Eluding E-Books

Mark Bauerlein’s observations about the decline of e-reading and the “Persistence of Print” ring very true to my own experience. I have now tried on two separate occasions, and with two separate e-readers, to invest in digital books. Both times I just couldn’t do it. My Kindle Paperwhite is a fine device, elegantly crafted and certainly convenient. It’s not that the technology just isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s that its over-sophistication sours the experience of reading.

There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about e-books, except for the e-reader itself (which never changes and which one dares not mark up). Even the full-color e-books that you get on tablets look more like blog posts than books. That’s probably because, if we’re being honest, there is no meaningful difference between an e-book and a blog post. They both subsist on the same ether. Their ontology is identical, which means the ways I experience them are also identical.

For me, the pleasures of reading go beyond the printed words. A physical book is a physical experience, one that I come back to not just to be reminded of the text but also to be reminded of the pages, the binding, the cover, the underlining, etc. Books are truly owned, whereas e-books are merely “licensed” (if you don’t believe in this distinction, read this). The difference is not just legal, it’s personal. An ebook cannot be “owned” in the same way a physical book can, because its constituent nature is simply not own-able the way a printed book is. This is a big reason why book buying is such a happy event for readers. It’s one thing to know the words that are inside. It’s another thing to know the book as a material whole.

Speaking of book-buying—I suppose someone at some point is going to bring up the fact that ebook prices are just not very competitive? Unless you find one of those flash deals for $2.99, most ebooks I’ve encountered are not that much better off than the Amazon print price. If you live within a reasonable distance of a good used book store, that comparison gets even worse. There is no “secondary market” for ebooks, which means the price that you pay to download something to your Kindle is a fixed fee for licensing, and nothing more.

As tech goes, I actually admire my Kindle a lot. And there are obvious advantages of e-reading when it comes to traveling. But for my money, I prefer to have something to hold onto, something to shelve, and something to rediscover through dust, rather than just a dim backlight and a wifi connection.

Harvey Weinstein vs Billy Graham

In Ross Douthat’s weekend op-ed on the lecherous Harvey Weinstein, he makes, in passing, what I think is a very important point:

If liberals want to restrain the ogres in their midst, a few conservative ideas might be helpful.

First: Some modest limits on how men and women interact professionally are useful checks on predation. Many liberals were horrified by the revelation that for a time Mike Pence avoided one-on-one meetings with women not his wife. But one can find the Pence rules too sweeping and still recognize that life is easier for women if their male bosses don’t feel entitled to see them anywhere, anytime. It would not usher in the Republic of Gilead if it were understood that inviting your female subordinate to your hotel room, Weinstein-style, crosses a line in a way that a restaurant lunch does not.

Consistent readers of this blog may remember the Pence controversy to which Ross refers. It was over something that has been called in evangelical life “the Billy Graham rule,” named for the evangelist’s self-imposed mandate that he would not meet alone with another woman without his wife present. After it came out that Vice President Pence practiced a similar mandate, the internet exploded with accusations of sexism, Puritannery, and unfeeling obliviousness to the career struggles of women. Some of those accusations, in fact, came from evangelicals, who lamented such “sexualizing” of male-female relationships.

Would the Billy Graham rule have prevented exploitation like that seen by Harvey Weinstein? To answer that, we might do well to hear the words of one of Weinstein’s victims:

In 2014, Mr. Weinstein invited Emily Nestor, who had worked just one day as a temporary employee, to the same hotel and made another offer: If she accepted his sexual advances, he would boost her career, according to accounts she provided to colleagues who sent them to Weinstein Company executives. The following year, once again at the Peninsula, a female assistant said Mr. Weinstein badgered her into giving him a massage while he was naked, leaving her “crying and very distraught,” wrote a colleague, Lauren O’Connor, in a searing memo asserting sexual harassment and other misconduct by their boss.

…Ms. Nestor, a law and business school student, accepted Mr. Weinstein’s breakfast invitation at the Peninsula because she did not want to miss an opportunity, she later told colleagues. After she arrived, he offered to help her career while boasting about a series of famous actresses he claimed to have slept with, according to accounts that colleagues compiled after hearing her story and then sent on to company executives.

Emily Nestor was looking for a business meeting. She found sexual harassment instead. That speaks far, far more to Weinstein’s character than anything or anyone else. But is it really “sexist” to think there’s a problem deep in the equation when a female employee feels professionally obligated to meet a powerful male executive in his hotel room? And does one unnecessarily “sexualize” male-female dynamics by suggesting that powerless females are more vulnerable to powerful males in the absence of tangible, navigable rules?

I understand where BG rule critics are coming from when they regret that male-female relationships in the church are subjected to sexual scrutiny, at the cost of authentic friendship and/or professional respect. That’s a valid concern, and we ought to be sensitive to it. Elders and male professionals don’t get to hide behind “wisdom” or “discernment” as a way of muting input from women or avoiding transparency. Nor should Christians aspire to mincemeat spirituality that is so highly gendered it results in a bifurcated church community (“Men, you do life with men, and women y’all go off and have your Bible study too”).

But the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill O’Reillys of the world are reminders that women in subordinate positions to men often feel pressured into closeness, and that this pressure almost always serves male libido and ego more than it serves women. If women often do not have the professional/economic leverage to afford rare or nonexistent access to male leadership (and I think that’s often true), how much less do they have leverage to refuse a meeting or a conversation because of uncomfortable circumstances?

The weakness of rules is that they don’t always take into account mitigating circumstances and can fail to meet the needs of the moment. But the strength of rules is that you don’t have to impugn someone’s motives in order to enforce them. Rules are there even when the people come and go. Not meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex entails not meeting them alone in a hotel room. Seems reasonable to me–and I have a feeling it would have seemed reasonable to Emily Nestor.

Does Morality Matter on the Right Anymore?

The main reason I wrote my reply to Ben Domenech about Hugh Hefner, and the main reason I’m thankful to First Things for running it, is that I sensed—correctly, as it turned out—that Domenech’s sentiment was more widely shared on the Right than conservative evangelicals might want to believe. “Cultural conservatives,” those who argue not just for small government but for moral wakefulness and a virtuous public square, are increasingly seen as the pariahs of the Right. The election of Donald Trump, a cultural conservative’s foe if there ever were one, is proof that, politically speaking, what curries favor with conservative politicos nowadays is more about libertarianism and a kind of anti-Left disposition. Put another way: I don’t think most conservative Americans are like, say, Milo Yiannopolous, but I don’t think most have a big problem with him. Milo is not conservative in any sense, except for the sense that liberals hate him and he returns the favor. That seems to be enough to qualify as a conservative right now, and one implication of that trend is that the moral qualms of puritanical cultural conservatives (the kind who would excoriate Hugh Hefner no matter how many feminists he upset) are now obnoxious.

Does morality matter on the Right anymore? Before progressives and tradinistas respond with, “It never has! #Capitalism,” let me clarify what I mean. I’m not asking if morality matters to the Right, according to the Left. I’m not asking progressives if they think American conservatism has lost its conscience. No, I’m actually asking my fellow conservatives to be honest for one minute. Does morality, public and private, matter to the Right’s agenda in 2017? Does the fact that Hugh Hefner commercialized and weaponized pornography make a dent in his free speech, anti-pantsuit legacy? Domenech’s piece and others similar to it seem to suggest no, or not really.

This is very intriguing to me. The porn industry is awfully low-hanging fruit for a traditionalist conservatism. The scent of technocracy, Sexual Revolution, and abortion politics are all over it. Yet here we are in 2017, after the death of the Western world’s most powerful and most important pornographer, debating on the Right just how much of his legacy is actually worth celebrating, because it offended the easily offended. Something tells me this is a shift worth caring about.

After all, if morality is iffy on the Right today, where we will be in 20 years? Will Margaret Sanger become a conservative hero after her eugenicist ideals are banned from bookstores and libraries at the behest of progressives? Will Alfred Kinsey be “reconsidered” by the conservative movement for triggering the transgender literati? Will atheists and cultural deconstructionists who preach the end of faith be looked on with gratitude by conservative publications, just because they were willing to say the words “Islamic terrorism”?

Does morality matter on the Right anymore? Or is it just about not being the Left?


photo by Alan Light