the store of human happiness.” But it's not clear that the loosening of sexual constraint has not. The emotional, moral, and physical consequences of sex on my life, and the life of most of my unmarried friends, men and women, has been far from disaster. I don't doubt that the transition to new conventions created human wreckage. I don't doubt that herpes got around. But I do doubt that we would be better off overall with the old constraints.

Some of which, by the way, are with us still, and which, by the way, are cruel, demeaning, and immoral. Ask a couple of loving men or women who would like to be afforded the benefits and protections of a legal marriage. A conservative who has developed even a weak capacity for moral discernment and social judgment should see through to the logic of the institution and endorse gay marriage. But instead we get vehement, unrefined declamation of prejudice, which is not, I believe, the same thing as having standards.

The point is that we should all be conservatives insofar as there are conventions and standards worth conserving. (There are.) And we should be hesitant to throw off norms we find inconvenient, because they may serve larger purposes we don't understand. But some of our conventions are perverse and wrong. So we've got to have standards that allow us to pass judgment on them, and we have to be willing to change the conventions and norms if need be. The choice isn't between the conventions history happened to pass down to us and the relativist abolition of all standards. The choice is between the intelligent application of social judgment and apology for injustice.

So let us all abhor the cheap confession of low feeling, admire the stoic virtues, preserve the conditions for love and family, praise the ennobling and beautiful, love our freedom, hold one another responsible, and treat each other with respect, courtesy, and due deference. And then… screw like the end is nigh.

State to You: "Tell me about your mother."

This is just nauseating. The New York Times reports that the Bush administration is planning to provide “$1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain 'healthy marriages.'”

This is apparently what compassionate conservatism comes to: the intrusion of the state in even the most personal spheres of life; social engineering through therapy.

“We know this is a sensitive area,” Dr. Horn said. “We don't want to come in with a heavy hand. All services will be voluntary. We want to help couples, especially low-income couples, manage conflict in healthy ways. We know how to teach problem-solving, negotiation and listening skills. This initiative will not force anyone to get or stay married. The last thing we'd want is to increase the rate of domestic violence against women.”

I'm sure the government will soon come around to the view that single people need listening skills too!

And it's nice to be assured that the state will stay its healing hand and won't force us into riveting 50 minute sessions down at the community center with besweatered, milquetoast PsyDs anxious to tell us how to live our lives.

Imagine:

“In order to increase your compassion for one another, you need first to have greater compassion for nature. Try not eating meat for a week, and see if you don't find yourself more sensitive to your partner's feelings!”

Or, worse:

“The first thing we've got to talk about is Jesus. Is Jesus in your life? There's no reason NOT to beat your wife if you don't accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior. I like to say that family that prays together stays together.”

Coming soon to a church basement near you.

[Link from Tyler Cowen @ the Volokhs.]

The New Capitalist Man

— Terence O. Moore is worried that manhood is ailing, and that our culture now produces only barbarians and wimps. While there is some truth to his complaints, my issue with this kind of conservative social criticism is its utter lack of imagination. The world has changed, and despite Moore's loathing of whiners, all he seems to manage is a mannered, whining lament for classical “thumotic” masculinity. One hopes for more from social critics. Moore's essay is a perfect example of the kind of rote conservative judgment that I complained about yesterday in a post about the films of Whit Stillman. He just can't seem to accept that there are new conventions, for better or worse, and so cannot bring himself to think critically and usefully of what it means to live a life within those conventions, rather than bleat impotently about the lost world.

Conservatives tend to see the feminist movement and the so-called sexual revolution as perverse, willful repudiations of the sorts of regulative convention that make civilization possible. Yet here we are; civilization remains. And they fail to relate these cultural shifts to the ongoing development of capitalism, which, in other moods, they are only too eager praise. The increased economic autonomy of women, of which the feminist movement is as much a response as a cause, fundamentally alters the terms of sexual and marital relations, and thereby fundamentally alters the social meaning of man- and womanhood. What we need is a rethinking of what it is to be a man when women don't need us economically, don't require our paternalistic care, don't conceive of themselves primarily as units for the production of babies, and thus look to relationships with men to meet human needs beyond economics, protection, and reproduction. We men haven't quite figured this out yet, and so, yes, we are a bit adrift about how exactly to express our masculinity in today's world. But it does no good to quote C.S. Lewis at us, and blame us for lacking sufficient martial virtue. Moore should make himself useful and think about what we men should be and do now given that our social role is irreversibly changed and women are never going back to the gilded cage.

[Cross-posted on Liberty & Power.]

Oh, Please do Come in

James Bowman in National Review writes:

Pre-feminist common sense suggested that a woman who comes alone to a man's hotel room late at night has already consented to sex with him, but on the all-or-nothing principle so dear to ideologues everywhere, feminist orthodoxy insists that the adoption of this rough-and-ready but extremely useful guide would be tantamount to saying that a woman who has slept with other men not her husband, or even who dresses provocatively has already consented to sex. And the feminist interpretation of the law is now almost uncontested in the courts. No means no ? even though no one else hears it, even though everyone knows that it may mean yes ? because feminists want to reserve to women the right and freedom to be indiscrete.

The brilliance at NRO continues to shine forth unabated. Perhaps there is a generation gap here. Or perhaps Bowman is so irreperably lascivious that he cannot conceive of the possibility of having a woman to one's hotel room late at night for the purpose of a conversation, splitting the cost of Titanic on pay-per-view, a drink, or just a little innocent positive-sum smashface.

Bowman conjures in imagination this conversation:

“Why don't you stop by my room for a drink? A little nighcap and a chat?”
“Why yes. That sounds nice.”
. . .

[Woman crosses threshold. Door closes. Man grabs blouse and yanks, sending buttons flying, exposing feminine undergarments. Pushes her on to bed.]

“I know what you're thinking you dirty minx! Poppa's gonna give you the what for!”

Yes, clearly, she's asking for it.

We should thanks Bowman for his elegant reductio of “pre-feminist common sense,” ably exposing it as a vehicle of a retarded moral and sexual sensibility.

It is undeniable that “no” sometimes means “maybe,” or “yes, but try harder.” And that “yes” can mean “I'd rather not, but 'no' doesn't really seem worth the trouble,” or “yes, but I've now changed my mind, so please stop.”

This can be confusing, no doubt, because sexual emotions and intentions can be confusing. Such is life. It's a matter of interpretative context, and our duty as morally decent human beings is to develop a sensitivity to context that allows us to understand the intentions of the speaker behind the utterance.

If my wife of twenty years wants me, her husband, to pretend to be a burglar who breaks into the house and rapes her, then adamant and strenuous “no”s are required by the performance. And my husbandly duties in turn require I brazenly dismiss her protestations as I handle her roughly. On the flip side, if one's smitten, bashful, and drunken date tentatively, uncomfortably, and meekly assents to a sexual suggestion, then there's a good chance she'd say “no” under more chemically and emotionally favorable circumstance, and a gentleman will decline to press forward, despite her nominal consent. Even if she has come up to the room.

This, I believe, is common sense, both pre- and post-feminist. Bowman should look under the cushions, or behind the dresser, because he's lost his.