Sunday, January 25, 2009

Make or Break?

Two hours after President Obama delivered his inaugural address, New York Times blogger Timothy Egan characterized sacrifice as "the theme that will carry or break the new president."

Obama is by no means the first American president to call for "a new era of responsibility," nor will he be the last. But on the heels of a disastrous presidency that squandered international goodwill and trillions of dollars by barreling headlong into Iraq, neglected New Orleans, and oversaw a massive financial collapse, rarely has a concept as mundane as responsibility sounded so enticing. It's safe to assume that far more than the 1.8 million Americans who crowded the Capitol on Tuesday are looking to Obama to tell them what they can do to feel good about their country and their future.

I wouldn't be the first to argue that it can be hard to predict exactly where Obama will lead us. Most expect him to be more pragmatist than ideologue. When it comes to sacrifice, the jury's still out.

One of the president's first acts of office was to freeze the salaries of senior White House staff. He's also promised to cut unspecified underperforming government programs. But will he go so far as to curtail entitlement spending (something that 43 would have been more than happy to do if given the opportunity that Obama apparently has)? What are the "duties to ourselves, our nation and the world" that Obama says we must undertake in order to fulfill "price and the promise of citizenship"? And if we can no longer afford to put off unpleasant decisions, how can we afford to borrow and spend close to a trillion dollars on new government programs and tax cuts intended to stimulate the economy?

According to Obama's speech, the American story "has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." This is surely a convenient characterization of our country at a time when people are increasingly forced to make do with less. But I think it's worth taking a second look. Those who prefer leisure over work. Who exactly wouldn't fit in that category?

Isn't the American story - the American Dream - about the pursuit of happiness? Do we wish to be defined by slavery, sweatshops, and modern-day workaholism, or by the fruits of the eight-hour workday - the freedom to spend time with loved ones, go shopping, watch TV, cook, go for a walk, or do whatever else we damn please? Which story motivates millions around the world to seek a new life in these United States each year? Probably the one that allows that there's far more to being an American than toiling for the greater good.

So when Obama lionizes those who "struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life," let us not forget that their goal was not the sacrifice, the price of citizenship, but for us to live that better life. That is the promise of America.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Remind me again who passed welfare reform...

Democrats were none too pleased when President Bush proposed cutting Social Security benefits after his reelection. Will it still be an outrage when Obama tries to do it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

2008 Post-Election Sarah Palin Syntax Sampler

Try saying that that three times fast. No, wait, try saying this stuff:
"When I say that, of course, coming on the heels of an outcome that I did not anticipate and had not hoped for. But this being a chapter now that is closed and realizing that it is a time to unite and all Americans need to get together and help with this new administration being ushered in."

"I don't think anybody should give Sarah Palin that much credit, that I would trump an economic time in this nation that occurred about two months ago, that my presence on the ticket would trump the economic crisis that America found itself in a couple of months ago and attribute John McCain's loss to me."

"Now having said that, if I cost John McCain even one vote, I am sorry about that because John McCain, I believe, is the American hero."
The one and only!

Admit it, you're gonna miss her.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

be careful what you wish for?

I have a pretty sweet job, and I do like living in a nice apartment and having nice things. But I also have fantasies about someday being on unemployment.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Freedom Rocks!

Last September I came across this ad on a subway entrance in midtown.

well i can't argue with that

wait a second this is getting weird

Kids like parties. Parties are fun - you know, hanging out on the beach, playing grab-ass with your friends, raising your fists for some reason... anyway, without freedom, there would be no parties. Zero of them. Therefore, something about joining the National Guard.

Nothing says party like giving up your freedoms to protect them from Sunni insurgents and renegade Shi'ite militias! I guess when (if?) you get back from Iraq, the parties will rock even harder!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Kids Are Too Alright

The AP reports that according to five psychologists, "College students think they're so special." So special, in fact, that they are hurting not only themselves, but society as a whole.

The study's lead author, Jean Twenge, is also the author of the book “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.” According to the Publishers Weekly blurb found on the book's Amazon page,

Twenge argues that those born after 1970 are more self-centered, more disrespectful of authority and more depressed than ever before. When the United States started the war in Iraq, she points out, military enlistments went down, not up.

This argument is of course nothing new. Over a century ago, sociologist Emile Durkheim worried that the excessive individualism fostered by modern society was heightening the feelings of personal alienation that cause depression and suicide. Put simply, "the less one has the less he is tempted to extend the range of his needs indefinitely,” whereas “[t]he less limited one feels the more intolerable limitation appears.”

Twenge would surely agree: parents and teachers pamper young egos from birth, insisting that each child is "special"; a child's sense of entitlement grows when parents are permissive; our culture encourages individuals to pursue the basest of wants and the most far-reaching dreams. Collective discipline has dissipated to the point where (gasp!) kids would rather see themselves on YouTube than in camoflauge.

How to save America's youth from the "misery" of entitlement? W. Keith Campbell, a co-author of the aforementioned article, sounds a familiar refrain.

“Permissiveness seems to be a component,” he said. “A potential antidote would be more authoritative parenting. Less indulgence might be called for.”

At the heart of the "anti-me" project lies a call for authoritarianism and austerity: a limiting of freedom, dampening of desire, and lowering of expectations of personal satisfaction. What's more depressing? The possibility that kids will be disappointed if they find out they can't have everything they want, or teaching them not to want in the first place?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Headline of the Month Club

We have a winner!

Haggard Pronounced ‘Completely Heterosexual’

Thanks to all of the headlines that participated.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Present and the Future

I watched the State of the Union address on Tuesday, but this is about all I can remember:

My fellow Americans,

In these times of terror, our nation is facing its most challenging tests. The sudden and surprising emergence of sectarian violence in Iraq is threatening to thwart our mission. At home, we are more divided than ever. There is no money left for social security. That's why I'm asking Congress to approve the addition of 92,000 troops to our armed forces over the next five years. In short, at a time when we must succeed, many have accused me of failure.

But I do have some good news.

I just saved a buncha money on my car insurance.


I'd like to give a shout-out to Dikembe Mutombo. That guy never got enough credit. Also, the woman who created Little Einstein cartoons and sold her company to Disney. Now she works with the guy from America's Most Wanted to help keep America's babies from being stolen. She truly represents the American dream.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now that it's Oscar time, let's return to the weighty world of the silver screen. Did anyone else notice that in film, 2006 was the year of sexual deviance (and there's more on the way)? I recently saw the delicious Notes on a Scandal ("both characters are utterly despicable," claims the New York Times' Mahnola Dargis of the "predatory" female leads whose "aberrant sexual content" put off the MPAA as well). Definitely the smartest, least afraid of its subject matter, and most entertaining of the bunch (OK I haven't seen Deliver Us From Evil. I did see the preview at least a half-dozen times. That counts, right?).

Then there's that movie about the future that got snubbed, even though all the film types are talking about it: Children of Men. It's true, this is a great movie (holy cinematography, Batman), a dystopian flick about what might happen if the human race could no longer reproduce.

I was reluctant to see this one because I was afraid it would end up being a sappily redemptive story in which humankind recovers its hope and innocence upon discovering that, inexplicably, another child has been born. Fortunately, the tone is so gritty and dark, the visuals so eerily realistic that, at the very least, you'd be hard-pressed to accuse director Alfonso Cuaron of mawkishness. CoM does a lot of things very, very well. Toward the end of the movie, Cuaron drops viewers into a war zone in an extended battle scene shot on handheld camera with incredibly few edits. This scene alone comprises the most powerful anti-war message I've seen onscreen for a long time. Cuaron's portrayal of near-future British society's feverish fetishization of the child (when the youngest human on the planet is murdered, it becomes something akin to a national day of mourning; an office worker's desk is covered with images of kids who no longer exist) isn't so far off from our reality today.

At the outset of the film, I was drawn to our reluctant hero Theo (Clive Owen), who refuses to pay any mind to the apocalyptic panic buzzing (and exploding) all around him. On the other hand, he certainly doesn't display anything that could be characterized as zest for life - that is, until he comes around and has "finally found his reason to keep going" (Dargis again), i.e. protecting Kee (played by the aptly named Claire-Hope Ashitey) and her child. As humanity dwindles away, everyone seems pretty hopeless. Sure, there's Theo's brother who "no longer worries about tomorrow" (J. Hoberman), and whose opulence affords him residence in a fortified tower and the world's greatest art collection. But his accretion of material pleasures comes across as an existence that is just as depressingly empty as Theo's. The only person who seems to have any fun is Theo's toking buddy Jasper (Michael Caine), whose passion for the Beatles and fart jokes is surpassed only by his selflessness (he lives with and cares for his invalid wife - and oh yeah, blithely gives his life to save the child).

But in light of my previous observation about the movies of 2006, here's my Big Question: Where's the sex? Keeping in mind that children have an immeasurably large effect on both our sex and our politics, let me repeat the premise of the movie: the human race can no longer reproduce. The species is about to become extinct. You know that question, "What would you do if the world were about to end?" Not even once do we see a hetero couple fucking with wild abandon. Sex with no consequences. Does that sound like a recipe for despair?

It's fairly ridiculous to state, as Hoberman does, that "Infertility is but a metaphor that enables Children of Men to entertain the possibility of No Future" (here's where I give my own shout-out to Lee Edelman, whose critique of our culture's unyielding dedication to "reproductive futurism" in his book No Future informs this post). Infertility is in fact essential to CoM's conception of apocalypse. This isn't just any old world-ending event: say, your cataclysmic nuclear meltdown or moon-sized meteor strike. Humanity is merely withering away. Without hope for the future, people appear to have nothing to live for today (cue extreme repression, senseless violence, and state-assisted suicide).

In the film's final scene, we discover that, in saving the Kee's baby, Theo has made the ultimate sacrifice. His faith rewarded, as the child - now just as much his child as Kee's, as Kee has named her after his own dead son - is rescued by the clandestine Human Project in a ship called Tomorrow. Do I smell symbolism? The child - and thus the existence of children in general - represents our hope that Tomorrow holds something better for our children, that it will offer them more than we were ever able to enjoy. We make the most difficult sacrifices - and require that our children sacrifice as well - in the hope that our kids and their kids will know a better life in the future.

Intrinsically, what is so hopeless about a world without children? True, we would all have to forgo the joys of childbearing. But how many of us live for this - and only this - experience? What I'm asking is for us to consider that a world without children would also be a world without the endless responsibilities and sacrifice to which childrearing inevitably consigns us. I can't help but notice that there exists the possibility for liberatory - and dare I say, utopian - readings of the CoM apocalypse scenario. What would you do in a world in which your obligations to the future of humanity had been erased? When we're dead and gone, what difference will it make to us who's left?

If the blood-splattered realism offered by CoM impressed anything upon me, it is an awareness that life is awfully precarious. For both the masses living under the boot of the fascist British state and CoM's equally fascist revolutionaries, the figure of the child calls upon all to sacrifice. When we protect the child, we preserve our hope for the future. But what are our own lives worth when we give completely of ourselves for the child and the future that it represents? To me, there's something deeply disturbing about our investment in the next generation. If we are willing to frame the entirety of our politics around children, as we do today; if we are prepared to give up our own wants - and maybe even willing to die - in service of an abstract and unknown future, then how much do we value our own lives, our own pleasures, our own experiences?

A world with no future, with no children that we are compelled to protect, is a world for us, today.

If the world were about to end, what would you do?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


'Tis the season to reflect on the holiday that started as a drag party.

This from Matt Crenson of the AP in yesterday's Boston Globe:

For most of its history, Christmas was a free-for-all, more New Year's Eve or Mardi Gras than the domestic idyll described in Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem, "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas").

The holiday has its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a weeklong winter solstice celebration that featured feasting, drinking, gambling, and sex. Men dressed like women, women dressed like men, and masters waited on their slaves in a raucous reversal of the social hierarchy.

Such behavior was almost inevitable during the weeks surrounding the winter solstice in the preindustrial societies of northern Europe, thanks to what Nissenbaum refers to as a "combustible mix" of leisure time, abundance, and alcohol.

The work of the harvest done, young men had plenty of time on their hands, much of it in the form of long, dark nights tailor-made for mischief. In a world without refrigeration, the arrival of cold weather made fresh meat available for the first time in months. But most importantly, December meant beer. By mid-month, whatever grain surplus their hard summer's labor had produced would have been fully fermented and ready to drink.

In the northern Europe of the late Middle Ages, gangs of young men would engage in "wassailing," a cross between Christmas caroling and home invasion. The gangs would visit wealthy homes, often in disguise, and sing songs that threatened violence if they were not invited in for food and drink.

In agrarian societies, practices like wassailing served as a critical safety valve, giving people at the bottom of the social ladder a release that would keep them in line during the rest of the year.

But with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners didn't want their employees wandering off for weeks of drunken merriment. During the 1820s, after a series of particularly raucous holiday seasons in New York, the city's elite began campaigning for a more restrained, domestic Christmas. Central to that campaign was the tradition of purchasing gifts, especially for children.

'Twas better to receive - or take - than to give. I guess the "War on Christmas" was won quite some time ago.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bob Stops the Bleeding

At first glance, it looks like Herbert's come around: "It is time to pull the troops out of harm’s way."

Well, he's come around in a John McCain sort of way. Quoting McCain on Vietnam, Herbert remarks
No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.
There are better reasons to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq aside from the fact that Americans "lack the resolve" to finish the job. Presumably if Americans were mobilized for war and willing to pay any cost to support the war on terror, the nation's sacrifices would be justified - and Herbert would still be cheerleading.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pouring on the Gasoline "While Iraq Burns"

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has been preoccupied with the juxtaposition of extravagance in the U.S. and carnage in Iraq for quite some time. Two years ago, he accused the Bush administration of “Fiddling as Iraq Burns”: Bush’s second inaugural bash would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” money that could be better spent on the soldiers in Iraq, where “terrible things are happening…and no amount of self-congratulation in Washington can take the edge off the horror being endured by American troops or the unrelenting agony of the Iraqi people.” Instead of raking in the riches, Washington’s crassest class was urged to pour money into the war to provide armor for those serving their country abroad.

In September 2004’s “Bush Upbeat as Iraq Burns,” Herbert hit the common refrain that Bush “never mobilized sufficient numbers of troops,” an irresponsible move that has contributed to the ceaseless “reports of kidnappings and beheadings, of people pleading desperately for their lives, of American soldiers being ambushed and killed, of clusters of Iraqis being blown to pieces by suicide bombers […].”

In his latest, “While Iraq Burns,” (free text here), the inferno rages on: over 7,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in September and October 2006 alone; close to 3,000 American soldiers, as we are well aware, have given their lives; the news coming out of Baghdad continues to be marked by assassinations, torture, and chaos. Given his assessment of the situation in Iraq, I’m sure the liberal Herbert would agree that war is hell. Agitators for peace and the most hardened of warriors have at times found common ground in that premise, and Herbert seems to sympathize with both.

What’s going on stateside this time “while Iraq burns”? Another American army advances on a midnight mission, this one comprised of “gleeful Americans with fistfuls of dollars storming the department store barricades […].” These squadrons of selfishness are perhaps as lamentable as the war itself. “[M]ost Americans,” Herbert sighs, “feel absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for it.”

Herbert’s thinking on the war fits a formula that is all too familiar on the left: war is exalted for the sacrifice that it requires of its participants; the pursuit of pleasure among those who don’t have to – or worse, simply don’t want to fight, is debased. But how can we combat the sadomasochistic fundamentalism that leads people to kill and die without simultaneously affirming desire and personal freedom?

Herbert is frightened by the prospect that we – especially the informed college-age youth representing the future of America who are interviewed in his piece – just don’t seem to give a shit about Iraq. This indifference is particularly troubling if it means that we don’t care about the helpless Iraqis who are ostensibly suffering both because we are at war and because we are not waging enough of a war. (Cutler notes that for Herbert, it’s the elderly, women, children and babies who are worthy victims and objects of our concern; the armed insurgents, apparently, have found a way to speak for themselves.)

While Herbert is jarred by the fact that Americans seem largely uninterested in contemplating “the responsibilities and obligations of ordinary Americans in a time of war,” not once does he explain why you and I should want to think about what the supposedly loathesome Playstation 3-toting, flat-screen TV set has apparently failed to entertain: taking up the “shared burden of responsibility” and “sense of collective sacrifice” that animated the home front during World War II.

Herbert fails to see the contradiction when in the next sentence he adds that “[t]he soldiers in Iraq are fighting, suffering and dying in a war in which there are no clear objectives and no end in sight, and which a majority of Americans do not support.” Sounds to me like a great reason to bring our troops home today. And let’s not forget: ‘tis the season! I’d be happy to support our troops by trading my Pentagon-bound tax dollars for a bunch of gift cards for the soldiers. Why shouldn’t they be able to share the things that we home-front slackers feel so entitled to enjoy not only this holiday season, but year-round?

Herbert’s “liberal” lament for the troops? “They are dying anonymously and pointlessly, while the rest of us are free to buckle ourselves into the family vehicle and head off to the malls and shop.”

In other words, war is hell. Let’s all go down together.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do You Feel a Draft?

"Rep. Rangel will seek to reinstate draft"

Chalk this one up under "reasons I'm not excited that the Dems took back Congress."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ellen Willis

Many have written and will write far more eloquently than I could of the passing of Ellen Willis. On sex and gender, music and television, history and war, and everything in between, Willis was always (and, I'm afraid, may long remain) far ahead of the curve. In her writing and activism, Willis tore through the conventional wisdom that binds the left to conservative values, innovatively and insistently reminding us that culture matters and that in any truly leftist project, freedom comes first. Her pioneering approach long ago cemented her reputation as one of the foremost cultural critics of our time. Willis' books and writings (the most recent of which can be found here) have had a tremendous influence on my own thought and writing. She will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Who Cares?

While one may take heart in the fact that the American public just doesn't seem invested enough in the war effort to let the Bush administration get away with the full-scale war in Iraq that its Right Zionist insiders wanted, what do we make of the fact that even the highest-ranking elected representatives and officials in Washington complicit in the war don't seem to care enough to learn the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites? Call me crazy, but if you're in a position of power and have come out in support of one or another faction's imperialist agenda, wouldn't you at some point bother to figure out the details and long-term implications of their war strategies?

Of course, Jeff Stein's above-linked piece in The New York Times could just as easily be applied to the anti-war camp. "If knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war," as Stein says, then anti-imperialists should think twice before finding common cause with just anyone who opposes the Bush administration's execution of the war in Iraq. At home as well as abroad, the basic question remains: "Who's on what side today, and what does each want?" Perhaps the press and the rival cabals of warmakers have done such a good job at mystifying and oversimplifying the on-the-ground realities - as well as the decisionmakers' motivations, strategies, and designs on Iraq - that they've fooled the public and the powerful alike. I may be more inclined to believe that, for better or worse, most of us just don't care. And that may be good enough for me.

What I want to know is this: How many people who do have an opinion on - or worse yet, a say in - US war policy remain blind to the truly monumental stakes of the project in Iraq?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Think of the Children!

Teenagers are back in the headlines in America. Over the past couple of weeks we've witnessed three more suburban/rural school shootings, one of which was perpetrated by a student. The biggest news, however, has been the ever-ballooning Mark Foley scandal.

As you'd expect, there has been no shortage of outrage amongst the moralists on both sides of the aisle. The Family Research Council issued the following statement, the first half of which has predictably been echoed by Democrats:

If our children aren't safe in the halls of Congress, where are they safe?

Both political parties need to be more serious about protecting children from sexual predators. We need public policy in our country that protects marriage, respects parental authority and aggressively polices boundaries around our children.

Strange, I don't see any FRC press on the safety of kids who are getting shot at school. With all this attention on Foley, he must have done some pretty heinous stuff. Well, let's see. It is now alleged that Foley had sex with a 21-year-old former page, which is of course not even close to illegal (I somehow doubt we'd have to look far to learn that some 50-something Congressmen have had sex with women half their age). But there is that tepid - I mean positively lurid - IM conversation with the former page.

To review: the FRC is arguing that to ensure that no Congressperson ever again engages in a mildly raunchy IM conversation with a kid who wasn't really into it but for some reason decided to play along, we'd better be sure to...bolster parental authority while...aggressively policing boundaries around our children? Wait a second: all this for some bad cybersex? What's going on here?

As I said, kids have been in the news a lot lately. But they're not all portrayed as passive victims of some ravenous predator. The New York Times reports that evangelical leaders "fear the loss of their teenagers." This ain't exactly news, but someone at the Times thought we should all be aware that Christian teenagers and their pastors

say they cannot compete against a pervasive culture of cynicism about religion, and the casual 'hooking up' approach to sex so pervasive on MTV, on Web sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music...They said they often felt alone in their struggles to live by their 'Biblical values' by avoiding casual sex, risqué music and videos, Internet pornography, alcohol and drugs.
At one meeting, youth ministry leader Ron Luce

led the crowd in an exercise in which they wrote on scraps of paper all the negative cultural influences, brand names, products and television shows that they planned to excise from their lives. Again they streamed down the aisles, this time to throw away the "cultural garbage."

Trash cans filled with folded pieces of paper on which the teenagers had scribbled things like Ryan Seacrest, Louis Vuitton, "Gilmore Girls," "Days of Our Lives," Iron Maiden, Harry Potter, "need for a boyfriend" and "my perfect teeth obsession." One had written in tiny letters: "fornication."

Some teenagers threw away cigarette lighters, brand-name sweatshirts, Mardi Gras beads and CDs, one titled "I'm a Hustla."

In short, pastors are finding that while their crusades against secular material culture may work on the pre-pubescents, they're having a lot more trouble keeping teenagers connected to the teachings of the church. The Internet and MTV, fashion and "fornication" all tempt teenagers to abandon their flock for the reckless, individualistic hedonism encouraged by secular culture. But as anyone who's been reading the news for the past few decades knows, moral panic is nothing new. And it's not just the churchgoing kids who are said to be at risk of spinning out of control - and out of the social fabric (although with this Foley scandal swinging into high gear, it's no wonder that today's youth aren't engaged in civic life. Or would we expect the opposite?).

Since the emergence of the teenager as linked to consumer culture in 1950s middle-class America, adolescence "has been both celebrated - as a time of innocence and idealism, a time when all life's choices can still be made - and condemned - as a time of anarchy and hysteria, irresponsibility and selfishness" (I don't have the full citation here but can attribute the quote to Simon Frith).

Adult anxieties surrounding teen independence speak to the relative freedom that young people have come to enjoy as consumers within market capitalism. Kids’ ability to spend time and money in places of their choosing has contributed to a breakdown in the hegemony of adult-supervised space. Today, notes Amy Best in her study Prom Night, "schools have to compete against other leisure spaces (McDonald's, movies, shopping malls, video arcades, and dance clubs) organized within commodity culture" (134). Distanced from the gaze and control of adults, teens in market spaces are encouraged to act as subjects of their own desires in pursuit of personal gratification. In this context, the FRC's comments start to make a little more sense. Protecting children often has nothing to do with ensuring that kids are "safe" (which is itself a loaded term) and everything to do with bolstering adults' ability to regulate youth spaces and behaviors.

What better time to see Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a stunningly smart look at the Motion Picture Association of America's intensely secretive ratings board, instituted during the 1960s to protect the industry from political pressure in an era when creative content was becoming increasingly risqué. Of course, the censorsh-- er, ratings board -- operates under the guise of a benevolent guardian of the nation's youth whose primary task is to "advance cautionary warnings to parents so that parents c[an] make the decision about the moviegoing of their young children."

Dick interviews directors who describe their amazement at learning that initial cuts of their films were flagged with NC-17 ratings not for brutally graphic scenes in which women or queers are the object of extreme violence, but instead for scenes in which these same people are the subjects of sexual desire. Mary Harron, the brilliant director of American Psycho, asserts that the MPAA seems to believe that these sorts of depictions have the potential to pose a significant threat to our nation's social bonds. Indeed, it seems that for an organization like the MPAA, which is charged with "protecting" children and helping parents keep the social fabric strong, there is nothing scarier than portrayals of women experiencing sexual pleasure. Well, that and queer sex.

I'll come back to this later, but first let's pay a visit to The New York Times' David Brooks, who bolsters the FRC and MPAA with some much-needed support. Yes, it seems that Brooks, too, is outraged. You see, enlightened man that he is, Brooks attended the Vagina Monologues a few years back, only to find the audience roaring - roaring! - in approval of a story about a female secretary who has an affair with a thirteen-year-old girl. (I don't know if there's anything funnier than the mere idea of Brooks attending the Vagina Monologues, but it might be the thought of him seething and muttering under his breath, "Who's in charge here?!" as he is swallowed by a sea of women hooting and hollering at the onstage antics.)

How is it, Brooks wonders, that Foley is universally reviled (rightly, of course) for his explicit IMs with a page while women in the VM audience were cheering a far more abhorrent act of depravity (not only did the couple in the story have sex, but the older woman taught her charge "some new techniques" for masturbation)? Borrowing from k, I'd like to note that the characterization of "sexual predators" casts a woefully wide net, including everyone from those who sexually abuse children to those who engage in sex acts with willing participants who in some cases are not even below the law's arbitrary "age of consent" (in D.C., we're talking about "a person who has not yet attained the age of 16 years").

Brooks derides the code of "cosmopolitan culture" that says:

Behavior is not wrong if it feels good and doesn't hurt anybody else. Sex is not wrong so long as it is done by mutual consent.

By the rules of expressive individualism, Ensler's characters did nothing wrong. They performed an act that was mutually pleasurable and fulfilling.

Just so we're all on the same page here: It's the 21st century, it's the New York Times, it's... time to get upset about something that

a) "is done with mutual consent"

b) "feels good"

c) "was mutually pleasurable and fulfilling"

d) "doesn't hurt anybody else"

Are you with me and Brooksie (sorry, channeling Maureen Dowd)? Let's see how he wriggles his way out of complete I-know-what's-best-for-you-and-it's-not-feeling-good authoritarianism and brings us back to good ol' enlightened liberalism. Let it be said that I know and respect a lot of liberals who argue that we should think twice about our own pleasure when it may be connected to the suffering of others. But what's wrong with feeling good if it's at the expense of nobody else, Dave? Why are you aghast that the young girl in Ensler's story was taught to pleasure herself?

[W]hen an adult seduces a child, it tears the social fabric that joins all adults and all children. When a congressman flirts with a page, it tears the social trust that undergirds the entire page program. When an adult seduces a teenager, it ruptures the teenagers' bond with his family, and harms the bonds joining all families.

This older code emphasizes not so much individual exploration as social ecology. It's based on the idea that people are primarily shaped by the moral order around them, which is engraved upon their minds via a million events and habits. Individuals are not defined by their lifestyle preferences but by their social functions as parents, job-holders and citizens, and the way they contribute to the shared moral order.

In this view, the social fabric is a precious thing, always in danger. And what Foley, and the character in the Ensler play, did was wrong, consent or no consent, because of the effects on the wider ecology.

We're not just talking about sex here. We're talking about "a million events and habits" that "contribute to the shared moral order." The pursuit and practice of any individual pleasure that undermines any one of these million habits or roles is like taking a straight razor to our social fabric. In Brooks' world, it is incumbent upon us all to deny ourselves any pleasure that might disrupt the current social order (remind me again when we all signed up for that in the first place?). Remember, your life should never be about what you want - it's about who you are. You're a parent, an employee, a goddamn American! Whatever you're about to do for yourself, don't do it. Think of the children! Sit down. Get married. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots.

Now I wonder why the women in the VM audience weren't as keen as Brooksie boy to judge the women in the story by their "social roles"? The "older code" has served women well for centuries, right? Well, why don't you ask the women who grew up under the boot of the patriarchal code that: requires them to think of a man's pleasure first and always; teaches that their bodies are shameful; values docility and servility; requires mothers to represent and uphold the values of society and the nation; asks that they continually sacrifice their own desires so that the next generation can be clothed by the very same social fabric which they are duty-bound to uphold. The list doesn't end there, but for brevity's sake let's let that suffice for now.

Now why would an audience full of women celebrate the sexual liberation of a teenage girl within the context of a consensual, mutually pleasurable and fulfilling lesbian relationship? Brooks is right - as are the FRC, the MPAA, and a whole host of others - when he worries that pleasure, consensual or not, has the potential to irreparably damage the current constitution of our society. I'm guessing that at least some of the women in that audience don't share these folks' devotion to the social bonds that hold our moral order together. Thank you, David Brooks, for reminding us that those who carry on about "protecting our children" from sex, popular culture, and themselves are usually more interested in preserving their place in the social order than freedom for all.