Fri Jun 10 10:22:24 EDT 2005

Functions and "values"

A problem with discussions of social issues today is that they are carried on as if what is at stake were simply attitudes, feelings and "values" — purely subjective stuff — and not social functions. Social function is presumed to be a matter of formal arrangements set up with a goal in mind, business deals or bureaucratic institutions for example, and everything else is thought to be a matter of feelings. As a result, "gay marriage" (for example) becomes a matter of whether you like or don't like homosexuality or homosexuals.

That approach already concedes radical liberalism. In actual human life function and value are intertwined and can't be unravelled. Fundamental human institutions — friendship or marriage or ethnicity or nationality — have functions, but they aren't designed with an end in view and can't be reduced to a way of realizing particular benefits. You help your friend, that's part of what friendship means, but you don't make friends with the intent of maximizing benefits, and your friend is still your friend even if helpfulness is no longer possible because you are both sick, poor and in prison. Nonetheless, if you refused to help each other when occasion offered you wouldn't be friends. If you claimed that you shouldn't have to help because after all some people who don't help each other are still friends you'd be ridiculous. And if you said that friendship can't be a necessary part of social well-being, because it's not a mechanism designed to deliver particular benefits, you'd be out of touch with reality.

Similar sorts of things apply to marriage and other basic human connections. The point of social conservatism is not simply that friendship or families or nationhood or whatnot is something we like, or that we like people who are involved and hate people who aren't. It's that those things are needed for social functioning even though they can't be reduced to their functions, that you have to live with them pretty much as they are can't make them whatever you choose, and that the moral and institutional conditions that make it possible for them to exist and function — in the case of marriage, sexual roles and standards — need to be supported.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Thu Jun 9 07:28:24 EDT 2005

Channelling history

I use the Nordic Track sometimes, and when I do I watch the History Channel. It's the only TV I watch. The pieces are formulaic, it's hard to know what else the producers could do and churn out enough footage. A lot of them involve war, with lots of things blowing up, or supposed solutions to historical mysteries. Those are the topics for popular historical works that sell, so the producers know what they're doing.

Anyway, the last one I saw has to be one of their top programs ever. It was about Hitler's medical condition, so it was about (1) Hitler, (2) war, with lots of clips of Stalingrad, allied bombings and the siege of Berlin, (3) medical mystery, and (4) scandalous sexual etc. doings involving higher-ups (Hitler may have been an amphetamine addict, he may have suffered from tertiary syphillis, his personal physician was a somewhat doubtful character, etc.). A possible problem with the piece is that they solved the mystery of Hitler's condition too many times. Could Hitler really have been a drug addict AND a tertiary syphilletic AND a Parkinson's sufferer AND poisoned by anti-flatulency medicine that contained strychnine?

Anyway, it was a good piece to watch while doing Nordic Track. An additional benefit was all the color footage of the Russian front and Hitler's home life. Color makes such a huge difference in the immediacy of what you see. Maybe that's one reason it's harder to make a gripping color movie than a gripping black and white movie. With all the immediate reality right in front of you it's harder to appeal to the imagination. No doubt that's an extension of the general principle that it doesn't work to have overbearing physical realities (sex, realistic violence or whatnot) on stage.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Wed Jun 8 17:01:13 EDT 2005

TVs and firewater

It's said there are genetic differences among peoples depending on the length of their exposure to alcohol. The Mediterranean races, for example, have been living with wine for thousands of years and tolerate it well, with very few drunkards among them. The Northern European races have greater problems, since beer came in later and apparently wasn't available as readily (or that's my impression from reading the Icelandic sagas).

The story makes sense: compare the Jews or Italians with the Irish, Swedes or Russians, and then think about the American Indians. I wonder if something similar will turn out to be true of the things that are so addictive in modern life: junk food, TV, hard drugs, pornography and whatnot. Eventually the welfare state is going to collapse, I think, and the ways of life that support themselves will support themselves and those that don't will run aground. To the extent resistance to some of these things is genetic maybe that will play a role as well. It's all hard to imagine though, since selection of the fittest would require such a different state of society.

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Sun Jun 5 16:50:59 EDT 2005

Moral panic

I had run into "moral panic" in British publications, as a term used to debunk traditionalist concerns about various initiatives of the cultural Left, and decided to look it up in Wikipedia:
A moral panic is a mass movement based on the perception that some individual or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. These panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues (although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur), and often include a large element of mass hysteria. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality, and usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Though not always, very often moral panics revolve around issues of sex and sexuality. A widely circulated and new-seeming urban legend is frequently involved.
The idea seems to be that you have a moral panic when people are concerned about a moral issue. Then the issue gets dramatized, personalized and made concrete by some particular situation, and there's a lot of misinformation and tendentious media coverage floating around (as always when people feel strongly about a moral issue). The resulting state of affairs is a "moral panic."

So it sounds like almost any big social movement that gets media support, feminism, antiracism, opposition to the Viet Nam war or whatever, would involve a series of moral panics. The Matthew Shepard situation would be a moral panic. The complaints about racial profiling or burning of black churches would be moral panics. The problem, of course, is that the expression isn't used that way. It's applied only when one doesn't like the general tendency of the outrage and wants people to shut up. Since it's social science jargon it's typically used against people like traditionalists who oppose the institutional interests of social science experts.

So what else is new?

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics

Sat Jun 4 11:06:19 EDT 2005

Why the EU always has to win

My wife noted a recent New York Times piece in which the writer was absolutely unable to conceive that anti-EU types might have a legitimate point. So far as he was concerned, they're just a bunch of blue-collar know-nothings who can't deal with the fact that the world has passed them by. What they need is retraining and re-education.

I didn't read the piece, but the view makes sense from the standpoint of the NYT and its readers. After all, you can only have a legitimate point if:

  • What you want is good. But "good" means giving people what they want, as much, equally, controllably and measurably as possible. Any other definition would be irrational, unscientific and oppressive. But if that's what's good, then it's obvious that what's good depends on getting everything controlled as much as possible by expert administrators and people who read the New York Times (or its European equivalents). With that in mind, how could cutting back on the EU possibly be good?
  • You know something. Knowledge is what experts say, though, and experts are functionaries with appropriate certifications and affiliations who make their living providing information and analysis to government and business to help them attain institutional goals. It follows that if something (like local loyalties) doesn't feed into large-scale formalized ways of getting things done it's not going to constitute knowledge. It's just going to be some weird idea that has to be gotten rid of so things will go on more sensibly.
These points are more serious than they appear. People talk about the EU's "democratic deficit" and what not, but the basic problem is that the people who run it quite literally can't conceive of anything else as rational. The EU is the technological outlook writ large and transferred to politics, so that anything at odds with it is mysticism, ignorance, bigotry or some other variety of non-thought. If all that's true, it's hard to see why anyone should listen if there's a referendum and the people mouth some incomprehensible gibberish like "no." After all, how can you obey something when you can't even make sense of it?

Posted by jkalb | Permalink | Categories: Culture and politics