See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Media

Jesus, Hefner and Joseph

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a piece on Hugh Hefner and the failures of the Catholic Church out in America worth your time even if you, like me, do not particularly care about Hefner one way or the other. I have many quibbles, but here is something Gobry gets absolutely right:

Men will always be drawn to pornography, but only a society that had already been trained in a subconscious, Gnostic contempt for the body and especially the female body, could have responded positively to the Playboy aesthetic. And the training was done by professing Christians, without notable alarm from the church at the time.

Gobry, frames this as a failure of the (Catholic) Church to hold fast important values and letting bad atheists twist ideas. Alas Brother, the rot goes deeper than that. American Christians are active participants in the toxic culture of sexuality, with our own special brand. Let me demonstrate with a little story about Joe.

Joe was once a Baptist minister. He then started to manage pop stars. Here he is talking about his big success:

“Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both. She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” Joe Simpson said.”[1]

Did I mention that Joe is Jessica’s dad?

But this story about Joe isn’t about how Joe is a creep. Joe isn’t even the villain of this story. It’s about how Joe navigated his daughter through a toxic Christian sexual culture that treated her a some cross between Jezebel and chunk of meat.

Joe gave Jessica a pretty ring once, when Jessica was 12. It’s called a “purity ring” which, for those of you who don’t know, is a ring meant to symbolize the wearer’s commitment to chastity, specifically in the form of abstinence before marriage. There is also an odd overlaying culture where young girls take wedding-like pictures with their fathers as a sign of their obedience to his rule until they are given away to their husbands.[2] I don’t know if Joe and Jessica took pictures, but I’ll bet the tone was similar.

Joe tended to move his family around a lot finding work as preacher and Jessica got to sing a lot with Christian Choirs. Well, kind of. See, they didn’t let her have solos, concerned as they were about how improper she was. I mean, it must have been bad, right? Maybe they thought her clothing was revealing or her singing was too Marilyn Monroe-like? No? I mean, it was at least about a coquettish wink or two, right? Well:

[Jessica was] forbidden to sing solos, she remembers, “because my boobs were too big and they said it would make men lust.


Thing is, it gets worse. For us, not Joe. Joe’s Jessica’s manager now, and she got signed on to do an album and tours for a Christian music label! Sure, they got kicked off the tour circuit because of Jessica’s breasts. Sure, the label went bankrupt before release. They still managed to go from there to get her signed onto Columbia Records. Why? Well, sayeth Tommy Mottala:

“She had a great little look and a great attitude, a fresh new face, and something a bit different than Britney and all of them,” Mottola told me. “She could actually sing.”

Ok, that started out a little weird, but it’s the music industry. And they recognized her talent! That she could actually sing would be key to her career and marketing strategy. They would make her the anti-sex symbol! Just talent! So the next step would be to her announcing she was going to remain abstinent until marriage.

Wait. What?

Yeah, that’s more than a little weird. Like the anti-sex appeal thing wasn’t about focusing on her talent at all but some sort of… anti-sex thing. I mean, they sold a lot of albums, so it worked at least. In the short term anyway, before the next album, an MTV marriage, the Dukes of Hazard movie and other signs of total capitulation to using sex to sell.

It’s almost like Mottola, Joe and Jessica were dealing with a culture fundamentally uncomfortable with the female body as anything between Madonna and Whore. One where Jessica couldn’t just be a woman with a body and a voice, but instead one where she was blamed for the urges and failures of Christians who can’t handle their own feelings of lust.

I wonder if Joe thought about that when Jessica, his daughter, wanted to sing a solo but couldn’t because she happened to have large breasts.

I wonder if Joe thought about that when Jessica, his daughter, got married and gave him that purity ring back.

I wonder if Joe thought about that as he shepherded Jessica’s, his daughter’s, career through an industry that treats women as meat with a fast approaching expiration date.

I wonder if Joe thought about that that when he gave that quote I started his story with.:

“Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both. She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” Joe Simpson said.”

I wonder if Joe was trying to say, “my daughter isn’t doing anything to you to provoke lust, that’s you.”

I wonder if Joe was trying to say, “my daughter has the body she was given by God and we have no way to hide it.”

I wonder if Joe would have said, “my daughter has a body and a voice, and God gave them to her, and if you have a problem with it, that’s on you, you toxic latter-day Gnostic heretics” if he hadn’t been stuck in that toxicity himself.

As I said above, Joe isn’t the villain of this story. He’s not the hero either. He is both victim to and enabler of a Christianity that can’t handle sexuality because of their deep inner loathing for their own bodies. A culture that hates and consumes pornography and loathes pornographers almost as fast as they produce them.

God produced us in his image. He made us with bodies and he made us male and female. And if we hate, down deep in our bones, the female bodies he created so much, what does that tell us about our supposed love of God?  And what has it wrought in the Christ-haunted secular society which held up Hugh Hefner, if only a moment, as a champion?


[1] Widely reported, never denied, but apparently in the original GQ interview only on print.

[2] No, really. Although it’s not a “traditional rite” so much as a thing from the 90s abstinenc-only education.


Jeremy Clarkson, Oisin Tymon, and the Disposability of Men

Several of my Facebook friends, along with the rest of the Internet, have been lamenting the death of Top Gear. Top Gear is not actually dead, but it is losing its biggest star in host Jeremy Clarkson. Why? Well, the BBC internal investigator summed it up roughly like this:

Oisin Tymon was the victim of an unprovoked physical and verbal attack [by Clarkson]. It is also clear to me that Oisin Tymon is an important creative member of the Top Gear team who is well-valued and respected. He has suffered significant personal distress as a result of this incident, through no fault of his own.

I find it a little distressing that the investigator had to go out of the way to underline Tymon’s value on top of his innocence. As if he was predicting that people would savage Tymon otherwise. Well, they did anyway. Let’s lay this out using the commonly accepted facts:

1. Clarkson and the rest of the Top gear team were out and about. A hotel was waiting for them. The kitchen staff was kept late to have hot food ready.

2. Clarkson decides to dawdle and drink at a pub for two extra hours.

3. The kitchen staff goes home.

4. Clarkson arrives at the hotel and is told there will not be any hot food and he’ll have to have a cold plate.

5. At this point he physically battered1  and verbally abused a junior producer, Oisin Tymon.

6. The physical attack lasted about 30 seconds with Tymon offering no resistance, but the verbal abused continued afterward. This included offensive language and threats to fire Tymon.

7. Tymon, ” shocked and distressed by the incident” drove himself to get medical care all the while under the impression he had just been fired.

8. Clarkson apologized.

9. Clarkson was told his contract would not be renewed. He is broadly expected to be able to find continued employment as a television presenter for a rival channel.

Aside from the death threat nuts, there are people who are focused on lamenting that Top Gear will be dead to them, or perhaps unbothered by his assault, or urging that his apology should be taken seriously. All in all, a waffling, nuanced take.

Would it have been the same if Tymon had been a woman? (Bracket the very real problem of whether or not women are believed) Look through the facts again: a popular television host batters one of his staffers for failing to procure a hot meal for him. She is verbally assaulted, and fired. The host apologizes profusely but is still fired anyway. He’s still going to have a job.

I think that provokes a different reaction in a lot of people. It provokes a different reaction in me. It shouldn’t.

As I’ve alluded before, I have a complicated and troubled relationship with feminism. I count self identified feminists among my closest friends, but I’ve never called myself a feminist and I shall not call myself a feminist. I have, however, learned a lot from them, and I owe them an intellectual debt for two concepts found in feminist theory: the Patriarchy and the disposbility of men.2 Let me explain the concepts at the rudimentary level I understand them. At the top of a society are a group of powerful, old men. The patriarchs. The fathers of fathers. And they support and are supported by a series of normative assumptions. They control women by placing them in a lower status and primarily restricting their sexual contact and fertility. They control men by controlling access to women, and thereby access to sex, and thereby access to heirs, all while making production of male heirs the path to status and power. And here is the crucial bit for our purposes they make men who have not achieved status risk their lives for it. The archtypical example is sending young men off to die for King and Country with the promise that if they kill enough of the Others, they come back to riches and a sweetheart. Until that happens, until they have the status of the Patriarchs sending people off to die in wars, they are disposable.

Now, I make fun of the capital P-Patriarchy concept a lot, because like all theoretical superstructures, it takes a core insight and quickly falls off the rails. Also, when your in-laws are part of an honest to good lower case ‘p’ patriarchy, the Patriarchy seems like a stretch. But it, along with the disposability of men, are good-enough models3 of examining how the powerful in a society are going to be invested, overtly, covertly, and unconsciously in certain normative assumptions. That, in turn should remind us that we are often invested, overtly, covertly and unconciously in normative assumptions and some of those are going to bite us in the ass. The fact is we’re not bothered by violence being done to men nearly as much as we are bothered by violence done to women, regardless of perpetrator, the disparity happens to be worse when it is cross-gender violence. 

The problem is not that we make too big a deal out of violence done to women. The problem is that we do not make big enough of a deal out of violence done to men. We, and here men are the primary actors in their own maltreatment, have bought in on some level to the disposability of men. Not to the point where we fling them away to die in foregn wars for glory, thank God, but to the point where we cast aside their feelings, their dignity, and their right to hold a job without being battered. We toss their names out of the stories we write about the perpetrators, men with status.

It isn’t that it is wrong to be sad that a thing you enjoyed will no longer be the same. But you should take a moment to remember that there is a real human being, one in a vulnerable position, that was harmed. That has to matter, at least for a moment’s reflection more than your TV show. And if it doesn’t, maybe you should think about why.


Don’t let Columnists Arrogate your Moral Agency

A week and change ago, a group is Islamist militants called ISIS (or ISIL), stormed Mosul, Iraq, conquering considerable land while the Iraqi army fled. ISIS has since instituted brutal and repressive governance, murdered many Iraqis in religio-enthic cleansing, and has declared its intent to wage war in order to destroy rival religious shrines. They are now marching towards Baghdad and may have in fact started a regional war that will be temporally coterminous with a massive spree of ethnic cleansing.

Anytime something horrible happens in Iraq, you can count on the usual suspects saying the usual things and so they have. We’ve had two genres of column filling the papers and the blogs: “why we must militarily intervene in Iraq” and “how can you possibly consider military intervention in Iraq?!?!?!!” Even with the bias of being an interventionist in my heart-of-hearts, I’m pretty sure all of the slaughter creates a natural, even healthy impulse to intervene. I’m reminded of the famous lines of the serenity prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

You’ll note that the call for serenity is not a call for a hardened heart. It may not be wise to intervene in Iraq, but there is a particular cruelty in dismissing the case outright. Read more of this post

Reading (and Paying) the Two Andrew Sullivans

Considering I live in a world where 5 dollar cups of coffee factor into my household budget (or soon will, once the Starbucks in my wife’s office building opens up) a 20 dollar year long subscription to the Dish shouldn’t an issue. Yet, my inner bean-counter is pretty unimpressed by the absurdity of coffee, and demanded an accounting. For those of you who don’t know, the Dish is the blogazine headed by Andrew Sullivan. The Dish relies on two sources of content: a carefully curated stream of the best reading on the web chosen by Sullivan and his team, and original opinion writing by Sullivan.

At the opening of 2008, Alan Jacobs described two Sullivans: a kindly, reasonable and fair-minded Dr. Jekyll, and a ravenous Mr. Hyde, with no patience, tolerance or human decency (my words) for those who disagree with him. I think it’s more useful to think of two Sullivans in the two roles he plays at the Dish: the Jekyll-like editor, a fair-minded thinker with impeccable taste and 50 years of life experience and the Hyde-like writer, an obsessively passionate advocate pounding the table, exactly as he did when he a young man at the New Republic.
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Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility

In these last couple weeks, I’ve been circling around a recurring theme of the complexities of responsibility for evil. When we talk about particular evils that are in the world, the stakes and baggage tends to cloud up our discussions, so I’d like turn to the weightless world of video games as a venue to examine evil and who is responsible for it.

In video game design, there is a lot of talk about designing games with emergent gameplay instead of curated gameplay. Curated gameplay is what most people think of when they think of a video games: game designers provide a top to bottom engineered experience, scripted to suit the beginning, middle, and end of the game’s story. When you play, say, Mario Bros., you run through the same levels, interacting with the same enemies, entering the same castles where your princess is still not available for rescue. Emergent gameplay, on the other hand, occurs when designers create a set of game mechanics and rules, and player interaction with those rules and each other causes complex game systems to emerge.

A particularly interesting example of emergent gameplay occurs within EVE Online, a MMPORG best described as a nightmarish combination of multiplayer Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space! and Microsoft Excel. Within the EVE Online game space there have emerged complex societal and financial transactions, specialized roles, and factions made entirely of players creating their own norms and behaviors, without the benefit of the computerized game to enforce them.1 That’s pretty amazing, but it comes with an enormous amount of bad, anti-social behavior, even virtual crimes. Players will often find their in-game avatars killed for the amusement of other players, have their assets stolen by supposed friends, and a whole host of advanced predation. It isn’t just virtual reputation and blood, sweat, and tears at stake either, virtual in-game cash is sufficiently fungible to turn into out-of-game currency.

The game designers respond to all of this predation by smiling and disclaiming responsibility.2 Perhaps this is disingenuous. After all, the designers of EVE Online chose to create a mostly lawless environment, and then they encouraged players to take advantage of it. Surely then, they have some sort of responsibility for the predators they enable. But, wouldn’t there also be a special sort of responsibility, perhaps even an intervening one, for the predators who take advantage of that lawless environment? Aren’t the designers of EVE Online less responsible for the emergent predation that they could not have foreseen compared to the ones they foresaw or even encouraged?

When I criticized Ta-Neisi Coates’ Case for Reparations, I focused on his vague, even incoherent, description of the reparations themselves. This incoherence stemmed from his treatment of the different sorts of predation he cataloged. From slavery, to redlining by Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to contract sellers, to rogue grand juries to lynchings, Coates never paused to dwell on the diversity of bad actors, treating sovereigns and mob members alike. When the contract sellers preyed on Black families in North Lawndale, was the city of Chicago (or the FHA, or the realtors or…) curating that evil, or did it emerge?3 The Case for Reparations clearly demonstrated that the FHA directly and maliciously harmed Blacks with redlining, and redlining gave rise to an environment where predators thrived. It is not clear however, that contract sellers were cultivated or merely emerged as an unhappy accident.

Emergent evils were at work in a different way during Elliot Rodger’s lethal rampage on a UC Santa Barbara sorority. Rodger was apparently spurred on by his misogyny and frustration with his “involuntary celibacy”. Rodger’s evil was emergent, doubly so. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodger was mad, but his madness filtered through a cultural substrate, colored, glossed, and tweaked by the particular sorts of horrors our society produces at its fringes.4 Just as the paranoid take unconscious inspiration from the news and TV shows to imagine themselves the unwitting stars of reality television, Rodger’s rage was stewed in misogyny and a toxic sort of masculinity. In response to Rodger’s attack on women, many women went online to share their perspectives and experience using the hashtag #YesAllWomen 5 The common thread that emerged throughout the tweets was an overwhelming sense of fear of predation by men. Not all men, but not any particular man or group of men either.

The Rogers of the world are not the fault of Patriarchal video-game-of-life designers using the Rogers of the world as their victim-assailants on women.6 The appearance of such a design is illusory, the result of invisible strands of culture taking hold as they tug, shift, and channel ideas, even with the supposed puppet masters of our society. The commonality of experiences do not indicate a commonality of cause, a conspiracy of predation. To what degree are the Rodgers of the world and other threats to women emergent and what to degree are they curated? That is the sort of question that doesn’t get answered much by those advocating social justice, and while I have plenty of uncharitable guesses as to why, the fairest explanation seems to be that from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

It does matter whether the threats from men described in the #YesAllWomen tweets were emergent or curated, and it matters whether the contract sellers emerged or were curated. Not just because that will shed light on who the villain, if any, of the tale is. If social justice advocates speak for the victims, and lawyers speak on behalf of the accused, it leaves the rest of us as third parties. Paying attention to whether evils are emergent gives an accurate and precise description of the how and why of the problem at hand. If you’re in the business of making the world a better place, an accurate and precise description of a problem puts you a well designed and implemented machine away from solving that problem.

That problem has to be solved. Both #YesAllWomen and the Case for Reparations drove home experiences held in common that have infected the very warp and woof of the daily life of too many people. Emergent evil is not satisfying theory of those crimes, and it is not meant to be. To recognize emergence is to recognize that very few are actually guilty. In fact, emergence can produce good as well as evil, so it also denies us many heroes. But if a theory of emergent evil denies an illusory justice for victims, it does not deny that there are victims. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” Emergence denies guilt, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility.


The Illusion of Accountability

Accountability is a word that gets abused a lot in day to day life. Just in the news last week was the firing – sorry, resignation under pressure – of Secretary Eric Shinseki, just now formerly head of the Veteran’s Administration and before that, a little backwater post as the Army Chief of Staff. Now, I don’t know anything bout Shinseki except what I read, and what I’ve read suggest that most people think he was an honorable and impressive man trying to head a massive bureaucracy with systemic failures accumulating over the decades. Except in the most formal of senses, Shinseki was not at fault for what happened at the V.A., (or even there for the origin of these problems) it just happened to blow up on his watch. This happens a lot, and maybe it’s a good thing. But whether we are normal, everyday people or professional reporters, we have got to stop calling it accountability when the head of an organization is fired, – sorry, pressured to resign – without regard to their actual connection to the events at hand. That’s not accountability, just an illusion.

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Irreverent Bastards and Covers (Part I)

I’m still working on a lengthy meditation on what exactly qualifies as “culture.” It is going about as well as you would expect. The difficulty of writing on such a nebulous topic is made only worse by the constant distraction of interesting ideas and writers I encounter on a daily basis. So, you dear reader, get to serve as my pensieve as I clear a little space up for other thoughts.

I am not, despite my many pretensions, under the illusion I am a musical expert. I am not even a music enthusiast. I am among the very least trained of amateur listeners and that is the way I like it. For one thing, I can enjoy little indie acts on YouTube without thinking too hard about who they are, who they sound like, or how admiting to liking that music will make me appear before my peers. One of those acts is Lauren O’Connell (her YouTube channel can be found here) and it turns out, she also occasionally blogs about the responsibilities of artists performing covers.

Some anonymous person on the internet commented on O’Connel’s cover of “The House of the Rising Sun” thusly

Only masters of music should TRY this song. When you hear Nina Simone and Odetta cover this song. You understand the monster of a song you are trying to play. The Animals, Bob Dylan and Leadbelly have tried and have all failed.

As a musician; I would never play this song. If you can’t make it better, then you shouldn’t even try. Or don’t post it at least.

O’Connell is having none of it

I used to apply that “untouchable songs” rule to myself. However, after several years of covering songs, writing songs, listening to lots of music, and undergoing the occasional artistic crisis, I decided that it’s better to live and work without that particular hangup.

So as you may have gathered, I take issue with the idea that someone shouldn’t even try to cover something that’s previously been done well if they can’t “make it better.” The implication that someone doesn’t have the right to attempt a particular artistic statement is problematic. […]

Fortunately, in this century, most of us don’t have to worry about our works actually being censored by the powers that be. But I think an attitude of censorship within the artistic community might be worse. It’s not about expression being kept underground. It’s about expression never happening in the first place.

I firmly believe that in order to be great, one must first be fucking awful. […]Right now, you should be a cocky, irreverent bastard. […] Crash and burn.

I’m torn between embracing O’Connell’s exhortation of creative daring and the natural caution that some songs and versions cannot, and ought not be topped. As a music listener, I spend most of my time listening to college kids sing a capella, folk songs, and whatever Pandora manages to slip in while I listen to those genres. As a result, I listen to an enormous number of covers, which I of course enjoy. The best are the literate covers that reach back, back in our cultural memory and musical history: popular songs by pop artists get reworked, made different, elevated to something greater than what they are. But even when it is just a bunch of college kids having fun singing the latest pop hit, there is something about the stripped down nature of most covers that I prefer to their high production value originals.

Sometimes, sometimes, you encounter a song that genuinely amazes – a bit of popular music that transcends the hit-making machine that is the music industry. Take Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Adele has what all agree is an astonishing voice, both from the quality of her vocal technique and in the emotional depth of her singing. I can’t even imagine anyone singing Adele’s songs, like Adele, and better than Adele in anyway. If an angel descended from heaven in and opened his mouth to sing the song that fully realizes the Kingdom of God and I heard the first notes of Rolling in the Deep, I’d wince for fear the angel embarrassing himself. Just listen to Adele sing it!

This of course, does not stop artists from trying their very damnedest to cover it, and I’ve heard a lot of attempts to go head-to-head with Adele that fell short. Most of them aren’t bad, but they aren’t great either. I usually feel in some small way enriched after listening to music I enjoy. After listening one of these good but not good enough covers, I feel impoverished. It is in this sense that some music becomes untouchable, and “Rolling in the Deep” seems like as good a candidate for thou-shalt-not-cover as any. Despite everything I just said, one of my favorite covers is John Legend’s rendition of “Rolling in the Deep.” Legend’s voice is glorious and spiritual. Legend distills Adele’s riff on American roots music down, down into a haunting and soulful piece of music. Give it a listen.

Is Legend’s cover a violation of the untouchable songs rule submitted by the commentator? Maybe, maybe not. On one hand it is a cover of a great song that even the most virtuotic singers frequently fail to honor. On the other hand, Legend’s version is different from the original, not merely an inferior copy. His approach to it is not an attempt at imitation of Adele, or to out do Adele, but a lateral interpretation of the music.

Are transformative covers made more likely by encouraging artists to freely cover, imitate, and to be cocky and irreverent bastards? Or are they the product of strong social barriers put up by other musicians around so called great music? Do we want to tweak the mix? How many bad attempts at Rolling in the Deep by college students does John Legend’s cover justify?

As odd as it might sound, this dilemma is made possible by one of the few redeeming features of our contemporary copyright regime. Come back to this space Friday for part II, where we’ll look at how copyright law encourages covers and what this all has to do with free speech.