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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:


• Cruel Caesar? Lovesick martyr? Birds flocking together? All are purported sources of the sentimental ritual we observe this Friday. Records from the Catholic Church differ on who exactly Saint Valentine was; three different men of that name are said to have been martyred on February 14, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Various legends have been cooked up about St. Valentine. One says he performed secret marriages when the Roman emperor forbade young men from marrying. Another says Valentine was a prisoner who wrote a letter to the jailer's daughter who befriended him, signing it: "From your Valentine."

These stories get a lot of mileage for their Hallmark mushiness but offer little in the way of historical verification. What is certain is that February 14 was the date of a Roman pagan fertility celebration honoring the god Juno, in which men drew names of eligible women by lottery, and that in A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius I outlawed the festival and declared February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day to honor the patron saint of lovers. The practice of exchanging Valentine's Day cards probably began in medieval Europe and developed from the belief that birds selected their mates in mid-February.

By now, all manner of customs are associated with Valentine's Day, including those candy hearts (who knew? They're over a century old); superstitions related to the St. Valentine's Day massacre (the infamous Chicago gang shooting which, I learned last week, happened about a mile from my apartment); and a Japanese twist on the holiday that has women buying candies for men (which men reciprocate on the retail-created "White Day" in March; more at Snopes.com).

Valentine's Day's status as an American "festival of consumption," in Daniel Boorstin's term (reflected on here), seems complete when you see this Web site's suggestion that you "Buy your pet a Valentine's Toy." But Valentine's Day also gives us occasion to visit issues related to love and romance in contemporary society, and to gauge discussion about them on the Web.

• We usually think of them as cute and innocent, but is there a hidden danger in the consistent narrative of romantic comedies, one that may be subtly contributing to our country's ever-increasing divorce rate or at least our perspective on love? Nearly all romantic comedies—from Pretty Woman to The Wedding Planner to Serendipity—are about the exact same story: two beautiful people are destined to fall in love, but a series of unusual circumstances keeps them apart until the very end—and then they live happily ever after.

Thus the focus of these movies—and also most television, advertising, magazines, and music about romance—is on the tease of love: the dance of seduction, the magic of the first meeting—all of which precedes the actual relationship and any meaningful interaction between two people. How backwards is it that 95 percent of popular culture's treatment of love is about this initial tease—meeting the right person, how to be attractive for such a meeting, how magical the meeting feels at first, etc.—and not really about love itself? And how poisonous is it for children and teens to be bombarded with our country's emphasis on the role of external projection in this tease, while they get almost nothing on how to be an authentic and faithful person?

Weary critic Roger Ebert, enduring the oh-so-contrived romantic movie On The Line, sums up the standard storyline of romantic comedies and makes an important observation:

A boy and a girl Meet Cute and instantly realize they are destined for each other, and then they plunge into a series of absurd contrivances designed to keep them apart. Just once, could they meet and fall in love, and then the movie would be about their young lives together?

(Read the full review here.)

This is a crucial point. How much better would the quality of popular culture—and the quality of our country's marriages—be if more of it were devoted to the dramas, tensions, subtleties, and changes we experience in long-term loving relationships rather than just the initial tease? These are arguably more interesting and certainly more relevant to how we experience love in real life. For example, for all its gloss, "The Cosby Show" at least provided a genuine and complex picture of the second and third decades of marriage—and all of the random frustrations, adaptations, weeping and joy that go with them—as we watched Clair and Cliff spar and snuggle with each other. (Some would say the family portrait of the comparatively depressing "Everybody Loves Raymond" is even more rooted in real life). And at least My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which came from nowhere to become the number-one romantic comedy of all time, spent a good chunk of the movie showing the lovers' struggle to converge their two cultural backgrounds. (Now will the new TV show continue this useful storyline?)

I heard once that although we don't approve of arranged marriages, we have to appreciate that in cultures where they do exist, the focus is on learning to love and building toward a peak that may come 25 years into a committed relationship. America is the antithesis to such a learning love; the peaks in the relationships we celebrate in our culture all come right off the bat, and then it's all downhill from there. The Cinderella magic is dazzling and then it's a memory. Is our country's staggering divorce rate beginning to make a little more sense?

• In the relatively short history of dating, one of the most illuminating elements of the custom is its location. In formal Victorian culture, courtship always occurred within the female's home, usually in close supervision of the female's parents (the dream setup, presumably, of John Ritter's character from "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.") This was for the same reason that women remained in the home in Victorian culture while men represented the family in working and civic life: in the moral view of the day, staying at home was a way of preserving a woman's "purity" (in a general, not just sexual sense).

Dating happened on what was clearly defined as the woman's turf, and the man was clearly defined as a guest.

Historians identify a significant shift in the dynamics of dating when it was transferred from this private haven to the public realm. As society started to shrug off its stiff Victorian formality, the importance of dating on the woman's turf started to wane. Meanwhile, America was developing a new fascination with the entertainment of its burgeoning urban centers, where a clash of cultures skewed Victorian structures of social interaction. The automobile provided the means to connect with this new world. Now dating was on the man's turf—he initiated dates and made the decisions and payments related to the evening's entertainment (and began to see his money as a down payment on the ultimate conclusion to the evening). Some say the most important social shift that shaped dating was a revolution in home architecture around the same time; as American homes began to have fewer and less-separated rooms, couples no longer had a designated place to court; family authority roles began to blur even as the barriers between rooms physically decreased. So couples started going out. That's why some say the bungalow caused an early 20th-century sexual revolution.

(There aren't any great histories of dating available online, but you can start here or here.)

In a fast-paced culture, though, even current methods of dating aren't liberating enough. Now time-conscious couples are starting to engage in a lightning-quick practice that would seem to preclude any chance at truly getting to know someone.

USA Today reported in December on couples who go to serial eight-minute dating sessions. "It's cost-effective," said one participant. "You can hit about 20 birds with one shot."


• The Internet has introduced a new phase in the shifting location of dating—from woman's turf to man's turf to no turf at all. Even though online methods of meeting are crude and fraught with peril—the Snopes.com Web site features an intercepted e-mail that belongs in its "How To Broadcast Embarrassing Details About Your Love Life to Millions of Strangers All Over the Planet"—people persist with their online pursuits.

But the Web raises questions of identity, authenticity, and—in the case of one ad for an online matching service I came across last week—ambiguity. The ad shows a grinning woman above the teasing tagline, "I have a thing for small businessman." Pray tell: is she referring to the size of the man's business or the man?

The horror and occasional happiness of meeting online is best related in a recent Salon series of submitted anecdotes, which make for some down-to-earth Valentine's Day reading.


• Recent accounts of the state of sex in today's marriages may make you wonder why all those fussing over dating are so earnest to find a mate. The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanigan reviews eight books, including The Sex-Starved Marriage, that all lament the lame libidos of married Westerners and offer prescriptions of varying dubiousness. Flanigan starts to hint at an irony that tends to elude the family values police—the most straining forces on today's family don't come from the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but from the individualistic drive for achievement and prosperity that leaves nuclear families increasingly isolated from relatives, unknown to their neighbors, and beholden to a regime of soccer practices that keeps us confined in our SUV's. "Once children come along," Flanigan writes, "it's easy for parents to regard each other as co-presidents of an industrious little corporation"—and not energetic lovers.

A recent issue of New York magazine, meanwhile, does something to dissolve Carrie Bradshaw's connection between sex and that city; "Between the kids and the economy," New York said, "it's no surprise that New Yorkers' libidos are shrinking faster than their 401(k)s."

The London Observer says Britain has the opposite problem—sex is everywhere, but what's love got to do with it?

The Observer also offers an A to Z synopsis on the subject. (For more cerebral but no less imaginative reading, see theLondon Review of Books on the relationship between sex and evolutionary psychology.)

• What relationship do American values about romance have to Christian ones? Very little, it often seems. Love as described in the Bible and the writings of C.S. Lewis is about devotion, perseverance, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and imagination. Now why don't we hear much about those is popular culture?

Rodney Clapp on love in the Bible from Christianity Today

• Excerpts and essays on C.S. Lewis' The Four Loveshere , here and here.

Skip to Dialogue / Skip to Digest


From the Washington Post:

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Feb. 1 — Benny Setiadi was no taller than his father's waist when his parents told him about the magical barongsai, the traditional dance of Chinese acrobats cloaked in lion costumes. They said the barongsai brings good fortune. But the rituals of his Chinese ancestors had been banned by the Indonesian government shortly before his birth, and Setiadi could glimpse the dance only on foreign television broadcasts. So when a pair of barongsai lions leapt on stage this evening to the clatter and crash of drums and cymbals, Setiadi's eyes opened wide. Now 32, this was the first time he had ever seen these glorious pink and white "beasts" with their shimmering coats of fur and sequins in person. This year marks the official coming out of Indonesia's Chinese minority, whose culture was forced underground during more than three decades of repression by former president Suharto. As recently as five years ago, Chinese New Year was celebrated quietly in private homes, if at all. … But this year, President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared Chinese New Year a national holiday.

LA JOYA, Mexico — Antonio Lozoya lives in John Wayne's train station, with John Wayne's caboose rusting on the tracks outside. His yard is John Wayne's main street, which runs past the remains of the Duke's bank, saloon, church and jail and up into stunning canyons, all rosy and still in the dawn's first light. Lozoya said he'd give anything to have those years back, from the minute Wayne showed up in 1972 to buy his cornfields, through the building of a life-size Old West town, to all the happy years when Wayne and his movie-star friends wooed the ladies and vamoosed the varmints in all the Hollywood Westerns they shot here. … Here in the state of Durango, where it all started for Hollywood moviemaking in Mexico a half-century ago, Wayne's death in 1979 marked the end of an era that everyone here is now trying to reclaim.

WHEATLAND, Wyo. — As the only "baby doctor" serving a three-county swath of the khaki-brown Wyoming prairie for the past quarter-century, Willard Woods has delivered about 2,500 infants, including almost all the high school athletes in Wheatland, Douglas, Chugwater and other rural communities. But this winter, Woods ended his obstetrical practice. … The national malpractice insurance crisis that President Bush spoke of in his State of the Union address last week hit home for Wheatland this winter when Woods's insurance company joined a number of national malpractice carriers in declaring bankruptcy. … In this wheat-growing region of eastern Wyoming, where medical services are sparse and scattered #151Platte County, with a population of less than 9,000, has five doctors, equal to the number of veterinarians—the impact has been acute.



Virginia Postrel is a contributing economics columnist to the New York Times, contributing editor to Dallas' D Magazine, and author of The Future and Its Enemies. She maintains one of the original and widely visited weblogs on the Internet at www.vpostrel.com. I interviewed her by e-mail for my Nov./Dec. 2002 B&C story on morality and digital technology (linked below). Here is the full transcript of the exchange.

Books & Culture: Some of the rhetoric from the early 90s about the promise of the Internet borders on the utopian. What were these promises of digital technology, and what were the flaws of the rhetoric?

Virginia Postrel: At its most extreme, the rhetoric promised a complete transformation of the relation between citizens and government, businesses and customers, media and readers, and so on. The general idea was that somehow intermediate institutions would melt away and everyone would use the Internet to be self-sufficient.

As I discussed in this 1994 speech on media (with some reference to government), these proclamations tended to misunderstand why we have such intermediate institutions in the first place. Time and knowledge are limited.

Intellectuals hate specialization, but it is—as Adam Smith observed in the economic sphere—the key to progress.

We then went through a period when just the opposite idea became prominent, particularly in discussions of media: A few large entities like AOL-Time Warner were going to control everything. Both of these fallacies were informed by a sort of naïve 19th-century leftism (with dollops of anti-authority libertarianism and plenty of hippie inclinations) that assumed that big is both bad and profitable.

Throughout all this period, there were always voices of moderation, including people who were building businesses and other institutions A number of my Forbes ASAP columns tried to offer a more sensible alternative to the all-or-nothing approach to thinking about how the Internet changes the relation between large institutions (including commercial websites) and individuals or small entities. See, for instance,





B&C: How much more reserved now is futuristic talk about the Internet, and should it be? What is the greatest promise of the Internet in a supposedly wiser age?

VP: The promise of the Internet is what it has always been. It lowers the cost of information. It lowers the cost of any venture that primarily deals in bits—from producing music to producing political commentary. (Witness all the recent attention to blogs and, notably, Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit site's ability to become a major information hub in a matter of months.) It makes it possible for people with specialized tastes or interests to find each other. It reduces the disadvantages of geographical distance. It saves research time.

B&C: How can the digital technology build community/communities now and in the future, and how does it fall short of facilitating true community and relationships?

VP: First of all, the Internet duplicates some of the advantages of a large (very large) city, by making it possible for people to find others who share their narrower interests. These may be hobbies, political interests, pop culture enthusiasms, or medical problems. In some cases, these relationships are very casual. In others, such as struggling with particular medical problems, they may be quite close.

Along similar lines, the Internet reduces some of the barriers of geography. If you're the only geeky kids in some tiny town in Idaho (or wherever Jon Katz wrote GEEKS about), you can find people elsewhere who don't think you're incredibly weird, and your horizons may widen. The kids in GEEKS decided to go to college in, I believe, Chicago.

By reducing the barriers of geography, the Internet changes the relative costs of living in the place that's best for your family and the place that's best for your career. As editor of Reason, I had several employees living in remote locations because of a spouse's job or other familial obligations. In some cases, those places were good for editorial work—for instance, Washington—but distant from our headquarters in L.A. In others, such as Huntsville, Texas, or Oxford, Ohio, they weren't particularly good for the magazine, but keeping a valuable employee was worth it. For that matter, I now live in Dallas because my husband teaches at SMU. Dallas is a large city, which helps, but I would certainly never live here for my career (or, off the record, pretty much any other reason). I find the Internet essential to my work in all its dimensions.

The Internet isn't a substitute for face-to-face friendships, but neither is the phone. But by making communication at a distance easier, the Internet allows people to maintain and develop relationships that wouldn't be otherwise possible.

My experience around September 11 illustrates some of the power of the Internet. My website became a hub for all sorts of people to communicate with a virtual community. Email allowed me to communicate easily with friends and family even in the New York area. The most unusual interactions were those I had with a guy in Pakistan who knows my brother in Portland, Oregon, via an email list for Jeep enthusiasts. The Jeep club members had many frank exchanges with their fellow enthusiast in Pakistan. I got involved to bring my expertise to bear on the rumors about CNN's supposedly old tape of Palestinians celebrating the attacks and about 4,000 Jews being warned not to show up at the WTC. The Internet helped spread those rumors, but without it I certainly wouldn't have been debunking the Pakistani rumor mill.



For links with an *, you can enter "bcread" for both member name and password

When is art afraid of imitating life? When the country is mourning a national tragedy. The Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Collateral Damage, which features deadly explosions amid Los Angeles' skyscrapers, was yanked from the fall 2001 schedule after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and its Web site was toned down.

One year later, the Colin Farrell movie Phone Booth, in which the main character is hunted by a sniper, was delayed for the Washington sniper shootings and still hasn't been released.

Now the Columbia tragedy has pop culture scrambling to eliminate potentially insensitive space-related commercials and episode reruns, says the Associated Press (in the Seattle Times). But isn't it strange how we ordinarily accept pop culture's melodrama, are jolted into its excesses when real-life violence shocks us, and then, after a spell, retreat to the pseudo-reality of violent entertainment until the next tragedy comes along?

The Hardee's restaurant chain picked the wrong weekend to launch a campaign for its "Big Chicken" sandwich. The company's ad showed a NASA rocket taking off, with a voiceover saying, "We know that the astronauts were not chicken. Stop by Hardee's and get your 'Big Chicken' sandwich."

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/artsentertainment/ …


The shuttle disaster has deepened Americans' general sense of angst, says the Boston Globe.

TV news shifted back into crisis mode on the day of disaster, says the Washington Post

• Amina Lawal sits in jail in Nigeria with her one-year-old daughter, a child she conceived after getting divorced. That act could make her the first Nigerian to be stoned for adultery under the strict code of Islamic law that has recently swept through the country and created a religious rift.

The verdict, when it does come, holds enormous significance, not for Ms. Lawal alone but for the future of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, which is on the verge of tearing apart along Muslim-Christian lines. Even though Nigeria is technically a secular democracy, Shariah, or Islamic law, has swept through its northern, largely Muslim states over the last three years. It has emerged as a bellwether issue in the elections approaching in April. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner responsible for holding together this country of 130 million, has had to walk a delicate political line on the matter.


• Tantamount, it would seem, to holding an anti-SUV rally in a GM plant, the National Abstinence Clearinghouse is holding its 2003 abstinence convention in Las Vegas.

Noting the "naughty girl cards" strip barkers hand out, Clearinghouse founder Leslee Unruh said the abstinence folks at the conference are planning to distribute " 'good girl cards'—with virgins. It's bold, it's in your face," she said.


Related from the Post:

Texas schools try to teach abstinence

TV sex is getting both tamer and more common

• Turning 100 isn't what it used to be. New York City has more than 50 residents over the age of 110, and nationwide the centenarian population is booming, says the New York Times.

In this aging world, it remains elusive to live to become 100, but much less elusive. Although small in number, centenarians are proportionately the city's fastest-growing age bracket. The country's too. According to the 1990 census, 1,455 people who were at least 100 lived in New York City. The 2000 census identifies 1,787, an increase of nearly 23 percent, with 58 of them 110 or older. Nationwide, 50,000 people are estimated to have made it to 100, and demographers project that there might be close to one million in triple digits by 2050.



NPR interview with author Katherine Newman on aging in the inner city.

• At age 22, 7-foot-5 Yao Ming is larger than life. The NBA rookie from China already looks like a dominant player, a much-needed post-Jordan superstar for the league, and even a catylst for cross-cultural relations, says Time magazine.

Some 1.3 million NBA fans have already fallen for Yao — selecting him, in the balloting for this Sunday's All-Star game, over the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal as the Western Conference's starting center. Yao isn't O'Neal's equal on the court, but he has surpassed Shaq in the estimation of blue-chip companies like Apple and Visa, which see Yao as the pitchman messiah who might finally open the wallets of China's 1.3 billion consumers. … His endorsement deals are being structured with an eye toward the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Yao should be reaching his basketball prime just as the world's attention is focused on him and his country.


"Can philosophy be filmed?" The headline in the Boston Globe captures the struggle of the makers of a documentary on Jacques Derrida.

Jacques Derrida, born in 1930 in El-Biar, near Algiers, the author of more than 40 books and the subject of more than 400, is the most famous philosopher and perhaps the most self-conscious man in the world. For a philosopher, but not just for a philosopher, he has had a remarkably eventful life. … But in front of the camera, he feels, nevertheless, like a fish. … Early on in Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick's documentary "Derrida," which will play at the [Boston] Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 5 until Feb. 19 (the directors will be present on the 9th), the philosopher addresses the question of the importance of a thinker's biography. … Deconstruction is an approach to thinking that is extraordinarily suspicious of biography and of the traditional conception of the individual. So what do we find in a biographical film about the individual who invented deconstruction?


• At a time when most schools struggle to impart the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, one private school in the Seattle suburbs is trying to expand on the fundamentals, says the Seattle Times. Immersing themselves in art and drama, students take the stage in kindergarten.

The first thing that's spotted upon entering Soundview School is the art: Copies of Mexican murals. Paintings of folk art. Cubism. Abstract self-portraits done Picasso-style. … It's the land of Soundview School, a preschool-through-eighth-grade private school where creativity is a central part of the curriculum. Unusual learning is going on at this nonprofit Lynnwood school of between 120 and 140 students. Classes have 12 to 15 students, and instruction, heavily weighted toward the arts and technology, braids those disciplines into the core curriculum.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/artsentertainment/ …

Slate magazine tries to be an epicenter of Beltway buzz—fixating on what occupies the narrow view of Washington journalists—so it's refreshing to see a senior editor fly to Africa to experience a crisis that isn't on the front pages, or on the minds of many in Washington.

This is the rainy season, and every afternoon brings yet another shower to feed the crops. And yet hunger is everywhere. World Food Program spokeswoman Brenda Barton, who's in my car today, has a great description: "a green famine." … The hungry of Malawi and Ethiopia are too poor and too weak to make trouble, to buy American goods, to ever matter to American geopolitical strategy. There is not any reason to help them, except that we can and except that we should.



How Ethiopia has held famine at bay, from the Christian Science Monitor

• Speaking of Africa, is it right to react to reports of the AIDS crisis there with as much condemnation as sympathy? We need to make a healthy distinction between judging and being judgmental, says Neal Plantinga in The Banner.

Jesus allows judgment, but not hasty judgment or self-righteous judgment or presumptuous judgment. And he supports his prohibition by pointing out that such unfair judgments are not only wrong but foolish. And they are foolish because they are boomerangs. "Do not judge. … For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged" right back (Matt. 7:1-2). … Our rule of thumb is to hold each other accountable because we then show each other proper respect as moral adults. But who knows the heart of another person?


Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant of Books & Culture.

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