Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The culture war (family-centered v. individualism) may come down to the wire: what generates family responsibility? It's not just "choice"

On Monday, July 26, Cheryl Wetzstein gave us a column “In family’s future, past is prologue” (link here) and briefly discussed a book by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone on “red state and blue state families”. The book is titled “Red Families and Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture” from Oxford University Press. She discusses controversy over the growth of hyper-individualism, and notes critics like Carle C. Zimmerman and, in the print version, Jennifer Roback Morse.  (If one wants to sample reviews of the book, go to Oxford's site for the book here.  I have ordered it from Amazon myself and will review it soon on the Books Blog.)

Generally, families in more highly educated and politically liberal or moderate cultures have emphasized individual achievement, and individual choice and concomitant responsibility (dependent on choice) for adults. Indeed, many teens do well in this sort of environment. However, critics notice that social skills and familial interdependence, necessary for a culture to remain sustainable, may be lost.

The growth of big-scale problems since 9/11 may be pointing out the limits of individualism. It’s true that over the past several decades individual responsibility and the market have met many challenges. These have included fuel scares of the past, health issues related to smoking and weight, and even HIV, which has been met by medical (pharmanceutical) innovation and some attention to personal responsibility in behavior. But some of the challenges today, related to the environment or climate change, sudden or unpredictable pandemics, and to demographic forces producing diseases associated with old age, may not be met as easily without “change of heart”. It’s matter of debate how much individual behavior relates to financial stability.

There is reason to believe that healthful longevity can be maintained (maybe still for women more than men) by intact and interdependent family structures. This could become a significant observation as medical treatment can increase longevity, particularly in the face of an increase in Alzheimer’s, which may not be met by medical innovation at an individual level the way other diseases (even AIDS) have been. Interdependency encourages larger families and more children and pro-natal public policy, unless economic changes can keep people working productively much longer (difficult given today’s unemployment and underemployment difficulties).

There’s no question that social changes would have a huge impact on those who do not have children or who postpone them for career reasons, especially for many women and especially for most LGBT people. In past generations, families expected persons who did not marry or have their own children to take “first up” in taking care of parents, who then did not live as long. Even today, in many families (especially in poorer cultures), older children are expected to help take care of and raise younger siblings (even to the point of stopping education and working if a parent dies), or to step in and raise a sibling’s children after family tragedies (as in “Raising Helen” and similar films).  Some people now want to see everyone participate in family intimacies, confounding the usual legal notion of "consent", and raising the question, if you don't respect a particular person's life choices (not to have kids), do you really want him or her to help raise yours -- or is that a "contradiction"? 

All of this leads to pressure on many young people to accept disruption in their own chosen path (often matching their abilities) and learn social and manual skills, often somewhat gender specific, related to providing for others (and dealing with others by "joining them" in their own family space, not to be judged as "citizens of the world"), even when they haven’t had or don’t want to have their own children. There is a growing awareness that if a society does not produce enough children, many people may demonstrate a lack of “generativity”, or concern about what will follow them when they are gone. When one considers the growing problem of eldercare and the likelihood that many states will really start enforcing filial responsibility laws (28 states have them), childless people could be forced into what they experience as a subservient position, meeting the needs of others who did carry on the family lineage. The so-called “demographic winter” problem touted by the right wing should be taken seriously.

Personally, I have been quite aware of these concerns for years, but they have manifested themselves with other notions, especially related to the workplace and even to military service (the old past controversy about conscription and deferments). I have a generic term for these concerns, “Pay your dues” (as well as “Pay your bills”). Associated is another phrase connected to threats to sustainability, namely “It won’t be so bad … or will it?” as well as talk of “The Purification” and associated targeted expropriation. What I’ve seen in some writings (they tend to come from the far right or far left) that encourage more socialization and group consciousness. This can lead to a society that is more stable in the face of adversity, at a great cost to individual liberty and self-expression. Obviously, those in charge of such a society often abuse their political powers (the Nixon problem that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), and this sort of thinking may invite totalitarianism or at least authoritarianism.

I did decide to become a “Journalist” of the self-made kind some number of years ago when the controversy over gays in the military began with Bill Clinton. I have since been in some situations – first substitute teaching and then eldercare, and I’ll not go into personal details here—where some of these social skills associated with accepting “interdependency” are expected of me. On several occasions in the past few years, parties have approached me about changing career directions (again, I am “retired IT” at age 67), trying to get me interesting in pretending to be a male or familial role model myself and then peddle their agenda (and make something “all right” that isn’t with me). I don’t want someone else’s child thinking of me as “daddy” (in my circumstances now, anyway). No, I don’t want to knock on a family’s door and pretend that I can solve their insurance or financial planning or tax problems, either. Frankly, as a pre-teen, my experience with activities related to subsequent expected “gender role models” was humiliating, so I tuned off of the whole process and went down my own individualistic path as an adult. I became expressive, to be sure. But as “times changed” starting about 9/11 (or slightly before, actually), I found myself pressured to respond to these expectations.

I see a paradox similar to my own experience in the way social networking technology evolved. Facebook's founder talks about people's sharing, having singular public identities, and new world openness, and yet (or even "of course") he comes across as one of Ayn Rand's individualists. Openness today means transitory intimacy, meaningful in an individually-centered world built on emotional self-sufficiency and immunity to jealousy, for sure. That's a total turnaround from the social structures of the past, where an individual's team was a given.  Think of Web 2.0 as like baseball's free agency.

There is a logical “circuit completion” here of an existential nature. The individualistic demands for “equal rights” really do lead to situations where one is challenged again for “equal responsibility”. (Jonathan Racuh was writing that in his arguments in the 1990s, when he said that gays might win the right to marry and then go to sleep on using it.) Does one, sent to urban exile for an adult life that became productive, really want to take on OPC, “other people’s children” when finally given the “right”? Good question. (I do understand where Rosie O’Donnell is coming from – “a family is a family …”). There’s also the issue of supporting things that seem to be wrong from an individualistic perspective, in taking care of people. (Oh, you can love the sinner but not the sin, but I have trouble with that.) The psychological appeal of “fundamentalism” (in any form, including some of radical Islam) becomes apparent: if everyone has to follow the same strict rules and go through the same rites of passage, then committed activity (as in marriage) takes on a whole new meaning (or an old meaning, that has been lost). Fundamentalism leads to a certain contradiction, which Christianity (in its early communal, heavily socialized form shortly after the Ascension) sought to resolve: the rules (as the Pharisees found out) become the end in themselves, defending the individual from dealing with uncomfortable feelings in dealing with “real people” who can, as individuals, stumble badly.

The existential circuit gets completed with a particularly disturbing question: If I don’t “like myself” enough to want to be a (gender based) role model (for OPC) or to procreate (and take the risks or bear the uncertainties as well as the responsibilities of such “choice”), why should anyone listen to me as a writer? What's the point of connecting the dots and proving one can produce a knowledge font until one does good for specific others?  (Call it "keeping 'em honest". It's the old dichotomy between being right and having a life, maybe.) Yet, when times were better, a dozen or so years ago (when I gave my televised college speech on crutches in Minnesota), no one would have thought of posing such a question, of me at least.

One conclusion comes out of all of this for sure: we are coming back to a world where family responsibility doesn’t wait for the decision to engage in the behavior that can lead to children. Maybe we never left it. We ought to be honest enough to admit it publicly.

Update: August 2

I reviewed the Cagn-Carbone book on my "Book Reviews" blog today.

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