"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In a blog post that divides the world as he sees it into “Pegs and Holes,” Dilbert creator and occasional sock puppet master Scott Adams stirred up quite the online crapstorm earlier this month. Unsurprisingly, a number of critics took him to task for his assertion about “tweeting, raping, cheating,” that “the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable…. society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness.” Jezebel’s Lane Moore took him to task for suggesting “that ‘boys’ are pretty much designed to be rapists” and Mediaite’s Alex Alvarez took on the “misandrist notion that men are base, selfish creatures who cannot control their impulses and, thus, require something else – like women – to act as the gatekeepers of morality.” Here at Salon, I called Adams’ post, among other things, “spectacularly bonkers” and “extremely lunkheaded,” and noted “the world is full of men who can distinguish between sexual urges and violent, aggressive ones.”
In response to his critics, Adams laid down the gauntlet in a follow-up post: “I’d like to offer an opportunity to one of the writers at Salon, Huffington Post, Jezebel, Mediate, or Mediabistro. Allow me to interview you, by email, for this blog, on the topic of why you so vehemently disagree with your hallucination of my opinion. (Fair warning: It won’t work out well for you.)”
Well, how could I resist an offer like that? (Jezebel’s Irin Carmon also took up the challenge.) I wrote Adams that if he would let Salon run the interview as well, I was all for it. On Wednesday, he replied, asking me to “BRIEFLY describe your main objection to my blog post, Pegs and Holes,” and we have both agreed to run our responses unedited. This is what transpired, on Adams’s blog.
MaryElizabeth: Why did I object to your post? Perhaps you meant it humorously, but let’s start with the way you lump “behaving badly, e.g. tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive to just about everyone in the entire world” together. Cheating is “behaving badly.” Raping is a crime. Right off the bat, you’re working off fuzzy logic, in which a consensual affair and an act of violence are somehow on the same plane. You do so again later when you suggest that if men were to “lose the urge for sex,” there’d be “no rape, fewer divorces,” as if rape was all about the “urge for sex.”
You state that “society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable…society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness. No one planned it that way.” Your presumptuousness over the natural instincts of men is surpassed only by your wild second-guessing regarding those of women. And society, by the way, is plenty planned. Ours here in America, in fact, was planned by, and its government and businesses are still largely run by, men. So instead of going on about the “instincts” of men and women, consider what our culture deems acceptable behavior from all its members, of both sexes. I would furthermore submit that if our society is “a virtual prison for men’s natural desires,” you’ve never been to Vegas.
Now let me ask you – do you believe that rape is a “natural” instinct, or that our culture doesn’t differentiate between the “urge for sex” and forcible violation?
Scott: I’ll start by answering you closing question. I think sex is a natural instinct, and it manifests differently in different people. A person who is simultaneously horny, prone to violence, and has sociopath tendencies might act in the worst possible way. That person would be abnormal, and I favor the death penalty for rape. Violent behavior is natural in the same sense that cancer and hurricanes are natural. Natural doesn’t mean good. Everything I just explained was obvious to many if not most readers of my Pegs and Holes post. You can verify that claim by reading the comments on this blog and on Huffington Post.
On your other points, let me see if I can break them down to bullet points and get your agreement on what you are saying before I respond to them individually. I believe you are saying…
1. Men who have no sexual desire and no erections will still rape because it’s not about the sexual urge.
2. If an author lists three things that are bad, he means all three things are equal to each other. For example, if I say blizzards, ulcers, and head lice are bad, I am implying that they should be treated the same way.
3. Society didn’t evolve as the result of millions of people making millions of independent decisions. It is mostly the result of planning by men who successfully designed society to meet their needs.
4. Men can get their natural urges satisfied by, for example, traveling to Las Vegas. Their wives and girlfriends won’t mind. There’s no real downside.
5. You can’t tell when I’m trying to be humorous.
Did I accurately summarize your points?
MaryElizabeth: So to be clear, you’re saying do believe that “horniness” is a factor in rape. I wonder, have you ever known someone who was raped? Are you aware that rape is used as a weapon of war? Men who have “no sexual desire and no erections” do rape, Scott. Ask someone who’s experienced it. Ask Abner Louima, as just one example.
Further, I wonder why you’re backing off from your own use of “tweeting, raping, cheating” and “no rape, fewer divorces” in the same lines of thought. You may facetiously compare your post to saying “blizzards, ulcers, and head lice are bad,” but I would argue that if that had been your original statement, you’d have been rightly accused of posting utter gibberish.
Instead, you referred, in the most blanket-like of terms, to the “natural instincts of men” as “shameful and criminal.” You’re the one who called men “square pegs” and referred to “males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges.” You made no such distinction, as you do now, for the more “prone to violence” and “sociopathic.”
And let me see if I understand you correctly – society has evolved from “millions of independent decisions”? I guess the Constitution can go suck it.
Finally, just because someone can tell when you’re attempting to be humorous, it doesn’t follow that you’re succeeding at it. Likewise, just because people disagree with you, it’s not always a sign they’re just not as smart as those HuffPo commenters. Perhaps if there weren’t so many of us with what you deem poor reading skills, you wouldn’t have the need to create imaginary defenders. I’d like to believe that you’ve reached out to your critics because you have a genuine curiosity to understand why your remarks were so offensive to so many, Scott. Or is that one more thing I’m apparently all wrong about?
Scott: If you’re lumping together every type of rape from war crimes to date rape to child rape to prison rape, most generalizations fall apart. I will grant you that when rape is used as a weapon of war, horniness is not the inspiration for the act. And I will grant you that if an erect penis is not used in the crime, horniness is probably not involved. And I will grant you that if someone who is seriously insane commits rape, it might not involve any horniness. And I will grant you that there are probably dozens of other twisted motivations that don’t start with horniness.
My original reference in my Pegs and Holes blog involved the IMF chief and his alleged rape of the hotel maid. In that case, I don’t think he first had an urge to do some violence and decided that his penis was the go-to weapon of choice.
Chemical castration drugs already exist, and have proven extraordinarily effective in reducing recidivism rates among sex offenders. The science is on my side. If you have a link that shows otherwise, I am happy to look at it.
And yes, I’ve known a number of rape victims. I don’t draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence, but horniness was obviously a factor in those cases.
If we can set aside for a moment the clarity, or lack thereof, in the writing of my original blog post, can you tell me what view you think I hold that is different from your own? And please put your answer in bullet point form if you can.
…to be continued
And here’s my latest reply:
Let’s look at how you’re changing your narrative here. “My original reference in my Pegs and Holes blog involved the IMF chief and his alleged rape of the hotel maid.” Your original post about “tweeting, raping, cheating” declared that “the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable. In other words, men are born as round pegs in a society full of square holes. Whose fault is that? Do you blame the baby who didn’t ask to be born male?” That’s not a specific reference to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who, by the way, is not accused of “horniness” taken to an extreme, but of orally and anally assaulting a woman. A refusal to take no for an answer may be a “factor” in some sexual assaults, but “horniness” does not lead to rape, Scott.
You go on to state, “Chemical castration drugs already exist, and have proven extraordinarily effective in reducing recidivism rates among sex offenders.” Yet in your original post you said, “Society is organized as a virtual prison for men’s natural desires…” and whimsically imagined that “science will come up with a drug that keeps men chemically castrated for as long as they are on it.” You didn’t say, “sex offenders.” You said “men.” The entire tone of your post suggests the two are indistinguishable in your mind, and that “if a man meets and marries the right woman, and she fulfills his needs, he might have no desire to tweet his meat to strangers” ie, the burden of responsibility falls upon women to keep “bad behavior” in check. It’s a very cynical and incredibly depressing way of looking at the world.
What views do I think you hold that are different from my own?
-That, as you stated earlier this year, “women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently.” I don’t regard my sex as a differently abled subset of society.
- That society forces males to exist “in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness.” (Perhaps you could clarify what society you’re speaking of. Is there an Unhappiness Island I’m not aware of?)
- That “It’s a zero sum game. If men get everything they want, women lose, and vice versa.” I’m not convinced this general “men” you speak of all want the same things. The men right now fighting for the right to marry their same-sex partners in New York want something very different than the men of the National Organization for Marriage. Hugh Hefner, whom you claim never got “a round hole for his round peg,” likely has damn near everything he could want, and it’s probably not what Justin Bieber wants. And I don’t believe in a world where one gender always has to win and another has to lose. I think better of humanity as a whole.
Let me pose another few questions. What are you hoping to communicate in posts like “Pegs and Holes”? Is this just elaborate satire, for satire’s sake? And if so, why then bristle when people take the bait?
Here’s our latest exchange:
Scott: On your first bullet point, you are making my point for me. The actual point of the earlier blog post you mentioned was that men don’t argue in situations where the cost of doing so is greater than the gain. The world is watching you make that true for me right now. This debate will probably reduce my income by a third, as feminist forces have already mobilized and started to ask newspapers to drop Dilbert. That’s the sort of risk that men don’t have when they engage in a debate with other men.
The exception would be when anonymous men on the Internet debate with women. In that case they have no downside risk and are willing to fully engage. But nothing is gained by it beyond entertainment.
On your second bullet point, regarding men existing in a state of unfulfilled urges, I’m referring to the fact that men (gross generality alert) have hearts that want a relationship with one person and penises that want a thousand different women. Neither marriage nor single life can satisfy that condition. And our current society discourages any other sort of arrangement.
Woman (gross generalization alert) are biologically less inclined to crave continuous sexual variety. That’s a statement about evolution. If you have a link that disproves that notion, I’m happy to look at it.
Someone will mention that men and women cheat at about the same rate. But research has shown that cheating isn’t about sex for either gender. Cheaters generally just want someone to treat them the way they want to be treated.
Obviously it wouldn’t be a point of disagreement if you were to say that many people differ from my gross generalizations. I said the same thing in Pegs and Holes: “Everyone is different.”
On your third bullet point, you argue that life is not a zero-sum game for the sexes. That’s probably true for economics. But my blog post was about natural urges. If a man you barely know wants to have sex with you, and you’d rather not, you can’t both be winners. Society has to pick sides, and you won. I think we both agree that is the best solution. Even the man who wants to have sex with you is glad he lives in a world where his mother/daughter/sister can safely say no.
You asked what I’m hoping to communicate with posts such as Pegs and Holes. My only goal is to be interesting. Ideas are society’s fuel. I drill a lot of wells; most of them are dry. Sometimes they produce. Sometimes the well catches on fire.
My next question: Do you support the death penalty for rape, as I do, or are you relatively pro-rape compared to me?
My reply: First of all, Scott, your continued assertion regarding the risks “that men don’t have when they engage in a debate with other men” is a stellar example of why people find your views offensive. It’s insulting, it suggests that talking to a woman isn’t worth your time and effort, and when you stoop to do so, you face retribution from the “feminist forces.” Here’s a thought: if as you claim anyone is asking for your strip to be dropped (and for the record, I am not among them) can you consider that maybe it’s because of the things you say, rather than because you’ve so benevolently deigned to engage in a conversation with a female?
Now, let’s consider your idea that “If a man you barely know wants to have sex with you, and you’d rather not, you can’t both be winners.” So much to unpack! What if it’s a man you know well? It gets back to what you wrote about how “the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal.” You’re not making the distinction between wanting to have sex with someone and wanting to force her to have sex. And to couch sexuality in terms of “winning” and “losing” just sounds really juvenile. If a woman says no to sex, the man “loses” and the woman has “won”? I will however cop that for a man who views the world that way, the burden of male “unhappiness” you spoke of earlier must be great indeed.
You say, “My only goal is to be interesting. Ideas are society’s fuel.” I think that sums up the essential difference in where we’re coming from. I don’t write to be “interesting” (go ahead, peanut gallery, take the straight line). I’m not bored or jaded enough to write just to get a reaction. My Irish firmly in the “up” position, I’m here because I care about passionately about these issues, and about the world in which my two daughters are growing up. I don’t want their ideas and opinions dismissed as too troublesome for a man to squander his energy on, or to have to put up with what you refer to as “gross generalizations” about their sex.
Now, regarding your question, “Do you support the death penalty for rape, as I do, or are you relatively pro-rape compared to me?” Oh Scott. Oh really. You’re just messing with me now, aren’t you? What’s next, you going to ask when I stopped beating my wife? You can’t honestly believe that being opposed to capital punishment is tantamount to be in favor of sexual assault, can you? Where’s that great logic you pride yourself so much on?
Scott: I think this would be a good place to stop. I’d like to thank MaryElizabeth for being a good sport and for trying to make the world a better place in her own peculiar way.
I feel as if this has been an Internet-wide conversation, with many websites joining in the debate. I leave it to readers to decide whether it was wise for me to engage in an honest conversation on this topic or whether it would have been smarter to apologize for any alleged offenses and slink away. Here’s a link that should help you answer that question.
To the women who are not batshit crazy, and fortunately that is most of you, I apologize for any lack of clarity on my part was deemed offensive. I’m reasonably sure we agree on all of the important stuff.
My reply: I’m not sure I fall into your category of women who aren’t batshit crazy, but I do appreciate the invitation to have a conversation, and your willingness to engage. I’m glad we did this, and I’m grateful for the time and thought you have given the issues we’ve discussed. Thank you.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)