"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 14, 2019

Love Conquers All–New Yalies In The Halls Of Sanctimony

Elliott and Lisa were the perfect couple, matched in every possible way.  Not only were they from the same social strata – New England family, wealth, and reputation – but classmates in the same privileged, elite Ivy League university; and best of all, attuned to the finest that that legacy and upbringing could bring to bear.  They had been raised on Bach, Caravaggio, Blake, and Kant; and learned from the earliest age to respect if not revere the Old Masters of Western tradition, trained to disregard popular cultural malapropisms (e.g. gender fluidity and a priori social equality) and to look askance at dreamy, sophomoric idealism.  They were socially, culturally, and historically attuned.

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It was a surprise for both of them to find themselves matriculated in a university which for all intents and purposes had forgotten its historical legacy – Thomas Hooker, Elihu Yale, the Puritans, the Enlightenment, and the precepts of the new Republic.  The Yale that they entered was as far-fetched and as far afield from the interests of its Founding Fathers as could be imagined.  In a few short decades (Yale in the 60s was still an accurate replica of the first Yale) had become a university just like every other –’ inclusive’, culturally focused (race-gender-ethnicity), closed and clotured, and mainstream.  In a surprisingly short number of years the university had jettisoned all ties to its storied past, the nation’s founding principles, and any sound reasoning.  It had become little more than a ship in a politically correct flotilla drifting about between here and there – an elite mouthpiece for a popular agenda of progressive ideals.

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“What on earth will we do?”, the couple asked.  “Four years of obligation and purpose?” Their fathers had been good Old Blues – Deke, football, Mory’s, Whiffenpoofs, summering in the Vineyard, skiing on the slopes of Gstaad and the high Apennines – men who had never given a second thought to privilege, wealth, and position.  Certain things were given and family, heritage, legacy, and good taste were foremost among them.  Of course some of the graduating class of Elliott’s and Lisa’s fathers went on to greatness (a Vice President, environmentalist, and inventor among them); but most left Yale satisfied and happy that they had fulfilled a promise, were among the elite, and could for all intents and purposes, do whatever they pleased.

The Yale that Elliott and Lisa found was quite different.  While they stilled hewed to the originalism of their fathers – the Enlightenment and the logical, religious basis on which the university was founded – they found themselves attacked and isolated by a new cadre of progressive believers who, despite the tug and tether of Old Blue civility and decorum – to say nothing about historical sense and human nature - screamed for justice, equality, equanimity, world peace, and social harmony.  While one might not have longed for the return of tailgate parties and European social grace, the hysteria of the New Yale was fatiguing at best.  What had happened to circumspection, considered opinion, and logical exegesis?

So be it, the lovers concluded.  We have made our bed now must lie in it; but repose was not in the cards  The curriculum was stacked with post-modernist indecipherability – ‘Slave Journals Of Occupied Georgia – The Roots of Southern Feminism’; or ‘ Gay Boys on the Mississippi – The Untold Stories of Lewis and Clark’; or ‘Robber Barons and the 19th Century One Percent – The Foundations of Capitalist Depredation’ ; and while they had hoped for a a truly liberal curriculum of Blake, Wordsworth, Kant, Russell, and Adam Smith, they found themselves adrift in neo-socialist cant, chapter, and verse.

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Not only were they forced into an obligatory curriculum of victimhood (Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams were taught only within the context of sexual abuse, exploitation, and religious excess) but their social lives were determined by a popular extension of this reactionary history.  They could not simply dance, but had to dance to an approved drummer.  They could not sing, but only sing along to anthems of solidarity, union, and promise. 

They were able to get away from this enforced sanctimony – roadhouses in Wallingford and Berlin, getaways to South Jersey and Rhode Island, and weekends in West Virginia – but five days a week they had to submit to the irremediable, incessant clamor to reform, to be one of the guys to buy into the progressive intent.

Elliott’s second cousins were from South Jersey – gun shop owners, big game hunters, Reagan conservatives, and delightfully free of the cant and circumstance of the Philadelphia Main Line, New York, Washington, and Boston. – and he and Lisa spent many weekends at their hunting lodge in West Virginia where the talk was about hunting, tracking, killing, and self-defense.

Every generation has its refuge – a place away and far from the hammering about doing the right thing.  What characterized  Elliott and Lisa most was this political diffidence – absolute indifference to and boredom with the insistent righteousness of the times.  They were children of the Twenties and not the new century; heirs of the Italian Riviera and not the sanctimony and heraldic goodness of modern America.  They had been born too late, and this Old World sense of class, propriety, ease, and confidence was only a mantel they wore, a Pashmina wrap, a covering, a protection.  Yet they were independent enough to resist being yoked, tethered, and drawn by the powers that be.  They refused the taps of 'intellectual' underground societies, refused invitations to march on the green or on the Washington Mall.  They refused to be dragged behind the dray horse tumbril of group-think. 

What was left?  The Bright College Years were supposed to be happy and socially consequential.  Although liberal politics are supposed to be the purview of the young, they were never meant to interrupt late adolescence and early adulthood  There would be plenty of time for guilt, self-reflection, and angst.

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Fortunately both Elliott and Lisa had been brought up well, and while the blandishments of the campus Left didn’t quite roll off their backs like water off a duck’s, it didn’t wet or soak.  They remained independent, individual, and defiantly separate.

Their love affair amidst the ruins of a great institution was noticed by few.  They, since Freshman Year, were considered alien supernumerary, illegitimate, and marginal.  They were throwbacks to an earlier racist, misogynist past, better to be forgotten, expunged from the yearbook, and dismissed as if they never had existed.

Solidarity and love in adversity, and age-old story of oppression.  Yes, there was the we-against-them quality to the love between Elliott and Lisa, but there was far more to the relationship.  It is always difficult for two young people to survive let alone thrive in an alien, hostile environment; but  as is often the case, adversity anneals proximity.  They were philosophically annealed, bound by a profound sense of historical center and philosophical rectitude.  What was going on around them was temporal , exaggerated, and hysterical; and there can be nothing more found than special, unique intimacy  amidst it.

Turning A Delight Into A Drudgery–The Politics Of Food And Social Justice

A maximum security prison in the South has, thanks to the efforts of reformers in New Hampshire, tried to turn to food as a therapeutic answer to life sentences.  Cooking, they insisted, would give the convicts (murderers, rapists, and others convicted of violent capital crimes) some hope for living even if it had to be within the walls of a federal prison with no hope for parole.  A small but well-endowed foundation based in nearby Massachusetts provided funds for the enterprise. 

The problems showed up early on.  How to prepare meals without metal knives and forks; and even allowing hardened criminals, used more to solitary than infusions , could not be trusted around gas or even electric stoves.  Moreover, none of the convicts had ever cooked in their lives, had grown up on chitlins, fatback, and collards, and anything more exotic was incidental.  Complex breakfasts, fashioned after Turkish kahvalti  seemed to be in order for the new prisoner-prepared meals.  Kahvalti, perhaps the most important meal of the Turkish day consists of cheese, salami, olives, bread, jam, cucumbers, fruit, tomatoes, and potted meat – all possible within the strictures of prison life.  Yet the cheese, tomatoes, sausage, and cucumbers would have to be sliced; the fruit limited to finger food; and the potted meat dispensed with as an outside ingredient.

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Not only that, but the New Hampshire reformers had totally misjudged the atmosphere within a maximum security prison where life is cheap, freedom not even a faint hope, and a brutal, amoral, survivalist ethos which has no soft edges.

Angola prison, the maximum security state penitentiary of Louisiana is the biggest prison in America. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, 85 percent of whom will die there. Also known as the Farm, Angola took its name from the homeland of the slaves who used to work its fields, and in many ways still resembles a slave plantation today. Eighty per cent of the prisoners are African-Americans and under the surveillance of armed guards on horseback, they still work fields of sugar cane, cotton and corn, for up to 16 hours a day. While successive wardens have attempted to mitigate the Dante-esque conditions of the facility, few have had much success.  It and many other penitentiaries for the country’s most hardened and ineducable prisoners remain closed, impenetrable, nightmarish places.

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So it was a nice idea that the reformists from the Northeast had, one based on compassion, love, and progressive idealism; but they soon realized that if their Christian evangelical brothers had been laughed out and the redemptive hope of Jesus Christ rejected out of hand, then what hope was there for Alice Waters, Redzepi, and Jose Andres?

“We aimed too high”, said a representative of the New Hampshire foundation; when in fact they had aimed too low.  Life at their prison was not even a semblance of life on the outside but an inverted, frightening, torturous hell.  Accounts from Angola prison confirmed this.

In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola, twenty-five inmates testified…to facing overwhelming violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago.   These twenty-five inmates -- who were not involved in the escape attempt -- testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell, and threatened that they would be killed.  They were also threatened by guards that they would be sexually assaulted with batons.  They were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves.  They were bloodied, had teeth knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions, and beaten until they signed statements or confessions presented to them by prison officials.  One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was placed in solitary confinement for eight years. (MR Magazine)

Rape and sexual assault have always been features of prison life, and rape has been a tool of war recently documented in the ethnic conflicts of Africa; so it is not surprising that it takes on more than a sexual dimension in prison.

A veteran corrections officer, also from Louisiana, described a
similar situation in a recent letter to a newspaper: “There are
prison administrators who use inmate gangs to help manage the
prison. Sex and human bodies become the coin of the realm. Is
inmate ‘X’ writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper and
filing lawsuits? Or perhaps he threw urine or feces on an
employee?

‘Well, Joe, you and Willie and Hank work him over, but
be sure you don’t break any bones and send him to the hospital.
If you do a good job, I’ll see that you get the blondest boy in the
next shipment.’” (Christian Parenti)

Chastened but unbowed, the New Hampshire reformers directed their attentions at more congenial level – they would work in prisons where parole was a possibility and where gainful employ in the hospitality industry might be just the incentive for prisoners hoping for a second chance outside prison.  The New Hampshire people convinced prison authorities that cooking not only offered an opportunity in a growing industry, but would offer well-known therapeutic benefits.  The texture, smell, taste, color, and presentation of good food had been shown to have a positive effect on both cooks and diners alike.

The warden, however was reluctant to allow even model prisoners to work with metal knives and forks.  Even in this sub-maximum security prison there were murders and assaults.  Not only that prison gang members would put their ‘slaves’ in the kitchen (how ironic and resonant of the misogynist life outside), and force them to steal utensils for later crafting into weapons.  The authorities agreed to allow plastic knives and forks; but since no chef can possibly prepare a meal without a long, sharp Japanese steel knife and high-pronged, solid fork, the idea failed.  Cooking, it seemed, was not an idea worth pursuing.

Still insistent, the reformers found a minimum security prison, one  to which embezzlers and financial scam artists were sent.  These men were all familiar with fine cuisine and the finest wines, and if they had not themselves worked in the kitchen, were certainly conversant with the best American and European cuisine.  Prison authorities had no difficulty whatsoever in allowing proper cooking equipment in the already well-equipped kitchen.

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Some among the reformers, however, wondered whether they, in their insistent desire for reform, compassion, and rehabilitation, were not addressing an audience which needed no attention.  These prisoners’ terms were short, life in the prison was as comfortable as any, and most would return to the financial world once they were released.  Many of those convicted in high-profile financial crimes had served their time; and far from being pariahs in the industry, were welcomed back with open arms.  The skills they had practiced before conviction were as useful to Wall Street as ever; and the parolees would find the new, although more regulated environment, quite congenial.

All of which raises the question – why bother with prisoners at all?  If they were sent to prison for serious crimes, then why should their time behind bars be as unremittingly difficult as possible.   Doing easy time should never be an acceptable risk to criminals.  Angola prison before recent reforms had every right and reason to put inmates in solitary.  Solitary confinement was used as a means of inmate control, either to protect the general inmate population from the prisoner in solitary or the prisoner from his fellow inmates.  It has been used many times as retribution, vengeance, or simply animal punishment.

The infamous Red Hat Cellblock, now on the National Register, used to confine the most dangerous and violent prisoners. These men were required to wear hats swiped with red paint when they worked in the fields. They lived in small, unheated cells with concrete slabs for beds. The windows contained only bars: no glass for protection from the winter chill; no screen to protect against the summer’s insects. The abandoned facility, silhouetted against fields of winter wheat, still has a decrepit electric chair in a neighboring building with wires attached to a rusted generator (Christian Parenti)

Don’t these unrepentant murderers and rapists deserve this or worse?

Aside from the total unworkability and misguided philanthropy of these ‘Cooking For Prisoners’ enterprises and the inadvisability of making prison life easier, using food for social justice distorts the whole idea of good food, enjoyed at a well-set table, in a congenial atmosphere, with good friends and family.  Yet, more and more social justice themes are cropping up in all but purist publications.  The enjoyment of food per se is now considered somewhat sybaritic, and symptomatic of a self-centered, selfish, society indifferent to its ills.   It may be all right to talk about food, but only food with a purpose.  Food kitchens serving other than supermarket seconds, restaurants which hire only recent immigrants or minority staff, urban gardens, and parolee luncheonettes.

This neo-Puritanism is not restricted to food but widespread and becoming universal.   Life without a social justice is meaningless; and thus to restore meaning, all activity must be reformist – or so the argument goes.  Saner, more reflective observers say ‘Nonsense’, history is cyclical, repetitious, predictable.  Human nature guarantees aggression, territorialism, and self-interest in perpetuum, so what’s the fuss?

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Somehow when such social justice reformers get into food, it is hard to look dispassionately and philosophically.   Nothing is more fundamental to life than food and nothing more completely satisfying to all the senses than a good meal.  If that enjoyment is restricted to a select few who know food, cuisine, and its culture, so be it.  Elitism has a place in all cultures.

At last count, the New Hampshire prison reformers had set aside Cooking For Prisoners and moved on to other, easier, and more practicable enterprises.  They have not given up their food link entirely, and have taken up the cause of Chesapeake Bay watermen,  Maine lobstermen, small-scale fishermen out of Portsmouth, and migrant tobacco workers in Connecticut.  Good.  Everyone needs to feel good about what they do.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rape And America’s Culture Of Victimhood–Political Training To Teach The Morally Obvious

A friend whose son was a member of the National Guard remarked that most of the two-week summer training course was not on how to shoot but how not to rape. Endless hours, the boy had told his father, were wasted on a subject which required very little explanation.   Allegations of rape would be explored according to rigorous standards of military, civil, and criminal law – far more stringent and less forgiving than anything found on college campuses; and more fair and just.  An allegation would be only that and nothing more.  A presumption of innocence would be sacrosanct.   Rape according the laws of the state which governed the boy’s National Guard were among the most explicit and restrictive than any in the country; laws which defined physical rape and sexual aggression (attempted rape) within the context of physical force and intimidation.  Although these laws were attacked by progressive feminists because of what they saw as lawmakers’ white male privilege if not misogyny, their demands to lesson the rigors of the law were defeated.  As such, any soldier in the state National Guard knew without confusion exactly what constituted rape and attempted rape after one hour of indoctrination.

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Moreover, most of the boy’s class of inductees were middle class, temperate, responsible, and reasonably educated young men and women.  They came to the Guard with an already well-established morality, sense of justice, and respectful treatment of women.  It would be unconscionable for any of them to consider rape or violence against women.  Their upbringing had been moral and spiritual in nature, and families encouraged volunteering for the Guard as a gesture of strength, rectitude, and patriotism.  Elaborate sensitivity training was unnecessary, uncalled for, and a diversion from the more important tasks of soldiering.

Of course not all the boy’s class were brought up with the same attention to moral and social development as he; and their social attitudes may have been less morally formed than his.  They might have considered questionable actions whereas the boy never would have.  Yet the procedures for investigation, trial, and conviction or exoneration were so strict and so well-known, that even the less morally centered of the new Guard recruits would toe the line.  Conviction of physical sexual aggression and/or rape would be punishable by the most severe punishments allowable.

The female reservists also knew of the strict laws and regulations governing sexual conduct.  There was no mistaking their clear legal responsibilities.  While all allegations of sexual assault would be taken seriously, the standards by which they would be evaluated would be uncompromisingly strict.  Any and all subjective accusations would be dismissed out of hand.  There would be no consideration of personal judgments of comfort (“He made me feel uncomfortable”), assumptions of universal male predatory sexual behavior, no admissibility of impropriety or ‘inappropriate behavior’.  Normal sexual dynamics - male advances, female rejections and vice-versa - would be the standard against which claims would be evaluated.  Women, in the view of the conservative state jurists who drafted the rules and regulations, were quite able to take care of themselves; but should be afforded every avenue to defend themselves in court.  “The only aggression against a National Guard member that will be tolerated”, said one lawmaker, “will be an enemy bullet”; and that, he went on to say, should be a rare occurrence.

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Rape should never be tolerated because it is a violent, criminal act.  Attempted rape or sexual intimidation are just as serious breaches of the code of moral and civil conduct of a mature society and must be punished.  Yet the issue of sexual violence has been obfuscated and distorted by political hysteria.  The feminist assumptions that all man are potential rapists, that male chromosomes guarantee sexual aggression, and that misogyny is as innate and inbred as eating and drinking have infected both public discourse and judicial process.  Under this flamboyant rhetoric, men are presumed guilty under the flimsiest of charges.  Perhaps as importantly, women activists’ demand for safe spaces and a no-tolerance policy for ‘unwanted’ touching, glances, words, or intentions is absurdly ironic.  If women are supposedly as strong, willful, able, intelligent, and determined as men, then demanding universal protection from men is tantamount to admitting their weakness.  You can’t have it both ways.

Under the rubric of ‘normal sexuality’ women know that man by nature are assertive, that it is usually they who make the first sexual advances.  Women either respond favorably or reject these advances.  They have learned not to frequent venues where irresponsible male sexual behavior is likely; and have learned that a culture of respect acknowledges men’s very unique and particular sexual drive and responsiveness and dress appropriately.  Assertiveness and aggression are not the same things at all.

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One needs only turn to the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, O’Neill, Chekhov, and Shakespeare to see how strong, defiant women living in the most patriarchally oppressive societies best their men all the time.  Intelligence, cunning, sexual allure and promise have always been in women’s armory and used frightfully well.  How is it that today’s American culture has so devalued women’s strength and potential? 

The issue is not violent, physical rape which has always existed; and if in history not a punishable crime, a heinous moral one.  The issue is more with the questionable allegation of ‘sexual aggression’, expanded beyond the definition of attempted rape and psychological and physical intimidation to ‘unwanted attention’.  It is this desire to protect women when they least need it which leads to a divisive sense of sexual hysteria.  Sexual relationships are not taught as normal, even spiritual; but acts to be wary of; acts of male sexual predation.  Catholic Catechisms and pastoral teaching, as strict as they have been on sexual matters, stressed the sacramental holiness of sexual union in marriage.  Whether or not most Catholic boys  and girls followed the Church’s teachings on abstinence and sexual purity, the principle of the sanctity of the act was stressed.  God was in the picture.  Sexual morality was a necessary feature if not product of this teaching.  Even if no one remained celibate, the principle of sanctity and respect remained.

Once again, the issue is not how many Catholics emerged from this early teaching to become moral adults – probably fewer than the Church had hoped – but that there was always a sense of morality within sexuality. Paul in his Epistles was particularly clear about the principle of responsible sexuality, how it was intimately related to both earthly and divine family.  While there is no doubt that such conservative prescriptions were no different from any other religious teacher of other faiths – religion at its simplest is an organized, socially conservative institution – they were universal and ineradicable.

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Why is rape so prevalent in socially dysfunctional neighborhoods? Not because rapists are not aware of the legal consequences of their actions; but because they lack the moral underpinnings common among the city’s majority population.  Attempts to explain away dysfunctional behavior by claims of persistent racism, poverty, public neglect, and lack of financing are now dismissed out of hand.  Decades of investment based on these assumptions have failed to result in any significant improvement in these marginal communities; and political moderates are joining conservatives in concluding that the problem is one of moral failure not public support.

All of which is to say that the National Guard reservists should be spending far more time on learning how to shoot than to learn how to negotiate sexual waters.  The legal consequences of fairly prosecuted rape are serious as those are of physical sexual aggression; and the rest of responsible male and female behavior should have been long ago taught at home.  Morality, especially when it has such direct, serious implications, cannot be taught in a classroom.  Respect for women and women’s respect for themselves are matters of parental and religious guidance, taught over years by example. 

Honesty, courage, compassion, and all the other universal principles of a successful society also cannot be taught incidentally.  It must be a matter of norms, universal values, and societal principles. Morality learned this way becomes innate, accepted, never doubted.