Plumb Lines

February 27, 2009

London’s Future in Good Hands

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:21 am

Every major city should employ someone like this, responsible for all aspects of a city’s built environment:

He covers everything from the mayor’s policies on tall buildings to the funding for Crossrail to the regeneration of the suburbs – essentially Johnson’s vision for the built environment. His number one priority is design quality – that the London of the future should physically and architecturally benefit from the development decisions of today. No matter what the economic climate.

A lot of American urban pathologies can be traced back to treating transportation and development as if they had nothing to do with each other.

David Schaengold


Naked Babes (II)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 12:33 am

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted their approval of David Ogden, the Obama nominee for Deputy Attorney General who has made a career arguing for some of the nation’s sleaziest purveyors of child pornography.

This event would be shocking enough even if there weren’t many qualified liberal lawyers available to Obama who hadn’t argued that videos called “Little Girls Bottoms (Underside)” and “Little Blondes” were not child pornography unless “the genitals or pubic area exhibited” were “somewhat visible or discernible through the child’s clothing.”

Despite the attempts of conservative and feminist writers to raise awareness about Ogden’s extreme and reprehensible views, the issue gained little traction in the blogosphere. While it may not be polite to speak of pornography or correct (according to the inverted economy of conservative opposition to political correctness) to call for more equal representation of women, I have to wonder if one reason is that so many bloggers are young men. As the first generation to grow up with easily accessible internet pornography begins to shape the public debate,  those who seek to fight obscenity and limit sexual exploitation face unique challenges. While few will consume such content, the most extreme forms of pornography stand to benefit from the prevalence of milder kinds of pornography. One short-term solution I would recommend (with some hypocrisy, writing as I do on an all-male blog)  is to encourage more women to enter the blogosphere.

-Matthew Schmitz

Skimming Arendt

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 12:22 am

I picked up Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy last night to woo myself asleep, but of course it had the opposite of the intended effect. Among the innumerable gems:

The most decisive difference between the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgment is that the moral laws of the former are valid for all intelligible beings, whereas the rules of the latter are strictly limited in their validity to human beings on earth

The Critique of Judgment was intended to head off people like this guy, who wants to establish beauty on a firmly mathematically footing and thus make our aesthetic judgments “valid for all intelligible beings.” Per contra, said Kant, our mundane human plurality is the very condition of our judgment, which is neither the expression of mere preference nor the articulation of a categorical rule. He restricted this condition to aesthetic judgment, but Arendt dreamt of applying it to politics. This vanquishes the technocrats and the Fascists at one go: the technocrats because they think politics is all universals, and the Fascists because they think it’s just particulars.

Please consider this post the beginning of an oblique rejoinder to Keith and Matt, who (unprovoked!) called my rejection of torture on aesthetic grounds “breezy.”

David Schaengold

February 25, 2009

Skimming Tocqueville

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 8:34 pm

After suggesting that the life of the mind–despite its apparent absence in America–is bound eventually to flourish in any society of equals, Tocqueville writes with astonishing acuity and tragic blindness that in a democracy:

…the utility of knowledge becomes singularly conspicuous even to the eyes of the multitude; those who have no taste for its charms set store upon its results and make some efforts to acquire it.

This to justify his belief that:

…the taste for intellectual enjoyment will descend, step by step, even to those who, in aristocratic societies, seem to have neither the time nor the ability to indulge in them.

He assumes, as only a pre-Weberian can, that the charms and the results of knowledge cannot really be opposed, nor can the substance of charming knowledge and knowledge that gets results be radically different. I wonder if even in his day the United States already showed signs of what it was to become. Should Tocqueville be surprised if he found himself in the apartment of a young investment banker I recently visited? The apartment of this flower of the thinking class, this mind of terrible agility, contains two cases of beer, one X-box, and one book, namely Chicago: A Pictorial Celebration.

David Schaengold

February 24, 2009

Aristotle would take the Subway

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:18 pm

Reihan conspicuously absents new mass transit from his list of proposed rail projects. He suggests that we spend on freight, existing mass transit, and “incremental improvements.” These all seem like good ideas to me, but even if it were the case that these projects would be more stimulating that new mass transit, we should not choose our transportation projects based exclusively on their economic benefit. The Interstate Highway system was a tremendous economic boon, but destroyed urban life in the United States. Likewise, even if mass transit were an economic sink-hole (which, to be clear, it isn’t), we have to think about how it affects the practices of daily life. The language of externalities isn’t particularly useful, here, though it would be natural to slip into it. The real flaw of the automobile, which is not inherently so different from public transit, is that its paraphernalia disrupts the most human, I daresay the most natural way of getting around — walking.

UPDATE: Reihan rightly points out in the comments that his list specifically identifies mass transit projects, especially the Second Avenue subway, that represent particularly good ways to spend money on rail. My point was not that Reihan’s list was a bad list, or even an anti-transit list (though where, I ask, are the funds to complete the Cincinnati subway?), but that we should make our transportation decisions with regard to more than projected ridership and cost.  Of course, it’s still important to do the analysis, avoiding boondoogles and capturing opportunities, but even if the Second Avenue subway had lost out against HSR in California in Ben Adler’s analysis, it might still be a better idea because it will contribute to the ongoing rehumanization and pedestrianizing of New York’s built environment.

David Schaengold

Is Culture Necessary?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 1:58 pm

Imagine my excitement when I see that Ross Douthat has written a post called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Disappointingly, Ross concludes that maybe there  really are cultural preconditions  for successful capitalism: virtues like thrift, self-reliance, and norms like trusting  your barista at Starbucks cashier at McDonalds to make you the latte you paid for. Many intelligent people subscribe to this view, but I think it’s wrong.

There is no question that the economic crisis would be less severe had the typical American not squandered the last decade leveraging his house to pay for 50-inch plasma screens in every room thereof, and indeed no question that the old-fashioned Protestant Ethic provides enough cultural capital to run an industrial market economy. Such a culture may be sufficient, however, without being necessary. Is any culture at all necessary for industrial capitalism beyond the culture of hit songs and tv shows that industry itself supplies? What if it turns out to be the case that all we need for successful capitalism are consumers consuming?

This is a rather important question, and I’m afraid the economic crisis tells us nothing about the answer. While cultural failings may have exacerbated the crisis, what went fundamentally wrong was the assessment of risk. This is a technocratic failing, and I suspect that as long as a technocratic fix like the stimulus is on the table, the global middle class will shrug off pleas for a renewed culture of self-restraint. Remember what happened to the last guy who tried to convince Americans that thrift was the answer to their economic woes.

David Schaengold

February 23, 2009

Naked Babes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:16 am


For months this photo of one of the most befuddling ‘cake wrecks’ ever created has obsessed and troubled me. After an Indiana-Jones-style search for clues that has encompassed countless Google image searches and a combing of the western and eastern canons, I may have finally found the key to this mysterious image. Its inspiration comes, I now believe, from Macbeth:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubins, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air . . .

Shakespeare’s figure of the mounted child  is, if anything, even more confounding than the design of this cake. Literary critic Cleanth Brooks devoted a chapter of The Well Wrought Urn to explaining the image. It seems that the creator of this classic cake has penetrated so far into Shakespeare’s poetry that he has seen the “sightless couriers.” They were, apparently, sugary carrots.

-Matthew Schmitz

February 22, 2009

Re: Desire, Stigma, Deviance, Ladies and Gentlemen: I present the 1950s

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 9:10 am

Perhaps this is owing to the company I keep, but I don’t see a lot of conservatives stigmatizing groups in some way readily distinguishable from rejecting bad behavior or bad ideas. In the case of homosexuals, most conservatives of my acquaintance reject a characteristic package of behaviors (a bad and seductive “lifestyle” or “culture”) of which sodomy is merely the centerpiece.

We could resume talking about sodomy rather than gays, but I doubt this will dissolve the social reality of homosexual group identity, or unravel the rich polyphony of their vicious group culture. So long as group characteristics remain observable realities, people will find words to express their observations.

But yes, we should emphasize that it’s the behavior that offends. Gay “identity” may mean much more than choosing to commit sodomy, but, like sodomy, it is in fact chosen.

Oh, and I should say that while there’s a great deal of plausibility to David’s account of the invention of the homosexual, I’d like to see how he accounts for the 18th Century “molly houses,” which didn’t just facilitate sodomy, but also a fairly thick subculture of effeminacy.

-Keith Staples

February 19, 2009

Desire, Stigma, Deviance, Ladies and Gentlemen: I present the 1950s

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 4:23 pm

Andrew Sullivan highlights what I believe to be a crucial distinction in the ongoing arguments about same-sex marriage:

And, of course, much of Christianism today is sadly not about stigmatizing certain behaviors, but about stigmatizing certain groups – non-believers, libruls, gays, etc.

While the idea of the homosexual dates at least to the 19th century, I suspect that the contemporary American understanding of “homosexual” as a kind of people rather than a kind of sex act is much newer. Same-sex attraction was first widely medicalized in the 1940s and 50s, and cataloging and extirpating deviancy by rational-technical means was an important element of American post-war culture. Part of this cataloging and extirpation process was the identification of homosexuals as a deviant element in society.*

Modern constitutional democracies have an understandable horror of stigmatizing groups, and once homosexuals are a group then of course they must have all the same rights as the rest of us. Blame the 50s for stigmatizing gays, then, but recognize that it was exactly this stigma the set the stage for the Stonewall riots, for gay pride, and on down the line until we arrive at same-sex marriage. Opponents of gay marriage, the reasoning goes, like all those who harbor irrational prejudice against certain groups, can only be bigots or arguing in bad faith. Because we accept that humans can be naturally categorized by mode of desire, arguments in support of same-sex marriage tend to be ad hominem arguments, while arguments against it seem irrelevant or bizarre.

The question is: why should we categorize people by modes of desire at all? If we stopped talking about gays and lesbians and resumed talking about sodomy, would the arguments for same-sex marriage make any sense? If “Christianists” by some miracle stopped stigmatizing non-heterosexuals and started stigmatizing particular sex acts, would Andrew Sullivan concede that they might not be bigots?

(*I advance my cultural history with the caveat that this conclusion follows from a perfunctory survey of medical texts and pre-war “gay rights” movements, as they are anachronistically called, and not from a long-term engagement with the question)

David Schaengold

Top 25 Conservative Movie Lists

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 12:22 pm

Rankings are inherently controversial (here’s looking at you, US News and BCS), but National Review’s list of the best conservative movies is misguided in ways that neither of those systems are. Recognizing the best football team and the best college are admirable if elusive goals, but identifying and praising the best conservative movies is more problematic. As Hollywood’s critics are eager to point out, one of its problems is the greenlighting of films that lack artistic value but are considered important because of their “message.” Welcome to a world where audience are treated to Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck.

By smothering these ‘conservative’ films in their probably unwelcome embrace,  NR has made the same mistake they see in  ‘liberal’ Hollywood: claiming that while art may be important, the message matters a great deal too.  Even if such efforts did encourage the manufacture of more films that bear conservative messages, worse films would be the likely result. Conservatives should, as they have done, praise what is beautiful and deplore what is ugly. Otherwise the culture wars really are just a mass-media skirmish that has the significance (if also some of the fun) of a particularly heated game of playground pogs.

-Matthew Schmitz

February 18, 2009

Re: An Alternative to Irony

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 3:35 pm

I think what worries Matt about the idea of approaching a basic and universal social reality with “irony” is that it seems to preclude appropriate love and reverence. The winking ironist, we tend to think, is superior,  godlike in his transcendence, merely condescending. He might accept the necessity of playing along, but he will understandably find it hard to suffer or die for notions and allegiances that seem totally arbitrary to him.

Let me suggest a restatement of what I take to be David’s view (and what I am practically certain is Chesterton’s view) that Matt might accept: Gender, in its elusive essence, is to be viewed as a gift of God that shapes and sweetens communal life. It is contingent, but only as all created being is contingent. It was always in God’s blueprint, so to speak. To treat it as normative is the only sane and grateful response.

But this is tempered by two truths: i)Gender does not take absolute priority among the facts about man. It is lower than the fact of coequality as the image of God. ii)Part of its very goodness is a measure of built-in flexibility. As individuals and cultures, we can be creative and playful; we can stylize gender.

Recognizing that much of what we associate with gender is humanly constructed, and humbly admitting that we are prone to mistake accidentals for essentials, it is not only permissible but necessary for us to stave off vicious absolutism by cultivating mild irony about gender stereotypes (I use the term “stereotype” in a neutral sense). After all, healthy irony does not really subvert anything that doesn’t need subversion.  Healthy irony reinforces a sense of right proportion. It  subverts a fascist regime, while merely cutting a bright but pompous student “down to size.”

We need not spend our lives in  crypto-nihilistic winking at the audience. The starkness of this double-mindedness has a kind of aesthetic appeal, but the tension is more than a man can bear, even if the man is an aesthete. We can live our gender roles with sincerity and gusto, including the elements of those roles that are obviously culturally contingent.  There need be nothing unserious, after all, about trying to live beautifully, according to our culture’s aesthetic criteria. But our performance also stands under the judgment of higher criteria, and our awareness of this gives us the slight, salutary detachment that makes irony possible. Gentle, healthy, tempering irony.

-Keith Staples

Re: Acid, Abortion, and Asphalt

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 11:07 am

Matt’s post is stimulating. One caveat:  I wouldn’t want to neglect efforts to make the suburbs less atomized. For instance, a half-mile stretch of suburbia populated exclusively by several generations of Joneses, Smiths and Smith-Joneses and featuring two or three sizeable family gardens would represent a delightful updating of the old family  estate. Official or unofficial corporate ownership of that kind could make suburban plenty true abundance, rather than excess.

But Matt is right to say that revitalizing the city could well help revitalize conservatism. One small “tactical” point: Young families should do their best to live close to each other for moral and material support. It’s romantic to charge the enemy’s citadel, but parents’ first responsibility is to their children. The modern megapolis is at present too  inhospitable to family life to risk going it alone.

-Keith Staples

Cities as They Are Imagined

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:41 am

As you might expect, David Brooks spins a survey of Americans’ attitudes about where they live into a grand narrative of restlessness, kayaking, and longing for the virgin soil of the West.

The column’s low point arrives when Brooks suggests that by jumbling together “the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009.”

This is nonsense. These cities are nothing like each other. Seattle is full of the walkable neighborhoods that urbanists love, Denver is trying to become more Seattle-like (plus mountains!), Orlando just means “Disney” to most people, and San Diego means beaches and Seaworld. I have no idea what Tampa means to anybody, or why anybody would want to live there. What the survey seems to indicate is that when Americans fantasize about living somewhere else, they don’t imagine what it would actually be like to live there. When they imagine Orlando, they just think about Mickey Mouse, and not, for example, about a rail transit system that could profoundly affect how they live from day to day, or even what a typical  street in metro Orlando looks like.

This is unfortunate. So long as we imagine cities as cartoons of theme parks and beaches we will continue to ignore the actual, physical reality of the places we inhabit, and these places will therefore continue to be dreary and inhuman.

David Schaengold

Thinking Diversity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 8:18 am

It shows how much I’ve internalized the assumptions of liberalism (broadly construed) that my initial reaction to David’s post on meritocracy was shock: How could anything but performance matter? Truth to tell, I’m an ornery right-wing culture warrior–a cataract of snide comments floods my mind at the very mention of “diversity.”

This will not do, so here is my first tentative attempt at productively engaging with the idea.

Diversity among humans is, generally speaking, a good thing. It adds interest and challenge to life to communicate and cooperate with people whose habits, skills, and opinions differ from yours. Indeed, we should give proportionate consideration even to the innocent, childlike pleasure of contemplating variety in mannerism, size, shape, and hue.

Of course uniformity also has its value. There are important things that we should be able to take for granted about most people we interact with, commonalities that facilitate communication and cooperation. Human beings, I think, can only flourish when moving easily in a particular culture. As John Finnis has repeatedly observed, morality may give us wide latitude in establishing some norms (speed limits; ways of expressing romantic interest, respect, or contempt; the relation between particular sounds and particular meanings, etc.) but healthy social order depends on these being fixed, and fixed with some certainty.  The simplest way of putting it is that it matters less where you draw the line than that you draw it somewhere. If you prefer technical language, however, you can follow Finnis and Aquinas and say that we need determinationes. Insofar as they are morally neutral, cultures and subcultures are basically large package deals of determinationes that make communities out of assemblages, enabling their members to flourish.

A measure of uniformity is also necessary for groups to achieve certain important goals. For instance, a corps of commandos will want to keep the number of quadriplegics to an absolute minimum.

A political theorist will recognize a place for both diversity and uniformity, rightly understood. He will oppose radical threats to either, but also be on his guard against the silly or destructive invocation of either. He will see that practically nothing can be decided in the abstract–the value of diversity or uniformity depends on the nature and purpose of the group in question. He will also see that practically nothing can be decided categorically–most groups have a highly complex nature and purpose.

Still, examining the status quo it’s not too hard to come to some general conclusions.

Our time is famously plagued by the obsessive attempt to create diversity in inappropriate contexts and (much worse) of inappropriate kinds. The very idea of “diversity” has become contemptible to many i) in part because some feel the rules of some sphere of life have been suddenly and unjustly changed to their disadvantage (or shame–I’m convinced far more minorities resent the apparent condescension of affirmative action than will say so out loud) ii)in part because many of its partisans insist on superficial, false proxies for forms of diversity that actually might benefit communities. It will take a lot more than an infusion of blackness to make Yale Law properly “diverse.”

(I should also mention briefly the often–not necessarily–superficial diversity of capitalist metropolises. In such places, diversity of hue and nominal creed may just be gaudy ornament masking a dull uniformity of lust and greed. Orgies can well afford to be diverse because they evade the challenges of community.)

As bad as these abuses of diversity are, however, they are often motivated by a wholly justified dislike of some aspects of life in liberal society. Most prominently, there is the ever-expanding reach of the industrial mentality. This mentality assigns people worth based only on their functional contribution to some clearly defined goal, that is, based on their productivity in their little corner of  capitalist society.  This mentality might be safe if it were severely restricted. With families, clubs, and thick ethnic and religious communities to give persons their most basic self-understanding, a few “cutthroat” arenas might do more good than harm.

But, under liberalism, economic function  (and here I mean ‘economic’ broadly speaking, inclusive of the activities of the managerial elite and those who educate them) takes up more and more of our time and becomes more and more fundamental to our identities. Consider the fanaticism with which people pursue admittance to Ivy League schools.  As James Kalb has rightly said, Ivy League degrees are like patents of nobility because they grant us access to the economic and social goods considered categorically most worthwhile in liberal society.

This analogy to nobility is reinforced by the observation that only among graduates from such institutions can you find something like real class complacency. Unquestionably, most Ivy League grads keep seeking money or prestige in order to validate themselves long after graduation. But when faced with the prospect or fact of failure (I know from personal experience) the consoling thought comes unbidden: “But still, I graduated from X.”  This means, of course, that I will have more second chances than most, but it also means that, whatever my fortunes, there are chic bourgeois homes and parties to which I am always invited. I always have certain social rights that others must recognize. A poor noble remains a noble.

But things are in some ways much worse than feudal, because there is no notion of the Great Chain of Being by which the “peasants” can reconcile themselves to, and even take pride in, their position. “CEO” and “clerk” (I’m again borrowing Kalb’s examples) express a man’s ranking on a scale more than his place in a hierarchy. I  can easily see why people who are horrified by the  status quo would want to debase the currency of my Ivy League degree by changing the criteria of admittance, or at least seek to spread the privileges around as much as possible.

What to do about all this? I have no plan of action at the moment, but I’m sure part of the answer is to promote communities that weaken commitment to money and prestige and therefore weaken the grip of the industrial mentality. (As so many former-yuppie women know, children suddenly give you a new set of priorities and new criteria of success. This is reason #400067 that the prolife fight deserves all the strength we can muster.) Make more space for robust community and, I’m willing to bet, you’ll hear a good deal less about the need for diversity.

-Keith Staples

February 17, 2009

Acid, Abortion, and Asphalt

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 9:43 pm

I don’t know much about urban policy, but I feel like wading into the debate over whether or not the economic crisis will help revitalize America’s urban core. Ross Douthat offers up the interesting and to my mind correct opinion that this debate is a culture war one.  Judging from the title of his last book, it’s not hard to figure out what side of this debate Douthat thinks conservatism should take: that of the subdivisions. However, if Florida is right this is not only misguided ideologically but unwise politically. Unless we can build cities that accommodate children and retirees as well as they do young professionals, conservatives are likely to experience increased political isolation. The significance of geographic marginalization is already reflected in the cultural dominance of liberals. Indeed, the constant yet fleeting enterprises aimed at conjuring  ‘conservative culture’ will have trouble taking hold so long as we refuse to create cities that allow for simultaneous participation in cultural production and family life.  A vibrant conservatism, both culturally and politically, will have to elaborate family values in opposition to the the isolated, atomized nuclear family. ‘Family values’ should be reoriented in favor of broader social and familial networks that find a natural home in the urban context.

Matthew Schmitz

February 13, 2009

An Alternative to Irony

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:49 pm

Last night I saw Eric Rohmer’s typically understated The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. Filled with Druids, nymphs, and not-particularly-transgressive cross-dressing, it’s a simple and strangely sincere tale of the love between a shepherd and shepherdess. One reviewer noted upon its 2007 release that the film was an attempt to “divest romance [of] politics and irony,” but even that sounds too political for what Rohmer is doing here. Before I address David’s very good response to my post, I want to pause over this implication of Rohmer’s valedictory film: While introducing irony into matters of gender is one response to the increasing politicization of sex through culture-war debates, the ideal may be to have gender, sex, and love free of irony or politics.

Matthew Schmitz

At What Price Art?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 2:11 pm

Matthew accuses me of wanting to do away with gender roles and lay waste to what proscriptions still stand between our culture and sexual anarchy. To be fair, I was trying to provoke him.

Never mind that I think gender roles and gender proscriptions are alive and flourishing in today’s society (just the wrong roles and proscriptions, mind you), I will assuage my co-blogger by  momentarily changing the subject.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is the most important work by G.K. Chesterton, in my estimation, because it provides an actual answer to the central Chestertonian question: how can we aestheticize politics  without becoming Fascists — that is, how can we oppose Liberalism without endorsing anything inhumane like militarism or squashing dissidents? The answer is irony. GKC would have us affirm the arbitrary, the particular, the irrational, and the traditional, but with a wink, so that we simultaneously subvert the same. This play provides a space from which to judge our own commitments: to reject them if they are ugly (if they involve torture, eg, or unjust war) and accept them if they are beautiful.

This is precisely how I suggest we understand gender roles. I would add that Matthew has indeed exposed a failing of Chesterton’s proposal. What do we do with those who can’t play along — the aesthetic non-aristocrats who may be found in every class? The answer to this objection is that there is nothing inherently personal or individual about taste. An exploratory ethic of individualist experiments in gender sounds like hell — but a specifically aesthetic hell. For aesthetic judgment to transcend mere preference it must be common, and public. As Kant said, when you look at a painting and call it beautiful, you are implicitly asking everyone else to call it beautiful too. A shared set of judgments emerges when everyone does this, and this is part of what goes into a culture.  If we can reject aleatoric music we can reject objectum-sexuality, and for the same reasons.

David Schaengold

Gender Exploration as Grafitti Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 12:01 pm


David makes some interesting and welcome points in his most recent post. While I don’t want to read too much into his brief comments, I think that they provide an opportunity to question what our understanding of gender entails. That gender involves biology and an expressive function seems obvious. Calling this expressive aspect ‘performance art’ is suggestive but misunderstands what femininity and masculinity can and should mean in a society. For David, the expressive aspect of gender is experimental, exploratory, highly idiosyncratic, and personal. Figures of great talent will be able to create an expressive gendered identity that quivers with ambiguity. This is all well and good, but the problem with this experimental conception of gender is its highly modern focus on the expression of the individual, which comes at the expense of non-elites.

Traditionally, gender has expressed not individual taste so much as societal values. Concepts like courage, strength, nurturing, and obedience have all been codified in gender roles. While feminists are right to recognize that some of the ideas encoded in gender were harmful, such a realization does not suggest that gender roles should be abandoned altogether. Gender rightly understood is a public possession–not unlike a park–that everyone in a society enters. It leaves room for individual movement, but it also prescribes and proscribes particular behaviors. Such an apparently restrictive conception actually exists to encourage people to do things required for social stability and evolutionary success. For example, the notion of man as a ‘provider’ is good for children because it calls men to be engaged in their upbringing.  The fact that poor black fathers and rich white CEOs spend little time with their wives or children reflects that our notions of gender are far from sufficient.  It is possible that an “ethic of exploration” among the elite could coexist with solid middle-class and lower-class notions of gender, but it seems  to me that the democratizing of this “exploration” over the past several decades has weakened families and communities. Could this work for just the elite as long as we forbid such exploration to everyone else? Maybe. But only if David is willing (as he may well be) to make gender expression an aristocratic privilege.  My feeling is that, far from repairing and improving traditional gender roles, an “ethic of exploration” would seem to vandalize what little remains of the concepts of masculinity and femininity.  To extend the analogy, there is real aesthetic value to graffiti art, but it tends to thrive where the public space has not been tended. Indeed, it tends to encourage the public space’s further decline.

-Matthew Schmitz

February 12, 2009

Towards a Reactionary Queer Theory

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:22 pm

I am reading a book edited by a friend of mine, Marcelline Block. In the introduction she quotes an introduction to film theory that invokes Foucault and queer theory in calling for “an ethic of exploration that mobilizes the forces of heterogeneity present in every individual.” The authors no doubt envision a world where the forces of sexual reaction are put to flight, but despite my own fondness for reactionary sexual mores I find nothing to disagree with in their exhortation. In fact, I find the idea charming and inspiring. If gender is one part physiology and one part performance art, may we reactionaries join the queer theorists in suggesting that we should enact our genders as an endless variation on a theme provided to us by the genetic reality of female and male? And should we differ from the queer theorists in subjecting these variations to judgment? And if we are judging a theme and variations, shouldn’t we judge the complete work by a specifically aesthetic criterion?

David Schaengold

“Bedrock Social Reality”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 7:34 pm

An interesting and unnoticed item that slipped through the news last week was a story in the Edge about a woman who donate to Prop. 8 and who has built her career painting transvestites and gay pride parades. I was struck by her articulate defense of her position:

Mullarkey stated that it is her belief that “marriage is the union of husband and wife–a premise so simple, so fundamental that nature and civilization itself both testify to the truth of it.”

Added the painter, “Artists are not in the habit of imposing ideological conformity on one another or demanding it from others.

“Moreover, regard for individual gay persons does not require assent to a politicized assault on bedrock social reality and the common good.”

A lot of people have questioned why someone who paints gay subjects would donate to Prop. 8. What I wonder is why isn’t this woman a full-time spokesman for the marriage movement?

Matthew Schmitz

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