Sunday, June 21, 2009

"That said": Personal sovereignty, family responsibility, generosity, and all those moral contradictions


A favorite buzzword of mine on these blogs is “individual sovereignty” or its synonym, “personal autonomy.”

One of the most important benefits of this concept is that, to my way of thinking, it makes charity, love, and constructive relationships with other people work. You cannot “be there” for a loved one unless you can “be there” for yourself. Otherwise, well, you’re open to all kinds of manipulations by others, starting with jealousy. Just watch the soaps. (Sami on “Days of our Lives” provides a good object lesson.)

I have lived my life as a singleton, productively, in a way dependent on the mechinations of the modern world. That leaves me vulnerable to external threats, to be sure.

For decades, I have witnessed the social supports – not only financially or politically but also emotionally – for traditional marriage, and particularly motherhood and fatherhood. For much of my adult life, because of “who I am” and because of the political circumstances of my “coming of age”, I perceived this as “other peoples’ lives” (and not just on the soaps). I could enjoy Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Sinfonia Domestica” (not his best work) for what it was and not really have to participate in what it meant. In “real life” it means pampering, attention to personal details that make other family members feel respected and wanted, accepting “irrational” requests that would not play well in the “creative” adult world in which I did live; it is more about social supports for their own sakes. I was the journalist, the observer, almost the alien visitor when I went back into the family spaces where I had been raised. It seemed when I went back to my own apartment or condo and my own world or work, artistic efforts, chess, and my own adult society, I had taken a tachyon-driven ramscoop to another planet in another solar system 30 light years away. My urban exile became “Arinelle”, the supposed M-star planet that could support a “simpler civilization” according to National Geographic or History Channel. Perhaps I was the “dweller on two planets” but that made life interesting, a bit like Star Trek. In time, however, it has seemed that such a strategy -- keeping a "safe" or Schwarzchild distance while observing and journaling like a mad scientist of "Donovan's Brain" -- makes me "guilty" of the worst hidden sin, drawing on the most explosive indignations -- dependency on the unseen sacrifices of others.

In the past several years, domestic and other familial demands have tugged on me in ways that I was not prepared for. I’ll keep my remarks general for privacy reasons, as there is an eldercare issue, but there were also similar issues when I was substitute teaching. I’ll give one specific example: once, I was asked if I would mind getting into a swimming pool, a 60 year old man in swimgear, to watch them. I perceive that as invasive and potentially humiliating, even though I understand that others at the school did not.

During the age of individualism, we had gotten used to a narrow construct of personal responsibility. As for family responsibility, that seemed to mean that it started when you engaged in procreation. We are learning that this is not a sustainable model. Childless people will have to take care of their elders (with help), and sometimes siblings’ children. ("It takes a village", remember, and like it or not I am a member of the "village".) We’re seeing proposals (from the Longman crowd, and in Ramo’s book, already discussed) that dealing with looking after others will be everyone’s responsibility – that we have to change how we think about this. Indeed we must. It’s not a good thing for introverts.

We do seek rationalizations for the moral principles we follow. We believe that the free market promotes justice, but not completely: some people (and whole families and whole countries, and whole races) start ahead in line (look at any jogging track). So then we think about political redistribution of wealth (the liberal to socialist model) or to a system of “merit”, incorporating the ability to take care of other people (the conservative to libertarian model). I explored the latter in the sci-fi script that I blogged about yesterday. But no intellectual system of “justice” can be perfect; if we are to be free, we will always have to live with what seem like moral contradictions. Maybe that’s why we need faith. There is a reason to question “the knowledge of good and evil”. When we talk about redistribution, we find there are issues not only around economic classes, there are sensitive issues among families and the childless that are very hard to deal with.

One development that has disturbed me is being asked to “play family” or pretend to be a “male role model” when the legal system defines me a second-class citizen (particularly when I grew up in a culture that emphasized male competitiveness and fungibility in an ultimately excluding manner, making “dangerous difference” attractive). Okay, Bill, why don’t you just “live”, you say. It was that way in the 1970s, in the first decade or so after Stonewall. But as history unfolded and particularly as the Internet “democratized” journalism (a development that poses some systemic risk that I have explored in other columns) equality became an important goal for the self-concept. There are good reasons to be concerned about it (just look at history), and yet a preoccupation with the abstract idea of equality can become personally dangerous. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, I decided to participate in its search, most publicly, with self-published books and then websites and blogs. I committed my life to that goal. I would journal the fight for equality, and that contradicts selling insurance, playing daddy, or accepting publicly (or for money) any one else’s goals but my own. Why should anyone believe me as a personal role model if federal law says I am a second class citizen. Is this “justice” carried to far? Is so, I am committed to it. It seems to me like an issue of personal integrity, or honor; without it, I become nothing.

The “general theory of relativity” problem seems to be that others want me to drop my own goals and recruit me to serve theirs. This has become a persistent pattern for the past few years. It may be a good thing I said no to them; in one case, I was supposed to become the “boss” of people selling subprime mortgages. But people wanted me to participate in the “social hierarchy” rather than tell the truth. They wanted me to “forgive” the wrongs of the past. Well, there is forgiveness. But there must be understanding. There must be a record of what really happened, because it must not happen again.

Yet, by maintaining sovereignty, ownership of my own goals, and some separation from others, with my own creative outlet (some of it public), it will be possible for me to become generous again -- without risking placing myself in the chain of involuntary dependency. I should pick up a hammer, but it should be the right hammer, and it should be deployed in the right place, not necessarily the 9th Ward in New Orleans. I should be able to mentor a child, but I need political equality first (how about making some progress toward ending "don't ask don't tell" first). I cannot be expected to enter other people's lives just on their terms and suddenly rediscovered needs, after decades of "extraterrestrial exile". Again, I see that as essential to personal integrity.

Attribution link for public domain NASA picture of Triton.

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