Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Dad: "To Obey Is Better than to Sacrifice!"
My father often wielded a certain self-composed proverb when I was growing up, and for a long time it sounded like a paradox. It was “To obey is better than to sacrifice.” It sounded like a riddle to me as a boy. Indeed, now for me, this saying has a bit of double entendre, but I want to walk though something.
I think people may wonder what all this online “talk” of mine is for. Why cover so many disparate topics? Why don’t I get more (financial) reward out of it? (I shouldn’t say how much it is, but it could not support a family, in my case; not even close.) Where is my self-interest, other than “drawing attention” or “fame”? Why even give credibility to opposing attitudes that may simply be bigoted, some ask. Underneath all these questions (about “purposelessness”) is a subtle but troubling implication: that in some circumstances, my “thought experiments,” sham “self-defamation” or “devil’s advocate” style speech could be taken as enticement, maybe even as a legal precept. This issue has already come up at least once in the public school system (again, my July 27, 2007 long posting).
I pose this question in a background of increasing concerns that the “asymmetry” of today’s world of “zero capital” or “free entry” amateur self-promotion does potentially invoke some subtle systemic risks down the road. Perhaps some day we may really have a world where people must have a “standing” (responsibility for supporting others, usually a family) if they are to keep their cyber soapbox. That’s the notorious “privilege of being listened to” controversy. We’re not there yet, thankfully, but I can imagine how it could happen. In June 2007 I reviewed, on my books blog, Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur", where such concerns were aired; some "authorities" question a technological culture so concerned with efficiency that creates the impression to many people that they establish themselves without undertaking social commitments or connections; maybe the Amish have a point!
One of my most important aims is to make sure people active in individual rights – whether libertarians, or gay rights activists as we normally understand the issue – grasp what people in past generations and in religious cultures today really want. During my young manhood, a lot was taken away (even if I was “bailed out” financially and wound up with no debt) in terms of social connection with others (as developed on my own terms), at a time (ages 18-22 or so) when it was so critical. Why? What did the College want? What did the other students want? What did my parents want? I think we need to really understand this. As my other postings show, my own situation links up, with some irony, to today’s debate over the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays, and that in turn links to other concentric issues, like national service or the draft, to “family values”, free speech, censorship (such as my involvement with the COPA litigation), and even “self promotion”. What I have, besides a networked presentation of “arguments” is a journal of history as it unfolds, very much from the “streets and roads” (of a famous grade school reader) rather than the halls of power, although very much a middle class street. And, I have pointed out before, that this sort of gonzo journalism, from one person or a small group, covering a wide range of interlocked issues, tends to make it much harder for established special interests and their lobbying "tactics" to remain credible, so the "democracy" element is very important to me. Yes, I hate those silly form email campaigns from constituencies of specific interests -- yet those "special interests" may imply responsibility for other people, and that's a rub. For "responsibility for others", for men, at least, implied an interest in manipulating others in a reciprocal social structure; I "simply" wanted to create works (music, literary) and publish them, and then find my own friends and connections based on that.
Over the past several decades, we have gradually become used to a libertarian-style view of individual rights. That is, we always start with a presumption that one is responsible for oneself, that the ultimate moral responsibility for someone rests solely with that person. In theory, mental illness or even deficiency would not change this final moral fiat. But it doesn’t take long to see how this fails. Cathy Young, in “Ayn Rand at 100,” Reason, March 2005, wrote “In its pure form, Rand’s philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own.” But the flaw goes further: we all are “dependent” on sacrifices made by others and we will never become aware of many of these sacrifices. (Getting warm on my father’s proverb already?)
Much of the “family values” or “culture wars” debate revolves around this “Heisenberg uncertainty.” Generally, societies have made the biological or nuclear family an intermediary for sharing uncertainty and risk (two slightly different concepts, remember). We all understand that when people have children they are responsible for those children (that, at least, comports with modern liberalism). We understand that marriage (usually, at least, heterosexual) is an important social instrument for raising the next generation. But we need to understand that we have actually given marriage much more power and responsibility in the past than perhaps we do now. A married couple, that maintains a faithful intimate commitment for a lifetime earns both the power and responsibility to socialize all those around them (including adults) who have not yet (or who never will) make the same commitment. That way, there is some protection, within the family, of “less competitive” members, who may always find that their parents direct their emotional "connections" and keep them committed. They will not always be judged just on their own actions. They will have some emotional identification with the family, always, as their “team”.
Recently, Phillip Longman and David Gray published a piece called “A Family-Based Social Contract” (link) in which they argue that we need to make it easier for families to have children earlier in life. They make the provocative statement that “childlessness breeds dependency” and argue that through our demographic changes. We all benefit from “other people’s children” (OPC) and should share in the uncertainties that parents must risk to raise them, presumably. The obvious question, which they aren’t quite willing to take head on, is, what is the moral position of the LGBT person or the single person who remains childless because of putting career first (that might apply more to women, to be sure)? What will be expected of “people like me”? I think it’s fair to ask. But as I look back over history, it seems clear that much of the prohibition on not just homosexuality but on all sexuality outside marriage was designed as a way to make everyone share in intergenerational responsibility and in supporting the “family” as an essential governing unit in shielding people from what necessarily is an uncertain and unstable outside world. The Vatican’s pronouncement on this issue, however they think rooted in scripture, seem to be designed around this concern. Heavily socialized cultures seem not to work as well if outliers (like me) are allowed to break free without “paying their dues.”
Along those lines, or according to lines of thought like Longman’s, then, couples simply won’t be able or willing to make and keep marital commitments and have and raise children if they do not some social approbation and benefit, and that would change their perception of “personal responsibility” as libertarian-leading people perceive it. They will need for others to honor and even revere them for their families. In some cases this leads to bad things, like jealousy, patriarchal behavior, hyperemotionalism, or the “soap opera syndrome”. This last item includes attempts by some people to throw themselves upon “self-righteous” people with no apparent responsibilities and demand to be supported. That, remember, is what happens to the Gatsby-like and virtuous character Nick Fallon in “Days of our Lives.” Longman's line of thinking would eventually challenge the normal adult "fundamental right" to refuse intimacy when it is not on one's own terms -- indeed, such a proclivity is seen as "narcissistic".
Indeed, we could well face a crossroads in how we view “family responsibility” vs. marriage. Not all family responsibility comes about as a result of sexual intercourse. In fact, marital sex seems to be about bringing others under it’s control until they can make the same commitments themselves. We do need to debate this, and such a debate, going way beyond the parameters of the gay marriage debate today with its microscopic focus on legal benefits, really could have a profound effect on marriage in 21st Century society.
All of this, remember, comes back, in my mind, at least, to the notion of “justice”? Why do we need some social structures (like the family and political unit) in a world that values individual freedom? Partly it is because of hidden justice concerns, and partly because there are some things that go beyond the scope of self-definition as we usually see it. Yes, we don’t like to see people “get out of things” even when they haven’t made the same choices (as with sexual behavior) as others. Indeed, we seem to want to see everyone share the risk and uncertainty. That observation leads to many other lines of old-fashioned argument that we’ve rehearsed here before.
That leads me also back, full circle, to my father’s irritating proverb. It seems to me that much of the undertone of the “family values” debate, particularly when it comes from the religious right or from the Vatican, has to do with “justice” at a very personal level. We want everyone to share in the “sacrifice” and risks. But we have to be very careful about becoming carried away with “justice”. Doing so can, over time, invite authoritarian or totalitarian political structures back in. The far Left, as I’ve said, could become “so moralistic”, to the point that in the 1960s Chairman Mao hauled intellectuals into the countryside to reeducate them and make them “pay their dues.” (New Age books in the 70s claimed that Mao just wanted to enforce “perfect justice” at the most personal level.) The far Right can simply decide that people have to prove they can “perform” before the “deserve” to live – that’s what Nazi Germany did (although there was more to this, as with the anti-Semitism and nationalism); but Gentiles living in Germany in the 1930s probably had “rationalized” this view even with Christianity. (First Baptist Church of Washington DC pastor Edward Pruden used to preach about this in the 1950s – when I was growing up and attended there -- and wrote about it in his 1951 book “Interpreters Needed”, explaining how Christians let this happen.)
In recent years, I have sometimes been pressured to function in a more intimate matter with others than I would choose. For example, serving as a “male role model” or “pseudo husband” is particularly daunting for someone who did not “compete” well in these areas himself as a child or teen. I cannot with integrity accept such “intimacy” when I did not make the same choices as others, unless I have more sovereignty and there are certain other political changes. Yet, family responsibility flows freely, and it must. People are confronted with the needs of others (especially in the family) all the time, as with movies about people suddenly raising their siblings’ children. Acceptance of uncertainty and imbalance and complementarity of sorts is essential to freedom.
Inevitably, in a free society, there will occur “sacrifice” and some “justice” will never become transparent. (Yes, I used to resent it when I took workplace nightcall’s of people with “families” and they didn’t seem to understand that someone had covered the work they had been paid for. Longman would say that’s inevitable.) To eliminate the hidden “sacrifice” can ultimately invite authoritarianism and destroy freedom. So, my father has his proverb, although maybe he should have twisted it around. “Sacrifice, or you may have to obey more.” After all, isn’t that what so much of the New Testament, particularly, seems to be about. It isn’t always about “you” (or “me”). That sounds like Rick Warren, doesn’t it. Sometimes I am my brother’s keeper. Faith, and the concept of Grace, really do relate to uncertainty and to the real world perils that go beyond our control. Even so, most of our problems – like our current financial crisis – we do to ourselves. We have some changing focus on virtues – awareness, stamina and courage – and particularly “deadly sins” – ignorance, laziness (sloth) and cowardice. Some people, it seems, especially those in high places in business, just don’t know right from wrong.