Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ted Cruz and the Quest for the GOP Obama

Ted Cruz's declaration that he's running for President doesn't make a lot of sense from the normal perspective. No one has ever given him any reason to suspect that he could become President. No poll has showed him with even ten percent support.  It only makes sense when you realize who Ted Cruz is modeling himself after: Barack Obama. Of course, he's not like Barack Obama in almost any way. But Ted Cruz doesn't know that. He doesn't see the real Barack Obama. He sees the conservative caricature of Barack Obama, and that's what he's trying to mimic.

Like Obama eight years ago, Ted Cruz is a first-term US Senator who hasn't achieved much in the Senate yet, but who is popular with some activists in his own party, and who is considered a rising star by some. That much is true. But that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. And that's apparently enough for Cruz to tell himself that he can follow Obama's route to the White House.

But in the real world, Ted Cruz is nowhere near the path Obama was on in 2007. Cruz doesn't have the base of donors he would need to run an actual campaign. He doesn't have the organization he would need, or the people to set up that organization; most of the talented GOP campaign-runners don't want anything to do with him. And he's got no support from other elected Republicans. Most Republicans hate Ted Cruz. Cruz announcing his candidacy for President is like someone saying that if you overlook his hitting, his fielding, his running, and his throwing, he's a lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame someday. Eight years ago, Candidate Obama was already building one of the most formidable national campaign organizations in decades. He had built relationships with major donors. He had major power brokers in his party, people like Ted Kennedy, urging him to run. If Cruz looked seriously at where he is right now and compared it to where Obama was at this point, he'd see how ridiculous he's being.

But that would mean seeing Barack Obama as he actually is. And the Republicans are committed to seeing Barack Obama as merely a media phenomenon, a guy who might be a talented orator but doesn't have any substance. They're committed to seeing him as an incompetent manager, in over his head. So they don't allow themselves to understand even bottom-line facts about him. They forget about the terrifyingly efficient ground organization he built. They forget that he outplayed and out-strategized Hillary Clinton, who wasn't any naive newcomer. They prefer to believe that Obama is just an unqualified guy who made a couple of nice speeches and got lucky. So Ted Cruz is trying to run as that version of Obama: the reality-free "Imagine" speech he used to kick off his campaign is his idea of an Obama speech. Cruz actually imagines that some vacuous lofty rhetoric might be all he needs.

Cruz is not only ignoring the practical differences between Obama and himself (like, you know, having a plan and not having a plan). But he also misunderstands the differences between himself and Obama as candidates. Cruz is abrasive where Obama is affable. Cruz is way out on his own party's right wing; Obama has always been comfortably middle-of-the-road for a Democrat, but gets called a crazed radical socialist by the right-wing echo chamber. Instead of comparing himself to the actual Obama and moving toward the middle, Cruz compares himself to the Republican fantasy of Obama and tells himself that if a far-left-winger could win, a far-right-winger can. Of course, a far-left candidate hasn't.

The Republicans have made this mistake before; their first attempt to run their own Obama wasn't Ted Cruz but Sarah Palin. That seems ridiculous now, but Palin in 2008 looked to the Republicans almost exactly like Obama looked to the Republicans: inexperienced, with no real substance, but charismatic and exciting on the stump. Of course, the weakness in Palin's preparation started to show disastrously early whereas, to some Republicans' mystified frustration, Obama's alleged lack of preparation never gives itself away. The obvious explanation for that is something Republicans don't want to consider.

And of course the search for a Republican Obama, and Ted Cruz's hopes to follow what he thinks of as Obama's strategy, overlooks a major factor in 2008. One of the reasons that a senator with a short track record in Washington was viable that year, when he wouldn't have been in a normal election cycle, was the Iraq War. The newcomer was viable because the establishment candidates had all voted for a war which, by 2008, voters had come to see as a terrible mistake. Obama was elected as a newcomer because the old guard had screwed everything up so badly. And Republicans don't want to think about that reality at all.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why Fraternities Are Out of Control

College fraternities have been in the news for the last two weeks, and not in a good way. First, the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma got videotaped singing a cheerful little fraternity song about keeping blacks out of the frat and hanging them from trees. (No, seriously.) Then a frat at Penn State turned out to be keeping a private Facebook page full of photos of unconscious naked women (not to mention pictures of hazing and drug dealing), prompting an anonymous frat bro to give a local magazine an insanely self-righteous defense of the page. (Because getting young women to pass out and then photographing them naked in sexual situations apparently isn't wrong, but objecting to that behavior is somehow flagrantly immoral.) And now a frat at North Carolina State turns out to keep a pledge book filled with endorsements of BOTH raping women AND lynching black people. Good times.

Are American fraternities out of control? Of course. They are designed to be out of control. I don't mean they all behave badly. Some of them are great. I mean that frats are designed so that there is virtually no way for anyone outside the frat to control the behavior inside the frat. What happens in the frat house is largely whatever the kids in the frat house decide will happen. As things are currently organized, there's not much anyone else can do about that.

I don't mean to say that fraternities are bad. Many people I respect have testified to their healthy and positive experiences in Greek organizations, and I believe them. The sanest and most reasonable of my forty-odd cousins was president of his fraternity in college; he's definitely not the kind of person who starts a singalong about lynching. The positive stories are real. So are the horrifying stories. The truth is, no one's personal fraternity experience can tell you what American fraternities are like, because every fraternity house becomes its own little enclosed world.

First of all, fraternities aren't actually part of the colleges and universities where the fraternity brothers (or sorority sisters) live. They're independent organizations, franchised at various schools around the country. The original point of fraternities was to be outside the jurisdiction of the college authorities, and they still pretty much are. At many places the only thing a school can do is withdraw recognition from the frat, meaning the local chapter is no longer an official student organization. But that can backfire; the frat will still be there, the students will still join it, but because it's not an official university organization the school can't even threaten to discipline it any more.

The basic structure of a fraternity is that there are local chapters at each school, which elect their own leadership; there's a national office led by alumni, which maintains fiscal oversight and takes care of things like publicity and branding; and there's the network of other alumni across the country, who have no official role to play but can still exert a powerful influence.

The chapters are largely self-governing on a day-to-day basis. There's not always a lot of adult supervision. This means that every fraternity chapter becomes a lesson in small-group dynamics. Dominant personalities can exert a big influence on the rest of the group. And, just as the psychology textbooks explain, the group starts to define its members' sense of what is normal and not.

The racists singing their racist group song at the University of Oklahoma had obviously gotten to a point where singing the words, "hang him from a tree" (to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It") seemed like a totally normal thing to do. (I don't propose group psychology as an excuse; everyone involved knew better.) While they had to know that what they were doing is not morally acceptable, they put the group's customs ahead of general American mores. And what's striking is not that they didn't see what they were doing as wrong, but that they didn't see it as weird. In fact, singing that song together, in front of their dates, is a very, very strange thing to do. Maintaining a Facebook page full of pictures of unconscious naked women is a weird, serial-killeresque behavior that one group of fraternity brothers came to view as totally normal. Frat houses create their own sense of reality. Sometimes the reality inside the house is pretty normal, because the people setting the tone in the house are normal, and life inside is basically like life outside but with more male bonding. But sometimes the frat house drifts away from the outside norms, and once that drift starts there's an echo-chamber quality that can intensify it. Maybe the initiation rituals turn into progressively more dangerous hazing. Maybe the misogyny or racism becomes toxic. Maybe the drinking culture gets to a place where the hard-core alcoholics are defining the norms. Maybe some of the frat brothers are dealing serious drugs.

And a fraternity chapter isn't necessarily the place that alumni, even recent alumni, remember it being. Remember, the whole membership turns over every four years.  The frat you belonged to might be a very different place five years after you graduate, and you wouldn't necessarily know it.

If a chapter comes unmoored from reality, no one on the outside is going to know until it's too late. The national organization doesn't micromanage what goes on or monitor the dynamic inside the house. The college doesn't have much oversight role at all. The adults on the outside won't know that anything's wrong, and the kids on the inside won't be able to see that anything's wrong. The problem only becomes visible when it becomes public, because something terrible - a rape, a drunken accident, a hazing death - becomes impossible to hide.

What happens then? At that point, the national fraternity shuts down the chapter, expels individual frat brothers, or both. This is partly, as Caitlin Flanagan has pointed out in The Atlantic, to make the national fraternity impossible to sue and thereby to protect its assets. If a student is exposed to a lawsuit, that student is cut loose so that the fraternity itself is not exposed to the lawsuit. And on paper, national fraternities do set up rules, sometimes improbably strict rules, that allow them to expel almost anyone they like. They simply don't put much effort into enforcing those rules until after there's been a scandal. (National frats can be like Claude Rains in Casablanca: Shocked! Shocked, to find out that partying is going on!) This certainly happened at the U of Oklahoma, where the chapter was immediately decertified by national and the two students who could be seen (on video) leading the segregationist sing-along were immediately booted from the frat.

That looks like accountability, but it isn't. For many fraternities, the point is to preserve student control of the chapter itself, and not to interfere until the kids have obviously blown it. National fraternities will disown their members. What they won't do is supervise them.

And the national organization's authority, even if it wanted to use it, can be undermined by individual alumni, who operate in a completely decentralized way. Sometimes alumni who have become important donors for their old school run interference for their old fraternity chapter. And sometimes ugly behaviors that have been eliminated at one campus can reappear, because new members have learned them from older alumni or from brothers on other campuses. A frat with a tradition of dangerous hazing, for example, might reform but then have the old practices sneak back in with legacy pledges who've heard stories from fathers, uncles, or older brothers.

The racist song that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon boys were singing is clearly not unique to the U of Oklahoma chapter; there are independent reports, some older than the SAE video itself, of SAE members singing exactly the same words at other campuses. But I doubt it's heard at every SAE chapter at every college. Every chapter, even of the same frat, is its own thing, but chapters of the same frat are also part of a social network that passes traditions and practices back and forth.

I also suspect the SAE segregation/lynching song is fairly old; if I had to guess, I'd say it dates either from the period when Southern universities were being desegregated by court order or from the slightly later period when all-white frats were forced to desegregate. But the U of Oklahoma chapter certainly hasn't been singing the lynching song uninterrupted since the 1960s; they did have an African-American brother in that fraternity house, who graduated ten years ago (and who has blogged eloquently about the pain and shock today's SAEs have given him). Obviously, the lynching song died out at that chapter (or had not yet been introduced there), and then came back, brought in through contact with SAEs at other schools or with SAEs who had graduated years earlier. National SAE would certainly not have been dumb enough to try to keep that song alive. But National SAE isn't fully in charge. No one is.

A fraternity is basically a system designed to carve out a largely unregulated space for college boys, generally aged 18 to 22, to live together in groups free from adult control. Obviously, that system is going to lead to an enormous range of results. In a good chapter, that freedom is going to teach responsibility, maturity, and the exercise of independent judgment. If there's no adult in charge, you have to step up and be the adults. A bad chapter can turn into Peter Pan and the Lost Boys with too much alcohol or, in the most extreme cases, into The Lord of the Flies with access to credit cards. How many fraternity chapters are good, how many are bad, and how many are ugly? There's no way to know. The only fraternity house that you can ever really know about is the one you're in, and even then you only really know while you're in it. But even if the bad chapters are only a small percentage of the total, there's no adult around to apply the brakes once things go bad.

(Of course, students in other clubs, teams, and organizations can also go Lord of the Flies. There are hazing cases involving sports teams, clubs, marching bands -- you name it. The difference is that those organizations are clearly and fully under the school's control, there's nearly always a faculty or staff member assigned as an official adviser, and when things go wrong the school has some straightforward remedies.)

It's not clear to me how much longer frats will continue to have this kind of autonomy. For the last couple of years, the Department of Education has been leaning on every college and university in the country to strengthen their rules about sexual assault or else be ruled out of compliance with Title IX. The federally-recommended changes, which just about every campus is enacting, specifically hold the schools responsible for behavior by their students OFF-campus. How can that be? That can be because the Department of Education no longer wants to hear colleges saying that this or that terrible incident happened in an off-campus frat house and so the college can't do anything about it. The federal government has put every college on notice that they WILL be held responsible for what happens to their students at off-campus frat houses. That means, sooner or later, schools are going to have to demand more control. If they're going to be held accountable for what fraternities do, then they will have to hold those fraternities accountable. They can't afford not to.

Fraternity brothers and alumni (and sorority sisters and alumni) aren't going to like that. If colleges take a greater hand in governing their Greek organizations, it will take away the independence and the freedom from academic governance that Greeks most value. But the most important element of a good fraternity experience, the independence, is exactly the thing that can lead to the biggest disasters. Fraternities are designed to be out of direct adult control, but the stakes have grown too high for colleges to leave them unsupervised. What happens to fraternities next is a mystery.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How Obama Talks About Terrorism and Racism

Let's keep this simple. The way Barack Obama talks about Islamic terrorism is exactly the way he talks about white racism. Exactly. The only difference lies not in what Obama actually says, but in how his critics respond.

When Obama talks about racism in America, which he has learned to do only when necessary, he takes pains to separate the terrible and toxic ideology, racism, from the larger white culture. This makes sense. If you tell white people that they are inherently racist and that there's nothing they can do about that, you are telling them not to do anything about that. In fact, you are pushing them to be more racist. If racism is part of who they are, after all, why not embrace it?

Obama has to work against the white racists who are actively claiming that it's all of white culture that's under attack whenever someone protests racism, that complaining about racist practices is an attack on whites themselves. The white racists of the world want nothing better than to erase any difference between being white and being a racist.

Now, when Obama talks about Islamic terrorism, which is also an inevitable part of his job, he takes pains to separate the terrible and toxic ideology, terrorism, from the larger Islamic culture. This makes sense, unless you are completely stupid. If you tell Muslims that being terrorists is an inherent part of their religion, and that only terrorists are real Muslims, you are telling them to actively support terrorism. In fact, you are pushing them to become terrorists. If they can't be a good Muslim any other way, why not embrace it?

Obama has to work against the Islamist terrorists who are actively claiming that it's Islam itself that's under attack whenever the United States fights against terrorism, that fighting terrorism is an attack on their religion itself. The Islamist terrorists of the world want nothing better than to erase any difference between being a Muslim and being a terrorist.

In both cases, Obama is making the sane and sensible rhetorical move. He carves out a way for white people to be against racism, and for Muslims to be against terrorism. Doing it the other way would be incredibly self-defeating.

Let me repeat that: Incredibly. Self. Defeating.

Here's the major difference: when Obama speaks about racism, his critics on the right pretend that he DID NOT distinguish between being racist and being white. They claim he's attacking all white people.

When Obama speaks about terrorism, his critics on the right attack him for distinguishing between being a Muslim and being a terrorist. They claim that he's soft on terrorism because he won't accuse Islam itself of being a terrorist religion.

That's really the whole story. When Obama talks about racism, he is falsely accused of doing something counterproductive that he's not stupid enough to do. When Obama talks about terrorism, he is angrily denounced for not doing something counterproductive that he would be stupid to do. I wish I could still be amazed.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

National Adjunct Walkout Day (and Why It Matters to You)

Today, February 25, is National Adjunct Walkout Day. The majority of college teachers in America today are not full-time instructors with salaries, benefits, or job security, but allegedly "part time" adjunct faculty members paid a few thousand dollars per course. Today, across our country, those adjunct faculty members will be walking out of their classes and holding events to raise awareness.

I support them, and so should you. It is in everyone's best interest.

I have written before that placing so much of colleges' teaching load on adjuncts damages students' education. It makes teachers overly dependent on student evaluations, so that nationwide standards inevitably get lowered. It keeps courses from working together in an effective sequence, because the teachers of each class are cut off from the rest of the program. And it leads to gross overwork, which burns adjuncts out, spreads their labor too thin, and demands less and less attention to each student. Most adjunct professors are gifted teachers. We throw their gifts away. The abusive work conditions they face damage the education students get. Working harder won't fix that. Overwork is part of the problem.

And this is a systematic problem. It's not one or two colleges doing this, and one or two colleges can't stop doing it on their own. Adjunctification, the move to a majority-adjunct teaching force, has become systematic, and the decision-makers don't feel that they can afford to stop relying on it. If they did, their budgets would fall apart, and competing schools would gain advantages over them. This problem can only be stopped by pressure nationwide. The people who run universities believe that they can't afford to stop using adjuncts. They have to reach the point where they can't afford NOT to stop, where the price of adjunctification becomes too high. And that pressure can't just be applied to one or two schools. It has to be system-wide.

This should matter to you if you're a student. Adjunctification, the switch to a majority-adjunct teaching force, is a way for colleges to spend your tuition on things other than your education. It matters if you're the parent of a student. It matters if you're one of the shrinking number of full-time tenure-unit faculty; the reliance on adjuncts also means fewer full-time professors. They too get overworked (because a smaller number have to share the work that adjuncts aren't allowed to do), and they too have their teaching effectiveness undermined. If all of the basic intro classes are taught by overworked teachers without the time or resources to be thorough, the students aren't going to come into more advanced classes with a thorough grasp of the basics. And then those advanced courses aren't what they should be, either. It's that simple. 

And it matters to you if you live in America. The burden on America's adjunct professors damages our entire system of higher education. And a shakily-educated populace is not good for us: not economically, not globally, and not in terms of protecting our democracy. It makes us less prepared as workers, less competitive in international trade, and less informed as citizens. What's bad for adjunct teachers is bad for all teachers, for all students, and for all Americans. Please support National Adjunct Walkout Day.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Mr. D: The Unwritten Rules of Romance Fiction

Hollywood is making some big Valentine's Day cash off Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adapted from the first book of E. L. James's mommy-porn trilogy. Let me say right up front that I have not read these books, because life is too short for that. But, like every living human in the industrialized world, I've been bludgeoned with so much unrelenting chatter about these books that I can recap the general plot: buff young billionaire punishes and dominates sweet young virgin in his sex dungeon, but also everywhere else. Which part of that plot bothers you most probably depends on who you usually roll with. In most of my social circles, the sex-dungeon part is not at all the problem because, hey, consenting adults. On the other hand, the punishing/dominating/stalking/abusing outside the dungeon part is very, very much the problem because Which part of "consenting" did you not understand, fool? 

The idea that a bondage-and-domination couple act out the same exaggerated roles outside the bedroom is shaky as psychology and lousy as storytelling. (My understanding is that domineering Masters-of-the-Universe types who are into BDSM are more likely to be the ones getting tied up; that dissonance between someone's behavior in bed and his behavior outside it is a potentially interesting story hook.) But that domination outside the bedroom is downright ugly as politics. Kinky sex may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the person doing the "submitting" is actually making some of the decisions and has a safe word so that she or he can bail out. (If that's not the case, as in the ugly story of disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, it's not BDSM. It's just beating people up.) So in Fifty Shades of Grey, the hijinks with whips and restraints may disgust or bore you, but it's the rest of the story -- the boyfriend chasing the heroine around in helicopters and hacking her cell phone and so on -- that's really morally unacceptable. That's not a romantic guy; that's a stalker who might kill you.

I can't help comparing Fifty Shades to that perennial favorite, Pride and Prejudice. The comparison is obviously lopsided, because Jane Austen is one of the best novelists who's ever written in English and E. L. James is nowhere close. Austen is basically putting on a master-class in writing on the sentence-by-sentence level; reviewers have fun with James by picking out some of her clumsy, amateur-hour sentences for quotation. But Pride and Prejudice is one of the distant models on which Fifty Shades is built, because its influence (like the Bronte sisters' influence) is shot through all of romance fiction. Even if E. L. James has never read any Austen, all of the writers she imitates (such as the writer of the Twilight series) imitate Pride and Prejudice in various ways. And Christian Grey has distant but obvious resemblances to Austen's Mr. Darcy; both are aloof, emotionally-stunted but fabulously-wealthy guys deeply invested in their alpha-male status. (Grey also owes debts to characters like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, of course.) Darcy is part of romance fiction's DNA.

Every genre of storytelling has its own unwritten rules, which might never get articulated and which storytellers and listeners are sometimes not even consciously aware of, but which they stick to carefully. Even if no one has ever explained a rule, even if no one can explain a rule, the story will "feel wrong" to audiences if you break it. (The pioneering work on this was done long ago by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.) This applies both to high and low art, including to self-consciously high art. And sometimes it's those underlying unwritten rules that are most interesting.

Now, if a central element of the Fifty Shades plot is "heroine tries to get away from love interest, who follows her around," it looks like Pride and Prejudice works in exactly the opposite way. It is Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who ends up more or less following Mr. Darcy around England, eventually showing up in his actual house. Although people will tell you Pride and Prejudice is about manners, Lizzy's actual behavior is totally outrageous: after turning down the D-man's proposal of marriage, and taking his inventory at fairly insulting length, she then turns up uninvited in his home -- one of the classic "Oh, hi!" moments in world literature.

Austen gets away with this, and lets her protagonist off the hook, by contriving to make it seem that none of this is Elizabeth's idea. Although the main structure of Austen's plot is "Elizabeth goes to places where Darcy is," Austen crafts the story so that it always appears that Elizabeth is going to those places for some non-Darcy-related reason, often without knowing that Darcy will be there. "Oh, hi" is actually a fundamental narrative principle of Austen's novel. It is crucial that Elizabeth always be thrown together with Darcy "by chance." But "accidents" in a novel are never actually accidents. They are always the result of deliberate design, and Austen, especially, is a meticulous designer.

Austen carefully arranges all of these "accidents" because she is following a major unwritten rule of "romance" narratives: the heroine may not get the male character's affection by deliberately pursuing him. This rule is not officially articulated anywhere. But everyone follows it. If you downloaded twenty new romance e-books tonight, I am willing to bet you that none of those twenty involve our heroine seeing a man she likes, deciding to go after him, going after him, and getting him. That plot is excluded from the list of possibilities. This rule is most absolute in fiction aimed primarily at female readers.

This is not because it is impossible for a woman to attract a man's romantic attention deliberately. In the actual world, a heterosexual woman has ways to get a heterosexual man to notice her, and most straight adolescent girls have already mastered a list of these techniques: laugh at his jokes (especially the bad ones), hold extra eye contact, wear a nice dress, etc., etc., etc. While you can't win 'em all, you can bat a pretty good average. But if you are the heroine in a romance narrative, none of that will work.  It cannot work. The core rule is deliberate attempts to get the man will fail.

There are stories about women going after the man, but in those stories the women are villains (see: Gone Girl) or cautionary tales. And this seems connected to a wider set of cultural ideas about romantic relationships; as Phoebe wrote in a recent blog post: "For whatever reason, it's seen as insulting to a woman to speak of her relationship as having emerged from mutual attraction." It's likely even more insulting to imply that she did the chasing. Women who aren't imagined as having been pursued by men are imagined as being less valued.

There is an entire subset of narratives (Austen's Emma/Clueless; Gone with the Wind; Legally Blonde; etc.) where the heroine sets out on a deliberate campaign to win the wrong man, inevitably 1. failing to get the boy and 2. realizing that she is actually in love with another boy. (In Scarlett O'Hara's case, this ending is punitive: she spends the whole damn novel/movie chasing the unsexy one before realizing she'll never get him and that she's already blown it with the sexy one she does love. I'd feel bad for Scarlett, but she's a Confederate, so tough cookies.) Not only can you not get the one you want on your own, you can't even figure out which one you want on your own. The only narrative I can think of that comes close to breaking this rule is Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan spends the whole movie trying to get to the oh-so-romantically-bereft man she heard once on the radio, but even that film actually sticks to the rule; as soon as the Tom Hanks character sees her, he falls in love at first sight, so that the Ryan character never has to try to get him to like her, which never works in a story.

On the other hand, a straight male hero pursuing a female character (even, or especially, a reluctant female character) and getting her is clearly not against our rules of narrative. We tell that story All. The. Time. But a straight female heroine pursuing a male character and getting him is effectively impossible. No one is officially forbidden to tell that story, but we may as well be. Try it and you will hear that something is "wrong" with the story, that it doesn't "work."

Obviously, this unwritten rule forbids women from going after what they want, but it is strongly present in romantic fantasies aimed at women, even (especially) romantic narratives written by women for other women. These stories are about women's desires on a very basic level, but the rules require that those desires be officially disowned. You can get what you want. You just can't get it yourself. You have to get someone else to give it to you, and you have to do that unwittingly.

Both Pride and Prejudice and Fifty Shades follow this basic rule, as do the whole vast number of similar romantic narratives. Fifty Shades does it using the crudest and most obvious narrative solution possible: since she can't take the initiative, he will take it all. He'll follow her around, etc., etc., etc. One explanation for Fifty Shades's retrograde politics may simply be that E. L. James couldn't think of a less obvious way to move her story forward.

Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, is cunningly designed so that neither Elizabeth nor Darcy seem to be doing the pursuing. The heroine-cannot-pursue rule is rigorously observed; indeed, there are a number of female characters, most glaringly Elizabeth's mother, who function to discredit outright or obvious pursuit of a husband. But Darcy is also usually not pursuing. The narrative logic of Pride and Prejudice is that once Darcy shows up at Elizabeth's house, the story is over; they're engaged. If Darcy approaches Elizabeth on any neutral ground, there is always a complicated advance and retreat; although each of these encounters is superficially different, the structure is always Darcy advances, a major plot revelation occurs, and Darcy scrams. (The given reason for retreat is always different; the structural effect on the narrative is always the same.) Austen is dedicated to creating the illusion that neither main character is seeking out the other.

Austen, of course, is not the only one who does this. Virtually every Hollywood romantic comedy is built on the "meet cute," whereby the male and female leads are introduced to one another by chance. He's not trying to meet her; she's not trying to meet him. It's always just, Oops! Just must be their lucky day. Disowning deliberate intentions turns out to be an essential part of the romance narrative.

What allows Austen to get away with this so smoothly is that she is enormously inventive in disguising her narrative moves and in creating plausible excuses for them. Austen is a great architect, and her novel is laid out in regular, symmetrical patterns. Readers respond to the book's soothing structural repetition, but if you consciously noticed how repetitive it was it would feel artificial and boring. Austen is wonderful at disguising those repetitions so that it seems like something new and different is happening; she camouflages the artfully-plotted symmetries and creates the illusion that a bunch of semi-random events are unfolding.

The novel has three parts, and in each of those three parts, right on schedule, Elizabeth visits a grand country house where Darcy happens to be. (Each of those houses is progressively more Darcy's own turf, until it's actually his own house.) The real reason Elizabeth goes to these places, the novel's reason, is that she has to be put in the same place as Darcy. But Elizabeth cannot be presented as deliberately doing that. So Austen contrives different narrative excuses; interestingly, they always involve Elizabeth going to whichever house for another woman, a close female friend or relative. This is dressed up in different guises:

1. Elizabeth's sister Jane falls dangerously ill at the country house where Mr. D. is staying with friends; Lizzy rushes to nurse her, and has to stay for several days
2. Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte has left home to marry the parson attached to a distant country house owned by D's aunt; Charlotte, homesick, invites Lizzy to visit, and Mr. D. turns out to be visiting his aunt
3. Elizabeth is touring Derbyshire with her own aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, who really wants to visit Darcy's house (which is on the Stately Homes of Derbyshire tour), so Elizabeth goes along, having heard that D. was away on business, and so ...

And so on. These are all superficially different. They are all the same move at the bottom. And Elizabeth is always nominally showing up near Darcy is in order to please a woman she already has a relationship with, rather than to start a relationship with Mr. D. The character has to have motivations that are not about Darcy. But these are just excuses for the the narrative to put her together with Darcy.

(All of these narrative excuses have their own excuses; Jane allegedly got sick because she walked to Netherfield Hall in the rain. But actually, it rained so that Jane would get sick, and Jane got sick so Elizabeth could go to Netherfield, where the novel needed her to be. And Charlotte's husband works for Darcy's aunt because Austen needs a second act here.)

The novel also needs to repeat the "third party gives Elizabeth information about Darcy" move over and over again, but Austen is always finding new ways to disguise it. Someone who dislikes Elizabeth tells her some news in order to hurt her; someone who loves Elizabeth writes a gossipy letter, assuming that Elizabeth already knows some news that she doesn't; someone randomly mentions some news without understanding its relevance to Elizabeth; it keeps on going. But it's always the same transaction: Elizabeth gets some information about Mr. D without Elizabeth asking or D. telling.

There are lots of go-betweens passing this plot information along. If Elizabeth can't go after Darcy, and if Darcy can almost never go after Elizabeth, there needs to be at least one go-between to relay information and also to move the plot forward. Austen manages this by having lots of go-betweens, in varied guises, almost none of whom are intending to move the Elizabeth-and-Darcy plot along but all of whom function to do so. Austen is ingenious enough to disguise many of these go-betweens as people trying to oppose the match. Heroine about to give up hope? Need to give her the news that she still stands a chance? Have someone show up and try to warn the heroine off. ("Why is this person suddenly so worried that Darcy is going to propose? What?") Then have that character double as the messenger who tells the D Man that he's still in the running. ("You told her not to marry me, and she said what? Huh.") It would look cheesy if a helpful friend did those tasks at the end of the story: too obviously convenient. But if an alleged "enemy" performs those tasks, it feels earned. That character is only opposed to the marriage inside the imaginary world of the story. In the deep machinery that makes the story run, that character is a crucial enabler of the marriage.

None of this makes Austen a feminist. I mean, she was writing in Regency England. And I would really, really love a great 21st-century storyteller to find a way to defeat the women-can't-pursue rule. But the differences between Austen at the dawn of the 19th century and James at the outset of the 21st are enormous, in ways that aren't to James's credit. Both Austen and James are stuck with the unwritten rule, bigger than either of them, that women can't just go out and get the men. James deals with that by having the man chase the woman even when the woman says no and isn't it all so sex-ay? Austen, on the other hand, deploys her nearly inexhaustible storytelling cunning in order to create the illusion that neither character is the main pursuer. And Austen, with artful indirection, lays out a subtle strategy that intertwines a prescription for playing the "good girl" with a prescription for playing a member of the upper classes. What permits Elizabeth to become Mrs. Darcy, i.e. to get the boy, is appearing never to strive for what she wants. But what qualifies Elizabeth to be a good Mrs. Darcy, i.e., a successful aristocrat, is also the ability to disown any striving or ambition, to get exactly what you want without appearing to try. That's a limited and equivocal kind of liberty, to be sure. But it's centuries ahead of Fifty Shades.

cross-posted from Dagblog