Sunday, February 10, 2008

Individual sovereignty has a kink to untie


One frigid Saturday night in mid December 1972, I found myself in a dark, drafty, abandoned tenement in Newark, NJ, listening to angry rhetoric of the People’s Party of New Jersey (supposedly connected to Dr. Spock) as various “radicals” proposed their platform. Earlier that day I had been learning to ski, GLM method, in the Appalachian foothills. All of this was the closing of my ”coming of age,” just before I would “come out” for a second time. I remember some of the proposals: abolition of inherited wealth. Limitation of maximum income to $50000 a year. (Imagine that today!) Abolish “profit” as a legitimate motive of business. (That sounds like “Reds” doesn’t it.) I recall a young woman who worked as a secretary complaining that she was called “the girl” in the office. Someone called out, “will anyone making more than $5000 a year stand up and be counted?” I declined, but I felt like an unwelcome intruder and “spy”, working for corporate America -- Sperry Univac -- then for $14000 a year, then a decent middle class salary for an young unmarried male. Not only “rich people” but the pseudo-bourgeois middle class were the “enemy.”

The level of street-wise or “grass roots” indignation about the unfairness of things was now quite manifest to me. But if had been so before. Back in the mid 60s, I had been party to countless debates about the draft and the “fairness” of student deferments. With World War II and Korea still recent history, there was a definite perspective that defending freedom was an obligation that must be shared (an idea that Tom Brokaw talks about today with his “Greatest Generation” and “Boom” books.) By now, even the most conservative among us knew that Vietnam was, at best, very suspect (as we had lived through “Medium Cool” 1968, when I actually was drafted, finally). In the mid 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had blossomed, with Martin Luther King’s leadership (and tragic end in 1968). In 1969, Stonewall had occurred, three weeks before man walked on the Moon. As of that evening, the ramifications of Watergate were still not widely known, as Nixon had just been re-elected in a landslide. Nixon, remember, used to blast the war protestors (and draft dodgers splitting to Canada) as spoiled upper class kids who knew nothing of sacrifice. (But Nixon would end the draft in 1973.)

The runes of the Far Left had become predictive and evidentiary of a new trend in the way we looked at morality. For all the rants now seemed to focus on the unfairness of individuals’ receiving unearned wealth (like inheritance), while others lived in poverty. Notice the tone of the moral rhetoric: it focused on the individual. And this was the talk of the Far Left, a fringe element bordering on Communism, or at least radical socialism. Individuals should be assessed as to what they “deserved,” and wealth should be expropriated from the undeserving and redistributed to the needy. A purification was to occur. In fact, enhanced Communism (especially in the Soviet Union) did just that: it maintained its “deserving elite” (including the Soviet chess masters). In China, the “Cultural Revolution” spurned by Maoism was perhaps the most extreme example of this kind of thinking in modern history, as “intellectuals” were forced to toil in the countryside.

We had long heard moral debates. But in the past, back in the 50s, they had generally talked about people in groups. Dr. Edward H. Pruden in the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC had often preached about racial justice and ending segregation. I heard some of his sermons in the old building (replaced in 1955), when I was barely old enough to understand the idea of abstract moral discussion taken beyond the tenets of a religious faith and applied to the real world. Pruden had even asked and analyzed how the people of Germany could have allowed Nazism to overrun the country in the 1930s. Yet, in those days, these sorts of moral questions were understood as political in nature, to be solved en masse by organized political and legal efforts pressuring governments to change. They did not seem to compel the individual to act in an unusual way, other than to vote and perhaps to some rallies or sometimes to work for political candidates. They really did not demand “giving up” things.

By the 1970s, though, we understood that these moral questions subsumed a lot of personal responsibility. Even the early gay movement knew that. There may have existed some income and cultural differences between suburban gays (GANNJ) in New Jersey – that met in Unitarian churches and liberally-owned properties that would rent to them, and the radicals at 99 Wooster Street in New York’s Soho (the “Firehouse”), but by now everyone understood that moral responsibility for things was becoming privatized. It was up to the individual to craft his own life according to some personal moral grounds. Nowhere was the view clearer that at the Ninth Street Center in New York, and it seemed at times that the East Village was where this kind of thinking flourished.

And personal responsibility would take on a different turn in the 1980s as the Moral Majority of James Robison and Jerry Falwell took it up. Right and wrong no longer belonged to the group; it was the individual who was to be measured, assessed and judged.

Of course, in the middle of this lived the central social institution, “the Family,” which one high school student compared to a “banana” in a theme when I was subbing. The Family always defined a “local moral universe.” Loyalty to one’s flesh and blood was always a primal value. Parents expect respect throughout life from their children, even as adults, and they expect siblings to take care of one another. It isn’t hard to see where this leads in the debate about the meaning of marriage and “sexual morality.” As society set it up, marriage confers all of responsibility, social status, prestige, and preferences for those who will commit themselves to lifelong monogamous marital sexuality. Ability to carry out sexual intercourse strictly within the structure of legal marriage, resulting in having and raising children within the family that results, confers the right to influence the lives of others who have not married and had children of their own. In history, that got to be elaborated to the point that whole political alliances were predicated on the idea of arranging the right marriages and bearing the right heirs. Same-sex marriage, while it progressively looks toward the idea of sharing social responsibility among generations, still challenges the “meaning” given to marital sexual intercourse that seems so important to so many people.

Every society has plenty of men and women who do not marry and/or do not bear children. Society has always had other outliers from the normal family structure, even plenty of “only” children. In the past, those who did not procreate were expected to fit into the social structures created by their parents, who had procreated. The women were expected to be the ones who stayed home and looked after aging parents. Society worked at creating “legitimate” places where such “different” people could fit in without causing disruption to the social status quo. Unmarried women often became teachers, and school systems worked hard at making them seem credible to parents and children as authority figures, with strict rules of teacher “morality.” The Roman Catholic Church, using theological justification, carved out honored or respected places (as the “non marrying kind”) for nuns and priests, who had real authority, at the “price” of not only physical but intellectual chastity. In recent times, for priests, the credibility of this arrangement has broken down, but there were plenty of problems with moral credibility in earlier centuries, too. Very talented men could often get away with doing what they wanted, but generally most men felt heavy pressure to marry and have children, even if they were not so inclined.

But one of the accomplishments of the modern western family was to strike some kind of balance between individualism and the group. The “family wage” developed as a concept, eventually to recede after the 60s. There was an implicit understanding that those who did not “compete” well for mates should expect and receive an arrangement of mutual support with their biological families. In exchange for cultural “loyalty” to their family “reputation,” their families would help support them and shield them from the global measurement and judgment of apparently growing radical individualism. Such individuals were expected to experience a lot of “faith” and accept the goals of others in the family as their own goals. After all, others within the family, such as the elderly and the disabled (since medical problems strike many families randomly) need to count on them for a sense of meaning as well as, sometimes, financial support. Only the extremely gifted could break away from this.

Of course, with time, and especially from the 60s on, this social arrangement became less credible and less acceptable. After Betty Friedan (and despite the condescending tone of women’s magazines of the time), women advanced in the workplace (Univac, where I was employed in 1972, was one of the most progressive employers then for moving women into management) and did not “need” men according to the superficial idea of family division of labor, a complementarity that had “protected” families before. Gay men sought, among other things, emancipation from heterosexual expectations of “competitive performance” (and explicit message board postings on the Internet today still reflect that concern); yet, at the same time, gay male values, experienced in “upward affiliation,” seemed to worship social paradigms of “masculinity,” creating a certain existential paradox.

The Vatican would become increasingly vocal in its promotion of the whole paradigm of abstinence-until-marriage-and-procreation as an extension of reverence for human life (as usually stated in the debates over abortion and being “pro-life”). In a certain purely intellectual way, Vatican moral theory makes sense, but eventually becomes circular. In practice, marriages floundered because the government discouraged it then with welfare policies, and because straight men take the cue that it is OK to “love ‘em and leave ‘em”, becoming deadbeat dads. Yet social conservatives and pastors on the religious right often blamed gay men, for walking away from the moral responsibility of biological loyalty, leaving their families (and parents dedicated and transformed by lifelong matrimony) abandoned and gutted, a rather amazing claim to make at the same time as claiming that active gays are only about 1% of the population. All of this moral finger-pointing went on in a culture now ready to place increasing responsibility on the individual instead of the group that the individual had come from. Furthermore, the moral debate would forget that only a couple decades before, the horrible collective abuses of segregation and racial discrimination (that had grown out of slavery) had been accepted as an inevitable result of keeping people focused on the needs of their own immediate biological families. We would see social justice (“karma”) as a matter of redistributions among nations or religious or ethic groups or extended families, and in time come to see it in terms of fairness among the members of any particular group or family. Individualism could easily marginalize some people within any particular family.

The radical individualism points up a basic fact about the way we conduct these debates. We expect to rationalize policy decisions in the effect they have on secular society, now seen as a collection of autonomous individuals. We expect the market to take care of things (a stance sometimes criticized as “market fundamentalism” or “extreme capitalism”). However, people have tended to look to religious precepts to come up with relatively straightforward moral principles to address all of these problems. The Bible, in both Testaments, is filled with parables that explore the moral tension in the way people see themselves and must balance their expressions as individuals with the needs of society around them and of “God.” (The “Rich Young Ruler” incident is a good example, as are the parables of the “Talents” and the “Vineyard.”) Nothing really seems that simple.

Most people in previous generations saw the nuclear family as an intermediary, a social arrangement (and commitment) that not only raised kids but that took care of some of the competitive pressure that normally comes upon adults. That’s why marriage conferred so many privileges, that the unmarried and/or childless sometimes feel they are forced to “subsidize” and “sacrifice” for. What we have now is a somewhat confusing situation of conflicting moral expectations, and a need for a new paradigm. In the coming world most adults will find that some family responsibility (eldercare, and sometimes sibling care or even participating in raising other people’s children) will be expected of them regardless of their own sexual or procreative activity. Sexual intercourse surely creates responsibility, but is also comes from responsibility. Burdens must be shared – something previous generations (like the “Greatest” of Tom Brokaw) understood. And the painful thing is that these responsibilities can be life-changing, and have a serious effect on the decisions a person can make about his own life. Some external situations – pandemics, natural disasters, global warming, terrorism – can place more emphasis on social interdependence than our current culture accepts. An overall term for this problem could be “pay your dues.” The adult finds that, even if he or she does not form a family and have own children, he or she is called upon to prove the ability to provide for others, or else slide back into a pattern of emotional and social co-dependency on family and group, with limited opportunities for personal choice and expression. The nuclear family, buttressed around marriage, is supposed to take care of people in such situations. Of course, “competitive” performance throughout life, starting out in school as a young person, becomes essential to breaking out of this co-dependency and having more self-respect as a free adult. That sounds like a does of objectivism, but there is no way around it in a free society. The pressures on those with "families" to compete have serious practical consequences, as illustrated by the subprime mess -- and, yes, corporate greed (as well as short term thinking in financial markets) is a major factor, too. They are all part of what Princeton professor David Callahan called "The Cheating Culture" in his 2004 book.

Some of the most perplexing problems now associated with the Internet – such as “reputation defense” – have to do with the sudden “empowerment” of individuals to find global audience without necessarily maintaining connection to or accountability others. This Internet opportunity may seem to rescue some people from the “objectivist harness” just mentioned. But "global expression" may be a privilege, dependent on technology, earned after meeting inevitable obligations to others -- an idea that earlier generations understood as implied by liberty, but one that seems to need restating today. Indeed, the notion of "family reputation" could even become significant in the law (again) as this problem evolves on the Web. One subtle problem, vexing employers as noted in the previous post, has to do with the fact that almost anyone may find himself or herself perceived as a “role model” by others, including other people’s children (“OPC”). It’s becoming apparent that this is rather universal, and not something that is always a direct personal choice.

I believe in individual sovereignty. But it does sound like it needs to be earned. Things happen, people get challenged, whatever their wishes; and then they need principles.

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