Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Manifesto", revisited


One moment that comes to mind crystal clear is my boarding a taxi on Broadway, suitcase in hand, around 6 PM on January 5, 1979, saying goodbye to my apartment in the Cast Iron Building and quickly flying away to a new life in Dallas, where I would spend over nine very interesting years. 
  
I did not have a compelling reason to leave my job.  True, the new one offered slightly more pay in a new city with lower taxes and living costs, and probably an opportunity for “prosperity”.  But the driving force was personal.  In 1978, as eventful as it had been, I had been given reason to contemplate whether I could stay in a relationship if something “happened” to the other person to affect his “attractiveness”.  Details don’t matter right here.  But some irony does.  The circumstances had given me a forewarning of what might happen to the community a few years later.
  
In Dallas, the epidemic (HIV-AIDS)  arrived full force maybe about two years after it stormed through New York.  That was enough time for me to adjust my “behavior” and probably save my own life.  As far as I know, I never got infected.  The “gay community” in Texas would have to survive a ferocious political threat from the religious right, which tried to ban gays from almost all occupations.  In retrospect, it seemed surprising to me that ten years later we really could focus on the “right” to serve in the military.  I had come from much more menacing lands.
  
I am going to review, in this “manifesto” posting, what I am getting at with these blogs, books, and screenplays.  But I want to backtrack to what I “accomplished” with my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997, and then show how things have evolved and flipped since then.
  
Bill Clinton’s campaign promise (in 1992) to lift the ban on gays in the military would have surprised me, were it not for the stories of people like Keith Meinhold and Joseph Steffan that had surfaced the summer before his election.  And the counter arguments in 1993, stressing “privacy” and then “unit cohesion”, seemed to have an ironic parallel with my own civilian expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 (I would get drafted anyway in 1968).  But what struck me the most, given my own coming of age, was the way the military encapsulated so many of the values that seemed to trap and threaten those of us who were “different”, like me, and how it had, until the collapse of the Vietnam war, been presumed that young men owed their country the capacity to defend it physically, risking not only life but being maimed or disfigured, and still needing to depend on the love (even sexual) of others. Likewise similar activity is often of young men (today more often of women, too, than before) in various civilian counterparts, such as police and volunteer fire departments.  The public used to believe that the “possibility” of homosexuality would undermine the ability of men to bond to defend women and children in a family, tribe, community, or country.  We all know from the history of “don’t ask don’t tell” that this turned out to be a bit of a canard.  But it was a perception a half century ago, when I was a young man.  And the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was law for seventeen contentious years.
   
My 1997 book focused on libertarian approaches to individual rights, with the idea that the legal code and, largely speaking, the community moral code ought to focus on (Southpark-like) “personal responsibility” rather than collective purposes and trying to right aggregate differential outcomes (and “victimization”).  But I already had a sense of why “private choices” do matter to the larger community.  This notion seemed to apply way beyond to area of gay rights to most people who were in any significant way “different” (maybe to a lot more heterosexuals than homosexuals). 
  
In the ensuing years, three major things changed.  One was that the separation of “private life” from “public” tended to melt away in the age of the Internet and social media.  Personal rights tended to focus more on public self-expression (and sometimes self-promotion) than on “private lives”.  Double lives became untenable.  More recently, energy level has risen in the right to self-defense, too. 
     
Another (second) way was that my perception of “common good” became less a matter just of of economic fairness (seen as the way issues ranging from gay marriage to family leave are debated) and “equality” as to a more personal concern about the way we form and keep relationships.  People seemed to have widely varying stakes in responsibility for others, and this created a lot of intractable social tension.  This understanding grew with me during my long spell of eldercare for my mother, as well as work as a substitute teacher.
   
But the “third thing,” building on the first two, has to do with sustainability of our pluralistic, free, “global” way of life.  We all know the range of concerns:  environmental (climate change, even space weather), security (terrorism, particularly asymmetric and unconventional), and demographics (longer life spams and lower birth rates).   There are some things that have to happen “collectively” or “in significant volume” for our way of life to continue.  One of the most striking new moral expectations is “generativity” – the idea that every individual (even those without their own children) should have a real personal stake – skin in the game – in the people who will follow them.  Add to this is the idea that we want to value all human life, at a time when technology challenges us to make the personal commitments  (like to prolonging the lives of parents) that doing so would take, without inviting more government.  That is a curious irony.
  
That brings me my “main course” (at least the meat course, after the fish). I want to focus on the question as to how those of us who are “different” and perhaps less socially connected to others should be expected to behave.  The question matters in almost any society or political culture. It is equivalent to a person’s own moral character.
  
I’m trying to stay away ideology for its own sake, whether religious (scriptural) or political.  But it’s true, many religions and many authoritarian political systems seem to get a lot of mileage out of containing those who are “different” and proposing that they can bring danger to everyone.  That plays out in different ways.  In small tribal societies, sometimes you really have to count on everyone when there is an enemy or threat.  In a large pluralistic society, asymmetry (the Internet and low barriers to entry) creates its own tensions and risks.  And we’ve all seem that homophobia seems to work this way.
   
Why isn’t this kind of thinking seen as self-effacing?  I think there is a natural tendency for people to be willing to make sacrifices for others when they think everyone else will.  But moreover, I think there is a question of “meaning”.  People sometimes find the emotional commitments they make (especially in the areas of marriage and family) meaningful because they think there are certain “natural” ways that things are “supposed to be”; if the self-discipline required is “meaningful” then it can generate long-term reward and pleasure.
  
Indeed, I am a bit of an aesthetic “fundamentalist”.  I like people and things that look or sound “good” for their own sake.  That is, I tend to like what I perceive as natural “virtue” for its own sake.  I detect in myself a dislike of seeing some aspects of that virtue challenged too publicly.  Think, after all, about why societies usually have laws against too much public nudity.  They want to protect the “meaning” for private intimate settings.
  
Having migrated to libertarianism in the 1990s, I don’t like to see the government regulate “private choices”.   But it makes sense to talk about some behavioral choices as ethical matters when they are likely to compromise the ability of others to make choices needed for the “common good”. 
  
“Not all art is autobiographical”, but when I look at the narrative in my first two books, and imagine continuing it to the present (as in film or video), I see a lot of things that people could expect of me.  But what does it add up to?
  
All  this takes me back to those main areas of concern that are particularly striking to me.
   
Let’s return to the narrative stream with which I started.  Although there was no “marriage” broken up in the events I mentioned – that wasn’t expected much in the gay community in the 1970s – the implication is clear.  Couples have to remain interested in one another if something happens to one of them.  (That’s what a marriage vow says.)  That would apply to gay marriage now.  But it has always applied to traditional marriage.  Wives have to deal with husbands maimed in wars overseas (or the reverse).  But all kinds of bad things can happen here, too, ranging from the actions of others (negligence or crime) to, of course, the more familiar medical scenarios – which are more testing now because people can survive things and live longer if they have someone to love them, than they could in past generations.  The cohesion and sustainability of society could depend in part on this human resource.
  
That can provide one reason why people (roommates, therapists, NIH, etc.) were so bemused by first my social indifference and then my fantasy material (based on “virtue”, as noted above) back in the early 1960s.  At least, it could prove distracting to the values (“meaning”) for others in my environment if public and persistent enough, leading to a sense of unmet sacrifice. Call it a minor amount of subversiveness. 
  
This observation links over to a second major area of concern: that is, how we respond to adversity, most of all when imposed on us by those who decide we are their enemies.  Adversity comes from many places, especially as we live longer.  But particularly glaring is the blatant, brazen nature of much of the violence today against ordinary middle class people.  Although the recent terror attack in Boston and several shooting rampages get the most attention (from politicians, especially), the practical concern seems to be the street violence, related to gangs, domestic situations, drugs, and poverty, menacing the safety of almost everyone with potentially existential threats, often displaying a "feudal" culture based on social combat or bullying.  Sometimes this seems to be not just crime as we used to think about it, but a kind of warfare, almost as Marx could have described it.  Perpetrators often live outside the system if finance and “law and order” as we usually perceive it, because they (so they feel) were failed by it.  Right and wrong don’t come just with individual actions, but from hierarchal relationships (the gang model – but is also applies to warlords and feudalism).  In this mindset (or “revolution”, "expropriation", or “purification”, as I’ve heard some "radical" people say), a victim is a deserving “casualty” because he or she is the “enemy” (even if a child).  In a sense, such a system of values goes along with extreme tribalism, often under religious control. (see my note on "non-combatants" at the end.)

I saw this kind of thinking when I “spied” on the Far Left in 1972, in the months before I “came out” a second time.  The degree of indignation against salaried middle class professional people (like me) as “parasites” on “working people” was shocking at the time.  But I really had found the same attitude in Army Basic Training back in 1968, when we had a system “corrupted” by student deferments that left the less academically gifted as potential “cannon fodder” for Vietnam. I’ve had to fight this off verbally in person earlier in my life.
   
I am nearing 70 years old and don’t make any predictions, but the possibility that I could encounter violence myself is probably greater than it used to be, for any time since the 1960s.  I would find it difficult to accept “dependency” on others if something bad happened like this, and hope that if it did, I would be gone quickly.  I would have been “taken”.  If some calamity (like hostile EMP) suddenly destroys our way of life (something that "Doomsday Preppers" seem to want, throwing people onto depending onto their own guns), the world would have no further use for someone like me (partly because of the recalcitrance toward intimacy as I've already noted).   In a sense, in my own mind, there is no such thing as a “victim”, and I am very uncomfortable with the way the media sprays and personalizes the “word”.  There is only reality, justice, forgiveness, and Grace.  Without some of the last two of these, one winds up paying for the sins of others as part of his karma (at least, for depending on others in ways he did not face up to).  I could escape this possibility only by “changing” and giving of myself in a personal manner that would be very painful.   As a policy matter, I do feel that Congress should take care of the medical and rehabilitation expenses of anyone injured in a foreign-inspired attack – because the people affected were “conscripted” into combat. But as a personal matter, I have a hard time addressing the needs of any particular person affected (and not previously in my orbit) unless I am somehow prepared for it.
     
The “adversity” issue of course embraces many possible threats, many (but not all) of them natural, a few of them potentially catastrophic for our way of life.  They could include not only nuclear weapons but also electromagnetic pulse devices.  Fortunately, these seem to be much more difficult to deploy than some right-wing literature suggests.  But the significance of them is obvious.  Someone like me is of no use in the world that is left.  I have no generativity.  And I have no ability to find normal layered social interactions work. Social conservatives can claim that a pluralistic society that has lost most of its ability to maintain social structures is a particularly inviting target for enemies.  But our Society in America has much more cohesion than many would think.  Despite the supposed decline of “social capital” many families are strong and volunteerism is common.

So, if I (like the Star Trek Spock character) don't like to be asked to "feel" for others caught by adversity, I have to admit that it can happen to me, either naturally or because of hostility, either randomly or in targeted fashion.
    
The third major area that is striking to me is the way we look at risk and the “morality” of risk taking has changed.  In my own experience, this may well start with my own experience with the military draft in the Vietnam era.  I have a detailed manuscript on it (part of an unpublished novel called “The Proles” that I started in the Army).  My account is quite graphic, and it is apparent that despite my rarified “book smarts”, I couldn’t deal with the physical reality of a dangerous world around me.  Is this disability (a kind of autism, or perhaps neurological in some other way), aloofness, or just plain cowardice? In this era, it was seen just in moral terms; if someone like me didn’t do my part, the risk passed on to others. 
   
We see this carry on in other areas.  For example, after the West, Texas explosion recently, townspeople noted that most smaller towns rely on volunteer fire departments. 
   
The “risk” and “burden” concept carries over into “family values” and this point was apparent in my 1997 book.  I spent a lot of space on the idea that having a children greatly reduces discretionary income to spend on one’s own expressiveness, and a willingness to pass on one’s mojo to progeny.  Do people “sacrifice” when they have families?  That seems to depend on how you perceive “desire”.  But it is apparent that in higher income families, fewer people (both men and women) want kids, and this certainly has demographic and sustainability consequences.   Likewise, as more families depend on two incomes, one-breadwinner families get “priced out”, and a whole set of cultural incentives for “socializing” men die out.
  
The opportunities of the Internet also complicate the tasks of families.  The practical reality is that social media has forced many people to live “publicly” whether they want to or not. While for someone like me, the Web has provided a “second life” after retirement, that facilitation means that kids, at least of less tech-savvy or less educated parents, are put at various kinds of risk.  This loops back to the basic question about the willingness to channel one’s life for the benefit of others and take risks for future generations.
  
I gradually developed a catch-phrase for this set of issues, which I call “pay your dues”. 
  
What would really change (and this becomes the “Fourth Thing”)  in my perception of “fairness” is how personal it can get.  Both the eldercare experience with my mother and my substitute teaching job faced me with unwanted invitations to become more involved in tender mercies with others.  This is a development that I didn’t see coming.
   
But it makes a certain sense.  I had put myself out as a public pundit, not requiring that I prove that my self-expression could actually provide for myself, let alone other people.  That sort of thinking had gotten in the way of a music career earlier in my life – it wasn’t an easy thing for a young man to go into, given the “Cold War”.  But now I had put myself out there, and suddenly people would challenge me to prove I could take care of others, that I could grow my own skin to put in the game (at the risk of losing it).  Sometimes these would come un unsolicited calls for interviews for sales (even “fundraising” or huckster) jobs of a personal nature that were totally alien to me.  Sometimes they came from pressure from service providers to try harder to “sell” and monetize what I had when I didn’t need to yet or when it didn’t make sense – because others with “real families” needed to make profits off me from commissions.
   
Eldercare, which has some aspects of being legally driven (filial responsibility laws) certainly compounds the issue of “family responsibility”.  During the “Me Generation” (since the 1970s), we’ve gotten used to the perception that “family” is optional – you need to make it on your own first, anyway. Don’t have kids too early, or have them at all, if you want to be an “influential” or “powerful” individual.  But that obviously generates a “flip side” when you have to take care of family anyway, raising questions about what marriage is for after all. 
  
I could say that this extra intimacy would be welcome only if I had “generated” my own family – married and had kids.  Them I would have my own domain, my own stake.  But that presents the classic “chicken and egg” question. Isn’t there a problem that I didn’t find any “meaning” in extending myself to someone who really “needs” me – not in the sense of surplus, but in the sense of making it at all?  I would have thought that extending myself to someone “like that” had no “meaning”. 
   

I indeed stayed socially isolated (some call it “schizoid”, some call it Asperger’s), created my own world, and had some partial success publicizing it.  I did not become socially engaged because I could not compete socially or physically.  I found conventional paths of socialization humiliating. So I went my own way and, it turned out, became productive as an individual contributor.  But I can see how it could have gone wrong, and in many ways I was “lucky” or “fortunate”. During most of my adult years, the social and political culture gradually accepted the primacy of “individual sovereignty” or “personal autonomy”, sometimes to the point of hyper-individualism, which I don’t think is wise to take for granted. 
   
Had I been more “competitive” I do believe I would have married and had children.  But there’s a good question as to whether I could have remained committed in marriage for life.  So is it better that I didn’t? It’s a question that has a two-sided answer.
   
I do have a sense of what should have been expected (and often definitely was) of “someone like me”.  Part of the moral expectation has to do with readiness to “step up” in some situations where courage (physical, emotional, or both) is required.  These situations may not occur frequently (maybe they are years apart) but when they occur you know it, even if you can’t define it in advance.  To not do so is what we used to mean by “cowardice” (a word we don’t use today the way we did when I was drafted).  If you don’t, there are consequences.  Some things follow on to this.  One is a certain openness to serving the needs of others in a succession of cohorts – starting with family, and moving out – even if it means some sacrifice of one’s own intended purposes.  It’s hard to say when this kicks in, but you know it when you see it.  There is a certain belief (especially among social conservatives) that the inclination to date, marry, and raise another generation (in one lifelong relationship, carried out with some passion based on complementarity) naturally follows this kind of socialization. (Having children, or else at least being ready to help raise other people's children in a pinch, is a prerequisite for a place at the table, in this line of moral thinking.)  Science may not support such a belief. Instead, it may support a more generalized idea of polarity, and character specialization – but these require some surplus and genuine opportunity beyond meeting adaptive needs, for self or others.  There’s another irony: you can’t enforce a system like this on others (me), without becoming a hypocrite.  But you can regulate “the privilege of being listened to”.
    
Related posts: On International Issues blog  (discussion of non-combatants) and  GLBT Issues blog (both April 26, 2013).  

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