The Real Steely Dan

Sex, Depravity, Discernment & Judgement

In 1978 I was headed to USC, accepted into the freshman class of 1982. I was told that I should not let it be known that I liked the song Peg. It was about a porno movie. This is what I was told about conservatives. If they found this about me, I would be sidetracked.

In fact, I should not, according to those who told me, confess to liking any music by Steely Dan. This was because of what a steely dan actually is. I was informed, quite hesitantly by the person with whom I was discussing the matter, that a steely dan was some sort of homosexual sex toy. "Use your imagination." I was perturbed. But it didn't change my mind.

When I eventually arrived on campus, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the pervasive vulgarity of the graffiti in the bathrooms and library stacks. Not even at the public bathrooms at Venice Beach had I seen so much hideous dreck. It entered me into a world of depravity I found almost unbelievable. The Urban Dictionary, a fascinating artifact of the interwebz tells us, that among other things, a steely dan is

a large, hand crafted dildo. the dildo is made by molding feces into the designated design and then sticking the dildo in the freezer. after the steely dan is completed, it is then inserted into a female's FUPA, or 'Fat Upper Pussy Area". steely dans are a great frozen treat if used on a nice warm day.

If this definition sounds disturbing to you, then welcome to the club. I subsequently was reminded this morning that a steely dan has some of its notoriety if not existence rooted in the writing of William S. Burroughs. Speaking of this gentleman, it is true that I suffered through the filmed version of The Naked Lunch and found it traumatically forgettable. At the same time one of my favorite songs of all time is Words of Advice which dubs Burroughs’ voice over acid jazz tracks.

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Let’s Talk About Sex, Not
Outside of the lives of the ordinary man, the sacred and the profane are revealed in strange, mysterious and inconsistent ways. My dogged curiosity is rooted in a belief that people deserve to know and should be left a polite trail of breadcrumbs. That is my writing, the tales of a mental adventurer who is generally not afraid to go there. But depravity is something different.

In a recent discussion at Clubhouse, where a new elite of mouths are emerging in a crowdsourcing of radio talkshows, the subject of the post #metoo era engaged the lot of us investigating that which is too frightening to talk about. Sex is sacred and profane, and it is revealed in strange, mysterious and inconsistent ways, as is talk about it. In my trail of polite breadcrumbs, I don’t often talk about sex. The reason I give when I even bother to think about it revolves around a quote from Aldous Huxley I encountered in college (the second one, not USC). “An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex.” I’ve always wanted to be an intellectual in the same way men who are more than 6 1/2 feet tall must dream about basketball. Nature has forced me into it. I merely presume that the blood flow to my brain must be extraordinarily strong. Nevertheless, thinking and talking about sex could never be more interesting than doing it, and I could rarely find reasons to talk about sex if doing it wasn’t the goal. Knowing that most people must surely get enough, or accept that what they get is survivable, I let the subject lay fallow. I couldn’t imagine myself engaged on a mission to do research that would help other people get laid. So even being engaged intellectually for the purposes of laying out such breadcrumbs has never interested me.

Quite frankly I have three problems with sex. The first is that during my coming of age when everybody was reading The Happy Hooker, The Joy of Sex and Looking for Mister Goodbar, the underlying danger was not ethical but biological. The rule was, if it feels good, do it, but don’t get herpes. Herpes was easy enough to avoid if you took basic precautions. Syphilis, on the other hand was visually undetectable and would kill you. I was allergic to penicillin. Secondly I was trying to squeeze square women into the round holes of my desires. This kept my square peg out of their round holes. Thirdly which is the advanced case of #2, over time I simply found fewer and fewer women to be attractive. These three reasons combined to keep me out of all sorts of constant sexual frivolity and subsequently made those sexual relationships I did have all the more ponderous and fraught. Of course it was worth it.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the above sexual paragraph. I should say that it includes homosexual men in the role of unappealing women, who nonetheless made perfectly good friends. In general, I don’t find anything particularly special about anyone’s sexual paragraph, monograph or graphic novel. In the end, if it’s not about doing it with me, what should I care? If this aspect of my personality were not so deeply true and established, I imagine that it would be a very interesting lesson in Stoicism for me. My colloquial aphorism is in the form of a boxing metaphor. “If you’re not going to knock it out, don’t get in the ring.”

What has any of this to do with depravity, you might be asking yourself? Is this dude only merely a prude? No, I’m not. I’m much more like a snob. I have developed a passion and refined sensibility for a kind of perfection I am unlikely to ever fully achieve or receive. I consider most everything else to be subject to my snobbish calculations, which sometimes dress up in the moral fig leaf of ethical behavior. In other words there’s a lot of calculus on the left side of the equation -> fuckable.

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Obligatory Seriousness
The matter of depravity, nevertheless is what drove me to this subject. We live in a time in which many people are quite desperate to lay out their sexual paragraphs and create space to engage in public discussions which are explicitly not pathways to doing it. But aren’t they? Maybe they are all just putting up neon billboards pointing out the road less traveled in their own sexual milieu. Aren’t they all just confessions of “This is what I really like, you stupid careless bastards.”? Yes they are. Sex doesn’t need politics, only personal persuasion and luck. I daresay human beings have been improvising successfully in this area for at least 100 generations. Even without the internet.

As an intellectual, wary of social engineering but respectful of emergent cultural practices, I have taken specific patience and discipline to separate a working distance between the terms ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ as the distinction between those who are determined to air their sexual paragraphs for some political reasons and those who are not. This was for the purposes of debating that which has become known as, unfortunately to my tastes, Gay Marriage. To defray that can of worms it suffices to say that the entire history of homosexuality must inevitably consist of individuals for whom talking about it was primarily a vehicle for doing it. Of course it was worth it. In the end, if it’s not about doing it with me, what should I care? The parallel is perfect as far as I’m concerned and I cannot imagine any sort of talk that might persuade me otherwise.

I don’t mean to say there is no place under any circumstance for a proper negotiation of equality under the standard of law. It was trivially easy during those years of debate to see the state interest in the domestic tranquility of same sex couples. I cheered Lawrence v Texas. Big whoop. None of that changes the baggage people bring to public trails of breadcrumbs. Which people and how much baggage?

The Depravity Score
I am, don’t forget, a data engineer. As such it has always fascinated me that humans are analog computers who don’t know what their own settings are. So when I came upon this Depravity Standard, my mind was blown. What if we could know more accurately how squeamish people are with a much more personally applicable set of metrics other than the meddlesome and gameable generic MPAA rating standards? As they are getting more and more precise these days why shouldn’t there be some composite rating across depravity scores?

For example my favorite TV show of the moment is The Good Place: TV-14 (violence, substances, language, smoking). Yes of course I am Chidi without the stomach aches and irresolution. I am greatly entertained by this show. Yet there are others which immediately give me stomach aches and I find them completely unwatchable. A perfect example of this would be those which fit what I call the ‘HBO Formula’ where shows like Deadwood, The Sopranos, Oz and Boardwalk Empire, where you are forced to like the bad guy, or when a certain deception is central to the dramatic plot and this lie is kept alive season after season. I hate such stories, especially when the lie is between so-called friends. This destroyed the otherwise excellent Daredevil for me.

Yes, I will admit that this would be something of an elaborate trigger warning system, but as they clearly state on the Depravity Standard site:

Judges and juries both across the United States and in other countries who decide that a crime is “depraved,” “heinous,” or “horrible” can assign more severe sentences. Yet there is no standardized definition for such dramatic words that courts already use. And while we may all recognize that some crimes truly separate themselves from others, there is no standard, fair way to distinguish crimes that are the worst of the worst, or “evil.” To minimize the arbitrariness of how courts determine the worst of crimes, and to eliminate bias in sentencing, the Depravity Standard research aims to establish societal standards of what makes a crime depraved, and to develop a standardized instrument based on specific characteristics of a crime that must be proven in order to merit more severe sentences.

This research will refine into the Depravity Standard, an objective measure based on forensic evidence. This instrument distinguishes not who is depraved but rather, what aspects of a given crime are depraved and the degree of a specific crime's depravity. The research will enhance fairness in sentencing, given that it is race, gender and socio-economic blind.

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Invocations Against Evil
Bringing it back to the personal, what I related in Clubhouse had to do with my secret desire to visit violent destruction upon the head of anyone who would molest my baby sister. In fact, the violent fantasy was so strong that I secretly wanted something to happen. I found myself engaged in such thoughts not only for her sake but also for the occupation of my neighborhood by Russians. I was born a Negro during the Cold War. Such passions dominated my teenaged brain. I knew these were depraved thoughts. I knew I should be repressing something ugly and that I must ultimately succeed in that suppression. The violent fantasy involved barbed wire, liquid bleach, a baseball bat and ‘curbing’. What does that mean? Well, you lay someone down in the street perpendicular to the and facing curb. You force their mouth open such that they bite the concrete corner of the curb and somebody comes up behind them and delivers a kick to the back of the head. That’s off the cliff of depravity.

To grasp one’s own desire to perpetrate foul deeds, even ones that might be called ‘evil’ is a constant challenge. We are less challenged when we accept that personal lived experience might contain very specific reasons for such considerations, and that at some level everyone could consider themselves reasonably justified. It’s hard to work on one’s ethics when there is a culture of absolution and “Don’t judge” is common parlance. Among my closest friends on Clubhouse, we make the distinction between judgement and discernment, and this is a proper Stoic tool. Discernment is essentially a mindful recognition of the moral dimensions of a deed, or of one’s own thoughts. This is separate from the particular action of judgement. When we perceive something to be depraved, our instinct is to be shocked and immediately do something about it. Even as we are ants in the colonies of our sophisticated societies and cities, ‘doing something’ generally means talk. Or shout or scream or engage in long term political skirmishes in the low intensity creeping intellectual genocide that is our Culture War. And sometimes ‘doing nothing’ is to be assumed to have been shamed into silence. Thus we live in a culture where we simultaneously believe that words are violence and silence is violence. We believe this because we’ve been cheated out of our actual human agency by signing on to the false belief that words are always and everywhere political. We believe this because we expect to invoke state powers as members of a democracy. We believe this because we expect to invoke supernatural powers as members of a religion. We believe this because we expect to invoke the rules of the universe as members of a scientific discipline. Votes. Prayers. Research papers. You hate it when your invocations fall on deaf ears and the depravity persists. Welcome to the club.

So we should not be surprised that sex is politicized, and now that words about sex are as fraught with danger as the risk one takes in attempts of intimacy. If you are homosexual, you would most certainly be aware that the sacred and profane aspects of your desire are gotten in ways that are strange, mysterious and inconsistent. That’s tough enough without the further understanding that some or even most people consider homosexuality to be depraved.

In case you don’t immediate catch my drift, I say you should indulge or nurture that aspect of your personality that tells you if the words don’t directly imply doing it with you, then you should second-guess your care. Furthermore specifically with sex, you should ask yourself what the likelihood is that your sense of depravity is aligned in such an impartial way that your actions, even the actions of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in writing is polite. There are always temptations to become provocative, to enjoin a political skirmish, to invoke Leviathans of retribution.

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What’s It To You?
I must confess that as a writer, I have my way to avoid this messy business. The wisdom I have gained tells me that in many ways, I am communing with the living even as I am dead. After all, the majority of humanity that ever lived is dead. And it is even further illuminating that Aldous Huxley, now dead said:

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.

So yeah. Depravity marches on and we don’t know how we approach it. Whether pornography is what it is when we see it, or a racist is racist when we see their race, seeing is not quite enough. It’s much less so when we are guessing what conservatives at USC might say to a newly minted freshman whose favorite Steely Dan song was actually ‘Black Cow’ in 1978 and now is ‘Kid Charlemagne’ 43 years later. Other than the group, I’m still not sure what a steely dan actually is, even according to Burroughs, and I’m not interested to find out in that dimension of depravity. I just know the one that affects me the most, in the form of Fagen & Becker’s many bands, has brought little other than beauty and joy. Heh. I guess that’s like my sex life. Even though I don’t even know or have listened to much more than a dozen Steely Dan songs. Of course it’s worth it.

PS. Dr Seuss is not depraved.