The Thinking 

Browsing posts from May, 2009

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The Idle Thought

May 29, 2009


The mind longs to roam. We try in vain to keep it running toward a fixed destination. The path across a meadow, a trail through the woods, the rocky descent down a steep ravine: these beckon and it yearns to follow. It wants to remember. To wonder. To wander.
When we speak of freedom of thought, we usually mean the freedom to think certain things, the freedom, say, to argue the claims of the weak against those of the powerful. But, there is another freedom of thought, scarce in a world of political liberties. That is the freedom to think at all.

The act of reflection has lost its rightful place. The stream of consciousness is no longer a stream. No law or program, no frantic pace of living or economic imperatives stopped its flow.

At bottom,  respect for ideas is not itself an idea. Nor does it spring from idea. At the crux of things intellectual is something profoundly different from idea. What is it?



Vital Statistics

May 29, 2009


When President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law earlier this year, he once again fueled the myth that women sufffer from widespread pay discrimination. In truth, there is no serious wage discrimination against women and there is ample reason to believe that the end of customary employment discrimination in favor of men has forced many women into the workforce, led to dramatic declines in fertility and suppressed the wages of men.

Women have been far and away the primary beneficiaries of any gains in real wages over the last 25 years. From 1979 to 2006, real wages of men declined by two percent, while they increased by 24 percent for women. (See chart on median incomes here.)

The differences are the most dramatic at lower income levels, with male high school graduates experiencing drops of 15 percent and comparable women’s wages rising by four percent. Wages for college graduates rose by 17 percent for men and 32 percent for women, as women became more numerous in higher paying jobs.

Economists dispute how much the stagnation of male wages at the lower end has influenced – and been influenced by – employment gains by women. It is interesting to note that employment of married women of high-earning husbands has increased more dramatically than employment of women at lower education levels, where men’s wages have declined.



The Envied Michelle

May 28, 2009

Time Magazine’s latest admiring article on Michelle Obama highlights the wistfulness of American women in an era of triumphant egalitarianism. Michelle is enviable not just because she has all the clothes and servants she wants, but because after years of career, she is now that rarest of all things: a housewife. According to the authors, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Sherer:

After working hard for 20 years, she gets to take a sabbatical, spend as much time as she wants with her kids, do as many high-impact public events as she chooses and, when it’s all over, have the rest of her life to write the next chapter. “I don’t even know what that is yet,” she says, but she’ll have choices then, as she has now, that most working mothers only dream of.

Of course, it is ludicrous to say Michelle is taking a “sabbatical.”  Being First Lady is a job – a difficult and exalted job. Predictably, feminists have complained that she has sacrificed too much of herself for her husband’s career. Apparently even having a president for husband does not warrant giving up one’s job in public relations. How long before we have a First Lady who leaves the White House with a brief case every day?


Sense and Non-Sense

May 27, 2009


A recently-released survey of American employees showed that 41 percent believe it’s better if the “man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and children.” This figure, downplayed by writers of the report as evidence of weak support for traditional roles, is strikingly high given the constant veneration of career women in the press and the historically high numbers of women in the workforce. Many more people than is generally acknowledged lack confidence in the current model for family life.    

Surveys that examine the effects of the cultural revolution of the last 100 years rarely take into account the full significance of the changes, and often blatantly downplay them. This report by the Families and Work Institute, funded in part by IBM, is no exception, presenting with rosy optimism figures that confirm the popularity of the dual-income model. A majority of the respondents, for instance, said that a mother who is employed outside the home can have “just as good a relationship” with her children as a woman at home, implying that the most important thing about the parent-child bond is the personal satisfaction it gives to parents.  

The report confirms the growing feminism of men, but concludes that men still endorse traditional sex roles in higher numbers than women. While 80 percent of the women who responded said working women can have just as good a relationship with their children as mothers at home, only 67 percent of men did.

A staggering 25 percent of women now earn ten percent or more than their husbands, according to figures included in the report. In 1920, less than one in ten married women worked outside the home.



Are Men More Feminist than Women?

May 26, 2009


Feminism is not a “women’s movement.” Women have been its most outspoken and visible proponents, but men have enthusiastically embraced its central ideas and worked to fulfill them.

Men may even be the greater feminists today. Feminism has meant a loss of status, of political power and of earning potential for men, but these are things they have willingly conceded for other benefits. Women have succeeded in ways they never could have imagined in convincing men that the central project of a woman’s life is easy and relatively unimportant.  One of the principle ideas of the feminist interpretation of history is that men are innately threatened by women in positions of power.  Recent history shows this is not true.

Many men complain about the arrogance and machismo of powerful women, or the stupidity of affirmative action, while at the same time accepting and furthering the culture of feminism. Some do so out of respect for women, or what they consider to be respect, and a desire to atone for the sins of their fathers. The past is entirely disgraceful, and the life of the traditional woman a veritable hell. The thousands of years in which women devoted themselves to home, children and community were one long period of barbarity.

Ready sex without marriage is hard to turn down. Obviously, many men approve of the sexual freedom feminism has granted. The ancient dream of a chaste bride lives on, but is now rarely fulfilled.  It’s still a private dream, but there is no widespread, publicly-expressed regret.  There is no visible worry or hand-wringing that working wives have many more opportunities for intimacy with men than traditional women at home.

Men today want their wives to earn money and studies show they often choose wives based on their earning power.  Internet discussions are filled with the testimonials of women whose husbands will not agree to their staying home and caring for their children full-time.

Many of these husbands act out of sincere concern for their families. They sometimes do face near-poverty without an extra income. In many cases, they face not poverty, but a simpler life. It has become difficult for many women to persuade men that their presence at home is worth even considerable loss of material comfort. This is the great immeasurable, the fact that cannot be easily quantified when surrounded by healthy and functioning children from homes run by working women.  Men do not possess the same maternal intuitions, making them all too often the more enthusiastic feminists today.

The candidacy of Sarah Palin showed the extent to which men embrace the idea that a woman’s work at home is a beautiful hobby and nothing more.  Many men, as well as women, consider the life of a woman at home too boring and stultifying for an educated woman. The repetitive, but economically remunerative chores of being a tax attorney or a marketing executive or even a vice president are rarely mentioned. Men need to be more honest about the nature of their support for feminism.  Are they truly concerned about the welfare of women when they trumpet equality?


Radical Compassion

May 20, 2009


It is not so absurd to say, as another television star once did, that Oprah Winfrey is “one of the most important political figures of our time.”  Here is an immensely powerful woman who is in the deadly serious business of remaking America, one heart at a time.  Read on for the second part of a four-part essay on the Oprah-ization of America.

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Adam and Eve

May 19, 2009


Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee Would never from my heart. No, no! I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.
Paradise Lost (Book IX, 908-916)

All famous couples are better understood in light of the famous first couple. We carry within us knowledge of Paradise, as if the bowers draped with vine in which Adam and Eve consorted were our former home. We bring the expectations Paradise has aroused into this lesser world.

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Is Domesticity Dull?

May 18, 2009

People say the domestic life is narrow and stultifying, a prison for the intellect. Feminists have long made this claim.

I guess you could say that’s true, but only if you think human history is boring, the laws of nature are boring, love is boring, birth is boring, children are boring, personality is boring, the mind is boring, morality is boring, death is boring, male and female are boring, sex is boring, illness is boring, kisses are boring, prayers are boring, literature is boring, philosophy is boring, poetry is boring, God is boring, the seasons are boring, music is boring, trees are boring, sunlight is boring, the stars are boring, snow is boring, dew is boring. If all this is true, the home is not what it appears: a fount of ideas and truths, a university and a museum, a laboratory for the curious, a gallery of all that is human. If the home is boring, life itself is a desert.



More on Dust

May 15, 2009

Kristor writes about the foregoing entry:

With respect to dust, I am with Democritus. If anything made of dust is to be alive to its world, then in some way the dust of which it is made must do likewise. Not in the same way, of course; things are alike, but not wholly alike, or they wouldn’t be discrete.

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Dust and Its Implications

May 15, 2009


Dust is pervasive. Wherever you are, dust is silently gathering, a fleck of everything, fragments of nothing, the particulate manifestation of the truth that all things are disintegrating.

Ordinary household dust is rarely considered a subject worthy of consideration. We live in a superficial world. Perhaps we’re secretly dumbfounded by some of the most commonplace things. We just don’t know what to make of them. We’re holding out for explanations that never appear.

One of the most interesting things about dust is its imperviousness to scientific progress. The scientist in his lab may have the illusion of progress. The duster knows this: nature only progresses so much. The world is never cured of dust and no human habitat is without it.

The earliest materialist philosophers may have been sent on their first chain of speculations by the visible clouds of tiny particles they observed while sitting in a room. From there, they may have leapt with intuitive brilliance – before there were any microscopes to confirm their suspicions – to the conclusion that all things are particulate.

Our senses deceive us, said Democritus, the early Greek philosopher who logically inferred the presence of infinitesimal particles, or atoms, in all matter. “By convention, sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.” Even thought is atomistic. Our bodies are composed of thinking atoms. So Democritus thought.

Perhaps it is not crude after all to find philosophical implications in something so common. We can never dismiss a thing solely on the basis of its size. Our thoughts would be the least important things if size was paramount as they take up no space and weigh nothing. They are materially non-existent.

The smallness of dust allows it universal entry. No door or closed vent keeps it away. It gathers on tables and floors, books and computers, under the beds and in the drawers, a powdery fog. Cumulatively it is against order, cleanliness and the efficient operation of machines. Secretly, it teems with hideous and ravenous life, the microscopic household fauna we would starve if we could. We embrace, and particles rise from our clothes and arms.

There is no beauty, not the slightest grandeur, no redeeming charm to dust. And, yet for those of us who have spent a portion of our lives removing dust from rooms, the dust cloth may be, like the microscope to the bacteriologist or the telescope to the astronomer, one essential tool of  our enlightenment.

The Old Testament contains many references to dust, reminders for the most part of life’s brevity. According to Genesis our origins were particulate. 

       “And, the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,
       and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became
       a living soul.” (Gen 2:7)
Cries Job:

    “And wilt thou bring me into dust again?
     Hast thou not poured me out as milk
     And curdled me like cheese?” (Job 10:9)

We were dust and we will be dust again. Viewed in this way, dust becomes companionate. So inert and inanimate, and yet so filled with intimations of one aspect of our own nature.

The inanimate animates us. It fills us with hope. Out of the very ephemera of dust, the idea of eternity rises. Dust draws into sharp relief all that is non-dust.


Bed, Bath and the Beyond

May 14, 2009


It would be impossible to calculate how much the ugliness of modern suburban life has contributed to the flight of women from the home, to lowered fertility, to childhood depression and to isolation for the old. Conservatives aren’t supposed to talk about it. Modern suburbia is prosperous and that’s what counts.

The idea that it is somehow treasonous to explore the wages of free enterprise is inhuman, stupid and cloaked in self-interest. When unchecked, free enterprise creates what the writer Stacy Mitchell calls the “Big Box Swindle,” the conquest of community by large and impersonal business interests. This conquest manifests itself in a thousand ways, but most especially in a level of architectural sterility that demands inner detachment by the individual. In order to survive this sterility, many people psychologically separate themselves to some degree from their surroundings. Community survives in the form of sports leagues, school activities and church, but it is often tenuous and slight.

One tries to live around the ugliness, but it can’t help but affect the instinctive human tendency toward love of place. Is it any wonder so many Americans leave their hometowns as soon as they retire? The truth is they don’t feel much affection for these places. No matter how many green lawns and lovely side streets they contain, they’re just too darn ugly.

The first step toward workable solutions is to admit the ugliness. Calmly refuse to become acclimated to it or to think it is a necessary condition of modern life. It is not necessary, but voluntary and changeable. It is not something we deserve because we have the benefits of modern technology. It is a result of an entire set of ideas that holds the individual and his narrow interests paramount. One can see this without succumbing to a state of futile complaint or whining.

The second step is to refuse to flee it. Stare into the hideous countenance of ugliness long enough and, surprisingly, it will tell you of its own vulnerabilities.

The third step is to do what Crusoe did. He tossed seeds on the ground. They grew. His island was civilized. If there is a single, quick solution to modern ugliness, it is botanical in nature.


A Voice of Sanity

May 13, 2009


The Internet is a wild and untamed jungle, but it contains small gardens of peace and sanity, of order and delight. There are many homemaking blogs, but none excels that of Lydia Sherman, a woman who was raised in the Alaska outback and later became an American housewife. Don’t be deceived by the homey crafts and Victorian posters displayed on Lydia’s site. Here is a woman of universal wisdom and insight. She is typical of the seasoned woman of yesteryear who had already raised her children and whose sole purpose in life was to convey the essential truths to the young. These women served as ballast, keeping an entire culture from sinking. Tomorrow belongs to the Lydia Shermans. We will recapture the truths that never die.


The Darwinian Woman

May 13, 2009


“Her beauty is one of nature’s grandest and most cunning gestures of manipulation and, if one is wise, one can never glance at the Darwinian Woman in full flower without feeling that one has outwitted nature itself because one knows this beauty is manipulative.” Read on for a brief examination of the Darwinian Woman in all her glory.

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Famous Couples: An Introduction

May 12, 2009

I have a philosopher friend who has his own theory of gossip. He considers gossip a form of philosophizing.

To gossip about others is to engage in a type of necessary rational analysis. This is conducive to social order as it enables people to act with reason and forethought.

It’s an interesting argument, but I disagree, holding the traditional view that gossip is evil. The problem with gossip is that it’s addictive. The faults of others cast a mystical spell over our minds and lead us to stumble around in the dark, making grandiose generalizations and false presumptions. I admit that it is fun and stimulating. As a psychologist friend of mine said about her clients who commit adultery, “It makes them feel more alive.”

There is an exception to this rule. And, that involves gossip about famous people, either living or dead. Not only are famous people immune to libel, they are immune to the normal principles of everyday discourse. In other words, we can say whatever we want about them. Gossip about famous people, provided that it stays within the realm of empirical reality, is healthy. It sublimates our desire to gossip about the people we know and helps us to deepen our ethical awareness. Or, something like that.

All this is by way of introducing you to a regular feature of this website: occasional portraits of famous couples, both living and dead, real and imaginary. There is only one criterion I will use in choosing these famous couples and that is that I personally find them interesting. I’m going to do my best to include edifying moral insights without disguising what is essentially a highbrow form of gossip.

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Spring Warning

May 12, 2009

Carry your tissues today, dear reader
Please, carry your tissues today
These white little things
Are essentially things
For the rinsings and wringings of May

Green pollen, your sweet little nose stings
The thrushes, your tunnel-y ears wring
With petals, your mind sings
To secular lute strings
So carry your tissues today


The Vital Child

May 11, 2009

Money is not the ultimate status symbol in our world. Energy is.

When someone asks what you do for a living, they are often wondering not how much money you make, but how dynamic you are.

Civilization in the advanced stages of nihilism exhibits this worship of energy. This is one of the profound insights of Father Seraphim Rose, the Orthodox priest who wrote his penetrating analysis of our condition. At Lawrence Auster’s site, there have been interesting discussions about what Rose calls Vitalism, including these comments here, and Auster has written a good summary of Rose’s ideas.

There are so many signs of the cult of energy today, it would be hard to catalogue them all. Let’s focus on one: the Vital Child.

The Vital Child is not a creature of repose. He is a dynamic, rapidly evolving being, capable of “socialization” even as an infant. He does not gaze at the walls wondering as children have done since the dawn of history why childhood is so long. His days are a blur. Television and electronic games fill any meager void and all useless cracks in a life of scheduled activity.

The Vital Child does not indulge in random play, except in small, accidental doses. His play is organized, efficient, directed toward rational self-improvement. He pursues sports with careerist intensity. This is not play, but a means of demonstrating his inner dynamism, of activating his miniature will.

Never pause: that is the inscription carved on the threshold of his youth. Standardized tests, sports,  clubs, long school days, all at a pace that far exceeds that of sleepier times – these fill his teenage years, plus more television, games and popular music. Never pause. All this prepares him for the raw energy he will need later. This is his vital initiation into vitality. The Vital Child will keep on moving. He has no expectation of repose and no acquaintance with reflection. He reveres movement: the movement of his own emotions, of his own half-formed will, and of an ultimately meaningless world beyond the self.


What is work?

May 11, 2009

A group of executives gathered for a meeting in the offices of a West Coast software company. The participants included one female vice president for marketing, beautifully coiffed and dressed in a silk suit. As soon as the meeting began, she took out her note pad and began writing. She appeared thoroughly engaged.

From over her shoulder, another participant glimpsed at the words on her page. They did not appear relevant:
       Pick up Elsie’s invitations
       Dry cleaners
       Party favors
       Chicken cutlets
       Dentist, 4 p.m.
The vice president was writing a mother’s shopping and errand list. According to a friend who related this incident, this woman was present in body, not in spirit. She was similar in function to those buxom carved figureheads on the prow of sailing vessels, leading the way through turbulent seas with beauty and an unvarying smile.


The Farmer and the Housewife

May 8, 2009

                               In the foregoing speech by Roosevelt, he makes an important point. Democracy depends not just on vital laws and institutions, but on certain sensibilities. And, as Roosevelt noted, there are two types who represent a shared sensibility critical to a large democracy. They are the farmer and the housewife.

By farmer, I refer, as did Roosevelt, not to the big-business tycoon, but to the relatively small-scale grower. And, by housewife, I mean the woman who devotes the vast portion of adulthood to caring for and living in daily physical proximity to her husband and children.

Farmers and housewives have natural affinities. For one, they both live close to nature. I don’t mean they both live close to the earth or to the outdoors. I mean nature in a larger sense, as the physical world in all its daily cycles of degeneration and regeneration. Children are a part of nature, a rapidly changeable part of it, and a home, with all its cyclical physical needs, is a part of nature as well.

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