Sunday, July 15, 2007

Assessment 0 -- am I really a second-class citizen because I didn't marry and have children?

In the next few days, I expect to post a few “assessment” statements about my own goals and how the “virtue” principles in last Sunday’s (July 8) post should apply to me.

I want to start this off with an “Assessment Zero” foreword that specifically addresses concerns about my not having been a parent. I’ll jump forward a bit and reiterate one idea: whatever one’s idea of public morality based on institutional notions of faith and family, it’s important to give a common denominator based on the individual. The only such LCD has to be “karma” in the most general sense of the word: personal competitive performance in life (almost the way we describe it in the workplace -- the politically incorrect term is "meritocracy"), modified to incorporate the ability to provide for others besides oneself, and to communicate with others (including children, the disabled, the elderly, etc) who may be in some kind of natural social dependency. This idea would extend the notion of “family values” as most people perceive it, where everyone can be “saved” and fit in to a family culture and not be overly concerned about external concepts of “justice” beyond one’s personal control.

Monogamous marriage (usually heterosexual) with children, then, is important because it is one of the most important ways for someone to achieve this expectation. But marriage and lineage are not moral ends in themselves, and they are not the only way to participate.

I won’t go too far down the pike here with religion, but karma (as a notion) makes a lot of sense to me. It seems “fair,” but then again maybe so does purgatory. I talked about it on April 7 on the books blog (archive) in reviewing old books by H. Spencer Lewis.

In the 1990s, the idea that families with children can have a hard time “competing” in an hyper-individualistic culture started to take hold a bit. After all, the concern over benefits available in marriage, and whether same-sex couples can partake of them, reflects the idea that society as a whole is more stable and less dependent on government when adults can depend on one another for support. As Jonathan Rauch once wrote, “a single person is an accident waiting to happen.” But, a critical part is how much of the benefit was intended not for the adults themselves, but specifically to raise kids, and now, often enough, to take care of the elderly. Sometimes in conservative publications one would see a semi-rant like Henry Hyde’s “Mom and Pop Manifesto.” I wrote about this in my first published piece in the Quill in 1994, here.

As the Internet came into wide use by the mid and late 90s, a new subtle concern emerged: many parents found it hard to raise their kids and remain focused on their own marriages in a world with so much uncontrolled public “distraction.” This got rolled into censorship laws and subsequent litigation striking these laws down (CDA, COPA).

The workplace would also see subtle conflicts between those with and without kids. In data centers, particularly, associates would work overtime and be on-call, and some people with heavy family responsibilities would ask the singles to do it for them, without compensation. They didn’t like to be reminded of the fact that others were “sacrificing” for them. Some employers deliberately made the singles work the undesirable shifts of cover the overtime, as would sometimes be reported in business journals, even the WSJ. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund would come up with the bizarre catchword, “singles and glbt people at a discount” in the “equal pay for equal work” arguments taken from the women’s movements earlier.

Since 9/11 and some other natural disaster scares (Katrina, the persistent threat of avian flu and other pandemics, an ironic twist of the 80s panic over AIDS), and especially since the global warming debate has turned very serious, more attention has been given to the ability of people to depend upon others within the local community and extended family unit.

Also, in the past few years, changing demographics has added a new urgency to the debate on the cohesiveness of the family as a source of psychological motivation. “Western” people are living longer and having fewer children, inviting political and religious problems if immigrant groups become more populous, but also increasing the financial and practical time burden of looking after parents and the elderly. The eldercare problem can even be viewed as test of our commitment to the value of human life for its own sake.

One specific danger concerns filial responsibility laws. On my retirement blog, I have done some specific research on states with these laws (July 7, July 12). It would appear that in close to 30 states, these laws could be used to force adult children to support indigent parents (or sometimes other relatives such as siblings and grandparents). This requirement appears to exist outside of the better known problem of the Medicaid “look back period” which federal law recently extended. It’s not apparent that there is widespread enforcement yet, although some social conservatives call for it. There would be practical issues of enforcement, and maybe even “Full Faith and Credit” issues with out-of-state adult children. Indigence in old age is likely to increase as medicine can extend biological life without always extending quality of life (and even that comparison raises questions about "reverence for life"). I can imagine this topic attracting the interest of Michael Moore for his next expose film!

Imagine the social impact, however. Over the past few decades, there has been a general social understanding that having children is a morally neutral personal “choice” that, however, generates heavy commitment responsibilities (include stable two-parent monogamous marriage) once one has them. Filial responsibility laws, however, could send a message that having children is expected and advantageous, and an indispensable part of blood loyalty. Many cultures implicitly assume this; it is only modern American and Western European culture that, since roughly the 60s, has taken on the “rationalist” view that the adult individual trumps over the family.

I don’t want to get too personal here, but I have faced situations in recent years where others do not regard me as an equal because I did not beget my own lineage. Sometimes others do act as if I can be forced out of my own world and to deal with their needs first. Maybe “payback is a b___h”. My goals and aims take a back seat if “their” needs are great enough. It is, as I said on an earlier post, a bit like psychological communism. I can look ahead and see how filial responsibility could force people to make career switches and do things for money that go against their own individual convictions. (One time, when I had to make assumed mortgage payments to someone who had defaulted after borrowing from me, others in my office joked, "marry her" -- as if that were the socially and legally approved way to take responsibility for the situation "like a man.")

Dialectic or existential arguments can take me down a negative, even destructive track indeed. After all, isn’t my homosexuality judgmental of the “desirability” of other men. That was a joke in Army barracks (yes, I got away with half “telling” this in the military during Vietnam days, and some better educated draftee guys thought it was amusing). But it is not funny with economically stressed family men (to be reminded by external popular culture how easily they can “fail physically”) who feel threatened by things out of their control. I think this sort of duplicity contributes a lot to what we call “homophobia.” I can get questions like, “Well, didn’t you think enough of yourself or of your own family that you want to continue the lineage with children?” As a late teenager, my “ultra rational” brain thought that, as self-interest, it did not make logical sense to “feel attracted so someone (female) who, according to cultural norms, would become dependent (and I was not “mature” enough to envision my own “fatherhood”). This is especially difficult since I am an only child (there were a lot more of us “spoiled” only kids in the 50s than most people realize). Therefore, not procreating sounds like administering a death sentence. At least it sounds disrespectful of “life.” On the international stage today, it’s easy to imagine how this is perceived, say, in Internet cafes in Pakistan.

Indeed, in one sense, I may seem to some people “not exactly human”. Am I special, or just different? (Clark takes on that question in Smallville). I don’t have the emotional responsiveness necessary to win a female spouse and “protect” a family. The emotions are hardwired in a different place, and they tend to be abstract and cultural, and related to music and artistic vision. Andy Warhol once wrote “I lack responsibility hormones and procreation hormones.” Ditto. (In Army barracks in 1969, the boys would laugh at the word "hormones.")

The moral question, as I said, comes back to karma. Watch any soap opera and one sees the horrible things some people do for “family.” (In “Days of our Lives”, the character Nick Fallon (Blake Berris), who starts out as “good” and “honest” like the Gatsby character that inspired him [and I identity with the character as like me at that age] – and is undermined totally by his need to prove himself “a man.:) Every progressive knows how “family” can be used to shield injustices, which is one reason why the nuclear family started to unravel with the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. But one “common denominator” factor seems to be to develop the skills and capacities to take care of others when one needs to, especially within the family, as a kind of “payback” – a concept that comports with individualism and libertarianism. That’s one reason why the ability of someone to develop minimally acceptable skills in a variety of areas is important. It may be important for a football player to pass algebra, but it was important for me to learn to do physical chores when I was a youngster, something that I was remiss on.

Michael Moore is right about one thing. European countries, in general, offer much more in tax-supported social programs (his latest concern being health care, as in “Sicko”) Many other observers note that almost all other advanced nations besides the United States and Australia offer mandatory (from employers) paid parental leave (at least maternity) of some kind. It’s not clear that this always extends to care of parents. I must add, here, too, that, from a practical point of view, in large companies (as I noted above) employers are often sympathetic to family needs, especially kids; but I do not feel as comfortable asking for “benefits” for a parent as I would if I had my own children. (Legally, the unpaid leave called for by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, however, can be used for care of parents. – but it is all unpaid and not too useful.) A good book to go back and review here is Elinor Burkett’s “The Baby Boon.” Still, European countries seem to be able to offer family benefits without seeming to infringe upon gays or singles – even as they have the “birthrate” problem often documented by Philip Longman and others ( problem that could cause children to become viewed again in the West as an essential economic or political "asset"). To some extent, as in France, the benefits seem to be starting to work. I don’t quite see how this can work, and wonder. Maybe Michael Moore could include “family leave” as a subject of his next film.

In America, people are (supposedly) constitutionally equal before the law. It's easy to imagine that some people would want extra legal rights (like more than one vote per person) when people marry and have kids. We don't do that, partly because if we did, the unearned social supports would corrupt the marriage relationship itself. But in practice, the cultural pressures on many people can be extreme. Maggie Gallagher, Jennifer Roback Morse and others ("babies" -- book reviews) want to keep an emotional shell around the "institution" of marriage that keeps totally rational individualism and excessive concern about "equal rights" away.

Am I a professional second-class citizen? Right at the moment, yes. The fact is, I didn't perform a particular function (procreation) that most people take for granted as "essential." Whether or not there is a biological or other explanation that makes it immutable, the objective fact remains, and in my circumstances I did not develop the interpersonal connectivity skills (particularly those needed for child care) that most adults take for granted. On the other hand, there are plenty of historical cultural forces and priorities that muzzled me, in the name of protecting the "family" and "life" and in doing so, these forces create a certain moral contradiction within themselves, just like the Vatican does. I’ll outline what I can do about it in subsequent postings.

Picture: White resigns here. In an English, reversed Sicilian Levenfish, Black has sacked an exchange to set up unstoppable mate along the white squares near White's fianchetto.

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