Friday, February 16, 2018

When even yes isn't yes.

In the beginning, there was “No means No.” Simple, direct. Which, of course, meant that it couldn't stand. Thus did it beget “Yes means Yes.” And now the noisy, inefficient engine of sexual politics has spewed into the dating environment a pair of new doctrines that further pollute the meaning of consent: "the enthusiastic Yes" and "sex after Yes." Taken together, they represent something like sex as Rube Goldberg might design it. [See below "fold."]

The two ideologies have long percolated in online feminist forums and academia's Women’s Studies wing (which sometimes seems to exist solely to make men out as criminals and make women feel guilty about bothering with us at all). They were brought to the fore by the controversy over what did or did not occur on an ill-fated date between actor Aziz Ansari and a pseudonymous woman, “Grace.” By now you almost surely know what Grace says: that Ansari repeatedly misread signals, pressuring her into unwanted sexual activity. Worse, feminists have painted him as an archetype for men as a class. As Emily Reynolds writes in the Guardian, “Ansari’s behavior was normal—and therein lies its true horror.” Reynolds and others insist that Grace's nonverbal cues should have alerted Ansari to her unease. In his defense, he might have been misled by the fact that Grace, by her own admission, accepted oral sex within minutes of arriving at his apartment after dinner and then reciprocated minutes later; perhaps Ansari interpreted those activities as nonverbal cues. Be that as it may, feminist theorists claim that such contretemps could be avoided by the requirement for men to receive the sort of ecstatic, unambiguous Yes that Grace never spoke.

One has trouble seeing how. Suppose a man intuits that a woman’s Yes is sufficiently forthright; are we to infer that if he honestly overestimates her ardor, he has become guilty of assault? It seems bizarre to put men in the position of having to decode the enthusiasm of a Yes rather than instructing women to bellow forth with an enthusiastic, unambiguous No.

But let's say the man does indeed think he detects a note of ambivalence in his partner's Yes. Is he obliged to function as human chastity belt and moral overseer for an adult woman who has indicated, however subtly, her agreement to sex? Even in healthy marriages, if both partners had to swear to giddy anticipation before each bedroom episode, conjugal intimacy would likely cease forevermore. For that matter, any given bride and groom will feel a surge of trepidation on their wedding day itself, after years of a well-considered relationship that presumably led them to this halcyon moment. Are those ad hoc qualms to be perceived as a talisman of doom that warrants more debate and procrastination?

Women will retort that men need to understand the nurturing, conciliatory nature of the female psyche: Here's the Washington Post's Molly Roberts on the Ansari controversy: “We know how it happens. A man wants sex after an evening out, and a woman feels obligated to comply... Even when she’s not enjoying herself, she thinks she should be, and she tries hard to convince herself nothing is wrong until—maybe that night, maybe the next morning—it becomes too clear to ignore.”

So there you have it. A woman acquiesces to the most intimate act between two humans—with a human she's not that into, no less—and it's still the guy's fault.

But that's not even the full extent of male culpability. Reynolds' emphasis on the woman's lack of enjoyment hints at the second postmodern wrinkle in the bed-sheets: sex after Yes. This paradigm, championed by leading feminist writer Linda Traister and a cadre of other young female voices, indicts the so-called “orgasm gap,” edging us ever closer to a definition of consensual sex wherein a woman's Yes is conditioned on the man's commitment to providing a quality sexual experience. 

A man who falls short has, in failing to satisfy the woman, also failed to satisfy the terms on which the sex was premised. He is guilty of, retroactively, nonconsenual sex. Canadian writer Tamar Dina further argues that consensual sex in which the woman does not thoroughly enjoy herself is dehumanizing and akin to assault, because it reduces her to little more than a “gatekeeper to men's desires.” Or As Sady Doyle puts it in Elle, genuinely consensual sex “requires all parties to be visibly happy, turned on, and vocally expressing enthusiasm throughout the encounter.” 

Without a doubt, millions of women commit to sex during which they are never visibly happy or vocally expressing enthusiasm, then wake up hating themselves for going along with a man's seduction. But they went along. Lukewarm or not, they agreed to sex. Moreover, buyer's remorse is hardly unique to the bedroom. Many of us experience transient misgivings over virtually every meaningful decision or discretionary purchase. And lest you think it unseemly to compare sex to buying a new car or big-screen TV, consider: It wasn't so long ago that leading feminist voices were exhorting women to indulge their physical desires sans strings or regrets: “It's just sex!” Today some of those same figures would lard the sexual experience with a veritable manifesto of caveats and assurances that not only require men to be psychic but, for sheer sobriety, rival the vows exchanged before couples say “I do.” 

All of which could be avoided by exhorting unwilling women to state, unequivocally, “I won't.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

Why real news is, indeed, fake.

I've taken three lengthy Uber trips in the past month. All of the drivers got around to asking what I did for a living. When I replied, “I teach journalism,” two of the three exclaimed, “Ahh, fake news!” It took the third driver a few extra lines of conversation, but she eventually got there too.

For those of us engaged in showing young people how the media are supposed to work, there is no escaping the sturm und drang over fake news. Needless to say, the term has itself acquired a patina of inauthenticity, given its most celebrated user's tendency to invoke it to mean, “This news makes me look bad...ergo it's fake.” (Though I doubt that Trump uses, or even knows, the word ergo.)

In fairness, however, those of us who deal in the foundations of journalism understand that the fake-news meme cannot be dismissed simply as red meat that a pathologically insecure president tosses into his supporters' den with discomfiting regularity. Actually, fakery is endemic to the genre. Consider the famous news-radio slogan, “You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world.”

It's a lie. Genuine news is rooted in anomaly: Man bites dog. It follows that what the news business is really giving us—with its unending parade of crime, corruption, ugliness and general depravity—is unreality.

I wrote the guts of this paragraph for a relatively famous (if I do say so myself) piece for the Los Angeles Times back in 2006, but it has lost none of its relevance. For here, in a minute, I give you your actual world*: Each day, 23,911 out of 23,911 scheduled commercial flights take off and land safely. Almost none of us are murdered, and almost no one who is unarmed, of any race, is killed by a cop. The murder rate in much-maligned Chicago is lower than that of cities where we splurge huge sums to vacation. Roughly 100 percent of collegians survive hazing rituals. The employment rate is above 95 percent, and the average family living in federally defined poverty has a car, air conditioning, two TVs and an Xbox. Plagues do not emerge from third-world caves to blight the landscape. The republic slogs on despite the diverting shenanigans of the figureheads at the top; even the current helmsman hasn't undone us and probably won't. Probably.

This is not some Panglossian delusion. It is day-to-day life for almost everyone. So yes, the nightly news is real. These things did happen. But by every meaningful statistical yardstick, they are margin notes to reality. (Big-time journalists, of course, don't like to see themselves as people who trade in trivia, so they imbue their margin notes with near-apocalyptic resonance.) By definition, then, what you see on the news is a negative image of your world, in both the photographic and tonal senses. It's real, but it conjures a wholly fake impression of life.

The news also comprises extensive reporting on events that are “sort of happening” but whose resolution and meaning are far from certain. We see this in the case of Trump's Russia woes or the hyperventilating coverage of hurricanes that still loll hundreds of miles off-shore. There may be collusion with Russia; or there may not be. If there is, Trump may be impeached; or he may not be. The hurricane may ravage coastal cities...or may fizzle out or miss the mainland altogether (which is usually the case). So why obsessively cover such quasi-events in terms of what might happen...but hasn't, really, yet?

Which begs another question: Of all those margin notes that vie for elevation to media melodrama, which do journalists choose to highlight each day? The answer to that question is governed by a process known as news judgment, wherein media gatekeepers apply their own criteria in deciding what’s vital for the public to know. Though there's often unanimity on the lead stories, various news outlets will have different slants on the composition of the rest of the day’s must-know news. So these events are not only (a) anomalous, but (b) cherry-picked from a large orchard of anomalous stories based on subjective criteria. There is no overstating the importance of this simple truth, for this is where the canonical McLuhanism about media and message comes into play: If it's on the news, we figure it's newsworthy, ipso facto. And yet what was important enough to appear on to MSNBC last night may very have been ignored by Fox. And vice versa.

Even in the case of the top stories, journalists will decide what other facts to drag in to contextualize them. This shaping process (often called narrative) may give the lead story a meaning that isn't inherent in the raw facts. What, after all, is the overarching significance of a single unarmed black man shot by a cop? For that matter, in any given year, what is the significance of a dozen unarmed black men shot by cops? Yes, it could be what epidemiologists call a cluster, indicating that “something is going on.” Or it could be a simple aberration of the laws of chance, into which we've injected extraneous meaning.

Similarly, is every newly discovered contact between a Trump campaign official and someone with a Russian-sounding surname further evidence of collusion—or a distraction whose importance pales by comparison to the economy's steady hum? Is the “campus rape crisis” more about women being exploited, or men being deprived of due process? Is #TakeAKnee another tear in the social fabric...or is it symbolic of the inalienable rights upon which the social fabric depends? The media contextualization will suggest how we're supposed to feel. But that's hardly the same as Ultimate Truth. Would you agree?

Outside of a Hurricane Harvey or a 9/11, you see, only hindsight can tell us when a given piece of news was destined to transcend randomness and move into the realm of enduring consequence. No one can know this as it's happening—no, not even Wolf Blitzer. Even my Uber drivers could tell you that...

* or at least your actual America. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

An open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates.


I have just finished reading the self-indulgent exercise in question-begging that ran in the Atlantic under the tantalizing heading, "The First White President." Tautology from a-z. And you don't see it, do you? You can't see it. So blurred are the paranoiac lenses through which you regard American life that you see only in caricature; distorted allegory. You inhabit a grim world of dog whistles and racial code, implicit bias and all manner of invisible slights or slanders. You basically imply that Donald Trump won because the mass of white Americans, when at home, strut around in Klan garb, secretly fantasizing about the perfect tall oak from which to lynch their black coworkers. (I may be overstating for effect, but your piece is only slightly less scurrilous and disgusting in its characterizations.) In fact, Trump won because of the phenomenon your piece epitomizes: Good, hard-working people are sick of being labeled racists, misogynists, deplorables; sick of being told they're “angry because they're losing their power.” They're angry because of the ceaseless repetition of that trope. The Trump vote was a counter-punch from decent Americans who resent being scapegoatedAmericans (overwhelmingly) without malice in their hearts who tired of being called ugly names for doing nothing more sinister than living their daily lives and/or, at worst, voicing an impolitic point of view now and then. They reject the notion that the accident of having been born white constitutes a sinful privilege for which they're obliged to apologize* (even as they're being laid off from their jobs or having their homes foreclosed, perhaps). And speaking of privilege, they bristle at the suggestion that someone who commits a violent crime or otherwise fails at life should enjoy the privilege of invoking his great-great-grandfather's infelicitous circumstances as a defense. Many of these decent folks never accepted excuses from their children and will be damned if they'll accept them from grown men and women. That is not bigotry, sir, but rather a philosophy of self-sufficiency/personal responsibility...a philosophy that happens to be embraced/espoused by any number of prominent blacks...who are also called ugly names for their trouble. (See under Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Larry Elder, Morgan Freeman and many others.)

So those voters began thinking tribally, the one identifying characteristic of the tribe being not whiteness per se but disgust with the blanket recriminations spewed into America nightly by CNN's punditry panels. And their disgust was such that they flocked to a dismal excuse for a man like Donald Trump, who, for all his personal and political shortcomings, defended them against gratuitous attack.

"The word racism is like ketchup...It can be put on anything..." Thomas Sowell
And by the way, what of the 93% of blacks who voted for Obama? (As did I, FYI.) Did they do so because they found his views on NAFTA energizing? Or was something a bit more superficialepidermalin play? 

You have become a sesquipedalian Sharpton, the quintessence of race-baiting, and Literary America enables you. If you keep it up you'll help re-elect the man, God help us all. Please talk to someone outside your bubble of hurt and projected rage. If you won't do it for me, do it for Samori's sake. You are poisoning the mind of your boy, who came into this world as an innocent and did not need to be steeped in your reductivist racial nihilism. Give him a chance to find his own way in life without making him wear the mantle of the victim that he neither was nor ever was meant to be. Damn it, man. Stop this.

* or pay reparations, as you've also argued.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monday, October 09, 2017

Self-esteem takes another hit.

This is a very nice piece on the phenomenon, and not just because yours truly is quoted extensively. The writer, New York's Jesse Singal, did his homework.

Makes you wonder: How long before we fully escape the damage wreaked on American society by the simple, deceptively appealing idea "you're special!"?