Monthly Archives: November 2017

They’re all at it

My friend Phil wrote to ask what I thought of the current groping scandal engulfing his home state Senator Al Franken. Truth to tell, I don’t think much of any of the current groping/molestation/sexual assault/rape charges flying around. I would love to say that I was shocked and appalled, but I’m not. Not because non-consensual sexual activity is ever acceptable. It isn’t. Rather because, short of going full Mike Pence and never being alone with a woman who is not your wife, every man is open to the accusations and in the current climate of “I believe the woman” has no possible comeback. Worse, the “crime” has been defined down to such a degree that the British Minister of Defence felt compelled to resign over a “knee grazing” incident which a) happened inadvertently, b) did not outrage the owner of the knee in question, c) occurred fifteen years ago and went unremarked ever since.

Lots of pixels have been spilt making fine distinctions between assorted levels of groping, outright assault, feelings of discomfort and so on. Even more have died in trying to discern what level of historic evidence should be required before a man loses his career, is shunned by his colleagues and is replaced by Christopher Plummer.

Frankly, I think it is all a huge waste of time in almost every case. Sen. Franken was idiotic enough to have a picture snapped of his grope (which was not, by the way, the worst allegation made against him). In most of the other cases, the evidence is ten or twenty or even forty-year-old memories of encounters where drugs and drink were ubiquitous and modern standards of “sober, enthusiastic consent” were unknown. Of course, there were power imbalances; Monica did not arrive in the Oval with a penchant for cigars. And Bill was simply following in the footsteps of JFK and LBJ. Was he wrong? Of course, he was, so was Jack Kennedy getting blowjobs from 19-year-old interns. Harvey Weinstein, pig that he is, was in the tradition of Hollywood producers stretching back to silent films. (Kennedy’s father among them.) No one could possibly be surprised.

As to the furor surrounding Judge Moore, there is only one accusation which I consider disqualifying if true and that is the outlying charge that Moore took a 14-year-old girl back to his home and tried to become intimate with her. I say outlying because all the other initial instances were with girls old enough to consent and whose testimony suggested that Moore was pretty much a gent throughout. (And yes, there is lots creepy about a 32-year-old guy taking a 16-year-old girl out. But that, to my mind is not disqualifying if the behaviour has not continued.) [The woman with the yearbook – and Gloria Allred as her lawyer – is not plausible until she turns the yearbook over for handwriting analysis. Right now I suspect she is Moore’s best chance to discredit all the stories.] But the Moore matters all turn on evidence which is 30 or 40 years old and which has only come to light a month before a hotly contested election. He has a perfect right to push back.

And so it goes. Right this instant, as at the height of the Salem witch trials, a denunciation becomes a conviction in the flick of a tweet. Plausibility is now a matter of sheer numbers with 5 apparently being the magic number.  There is no defence and heartfelt contrition, as Sen.Franken is discovering, is not enough. The Salem witch trials burnt themselves out but not until 19 people had been hung and one “pressed” to death with heavy rocks. They ended for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons was that “spectral evidence”, essentially dreams and hallucinations, was no longer accepted at face value.

At a certain point, and I suspect we are getting close to that point, the rush to accuse men of sexually inappropriate (and what an awful word that is) behaviour on the basis of shaky, historical, evidence will collide with the entirely devastating consequences for the men so accused. Sheep will be sorted from goats. Rapists like Clinton or Weinstein will, finally, be flung into outer darkness. So, I am afraid, will goofs like Al Franken who are dumb enough to have incriminating photos floating around. But the evidentiary standard is going to tighten as well. Dim chanting of “I believe the woman.” will be replaced with, “No ruin without evidence.”

But there are a few things we can learn from the current hysteria. First, very powerful men take advantage of that power. This is a reminder, not news. A nodding acquaintance with Roman history, or British or French monarchs, or the biography of Lloyd George or Asquith for that matter, not to mention Kissinger’s aphorism that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” will serve to confirm this fact. Reading Keith Richard’s wonderful autobiography, Life, will serve to confirm this in another sphere.

Second, power is situational. The VP marketing for a tiny company may be in a position of relative power vis a vis his staff and the vendors who want to sell to that company. It is a pretty sure thing that if you looked at the conduct of 100 such VPs you’d find a few, perhaps more than a few, who after a few drinks got very handsy indeed.

Third, none of this is a secret. We all knew. We all know. And “we” in this case includes women as well as men. Which is why I am not shocked nor, realistically, should anyone be who has spent time in the business, entertainment or political worlds. In fact, just day to day life will throw up instances of men using position to “get at” women. It is wrong and disgusting but it is also the way of the world and knowing that is part of growing up.

Optimistically, it is possible that the current generation of men, as they enter adulthood will have absorbed more egalitarian principles. But I doubt it. Against all the schoolmarm indoctrination about “appropriate” behaviour and “sober, enthusiastic, consent”, are ranged the full impacts of internet porn, hip-hop culture and a thoroughly sexualized media and advertising industry. Worse, the feminist doctrines of female sexual emancipation have created a Tinder culture where women are just as likely as men to swipe right and hook up. Obviously not every woman is on the hunt, but enough are to complicate things.

Even more complicating is the fact women have been known to use their beauty to get ahead.  The wonderful, and very beautiful, Nancy Huston writes,

“My beauty has gotten me many places, to some of which I very badly wanted to go, and to some of which I did not want to go at all. Over the years, I’ve watched it attack and corrode borders, then take me with it into foreign territories. Borders are ideas erected between age groups, social classes, all sorts of hierarchical entities, in order that society may function as predictably and as decently as possible. They are not solid brick walls. Beauty eats them away. This is the truth; we’ve all seen it happen, though it happens differently in different places” Dealing with What’s Dealt (excerpt)

While I am quite certain the current mania will pass, the underlying issues of sexuality, consent and power are not being addressed. Nor do I think they will be. Like a lot of other human behaviour, it is pretty much impossible to come up with top down rules governing sexually charged behaviour between adults. I suppose a company might make it a firing offence to be alone with a member of the opposite (or same, because, gay) sex. But I can’t see that working very well and, fairly quickly, it would be routinely ignored. And would a rule against older men dating younger women get off the ground? Should we go back to the days of chaperones? (Which, in the current climate, maybe an emerging Hollywood profession.)  I don’t think any set of rules dealing with sexuality will work.

A more promising avenue is an ethical philosophical commitment to treating all people as ends in themselves. Whether it is sex or business or school gate acquaintanceship,  it makes sense to treat people with kindness and respect rather than as mere instruments. This sort of approach would take a long time to gain traction but, in the long run, solves a lot more problems than just sexual misbehaviour. It is more than a little utopian but it is something you can teach your children right now. It is also something which HR departments, schools and universities,  can use in place of the brain dead “zero tolerance” dogma which gets in the way of a healthy business or learning environment. Best of all, it provides a framework for conduct and a scaffold for dealing with misconduct. It recognizes that “all or nothing” is an entirely inhuman way of understanding human behaviour.

A commitment to treating people as ends in themselves would also provide a means for individuals to redeem behaviour which fell beneath that standard. Instead of mouthing platitudes, Sen. Franken, possibly with the help of an applied ethicist, could set about making amends to the woman (well, women, it appears) he groped and, in the process, actually set his sights higher. Even criminal acts, such as Clinton’s or Weinstein’s rapes, while attracting criminal sanction, could also involve making amends.

I am deeply skeptical about the efficacy of any top down “rules” for behaviour; but I am deeply optimistic that men and women can learn simple, universally applicable, ethical principles and apply them in day to day life. We may not always meet those ethical goals, but having them at all is a good first step.

 

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Remember

20th Battery Canadian Field Artillery, Neuville St. Vaast, April 1917. The horse are soaking and laden with gear

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5069473/Moving-photos-World-War-colourised.html#ixzz4y6nSD4C2

Timothy Findley, talking about his WWI novel The Wars, remarked that none of the critics noticed his recurring use of horses in the book.

We don’t use horses very much anymore.

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Climate Barbie and the denier slur

Nasty Rebel Media refers to Canada’s Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna as “Climate Barbie”. Pretty mean. Ms. McKenna is well credentialled, has a real record of accomplishment before politics and can’t help that she’s blonde.

But the Climate Barbie nickname has its roots in the fact that McKenna, like a wind-up doll, insists on calling those of us who disagree – usually on rather well-founded grounds – with the climate change consensus “climate deniers”. Which is as insulting as it is idiotic.

As Sheila Gunn Reid of The Rebel suggested – having coined the nickname – we’ll stop calling McKenna Climate Barbie when she drops “climate denier” from her lexicon. There is plenty of room for reasoned debate and dissent from the climate change consensus. A non-Barbie Minister would recognize that fact and stop slagging the people who take climate change seriously enough to question mainstream data, models and prescriptions. Repeating, by rote, “climate denier” whenever confronted with disagreement puts McKenna firmly in the Barbie camp.

Now, she asks that we stop calling her that because her young daughters might hear and that would be a bad thing. In fact, her daughters, on hearing their mother referred to so pejoratively might ask why their mother seems content to mouth platitudes rather than digging into the positions on both sides of the question.

McKenna is not an idiot. However, for the moment, her role as the all in spokesperson for an increasingly untenable, model based, scare story which is designed to justify massive tax increases for ordinary Canadians, forces her to sound like one. Just like Barbie.

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Arcadia

Via the National Review I came across John E. Seery’s lament for the small liberal arts college, strangled at the hands of administrators gone wild.

I commented:

The odd thing is that a good undergraduate Liberal Arts college needs a few classrooms, a few seminar rooms, a small library with a serious affiliation to a big library, some professors and an administration to take the fees and pay the people. (Yes, if it is residential, there is all that stuff but there are many people who have run Holiday Inns.)

I am astonished that American parents are willing to fork over 60K/a for a quasi-university education.

The temptation to create a “graduate college” on the lines above somewhere fairly remote and populate it with profs emeritus and brilliant buggers who have had it with being sessionals is huge. Two years, 10K a year, seminars of twenty in Y1, 7 in Y2 to give you the education you didn’t get while you were doing diversity training and taking “Studies”. Small, residential, maybe 500 20-25 year olds. Act up and you get kicked, be there to learn or leave. No social rules – you’re adults, deal with it.

Oh, and mandatory Church on Sunday (and I don’t care if you are Jewish or Muslim or what have you) – it is entirely cultural. Believe whatever you want but learn the liturgy, the Hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer because that is the cadence of Western Civilization – English division.

Teach the students to think, to write and to argue. Read chunks of the Western Canon, also read smart people like Orwell and Oakeshott. First year – rather like law school – everything is required. Second year an elective and a directed study towards a required forty page thesis.

Three grades – fail (you have to do it again until) pass and then, because excellence needs be recognized, distinguished. Distinguished would be very tough to get and papers which hit that standard would be published, on paper, every year.

The President of this Arcadia would be chosen for his or her grumpiness when confronting academic lassitude and capacity at the BBQ for the occasional “feast”. (Pace Frank Iacobucci.)

Admission would be strictly by merit but merit would be a very elastic concept. Write one really interesting undergraduate paper, you’re in, build a community organization from scratch, you’re in, play bassoon in a world-class orchestra, you’re in, build an app that’s on my phone, you’re in. But it is a liberal arts college so STEM people, valuable as they are, business undergrads and “studies” people are going to be faced with a fairly high bar.

Finally, the “interview” would be mandatory and last for a residential week. Arrive before Church on Sunday, leave after Church the Sunday after. Seminars, cocktail parties, a President’s BBQ, perhaps a paper presentation: gruelling does not begin to describe it because my graduate college requires a habit of mind, an ability to disagree without being disagreeable, the social is just as important as the academic.

If you get in, two years later, you will be better educated and, more importantly, a better thinker, more deeply informed. A much better writer and, I suspect, a more deeply understanding person.

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