Al Franken: Giant of the Senate

I will not be the first to observe that Al Franken—that’s Senator Al Franken to you—is a very funny guy. Bette and I went to hear him here in Portland as part of a Father’s Day extravaganza. [1] Today I would like to reflect a little on the experience.

Franken had me in the palm of his hand from the first word he uttered, which was, franken 5“Jews.” [2] The interviewer’s first question had to do with Franken’s home town, a suburb of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park. He observed that a lot of other famous and accomplished people came from that same little suburb and asked Franken what was special about it. “Jews,” said Franken. Great line; great timing; great delivery. The whole place went nuts. [3]

I do have a concern about Sen. Franken. It’s a small concern, but he has a liability that I also have, so it has been of abiding interest to me. I’m going to spend an unusual amount of time in this essay on what I see as a vulnerability in a public figure whom I admire a great deal.

A Funny Guy will have Word Problems

Here is the vulnerability. I am not comfortable with the interface between the world as Franken sees it and the words he chooses to describe it. The boundary is floppy, it seems to me; loose. [4]

Franken has spent his whole life being funny. He isn’t funny because he has a big nose or prominent eyes—sight gags that some vaudevillians have used—but because when he hears words, he hears how they might be misunderstood. He hears what words can be used for. To get to non-humorous uses of language, he has to reach through that maze of possibilities, to ignore all those wrong turns. He has to focus on what the speaker probably meant and discard how those words might plausibly be construed. He has to focus on what the word actually does mean in addition to what is could mean. That’s what I think of when I see him work an audience. Certainly, it is what I do when I have to work an audience.

franken 4I know what it costs me, for example, to walk by the expression “your analysis” pretending that I did not also hear it as “urinalysis.” Or to bypass “gray day eggs,”you know, the really large ones, which were apparently laid on overcast days. Or to ignore the liabilities of the Taipei personality, very common in Taiwan, I understand, but associated with vulnerability to heart attacks.  I went to see a new doctor last week, an ENT and he hadn’t read Lord of the Rings and I had to just stuff all the Ent jokes for nearly an hour.

I did it.  I almost always do.  I almost always reach through that maze of plausible misunderstandings [5] and attend to the meaning the speaker intended. But it costs something. Franken was asked whether it ever hurt to just sit there and not tell a joke he wanted to tell and he admitted it was sometimes excruciating. But even when it isn’t excruciating, it costs something. It is a friction and you pay for it in one coin or another.

Vulnerable to Capture by the Narrative

I think there may also be another effect of this orientation toward words—I know it is true of me and suspect it is also true of Franken—that makes us vulnerable to capture by a more attractive narrative. This is speculation in the case of Franken; confession in the cases of Haidt and me.

Events do not crystalize for us as they occur. We remember them, as everyone does, differently as we think back on them. This is like an internal version of the old “telephone” game. But some people are highly susceptible to the power of narrative. That means that whatever actually happened is subject to being captured by the needs of the narrative. That is, in fact, the problem Haidt wanted to talk about on the page I cited. If you pay attention, you can sense the order of events or the significance of events or the prominence of events shifting around as the narrative needs for them to shift. Foregrounds become backgrounds; insignificant remarks become significant; Event 2 shifts around so that it occurred before Event 1.

franken 3And most of the time it doesn’t matter at all. It makes a better story that way and all the “facts” that really matter are still what they were. No harm, no foul, we say. And that may be true. In that telling.

But this elasticity of words and meanings—the stock in trade of anyone who hears the possibility of humor in ordinary discrepancies—sets up a friction and friction causes heat and heat causes stress and you never know how a sentence is going to respond to stress.

It is in a context like this one that I heard Sen. Franken tell a story yesterday. He wanted to highlight the willingness of America to be hospitable to immigrants. The good end of this story was a Somali girl who moved to Minnesota, served as a page in the U. S. Senate during her junior year and ended her senior year as “class speaker.” I think he meant valedictorian, but I am not really sure. She sounds really wonderful.

But he needed to set this American experience off against someone else and he chose France. He was talking with the French ambassador to the U. S., he said, and he heard the French ambassador say that you can tell is someone is truly French because that person can track his or her family back to a plot of land in France. I’m pretty sure the ambassador didn’t say that [6], so that raises the question of whether Sen. Franken heard it. I’m not saying he did or didn’t; I’m offering this as an exemplar of the dilemma.

In order to have heard (and to continue to remember that he heard) the ambassador say
that “French-ness” is centrally a commitment to the French project (which is French culture) Franken would have had to settle for an unbalanced and unsatisfying comparison. Imagine a cultural inclusion scale that goes from +5 to —5. The Minnesota-Somali girl’s experience is +5 in a big way. Now Franken is telling a story that requires a —5. He talks to the ambassador and gets (this is my guess) a —2 at best. What does a rhetorician of the Franken school do with that?

I think he will do what Jonathan Haidt says he did. For Haidt, that involved changing the time order of events. For Franken, it involves changing the criterion of French-ness as he heard it described . So Franken’s internal editor changes what the ambassador said so that the story he tells is a perfect +5 versus –5. And as I said, I see this process from the inside because I am either doing it or fighting it every day.

And that’s what makes me uncomfortable about Sen. Franken. He and I share a vulnerability that I know a great deal about.

Having said all that, I liked Sen. Franken a lot. He has a tendency to be candid, which is often a fatal liability for a politician. He has succeeded as a politician by overcoming that tendency and learning to “pivot” as they say. Pivoting means using a sentence fragment to recognize that you have been asked a question, then “pivoting” to the message of the day. Franken made fun of himself for being so bad at it; he credited his staff for his getting better at it. His illustrations of it were hauntingly familiar. “Actually that [whatever the questioner asked about] isn’t what the voters of Minnesota care about. What they really care about is [whatever the message of the day is].”

So he does it. He just makes fun of himself for being forced to do it. And, according to Franken, he doesn’t always remember to do it. An interviewer once asked him if he had ever had a joke that was really funny but that he didn’t dare tell. Franken answered the question by telling the joke that he didn’t dare tell while, I am sure, his staff were jumping up and down trying to get his attention to tell him to shut up.

And he cares about some very little things. He is co-sponsor of a bill (or an amendment to a bill—I have seen it in both forms) that would encourage or require school districts to allow foster children to keep attending the same school, if they want to, even as they move from one foster home to another. This is VERY small potatoes in the Congress, but it would make a lot of difference to a few kids and Sen. Franken has put years of work into that project so far.

I couldn’t dislike the man if I tried and I didn’t try. And the book is really good too.

[1] This was a stop on a book tour for Sen. Franken. He was sponsored by Powell’s Bookstore and sold out in less than 24 hours. The book in Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. Franken is not a giant, of course, which is why the title is funny, but Powell’s actually is a giant.
[2] I got out of his hand later, but it wasn’t because I wanted to.
[3] Portland is known to be a very polite place and I more often hear “Jewish persons” here than “Jews.” Franken may have known that. As funny as he is, he is a man who does his homework.
[4] It is a variant of the flaw Jonathan Haidt described on page 52 of The Righteous Mind. “On February 3, 2007, shortly before lunch, I discovered that I am a chronic liar.” There is nothing wrong with Haidt’s delivery either.
[5] Discrepancy between what a word does mean and what it could mean is the very soul of verbal humor, puns especially.
[6] The best-known French view of “French-ness” is that it is a cultural commitment. The French don’t care what you look like, provided that you sound French and live out the central French cultural commitments. That is, of course, the part of the contract that Muslims stumble over. Laïcité, the word the French use for their commitment to having a secular state, is right up there with liberté, égalité,and fraternité.

Posted in Political Psychology, Politics, ways of knowing, Words | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A chair with four legs

This morning, I had an “If you build it, he will come” moment. It was in the shower, where I normally hold the team meetings.[1] I don’t want to say I “heard” these words; I’m not entirely sure how I got them. I did understand them immediately, however, and today I’d like to tell you what I understood. [2]

The words, “Jesus is presented to us sitting on a four-legged chair” showed up in my chair 6mind during this shower. Things like this have happened before, so I wasn’t startled by it and I didn’t rush out of the shower to write it down because I knew I would remember it, like Poincaré’s Conjecture, which came to him as he was getting on a bus and which he didn’t bother to write down until the end of the trip. [3]

So I’ve established that the “mode of delivery” was a little on the odd side. Now I have to tell you that the content of the delivery is pretty ordinary. It matters to me mostly because of the views it excludes—which is not very generous of me—but I also don’t want to deny that it is true about me.

The positive meaning of this statement is that the Jesus to whom we have access in the gospels is presented to us simultaneously in accounts that differ from each other in much more than fact. They differ in intention, in narrative structure, in vocabulary, and in christology. [4] They cannot be reconciled and organized as a single account. [5]

This is bad news for people who want to think of the gospels as journalistic accounts of the life of Jesus. We would think it odd if a major public figure appeared at a well-known public place to give an address on foreign policy and the major national papers disagreed in their accounts of who the figure was, where he or she spoke, and what was said. That would puzzle us because we know what the presuppositions of journalism are and we know that these differences are contradictions. Properly speaking, if one is true, the others cannot be true.

And that is why it is important to understand that the accounts we have—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John— of the life and ministry of Jesus are not journalistic accounts. They are more like sermons with extensive footnotes. The point of coherence, the notion that each of the gospels is organized around, is that the life of Jesus was a wonderful event, well worth hearing about. In each gospel, the stories Jesus told and the miracles he worked and the arguments he got into are grouped around the writer’s notion of who this Jesus was and why it is important to know about him. Those differ considerably among the authors.  That is why the instances they offer in support of the meaning each one holds to be central, don’t fit together. How could they fit together? They support different narratives.

chair 5Raymond E. Brown, the Catholic scholar whose lectures and books are very likely the ultimate source for whatever it is that happened in my shower this morning, has a different image of this unity and multiplicity. He imagines that the life of Jesus is like a jewel, whose multifaceted beauty cannot really be fully appreciated until it is seen from all sides. One facet is featured as you look at it from this side; another facet when you look at it from another side. (An-other side, not as we often say today, “the” other side.)

I like Brown’s notion that seeing the jewel from different sides allows us to appreciate different elements—different facets—of the complexity. So, to simplify the notion dreadfully, the Jesus that Mark gives us is a facet with its own beauty, while the Jesus that John gives us is another facet and has another kind of beauty. I like the idea that one kind of beauty is not at war with another kind of beauty.

On the other hand, I keep running into people who look at the whole matter very differently and I think that is why the notion of the four-legged chair appealed to me. It makes a very ordinary kind of sense that if a chair is built to have four supports and its stability is designed with that in mind, taking away one of the legs will present a problem. The unwary person is quite likely to fall from such a chair. Even a wary person will have to have pretty good balance and muscle tone and will have to continue to be alert. I’d think that would get tiresome.

So the notion of the gospels as a four-legged chair—a chair that can support the weight of Geneva. Chair, symbol of prohibition of personnel mines and cassthe significance of Jesus—is a little more aggressive than Brown’s notion of the multifaceted jewel. When, in Brown’s metaphor, you don’t appreciate all the facets, you miss part of the beauty. When, in Hess’s metaphor, you don’t use all the chair’s legs, you get dumped unceremoniously on the floor. So, this notion that came to me this morning is a notion with, as they say today, “an attitude.” It is a response to something.

So it has, as I said in the beginning, a positive meaning. But then this other side, the part about getting dumped unceremoniously on the floor, is a more negative side. The negative side of this image reflects both the times I have seen the gospel accounts abused and also the times when I have been accused of abusing them.

I don’t want to claim that I am innocent in the matter of this event in this morning’s shower. If I hadn’t wanted it, it would not have come and if I had not delighted in it, I wouldn’t have remembered it. But I did. And I did. And this is the story.

[1] I run over the plan for the day while I’m showering and the various parts of my body who hear they are going to be called on to do something, instruct me on the modifications to the plan they will require. Some days, there is very little similarity between the play I first called and the play we actually run.
[2] I know this sounds uncanny, but that’s mostly because the content of this one was religious. Of the few of these “events” I have experienced, most have not been religious. In fact, the most recent such event was the announcement that a pun I had been working on for most of a year, off in the shadows of my mind, was finished and I could pick it up whenever I had a free moment.
[3] The crucial idea came to him as he was about to get onto a bus, as he relates in Science and Method (1908):”At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformation that I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-euclidean geometry.’
[4] And in many other ways. That last difference might seem arcane, but it only means that who Jesus is and how we know about him, are presented differently in the four gospels. That would be an unremarkable thing to say if it were not also true that sometimes scholars seize upon one perspective and seek, by privileging that one, to falsify the others.
[5] Long before I learned that this was a project many centuries old and a project the church had rejected, I tried it myself. I couldn’t do it and my failure was at so many places that I simply concluded that it couldn’t be done. Later, when I read that it was the church’s view that it also shouldn’t be done, I felt better about it.

Posted in Biblical Studies | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why am I doing this?

I would like to thing about two questions today. The first is “WHY am I doing this” The second is “Why am I doing THIS?” I want to think, in other words, about motivation and discernment.


A motivation is what moves you to act. It was simpler once. I remember when we used to be “moved to action.”[1] Then we reasoned that there must be some internal gadget that did the moving so we invented “motive” and then when a “motive” was present, we “had” motivation.

One of the questions that has interested psychology for a long time, and that now interests political psychology, is what that little gadget is. We understand that there can be reasons for acting that do not precisely begin from within oneself. [2] We speak, ordinarily of “intrinsic” motivations if we provide the reward for the action ourselves and “extrinsic” if someone else provides them.

motivation 1You would think that a rewarded action would be more likely to be repeated than an unrewarded action, and that is certainly true, but how on earth would we know whether an action was rewarded? In the neighborhood where I lived for a long time, there was an old man who walk around with rubber gloves and a plastic bag and picked up trash. It wasn’t his job. He wasn’t paid for it. So far as I know, he wasn’t thanked for it very often. Was his action rewarded?

When we say an action was “rewarding,” we ordinarily refer to intrinsic motivation and when we say “rewarded,” to extrinsic motivation. Odd, isn’t it? So what happens when people who have found a practice—teaching middle school, for instance—to be rewarding, are suddenly” rewarded” for it? According to every study I have ever seen of it, performance declines.

Since all the studies seem to find the same thing, I’m going to skip over what happens and move right to why it happens. My favorite explanation is that the answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” which is a crucially important question, gets muddled. Before I was “rewarded” for it, I “found it rewarding.” The answer to the crucial question was, “Because I like it” or “Because I value it” of even, “Because it has to be done and I am here.”

I ask the question and derive the answer from the nature of the work or the presence in my mind of the meaning and value I find in the work. You might think that just adding extrinsic motivation to internal motivation would make it twice as strong, but it doesn’t. It is more like dumping one radio signal on top of another, so that you can’t be sure just what you are hearing.


I am going to use “discernment” in the modern sense of being able to tell what to do or what is worth doing. [3] Interestingly, “discernment” is a fact that can be deduced from outcomes. It would be nice if it were like the cartoon light bulb that turns on when you get a good idea (and sometimes it is) the that is not a reliable indicator.

Generations of experiments in social science laboratories have demonstrated that students can learn “how to win at this game” with no idea at all of what they are doing that works. You can watch a student get better and better at playing this game; the scores go up and up. But when you bring a new player in and ask the experiences player to explain “his technique,” it turns out that he has no idea.

Well…he does have an idea. That is why he can continue to achieve the high scores that eluded him when he was new to the game. But he doesn’t have access to that idea. It raises the question of what we mean by “he” or “she” if the player “has” the understanding in one sense and not in the other. She can do it consistently, but she doesn’t know what she is doing.

Let’s go again to the question of where this learning comes from. Imagine that the experimenter is guiding the student’s choices so that she makes better choices than she would otherwise. The early scores would no doubt be higher, but that isn’t why they play the game. The process by which the student is rewarded for the choices she makes—they are shown to be correct and therefore, in terms of the game, valuable—needs to be immediate and internal. The student will not learn, otherwise, “what works;” only how to get high scores.

If discernment—separating the good from the bad—is going to become a stable strength, the determination of what is good has to have some relationship with the choice she has made. Following the (very good) advice of the experimenter will not do this, of course. The glow of getting it right and the sting of getting it wrong will be mediated by the experimenter and therefore denied to the student.

So intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation over the long haul and unmediated feedback—deriving directly and immediately from the task at hand—is better than mediated feedback. Again, over the long haul.

Adulthood [5]

So what does this mean for the staple virtues of our time, like “good advice.” Good advice is mother’s milk. It’s exactly the right thing at the beginning. And just as a baby needs to be [4] weaned from breast milk, so he will need, later to be “weaned” from baby food, and, still later, from junk food.

Every one of these transitions will benefit from the intervention of someone who knows when (there is the harvest metaphor underlying discernment) to wean the young person away, and to what. You can “import” motivation and good judgment from an external source at the beginning and that is, without question, the best way to do it.

But then you need to get rid of the external source because when the immediate feedback that intrinsic motivation and personal discernment require and only impeded by external sources. Really? What about really really good advice? Really really good advice is terrific at the beginning. It can provide the reason (motive) for doing something that would not be there otherwise; it can provide the judgment, (discernment) that would not be there otherwise. But then it needs to stop so that the immediate (that means “not mediated”) process can proceed.

The crucial question will always be, “Why am I doing this?” and the right answer will always be “Because I am choosing to.” And then, “Is this the best thing to do?” and the right answer will always be, “I feel really good about it and it works.”

Both of those answers require that the effects of the actions be clearly perceived and judged by the agent, the person acting, not the counselor or the parent or the coach. Doing it because the coach wants you to id not going to work over the long run. It is mother’s milk. And doing what the coach tells you to do is not going to work over the long run. Only the agent can tell in the immediate situation what works and what does not. That too is mother’s milk.

So pay attention to how it feels and to what works. Then do that. When you are doing it wrong, you will know.

[1] Very straightforward. The Latin motus (look familiar?) is the past participle of the verb movere, “to move.”
[2] Although it isn’t as clear as one might think. When someone says, “Do this or I will whip you,” you could say that the whipping is an external motivation or you could say that the desire to avoid a whipping is an internal motivation. As complicated as it might be, it doesn’t seem to confuse us.
[3]The Latin is dis = apart and cernere, “to separate,” so fundamentally, to be able to tell motivation 4one thing from another. It’s a harvest metaphor, so if your mind runs to separating wheat from tares, you are thinking along some very old lines. Also you were raised reading the King James Bible.
[4] The curious thing about the word wean is the missing prefix. The Middle English awenian, “to wean away” gives the whole picture. The root wenian means to desire, to attain, to be satisfied.” The the privative prefix a- means “away.” And when we are not actually talking about weaning a child, we often say “to wean away,” including both parts of the idea. It means to be satisfied “with something else.”
[5] I’m just playing. We get the English “adult” because it is the past participle of adolescere, “to grow.” And it might seem that in turning to growth, we are moving away from the weaning metaphor. But not really. It turns out that adolescere, “to grow,” is derived from alescere,” to grow up” and that alescere is a development of alere, “to nourish.”So adult, the past participle, marks the end of the nourishment process and is still very much a part of the weaning metaphor.

Posted in Getting Old, Living My Life, ways of knowing, Words | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A woman’s right to choose her own feminism

In Season 3, Episode 14 of The West Wing (Night Five), a temp named Celia Walton is working in the White House. Celia is what I think I am going to call a Hillary Clinton “kind” of feminist [1] She objects both to the way Ainsley Hayes looks—she was called back to the White House from a concert—and to the way Sam Seaborn comments on Ainsley’s outfit. Here’s the way the crucial part of the exchange goes.

Ainsley Hayes: I don’t think whatever sexuality I may have diminishes my power. I think it enhances it.
Celia Walton: And what kind of feminism do you call that?
Ainsley Hayes: My kind.

Celia takes for granted that “feminism” comes in several kinds and that she will recognize them when she sees them played out. Nothing she has seen from Ainsley that night identifies what kind of feminist she is. That’s why Celia is puzzled and I am sure Ainsley’s answer doesn’t help her because it not only doesn’t answer the question as asked, but undercuts the basis of the question entirely.  Ainsley looks a lot better than this in this episode; this is the closest I could come. You get the idea.

This longer excerpt gives you the setting of the two line exchange I used as an introduction.

Celia Walton: If you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.
Ainsley Hayes: I’m sorry?
Celia Walton: I said, I’m surprised you’re willing to let your sexuality diminish your power.
Ainsley Hayes: I don’t even know what that means.
Celia Walton: I think you do.
Ainsley Hayes: And I think you think I’m made out of candy glass, Celia. If somebody says something that offends you, tell them. But all women don’t have to think alike.
Celia Walton: I didn’t say they did. And when someone said something that offended me, I did say so.
Ainsley Hayes: I like it when the guys tease me. It’s an inadvertent show of respect I’m on the team, and I don’t mind it when it gets sexual. And you know what? I like sex.
Charlie Young: Hello!
Ainsley Hayes: I don’t think whatever sexuality I may have diminishes my power. I think it enhances it.
Celia Walton: And what kind of feminism do you call that?
Ainsley Hayes: My kind.

feminism 1“My kind” is an answer that rejects the notion that there are a few recognizable kinds. And that brings us to the question of how important “kinds” of feminism are. For that, let me take you to Emily Bazelon’s conversations with women in Pennsylvania after Hillary had lost the 2016 presidential election and had, in fact, lost the whole category of “white women.”

This excerpt is a part of Bazelon’s conversation with Palma Frable of Moscow, Pennsylvania and her daughters, Abigail and Lauren. I added to this last January with a post entitled “Hillary and the “Women’s Vote” in Pennsylvania,” which you can also see here if you would like more context.  Here is part of Bazelon’s summary:

Frable also admires Ivanka Trump and felt she was one of the campaign’s “top three assets.” She sees Ivanka as a role model for Abigail in her own entrepreneurial interests. It’s not Hillary’s “Gloria Steinem feminism,” as Frable put it, that she values. It’s Ivanka’s sleek version of female success, which commentators have labeled “commodity feminism” — branding to sell products.

Right away we see the “kinds of feminism” emerge. Moving past the efforts of the suffragettes, who made “women” a constituency worth a politician’s time, the first modern feminism is associated with Gloria Steinem. Pamela Frable associates Hillary’s public stance, both what she says and how she represents herself, with Steinem’s “kind” of feminism and she doesn’t like it.

feminism 2But there is another kind of feminism, which Bazelon says commentators have labeled “commodity feminism.” [2] I have more commonly heard it called “lipstick feminism.” It is another “kind” and it is the kind Pamela Frable likes. She seems to have put Hillary Clinton up against Ivanka Trump as alternative visions of where this nation might go and to have chosen Ivanka.

Once again, Ainsley’s designation “my kind of feminism” loses out.

But there is another reason I called Celia a “Hillary Clinton kind of feminist” and it shows up in another part of Bazelon’s conversation with the Frables.

All of this [Trump’s wish list] matters far more to her than anything Trump said about women or was accused of doing to them. Anyway, given Bill Clinton’s history, how can Hillary complain?

“I have disrespect for Hillary for not doing more for herself, not standing up for herself with him,” Frable said. “That’s more damaging than goofball words Trump came up with.”

However Frable thinks of feminism—and this is not the lipstick variety–Hillary’s behavior does not represent it. How can a woman who put up with a philandering husband expect the support of women? Hillary did not “stand up for herself,” as Frable sees it, and thus is no model for herself and her daughters.

And besides that:

“I’ve been paid the same as men, I’ve managed men,” Frable said. “I’ve not had any trouble working with men.”

So as Frable sees it, she has passed the feminism test that Hillary failed.

Two Dilemmas

This, finally leaves us with two dilemmas. Hillary’s legacy is the first one. She could be seen as an early feminist; a pioneer feminist. She faced challenges no woman of her era had ever faced. She used the earlier successes of the feminist movement as her guide and added new experiences and new successes to it. Frable might very well have said of her experience as a workplace feminist, “I have succeeded because I stand on the shoulders of the giants of the movement who preceded me and who made my success possible.” She could have, but she didn’t. She saw Hillary’s kind of feminism—Celia Mason’s kind of feminism—as outdated and unnecessary. Especially when an attractive new “kind” of feminism (Ivanka’s kind) is available.

The second dilemma brings us back to Ainsley Hayes. She too is “post-Hillary.” Not only that, she has rejected Ivanka’s “kind” of feminism and every other “kind” of feminism. Ainsley might have said that the day when there are recognized kinds of feminism has passed. That might have been necessary for the pioneers, but today, every woman is free to invent her own approach and free, also, to call that approach, “feminism.”

The word, in other words, ceases to have meaning in the sense that it identifies some behaviors as falling within the category and others as falling outside. For Ainsley, the day of “categories” is over.

So what does that mean for feminism? It’s hard to say. If feminism allows women to feminism 3recognize some women as feminist and others not and also to claim women who are pursuing that understanding of feminism as sisters, then it will continue to be powerful as a movement. “We” will refer to “other women who are feminist in the same way I am.” There is no reason to refer to the approach of other women as “wrong,” only as misguided. “We,” my sisters and I, can show them a better way. I think feminism as a movement will require distinctions that function in that way.  If the women in this picture call each other “sister,” the movement model will continue to be powerful.

Or, alternatively, maybe Ainsley is right. The day of “kinds” of feminism is over. Every woman today is the beneficiary of feminists who have gone before her; she is also free to choose her own path and to call that path “feminism.” There are no more “kinds.” If I call it feminism, it is feminism. That makes Ainsley’s answer to Celia the perfect post-movement answer: “What kind? My kind.”

There is nothing about this imagined end to the “kinds” of feminism that means women cannot continue to work for broad economically defined goals, like equal pay and generous maternity leave, the kind that does not sacrifice the post-maternity career. But these are economic goals and the goals that are dealt with in these examples are cultural goals; they are goals that raise questions of personal style.

If that is where we are, then “a woman’s right to choose” has grown to include her right to choose her own kind of feminism.

[1] There’s a good reason for the quotation marks around “kind” and also for introducing Hillary Clinton into the discussion.
[2] I’ve never heard the term. I get it. It’s a play on the Marxist notion of “commodity fetishism,” which makes it both a clever play on words and a refutation by obscure reference, which is certainly the easiest kind of refutation.
[3] Ginger, (Kim Webster)who is seated at the desk next to Celia tosses in, “I call it stiletto feminism,” which is even more provocative.




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Tolerance as position and direction

June 6

I want you to picture a scene in which a really dumb guy is having his picture taken at the edge of the cliffs of Moher. “I can frame this picture better,” says the picture taker (probably a secret enemy, depending on what kind of movies you are used to seeing) “if you woulIMG_0088.jpgd just take one step back. No…one more.” At that point the dumb guy takes that last step back and falls backward off the cliff and dies (saying something funny or something pathetic, depending on the kinds of movies you are used to seeing).

If the dumb guy had asked, “How far back should I go?” he would have saved his life. But then, if he had asked that he would’t have been so dumb after all.

So what’s the difference between those two orientations? One is a direction (“one more step”) and one is a location. There is no way to criticize a direction without reference to a location. You can’t say that tightening up your belt is a good thing unless you know how tight or loose it is now. “Tighten it up” is a direction entirely innocent of location. You can’t say of a direction, “…but it’s too tight now;” nor can you say, “…but if I do that, my pants will fall off.”

Those crucially important protests require a location.

Now let’s talk about tolerance. The idea that some things should be “tolerated” [1] is a ditolerate 6rection, not a location. We are admonished to “be more tolerant” as if tolerance were a good thing all by itself. Obviously, it is not. There is such a thing as too much tolerance, just as there is such a thing as too little.

So “we should be tolerant” is a meaningless admonition. What is it we should tolerate? How long should we tolerate it? This is all obvious is you are willing to take the belt as the master metaphor. “Tighter” and “looser” (directions) make no sense at all by themselves, while “too tight” and “too loose” (locations) do make sense.

The person as agent

Then there is the question of the agent. Just who is it who is being asked to be more tolerant? Is it a person, as in “You should be more tolerant,” or is it society as a whole [2] as in “We should be more tolerant?”

I have treated this question so far as if the content can be filled in later, but most often in the U. S. today, the context of social morals or religious beliefs or immigration is presumed. Someone who thinks we would all be better off if we followed more conservative moral guides or had more orthodox (Christian) beliefs or had fewer unassimilable immigrants will be urged to be more tolerant.  This person will respond by saying that those who are criticizing him are too tolerant already.

Let’s follow the tolerant person case first. The belt metaphor leads us to tolerate 1ask, “How much more tolerant should I be?” Or, to revert to the “carry” meaning of the Latin source of “tolerate,” how much longer must I carry this burden. (Or, alternatively, how much heavier a burden should I carry.)

I don’t remember ever hearing a good answer to this question. [3] I have heard, “It won’t be as onerous as you think.” I have heard, “It’s the right thing to do and whatever the costs to you, they should be paid.” I have never heard, “I think it would not harm you to be a little more tolerant, but not too much or the costs will begin to escalate.” That sounds like something a friend might say; maybe a counselor.

Society as agent

Maybe things will be better if we look at society as the agent, as in “we” should be more tolerant. “How much more tolerant should we be?” is one of the two questions that come immediately to mind. “Tolerant of what?” is the other.

The laws we have are instructions about what kinds of things we should not tolerate. This is played on by people who say of an action that is challenged, “It’s not illegal.” There are widespread conventions that urge against things that are not illegal but that are, nevertheless, said to be wrong. No one argues that we should be tolerant of those things although, considering direction only, there is no reason we should.

tolerate 3For a society, the question worth asking is “What will happen to society if we tolerate this?” And one possible answer is that it will lose its ability to function. Societies are ongoing propositions. They need to be affirmed and supported and criticized every day and when any of those things fails, the future of that society begins to dim. It is that perspective that Aristotle has in mind in the quote I am showing here. When people withdraw from society as if it will run itself, the society begins to come apart.

This brings us to the belt metaphor one last time. A society can be too tolerant if it tries to carry things too heavy for it and collapses. We will say it is too tolerant if it tolerates the wrong things. We will be wrong, but you get the idea. A society can be too intolerant when it does not carry differences it ought to carry. People will leave such a society if they can or subvert it by opposition either overt or hidden. That society isn’t going to make it either.

I think we would all be better off if the question of how much we can afford to tolerate were brought to the front. People who are already committed to the intolerance of something or other (race, sexual identification, dangling modifiers) will not want to be asked just how much is too much. And, as a matter of fact, there will not be a certain answer to the question.

But I am quite sure we would all be better off if we asked it.

[1] Literally, to be “carried,” from the Latin verb tollere, “to lift up.” Ordinarily, we say things can be borne (or not) and I think the archaic form (bear instead of carry) masks what it costs to carry it. If I said, “How long do I have to carry it?” it would tie back to the cliffs of Moher instantly.
[2] Or any organization within a society. A church might, for instance, decide that they should be more tolerant or less tolerant.
[3] Trying to remember. On the other hand, I’ve had this question in mind for less than 15 minutes.

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At least cursing the darkness is a systemic response

My friend, Bill Teague, is a pastor and a husband and a father and a really good guy. Also a blogger. Abusing the prefix e- in a way I have enjoyed since he first started doing it, he calls the blogs he writes for his congregation in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, “e-pistles.” How cool is that.

candle 1On June 2, Bill led with this cartoon and a sustained argument against “darkness cursing.” I feel a lot of the same things Bill feels, but when I read the column, my mind went off in a different direction. So, with my thanks to Bill for a good column, I would like to pursue that other direction this morning.

As you may have gathered from the title I chose, I noted that the darkness is a general and systemic condition.  Lighting a candle is a personal and episodic response.  The candle might help you and yours as long as the wax and the wick hold out, but after that, the system reasserts itself.  Lighting a candle is temporary in the same sense that Wiley Coyote’s levitation is temporary.  Once he notices that he has run out of cliff, he plummets the way a heavier-than-air body should.

So it struck me as I read the title of Bill’s blog that the “alternatives” presented werecandle 2 private and public.  And when I had gotten that far, I heard George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” speeches (one in accepting the Republican nomination and one in his inaugural address) in which he advocates private activity rather than public (political) activity.  Or possibly local rather than national.

I’m going to complain in just a little bit that there is no reason to thing of these two responses as mutually exclusive, but staying a moment longer with one or the other, we could ask whether lighting candles is ever going to get the lights turned back on. [1]  If the issue we face is that is dark and we need to continue the game until the last hand has been played, candles are more than adequate.  If you need a candle to find the fuse box, it will serve that purpose.  If the landlord has turned off your lights, you might need a candle to find the phone or maybe your collection of spray cans.  If it is dark because it is night, you might just as well go to sleep.

On the other hand, there is no reason why you couldn’t light the candles and curse the darkness at the same time.  I suggested above that there was no reason the two responses needed to be mutually exclusive.  Now I want to go further and say that in many cases, they are natural partners.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last forty years thinking about the relationship of public to private problems.  I once taught some students who, in another class in another department long long ago, were unacceptably touched by a professor.  Every one of those young women chose the “light one candle,” that is the private episodic approach.  That spared the women who were good at it; it didn’t do very much for the women who were not good at signaling their displeasure.  It did nothing at all for  the women who would be in that class next semester and the semesters after that.

Each of these women understood that the professor was taking advantage of her (the candle situation) but when they learned that he was taking advantage of several of them and that it would continue on into future terms, they decided that the circumstances (the darkness) was what needed to be addressed.

The professor (and the administration which may or may not have known what was going on) were not formulated as the problem to be dealt with.  It is not a general problem, like the darkness.  And it is their problem, theirs as a group, not an isolating problem experienced one woman at a time.  They became, to use a term that is dear to me, “the community of the problem.”  That means more than that they all faced the same situation.  It means, in addition that they had formulated it as the same problem, a common problem, and in doing that, they because a resource for each other.

candle 3I am loading these examples in favor of cursing the darkness, but if cursing is all you do, it is even less effective that lighting a candle.  The question the private response/public solution formula gives us is this: what do you do if the only meaningful resolution of the issue is systemic.  No changes, in other words, that are less that systemic will help.  Unless something like this assembly of candles means something.

If the problem is how the system acts–the climate as a system, the forest as a system, the loss of trust in a social system [3]–private and episodic responses are not a good response unless they build toward a social response.  And sometimes they do.  That’s why I said there are circumstances in which they are natural partners.  When the lighting and the cursing lead to a group of angry citizens who can see what they are doing, some really good things can happen.  Even some systemic things.

So, finally, with one more apology to my friend Bill Teague, whose essay started me off on all this, it is possible to conceive of “one candle” as one step toward a systemic solution.  This step may not make anything better for you in the way having a personal candle in the darkness would.  This small step toward a systemic solution might have no detectable effect at all.  But if the goal is to generate the resources that require the system to change, each small step in that direction, however dim it might seem at the time, is a step toward addressing THE problem, not just your problem, and it is worth doing.

[1]  It matters, of course, just why there is all this darkness.  It matters particularly whether the causes are natural or social.  But there is only so much you can ask of an aphorism, especially after it has been celebrated in a comic strip.

[2]  The administration, confronted by a substantial number of women all cursing the darkness at the same time, summoned the professor and explained to him the realities of tenure in an academic setting.

[3]  See Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.  In a “low trust society,” Fukuyama says, a tax is levied against every social transaction.  Yup.



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A “peace flag” for the U. S.

I learned while we in Ireland earlier this month that the Irish flag expresses a hope forflag peace between Protestants and Catholics. [1] Orange is a color that has been associated with Protestantism every since William of Orange defeated James II at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. [2] Green has represented Irish republicanism since March 7, 1848, when it was flown over the Wolf Tone Confederate Club in the city of Waterford by Thomas Meagher. [3]

I love the idea of a white band representing peace between the parties represented by the other colors on the flag.  I would dearly love to have peace in my country again and I would be willing to propose a flag where red, representing the Republicans, and blue, representing the Democrats, would be kept apart by a band of white, representing peace.  There is the small difficulty that such a flag is currently the flag of France.  This echoes George Washington’s criticism of Betsy Ross’s flag–according the Stan Freberg’s history of the U. S.–“The same as the Brit-ish colors, too.”

flag 2We could try to finesse our way out of it.  Here is the flag of France.  The blue band is on what they call “the hoist side.”  According to my quick review of the flags of the world, there is no flag with these colors in this alignment where red is on the hoist side.  That would make the new U. S flag unique in the very narrow sense of the word, but you would have to look really hard to see which nation is being represented, and that’s not a good thing for a country’s flag. [4]

Maybe we could superimpose the Statue of Liberty on the white band.  That would put “liberty” and “peace” on the same band and would serve as an apology to France for stealing their flag in every but the most technical of senses.

The colors as representations of the Democratic and Republican parties ave very recent as the accompanying chart shows. The names of the parties have been with us for a long time, of course, although Jefferson represented the Democratic-Republican Party and Lincoln the Republican Party. [5]

flag 4If the flag were to represent liberals and conservatives, it would be representing words that have been with us for a long time, even though the meanings of the words have varied with the times. If the flag were to represent left leaning and right leaning parties, it would, again, be using words that have been with us for a long time—since the French Revolution, in that case.

Still, “red” and “blue” are now stable political designations and hope for peace between them belongs in the same league as the hope for peace between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics.

[1] A Wikipedia article uses the word “truce” in place of “peace,” but I think that if we are going to see the flag as aspirational, we might as well go for the more lasting meaning.
[2] Just why we use the word “orange” is a long and twisted tale going back to the name of a water god in southern France. It is too complex even for a footnote, but I recommend Search for “orange” and choose the article called “Words: orange in not only a fruit.”
[3] Green as a color representing Ireland is said to go back to St. Patrick and is supported by the designation “the Emerald Isle” because of it vibrant green color.

[4]  And don’t think you can just change the direction or the order of the stripes.  All those have already been taken, most prominently by Russia.

[5] Andrew Jackson was the first U. S. President to be simply “Democrat.”

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