Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Brooksy Awards 2015. III: High-Class Savagery

The problem of the middle class savagery: Dear Readers, Across the country, drunken teacher, menedzhershi staff, nurses and young mothers are of serious concern to their behavior. Each night they get drunk to swinish state, have sex with unfamiliar men in the back of stores, dirty curse word and celebrate the natural needs of the street. A home at the time they are waiting for their husbands and children… The above realities — not domestic. They are taken from Special report British newspaper "Daily Mail" on October 9, 2011 with the title "Why intelligent nurses, teachers and mothers across Britain to get drunk every night out?" (Clearly a Google translation, via Survincity. Menedzher is Russian for "person who orders you around".) 

OK, so maybe this one'll turn out funny:
Writing “The Meaning of Sex” in The Weekly Standard, the anthropologist Peter Wood describes the damage done when natural and social constructs like virginity, fatherhood, intimacy and romance are done away with or watered down. The result can be a sort of high-class savagery leading to brutal pain and victimization.
I like the deconstructionist sound of "writing the meaning of sex", and the adventure of trying to find out what David Brooks imagines "social construct" means, which might be pretty wacky, and how you do away with virginity and fatherhood or water them down. And what kind of anthropologist writes for the Weekly Standard?

Well, the wrong kind, from a certain perhaps narrow-minded point of view, who slithered out of respectable academia around 2003 (he had tenure at Boston U., too! but it looks as if he stopped teaching the second he could, to be associate provost at B.U. in 1991, four years out from his Ph.D.) to serve as provost of The King's College, New York, prior to the presidency of Gunga Dinesh D'Souza (B.A. [English], Dartmouth), and subsequently landed in the National Association of Scholars (Executive Director, 2007-2008, president since 2009, currently at $170K), which bills itself as
a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. 
but appears to exist mainly to pay salary and benefits to its officers and employees and their publications, and fundraising activities, devoting $33,433 of their 2014 expenditures of $1,206,060 to grants, as compared with $85,000 to publications, of which they issued one that year: Beach Books 2013-2014: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? composed by Ashley Thorne (Executive Director), Marilee Turscak (The King's College '13, Intern), and Dr. Wood (this year's publication, no author credit, promises to be a zinger: Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement To Turn A Generation Against Fossil Fuels).

Recently a young woman at Dartmouth College, having had sex for the first time with a man, reflected that she had “lost her virginity.” Then she put that thought on hold: “Virginity is just a total social construct,” she told her interviewer. Her story appeared in the college’s student newspaper.

A “social construct”? I’m an anthropologist and I speak this language. 
 No, for starters. He does not speak this language fluently, and he particularly does not know what a "social construct" is.

The mildly interesting story he's referring to (but not telling, or even linking) is that of a student who identifies as Queer, had a rather solemnly conducted First-Sexual-Experience with her then girlfriend some time ago, and has now Done It the straight way in a more casual encounter that has not impressed her much, and what she's wondering is why this "loss of virginity" that she has heard so much about should be an important moment in her life and what in that case the other moment was.

The "social construct" language is used to describe phenomena that we tend to believe are real, physical things but aren't; the prototype example being race. While it's clear that most people in modern times have tended to regard themselves and others as belonging to one "race" of humans or another—you're black and I'm white, for instance, or you're Irish and I'm white in 19th-century New York, or what have you—the fact is that there's nowhere physiological to draw the boundary between one race and the next; we overlap in skin color and hair type and so on, and now that we have chromosome analysis to work with, it's clear that genetic variation within a given race is greater than that that typically separates the races, and thanks to the ancient human propensity for migration and exogamy we're all hopelessly mixed in ancestry. And yet we really do belong to races, there's no question of that; it's just that the reality isn't biological, it's social, a matter of who we identify with, who accepts us, and who regards us as Other (it wasn't enough for Rachel Dolezal to think of herself as black, others had to agree, and they didn't).

The virginity issue has to do with the way the relatively simple physiological event we use to define loss of virginity, hymen-popping if you'll excuse me, is clearly not the same thing as the loss of virginity that's an important life-cycle moment, in that (a) it never happens to about half the population, men, for whom there is no such physiological change, though the concept of virginity can be important to us too, (b) it can happen in completely irrelevant ways (horseback riding, they used to whisper back in my youth), and (c) the life-cycle moment can occur without it, not just in the ceremonial way of this woman's case, but also in the normal way of there being no servants hanging around anxiously to bring the bloody napkin around to the in-laws and nobody being sure afterwards exactly when it happened, or even very interested, as long as things are working satisfactorily.

But to Dr. Wood
Virginity is a social construct to the extent that we invest the state of virginity with social significance. American culture seemingly has been divesting its stock in virginity since the sexual revolution more than half a century ago, but somehow the idea lingers. The young woman at Dartmouth would like to think it doesn’t matter, it is just a total social construct, but even the dismissive formula betrays her troubled feelings. It does matter.
No, it's a social construct regardless of whether it's important or not, because it's not a physiological fact except in those limiting cases where it apparently is. The idea of owning "stock" in virginity is an unfortunate word choice, reminding us of the historical times when women were marketed commodities in the bourgeoisie and upper classes, and guaranteed virginity a form of quality control. And the argument that "she says it doesn't matter but that just proves it does" is not valid.

Nor in any case is the rest of the argument, which takes a fairly weird form, in which Wood pulls out his old undergraduate textbooks for examples of social constructs to show how wide the range is for construing them and then explains that the way "we" do it—i.e. the way white Americans did around 1952—is the right way.

Thus the concept of "father" can apply in some cultures to your biological father, his older and younger brothers, and all his male parallel cousins (the sons of his paternal uncles, not aunts); the matrilineal Nair of the Malabar Coast have, or rather had, two forms of "marriage", one for before puberty and another with a different man after puberty, neither of which was necessarily the biological father of any of her children (he doesn't describe this complexity at all well, see Wikipedia for a clear account); and too many African American women have babies when they are not married at all, up to 72% (that's 2010 numbers, the rate has been steadily declining, along with that for other raises, since then).
Clearly it is possible for people to form a social system that discourages stable pair-bonding between men and women. But the realization of that possibility has brought dramatically negative results in the form of multigenerational dependency on government benefits, a culture of poverty, educational disadvantage for children, poor health, and psychological damage.
Wait, what? Women among the Nair became chronically dependent on government benefits and their children were educationally disadvantaged? (They were an upscale warrior caste, and the decline of the system in the 19th century is said to have been because "the matrilineal system tends to produce a society at once hierarchical and authoritarian in outlook.... congruent with the role of a military caste in a feudal society" which could not survive urbanization and the growth of capital.) African American women and their poor white sisters in the Bible Belt labor under the belief that fatherhood is "only" a social construction and that's why they fail to get married? (You're thinking of Murphy Brown; on the whole, poverty and lack of educational attainment are more important indicators of single motherhood than race or ability to sling around expressions from postmodern theory.)

And likewise the inhabitants of the Marquesas in French Polynesia were not very concerned about virginity, but they had tons of elaborate cultural rules about other stuff, and therefore they're just the same as we are—
the general picture is clear, and it is the usual thing: Attraction. Pleasure. Attachment. Reproduction. Fulfillment. To which we can add power, prestige, danger, purity, control, and the other relational overlays that typically attach themselves to sex.
—and therefore virginity is important. Moreover, as Cameron Crowe's 2001 film Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise, reminds us, "Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not?" and it's hard to get out of the hook-up culture, as we learn from the TV show Girls.

Finally, among the big three reports put together by the National Association of Scholars in 2013, those were the days for productivity, What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students (by former Director of Research Projects Michael Toscano [B.A. The King's College '08] and Dr. Wood), in which the authors found that campus hookup culture leads to upperclasswomen getting left out as senior men chase after the freshgirls (really, is that a thing?) and countless false rape accusations, as proven by the existence of that Rolling Stone article.

In conclusion,
As [the philosopher Peter] Kreeft puts it, “If you want to restore liberal education, restore sexual morality. And if you want to restore sexual morality, restore liberal education. The same virtues of honor, self-control, innocence, purity, respect, patience, courage, and honesty are cultivated in both places. They reinforce each other.”

But one doesn’t need to go all the way to the mind of the moralist to recognize that we are cultivating deep problems by ignoring the meaning of sex.
Let the record show that Kreeft teaches at Boston College and, natch, The King's College. And what is the meaning of sex?
The meaning of sex is that it leads somewhere—somewhere beyond orgasms and the excitements of strangers. An older generation called that “somewhere” marriage.
Hahaha: Here's hoping for those of us who are married that it doesn't get too far beyond orgasms, important as spirituality is.

A couple of things you won't find in the essay are
  • an explanation of Brooks's term "natural constructs"
  • "high-class savagery leading to brutal pain and victimization"
(Unless the latter is a characterization of all those imaginary false rape accusations, which would be kind of overwrought.) Leading me, for one, to suspect that Brooks never read this profoundly silly article beyond paragraph 5 or so. He has a lot of nerve asking me to look at it!

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