Culture

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What was outrageous in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am not dismissing any of the accusations against Spacey here or arguing that they are not truthful or serious. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.”

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

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A Quite Interesting Question: Do Americans Have an Inferiority Complex?

When I was a Freshman in college one of my professors thought it would be clever to open his first class with a question.

“Does anyone here have an inferiority complex?”

From my seat in the back row I had the urge to raise my hand and say, “I do, but it’s not a very good one,” but because this was true I didn’t do it.

A while back I posed the question: Why don’t we have any comedy panel shows in the United States?  Panel shows are popular in the UK. They have a theme and are organized something like game shows, but the game is really an excuse for comedians to play off each other.

I wondered why the show QI in particular, which had gone through 12 seasons at the time, hadn’t been replicated with an American version as, say, The Office or Undercover Boss has in this direction or Law and Order in the other direction.

My working theory at the time was that our culture is more competitive and that a show that is formatted as a game in which the score is totally irrelevant doesn’t seem appealing. One commenter, who I think was British– or at least not American– based on his spelling of “defence”– chalked it up to different senses of humor on the two sides of the Atlantic. (A subject I’ve pondered here as well.)

What was more interesting to me were the comments posted by Americans. (I am assuming they are Americans because they used “we” when speaking of our fine nation.) One posited that our talk shows are a form of marketing, and movie stars– who only go on the shows to plug their projects–aren’t witty enough for the format. Another suggested that in America “everything has to brought down to the lowest common denominator” because we have such a diverse audience.

What strikes me is that both seem to assume that if some form of entertainment exists in England, but not here, it must be more witty and sophisticated. (You know, like Benny Hill.)

My fellow Americans, we have never been known for our lack of self-confidence. But according to Psychology Today, when an American hears a British accent, he attributes a few more IQ points to the speaker. Even, it seems, when he is making fart jokes. Why is that?

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

Humiliation: Contemplating Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

“I want to acknowledge the not-infrequent willingness of a viewer, a neighbor, a master, a lover, a friend, a host, a commentator, to treat someone else as garbage. The willingness to desubjectify the other person. And the willingness, as if in a nightmare, to lock the door of civilization against this outcast, and to hear the ruined beast cry in the cold.”

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From time to time I like to wander through the library and pick up random books that catch my eye. On my last walk, a couple of weeks ago, I checked out Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Humiliation.”

It is a small book, and odd. It reads to me like culled diary entries on a particular subject– more the notes for a book than the book itself. I think Danielle Stevens got it right in Hyperallergic when she wrote “Koestenbaum occupies a space between blatant exhibitionism and self-criticism.”

The book is made up of short numbered observations about humiliation.

When I read it, it brought to mind Oscar Wilde, and in fact Wilde is mentioned at one point in the book. In response to a thought numbered 14 I wrote “Does humiliation represent the core of the fascination with Wilde? Humiliation is the violent stripping away of pride. Part of the success of De Profundis is that, fearing humiliation, we’re drawn to the view of one whose humiliation is complete. We imagine you must come out the other side changed. We all have moments of crisis, perhaps less dramatic, when our identities seem to be wrenched from us.”

This is Koestenbaum’s thought number 14:

When I see a public figure humiliated, I feel empathy. I imagine: that martyr could be me. Even if the public figure did something wrong, I empathize. Even if Michael Jackson slept with children. Even if Roman Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old. When I see the famous figure brought to trial, even if only trial-by-media, especially if the crime is sexual, I’m seized by horror and fascination, by pity, by terror: here again, as if at the Acropolis or the Roman Colosseum, I see the dramatic onset of a familiar scene, an unveiling, a goring, a staining, a stripping away of privilege.

Something happened between the time I first recorded my thoughts on this little book, and when I went back to it. The passage stopped being about Wilde and became about Kevin Spacey. (Koestenbaum, we can assume, is feeling empathy for him today.)

Spacey is an actor I’ve always admired, although he is not a special favorite of mine. I became aware of allegations of misconduct against him by seeing my Twitter feed fill with posts blasting his apology for allegedly making a sexual overture to a 14-year-old boy 30 years ago.  Spacey confuses the real issue– that the boy was 14 and he was 26– with the non-issue (to most people in our age anyway) that he is attracted to his own sex. I have a theory that perhaps Spacey has worried for a long time that the public would discover the fact that he was gay, and that he’d rehearsed in his mind what he would say when he was eventually outed. When that moment came he failed to take the nuances of the moment into account in his statement. That, or it could just be cynical deflection, as pretty much everyone views it. I’m assuming you’ve heard the story by now. If not Inc had a good article on what was wrong with the apology.  What was wrong with the underlying behavior, if true, needs no explanation. Type “Kevin Spacey” into your favorite search engine (it’s DuckDuckGo right?) and you will be brought quickly up to speed if you’ve somehow missed it.

I have had a hard time getting this story out of my head, and I could not figure out why. I think it is because of the uncomfortable resonances with Oscar Wilde’s downfall. If you look at Spacey’s own Twitter feed as of this writing, there is something haunting about it. The stream is full of happy moments, successes, celebrations and plans for all sorts of upcoming projects. It ends with his statement about the allegations against him.  Then there is no more. Knowing that after this statement House of Cards was canceled, Spacey’s Emmy was revoked, his acting master class was canceled, it reads like the end of a life and a tumble into the void. As Matthew Arnold wrote:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

The cancellations remind me of how performances of Wilde’s plays were dropped, his name taken off of programs. In one case an artist even offered to paint Wilde out of a painting in a gallery, such was the desire to erase the memory him.

What makes these echoes particularly uncomfortable is that an honest observer has to admit that the there is some overlap in the accusations against them. Oscar Wilde was not advocating “gay liberation.” He was an advocate of Urianian culture, which held as an ideal the sexual mentorship of teenage boys by older men. The famous “Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name” speech that was a high point in the movie Wilde (and which got applause at his first criminal trial in real life) spoke about the beautiful love of “an older for a younger man.”

In Oscar’s Ghost I wrote, “To a Uranian poet, a perfect muse was a teenager maybe fourteen or sixteen years old. The boys were to some extent viewed as objects of longing because they were unobtainable, but it is clear that these ideals shaped the fantasies and views of the men who wrote raptures about their beauty…There is evidence that Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), Robbie (Ross) and Oscar all had sexual encounters with teenagers. (As, no doubt, did Reggie Turner if his nickname “the boy snatcher of Clements Inn” is anything to go by.)”

Lord Alfred Douglas, in his middle years, came to believe that he had been primed at school and finally seduced by Wilde into a dangerous culture. He blamed his education as much as Wilde, but he came to see “the cult of Wilde” as particularly dangerous for advocating this culture. He came to view it as his mission to warn the world against its dangers and to protect other young men from being seduced into it. At the time his nemesis, Robert Ross, was still an advocate of Greek sexual mentorship. Both he and his good friend Christopher Millard were romantically involved with young men they had met when they were still teens. Millard had once lost a teaching position apparently for something involving a student. Douglas wrote a book that was never published called The Wilde Myth in which he made his case against “the cult.”

The book concludes “The Wilde myth has devastated my life from every point of view. It devastated my life when I was a victim to its illusions, and it has devastated my life ever since I escaped from those illusions.”

Imagine him sitting down on Oprah’s couch and telling that story. The audience would be sympathetic, right? They might even chalk up his personality issues and bad behavior to trauma from the abuse. Is that the right way to look at the situation?

I don’t think so. You can’t judge historical figures by modern cultural standards and simply interview a historical figure on Oprah’s couch.  They have to be understood in their own context.  Here is how I explained the context in Oscar’s Ghost:

There was, of course, no age of consent for sex between males– it was strictly illegal. To get an idea of what age the larger society deemed a consenting adult we can look to the same law that had only recently criminalized ‘gross indecency between male persons.’ It also raised the age of consent for girls from 12 to 16. (In France the age of consent was still 13.)

Frank Harris, the American journalist and a good friend of Wilde’s, objected to the new law. He felt that it was ridiculous because it outlawed sexual activities with a girl under the age of 13 “even with her own consent” and girls under sixteen even if they “tempted.”…

During Wilde’s criminal trials, even though most of his partners were in their teens, their ages were never much of an issue for the court. It was only their gender and social class that provoked outrage. A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Just as we can’t judge Wilde and his friends by modern standards, we can’t judge Spacey by the views of the past. Just in case there was any doubt, I’m taking a bold stand here and stating for the record that I am anti-child molestation.

I think it does give pause, though, when you realize that there is an actual Wilde shrine in New York as Kevin Spacey heads off for the obligatory “treatment” as a necessary first step to try to shed his new-found pariah status and gain re-entry into society.

For those of us who admire Oscar Wilde, a case like Kevin Spacey’s is an uncomfortable reminder of an aspect of his story that we don’t much like to think about. As he is increasingly beatified as the first gay martyr it’s important to remember that he was not a “gay man” in the modern sense. There are some important differences and some very deep shades of grey. If we fail to be honest about that we risk making the the same mistake that Kevin Spacey’s apology did– conflating modern gay culture with (Uranian) pedophila. (Technically speaking, I think the correct term would be hebephilia or ephebophila, an erotic attraction to adolescents rather than prepubescents.)

It is possible, however, to keep both of these ideas in your head: That Oscar Wilde was punished for something we no longer view as a crime– loving males– and this is a tragedy and bothers us as an injustice. But there are other aspects of his life that we would find troubling if they happened today. Then again, if he lived today, it is impossible to know if those aspects would have existed for he would have been socialized differently–part of our culture, not his.

One of my favorite passages from De Profundis, the work that set me off on this whole Wilde journey, was this:

Of course there are many things of which I was convicted that I had not done, but then there are many things of which I was convicted that I had done, and a still greater number of things in my life for which I was never indicted at all. And as the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse, I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be. It helps one, or should help one, to realise both, and not to be too conceited about either. And if I then am not ashamed of my punishment, as I hope not to be, I shall be able to think, and walk, and live with freedom.

A Symbolic Age

We are living in a symbolic age. Recently, as Puerto Rico had just been hit by hurricane Maria and tensions were mounting between our president and North Korea, I watched as a serious televised news panel show devoted its first 40 minutes to discussion of kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Over that weekend, just about every social media contact I have felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy– right to free speech vs. respect for country and flag.

Now symbols are layered upon symbols as apparently the vice president, in a pre-planned PR stunt, attended a football game in order to be seen standing during the national anthem and then walking out to protest the protestors.

This is exactly the type of thing that thrives in our current journalistic environment. More and more people get their news from social media, the same place we go to advance our public personas (personae?). The stories that thrive in that environment are stories that allow people to express their identities. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the phenomenon of news stories as identity expression, no one was taking a knee but we were debating the merits of Starbucks coffee cup design in regards to the “War on Christmas.”

The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

Do you remember the Starbucks cups? Kim Davis? Symbolic stories catch fire and burn out quickly. Unlike major policy issues such as taxation, health care, foreign relations, they are uncomplicated and require little expertise. It is easy to take sides.

Television news takes its cues from social media when determining what its audience cares about.  They call this “spicy, watchable coverage.”  But what if the public is being manipulated? What if our differences are smaller than we are led to believe and they are being stoked by trolls, bots, media personalities who thrive on conflict and international bad actors? Somehow though we can’t seem to resist playing along, using the cues to make identity claims and to associate with one tribe or another.

And by the way, I can’t stand that expression “the base” and its cousin “playing to the base.” If I were Lord High Commander of the Universe I would ban them.

When I look up polarization and culture wars I find blogs and news sources across the political spectrum lamenting the state of affairs. That we have a polarization problem is one thing we seem to agree on.

A fair portion of the commentary, however, blames the problem on “the other side.” “We need to put an end to this polarization, if only those guys would drop their misguided views…”

An example of this comes from The Federalist, which combines a straightforward call for transcending our differences with a hefty dose of blame and finger pointing, ” the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans.”

A Columbia Journalism Review study meanwhile shows that polarization is “mainly a right-wing phenomenon.”

We now read and share different media sources, so those who identify with one point of view or the other each have support for the notion that it’s the other side’s fault. But really, who cares who’s fault it is? Isn’t trying to attribute blame part of the problem? If you really long for people to come together then you have to give up on the fun pass time of assigning blame for the nation’s problems on “those guys.”

It gets my back up whenever arguments devolve into talk about “liberals” or “conservatives.” If you’re arguing about what kind of person supports an idea you’re no longer talking about the idea. In fact, the act of defining a point of view as belonging to “the left” or “the right” skews our perception of how polarized we are. As The Washington Post explained in 2014, “This stems from the underlying psychology of categorization: merely labeling groups makes people see them as more distinctive than they actually are. So when people think about where ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ stand, they will tend to place Democrats too far to the left, and Republicans too far to the right, which psychologists term ‘false polarization.’”

Across several different surveys, we find a large degree of false polarization. That is, when we ask subjects about where they think the “average Democratic voter” and “average Republican voter” stand, they think they are further apart than the average Democratic and Republican voters actually are. For example, on the issue of capital gains tax cuts, respondents think ordinary Americans are 84 percent more polarized than they actually are (see the second row of the graph above)… We randomly assigned some subjects to read media accounts of a polarized electorate and others to read accounts of a more moderate electorate. When subjects are exposed to media coverage suggesting electoral polarization and division, they perceive greater electoral polarization–as measured by where they place typical Republican and Democratic voters on issue scales (readers interested in the details of the analysis can consult our paper). This suggests that media coverage can make people think the U.S. is a politically polarized country even if it is not.

In many respects, calling this cultural trend “political polarization” is missing the point. To a large extent these symbolic claims have nothing to do with actual politics.

Noah Rothman, writing in today’s Commentary, critiques a Washington Post article by Michael Gerson:

Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.

Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.

In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address.

Research published in Political Psychology by scholars Schatz and Levine found that “national symbolism evokes a psychological attachment to the nation as an abstracted social entity, but not as a concrete functional system.”

And by the way, I have a pet peeve about the notion that there actually are two distinct poles on any issue. Most of the things that we have to decide as a nation are far more complex than that. There are many sides, and by making them into team sport, where there are only two sides and you must agree with one or the other, you limit discourse and constrain the ways of looking at a problem.

The way we talk about these issues increases our perception that there is no room for agreement and that the only answer, therefore, is to eliminate the opposition.

I would make the humble suggestion that as a start the cable news networks could stop following internet trends to decide what stories should lead. Leave the identity building symbolic stories to thrive in their natural environment, social networks, and don’t dignify them with lead story status. Especially as it seems clear that these divisions are being amplified by outside forces.

Alain de Botton, writing in News: A User’s Manual said:

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge – because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments – is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone – not simply this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

Noah Rothman, over at Commentary, calls this making politics boring again:

It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.

On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect.

To Throw Oneself, Continued

seductionI decided to test my theory that “to throw oneself at” is a gendered phrase– that a woman can “throw herself at” a man, but a man is rarely said to “throw himself at” a woman.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the phrase “to throw oneself at” and it defines it as referring to a woman:

to throw oneself or be thrown at (a man), of a woman, to put herself or be put designedly in the way of, so as to invite the attention of; to throw oneself into the arms of, to become the wife or mistress of.

Here are some of the early appearances:

1789 H. More Lett. (1925) 127 The women all threw themselves at his head.

1871 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest IV. xviii. 231 Their wives were throwing themselves into the arms of other men.

1891 Besant in J. M. Dixon Dict. Idiomatic Eng. Phrases (1891) 336 As for the girls, Claire, they just throw themselves at a man.

So women have been flinging themselves for a while.

When I did a search on Google Books of “threw herself at,” of the ten snippets that appeared, six used “threw herself” in the sense of making a sexual or romantic advance on a man. When I did a search of “threw himself at” none of the snippets used the phrase in that way.

I don’t have the means at my disposal to be as scientific as Blatt, but given the limits of my research, I think I can confirm my hypothesis for the purposes of this blog.

I mentioned in my previous post that she “threw herself at him” has a different connotation and feeling than he “made a pass at her.” A pass seems to be a sport metaphor. You throw the ball, and the other person can catch it or drop it.

As for the origin of “make a pass at” in this sense, The OED didn’t have a lot to say, only noting that it is an Americanism and quoting Dorothy Parker’s famous “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” from 1925 as its first use in print.

This was probably not the first use of the phrase, Parker assumed her readers would know what she meant. It is interesting, however, that a man making a pass at a woman was, in its first recorded appearance in print, presented as desirable.

Men don’t welcome having a woman “throw herself” at him. In the examples in my limited and unscientific sample of Google books, it is most often used by a man as an excuse to his wife in order to minimize his responsibility in an affair. Inherent in the notion of “throwing oneself” is that it is at least undignified and humorous, if not outright shameful and humiliating. It is not worthy of a woman to “put herself designedly in the way of” a man. If she does, it is really not the man’s fault if he yields to the temptation, and anyway the woman is no threat because she is obviously not the kind of woman he would want to have a relationship with. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but Girls who make passes are embarrassing asses.

Cue up a chorus of The Monkees Cuddly Toy…

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Adorable Way to Call Someone A Slut

I used to sing along to the Monkees “Cuddly Toy” when I was a little girl. It was not until years later that I realized that this song has got to be the most charming and adorable bit of slut shaming ever set to music.

It’s joined in the Monkees canon by loose-woman anthems “She Hangs Out” and “Star Collector,” all of which were sung by cute-as-a-button Davy Jones.  Interestingly, it also fell to Jones to make a song about a lack of commitment sound like a love song.

I wanna be free
Don’t say you love me, say you like me
But when I need you beside me
Stay close enough to guide me
Confide in me, whoa-oh-oh

I wanna hold your hand
Walk along the sand
Laughing in the sun
Always having fun
Doing all those things
Without any strings to tie me down
I wanna be free

In other words, if I’m understanding this right, he wants her to be there for him whenever he needs her, but when he’s not in the mood for her, she should respect his space and not try to tie him down, man.

When you’re a kid you learn by rote in school. You recite the Pledge of Allegiance even though you don’t know what the word “allegiance” means. The idea is that the refrain will lodge in your brain and become part of your thoughts.

When I sang along to these tunes was I assimilating their messages? If you are too promiscuous you can’t expect to be loved and if you’re a serious person you will be there for a man when he needs you, but not pressure him too much to return the favor.