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The Crooked Heart


Friday, March 21, 2003


I now know who you are and where you're coming from.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

My friend Matt recently blogged about brands, corporate America's buzzword for the oughts. He thinks that if we are to get rid of brands, we need to replace them with more genuine social interaction. However, I think that he's got it wrong, and the problem isn't too little social interaction, it's too much.

When I dress to impress, it's not my friends and family I want to impress. They know me, have seen me sloppy, tired, crabby, and drunk and still think I'm a worthwhile person. My parents will still love me, my friends will still seek out my company, and my classmates will still respect my intelligence even if I went around constantly in frayed jeans and ratty sweaters. But these aren't the only people I meet in a day. There are hundreds of others, whose knowledge of me is limited to a few brief encounters, or what they can glean from my appearance and reputation. It's for these people that I develop "brand me."

People claim that it's shallow to care about the opinions of people we barely know, but I don't think this is true. There are things I want from virtual strangers--help from store clerks, jobs or fellowships from interviewers, dates from attractive members of the opposite sex--that I am much more likely to get from them if they like me. In an ideal world, before we were required to judge anyone, we could sit down and have a few long, heart-to-heart chats and then make our decision. But it's not unfriendliness or alienation that makes this impossible, it's the sheer number of people with whom we have to interact on a daily basis. It's simply impossible to know all of them in any meaningful way.

This, I think, is why we worry so much about surface impressions. It's not shallowness--it's convenience. We can't know everyone we meet, so we categorize them by surface impressions. We know others do the same, so we want to make sure we get put in the right categories. It's the price we pay for living among strangers.
The bombs have started falling, and I don't wish to write much on the war, as so many gallons of ink have already been spilled (or, to reformulate the figure of speech for the Internet, so many megabytes have already been filled) on the subject. But, to state my position for the official record, I do not like this war. I don't think the war is unjust, but this is mostly because I don't know what the words just and unjust mean when it comes to international relations. Neither do I have a problem with the war's legality, since I find it hard to take international law seriously. I'm not even sure the war is unwise. I've heard good arguments for and against, but the truth is that nobody knows whether war with Iraq will lead to more or less terrorism, better or worse lives for the Iraqi people, or greater or lesser stability in the Mideast. The problem as I see it is one of responsibility. In deciding to depose Saddam Hussein, we have essentially made the problem of Iraq our problem. In the eyes of world opinion we will (and should) be held responsible for the consequences of our actions. I'm not so much concerned about the vagaries of war--there will be casualties, there will be damage, this is why they call it war--as the problems of the rebuilding process. What will make the war in Iraq successful is not something we can judge in a month, or even a year. A few show trials and a new constitution to not constitute a stable regime. What really matters will only appear ten years or more down the road, if Iraq is still stable, still democratic, and still not virulently anti-American. What we cannot do is bomb Iraq, set up our puppet, and then leave. But this is what, I am afraid, we will end up doing. And the results, I am afraid, we will not like.

Arguments by analagy are not perhaps the most logically tight. But sometimes they can be illuminating. According to our policy, the Iraqi people are in a situation similar to a child with abusive parents. If we come to free the child by force, and lock up his obviously culpable parents, we cannot then hand the child a hundred dollars and tell him to go be happy. Instead, it becomes our duty to raise the child properly until he can reasonably be expected to look after himself.

Only, the Iraqi people aren't children, making the situation that much more difficult. Either we destroy their established government, give them some aid, and tell them to go be happy, or else we take away their self-determination and autonomy for years. The one makes us careless, the other makes us oppressive. Neither will win us friends.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment essayist, philosopher, and historian is one of my favorite thinkers ever. Consider, for instance, his argument concerning the belief in miracles. In a nutshell, Hume suggests that one should believe a report of a miracle only when it is more miraculous that the reporter should be lying or have been misled than that the events described occurred. Given that we have many past experiences with witnesses who were lying or deceived, and no past experiences of miracles (this, after all, is what makes them miracles--not just that they are highly unlikely, but that they are actually impossible), it makes much more sense to reject accounts of miracles. (This is a highly truncated account. You can read my somewhat expanded analysis of Hume's argument, or read the explanation of the master himself if you want more detail.) Hume then goes on to write:

The Chistian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity. And whoever is moved by faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person which subverts all the principles of his understanding and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

At first reading this sounds like a proof of the soundness of Christianity. That anyone actually believes such improbable events shows that some greater force must be causing this miraculous belief. However, we have just been instructed not to believe reports of miracles, which suggests that we shouldn't belive this report either. Either Hume is deceived (or lying) regarding the existence of people who actually believe in miracles, or else the belief in miracles isn't actually miraculous and Hume is wrong regarding the principles that govern human understanding. But why then would Hume include a statement that demonstrates that he is either lying or wrong? My thoughts on the matter appear in my essay on Hume, but I'd welcome alternate interpretations.

Monday, March 17, 2003

This past weekend I watched Tadpole, a movie that received mixed reviews here and here. In a nutshell, Oscar, the young potagonist is in love with his stepmother Eve, but sleeps with her best friend Diane instead. Oscar's love for his stepmother is a typical hopeless teenage crush, as serious as these things usually are (which is to say not very). While the movie allows the viewer to sympathize with Oscar's teenage angst, it does not let the viewer forget how very very bad it would be should Oscar actually get what he wants. Nevertheless, Oscar's one-night stand with his stepmother's fortysomething friend, and her positive reaction to the experience, creates the feeling that a romance between Oscar and Eve, no matter how improbable, is still possible.

In fact, the movie puts quite a positive spin on the romantic potential between a fifteen year old and a fortysomething. Certainly there's no problem accepting a physical attraction on the part of Oscar for Diane (played by Bebe Neuwirth), nor does it seem implausible that Diane would find Oscar an intelligent and stimulating companion, well able to hold his own in the social and intellectual discussions of his parents' set. When asked to explain her attraction to Oscar, Diane tells Eve that she is drawn to his enthusiasm and passion. Oscar, unlike most of her friends, does not seem tired of life. Oscar, meanwhile, appreciate the wisdom and maturity of the older woman, especially as compared to what he sees as the flightiness of his female classmates. There certainly doesn't seem anything wrong, or even slightly disturbing, in desiring these qualities in a partner. Rather, they seem to be just the sort of things that one should be looking for, and if a fifteen year old and a forty year old can find them together, why shoudn't one encourage their relationship as mutually beneficial.

There are several arguments usually given against these sort of relationships. The first is that all such relationships are inherently exploitative. The older party, being wiser in the ways of the world, easily manipulates the younger party into a relationship, against the younger party's best interests. Though in this explananation it may sound like the manipulation is in itself the source of badness, this isn't exactly true. When an older party manipulates a younger party into doing something in the younger party's best interests we do not call it exploitation, we call it eduacation. If this sort of behavior were of itself wrong, then all parent-child relationships would be exploitative. Thus, the relationship must be what is inherently bad for the younger party. Assuming what you are trying to prove in order to prove it is what is known as a circular argument.

A slightly more sophisticated version of the argument attributes the problem in such relationships to the inherent inequality between the partners. The older partner, by virtue of age, must necessarily be the dominant partner in a relationship. I don't buy this premise (when a seventy year old tycoon marries an eighteen year old supermodel, just who is exploiting whom?) and I also don't buy the assumption upon which it rests--that strict equality is the only possible foundation for a relationship. Similarly, people often argue that too great an age difference means that the two partners cannot possibly have enough in common for a lasting relationship. When Oscar thinks college, and Diane thinks last chance for kids, what will happen to them then? But again this assumes that the only kind of relationships that can be called successful are companionate marriage or marriage-like arrangements, which again seems like an awfully narrow vision of love.

Furthermore, there is the irritating problem of the double standard. If the gender roles had been reversed, one could imagine quite the outcry over glorification of statuatory rape, or even pedophilia. It's all right for a teenage boy to sleep with a fortysomething woman--teenage boys sleep around, everyone knows this, and doesn't expect a teenage boy to be irreprably harmed by a night of great sex. But heaven forbid anyone convince our precious teenage girls to do anything they're not completely sure they want to do. Granted Oscar isn't going to end up pregnant from his encounter (and is also less likely to end up diseased), but given cheap, reasonably reliable protection against these dangers, who does the double standard persist so strongly? Certainly we no longer think that girls are ruined for life once they have lost their virginity.

This may sound callous, but I think it is time we as a society recognize that mistakes, including teenage sexual mistakes, are a part of life. The girl who is convinced by an older man to do something she is not ready to do should learn from her mistake and move on. This isn't to say that we shouldn't attempt to stop situations that are genuinely abusive--certainly such situations are a real danger--I'm just not sure that our current method of stopping them (blanket prohibition, and then enforcement based selectively on gender) is the proper way to do so.

Musings on a transient world.

Amy Lamboley
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