Ah, lassie, ’tis St. Patrick’s Day (a perfect day for my girlfriend, Helen Rittelmeyer, to have a piece about the Boston Irish on NationalReview.com), and much as I admire tradition, ’tis a day that makes me wonder about the eternally-ambiguous dividing line between (a) raucous activities made better — almost sanctified — by the surrounding traditionalism and ritualism, and (b) mere barbarism with tradition as a figleaf and excuse. You know, the same dilemma created by “conservative” college fraternities.
Speaking of which: there has to have been some conscious, significant change in policy at Brown University regarding alumni relations, because last week I received an e-mail inviting me to alumni events involving “casino night” and, perhaps more shockingly, a night of wine with a lecture on the use of wine as an instrument of “seduction.” These things are not only at odds with the e-mails I used to get from Brown, inviting me to panel discussions on nonsense topics like “sustainable development” (considerably less fun and therefore likely less well-attended), but probably at odds with some explicit rule in the old Tenets of Community Behavior.
I mean — wine as a tool of seduction? Didn’t they threaten to expel people for that? Wasn’t half the campus culture aimed at convincing us that men are natural-born rapists even when everyone’s sober? (By contrast, no need to worry about underage drinking in Arkansas on St. Pat’s or any other time — my legislator friend Dan Greenberg reports that his fellow state reps there have worded anti-alcohol laws so strictly that they’ve inadvertently outlawed taking communion.)
Speaking of tools of the patriarchy, Tracy Quan mass-e-mails a link to her article about madams threatening to reveal all their customers in tell-all memoirs. Quan thinks this a shocking breach of madam traditions, as no doubt it is, but it’s an amusing arena for concern about traditional etiquette. Of greater interest from my philosophical perspective, though, is the fact that she worries that madams doing this to get book contracts may be evidence of the over-marketization of the world of prostitution. Now, the obvious response would be to say that worrying about the market intruding on prostitution is even more absurd than being surprised at anti-traditionalism in prostitution — but I’d say the problem here, as usual, is not enough of the free market.
First of all, in a true free market, prostitution would be legal, and the madam would not be able to violate the contractual privacy agreements her clients would then be able to make and enforce with laws and lawsuits (in much the same way prostitutes could more easily bring charges against abusive johns or pimps if the profession were legal). Perhaps more important from the perspective of traditional morality, though, many of the clients wouldn’t likely be clients in the first place in a world where contracts were taken seriously enough that marriage contracts could contain “you cheat, you go to jail (or suffer some other serious punishment)” clauses if the spouses so chose — and don’t you suspect that eventually a lot of spouses would so choose?
Of course, some would say these sorts of moral problems can only be solved by religion — something we can discuss on April Fool’s Day (8pm) at Lolita Bar at our “Does Religion Make People Better?” debate. In the meantime, you might want to recapture the era when the Catholic Church reigned supreme by reading a book pointed out to me by medieval historian Christine Caldwell Ames, namely Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics. Or you may not.
In other how-far-can-tradition-bend news, I was delighted to read a Newsarama article about the calculations that went into deciding whether or not to remove the Lovecraftian fake space squid from the climax of the Watchmen movie — a decision that I’m pleased to see has the backing of Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons. I dare not consider writer Alan Moore’s thoughts about it all.
Perhaps a conversation between him and director Zack Snyder about it all would have sounded a little something like this:
MOORE (to Snyder): The squid stays in the picture.
SNYDER (to space squid): Ar, I’ve nothing against ye, Squiddy. I just heard thar was gold in your belly.
And by the way, if we really want to see some conservative moralism reinjected into the culture — interesting pick though Ross Douthat is to replace William Kristol — let me be the first to recommend Rorschach from the Watchmen as a columnist for the New York Times. That would liven things up. And no one knows better than Rorschach that this city’s sewers will eventually scab over, drowning us all in our own blood and filth. Someone who has a way with words should be there to chronicle it.