Tuesday, March 10, 2015
When do "you" as a speaker really care about "your" readers?
On March 2, I reviewed (on my Drama blog) a performance of a particular opera by Richard Strauss, “Guntram”, a middle-of-the-road effort where Strauss wrote both the libretto and music. It is significant because Strauss seems to be trying to make a grand statement about his own universe of morality. He deals with the limits of self-actualization, vis the group one belongs to, and the need (sometimes) for real sacrifice. Sometimes “it costs you something.” (No, the title is not “Gotham”.)
Recently, I purchased through Amazon an “instance” of “The Libertarian Mind” (2015) by David Boaz. The book is a major revision of his earlier “Libertarianism: A Primer” (1997) and carries the curious subtitle “A Manifesto for Freedom”. I’m going to review it in detail on the Books blog soon, and talk about the “literature” of libertarian books soon (as opposed to “conservative” books) on a Wordpress blog. But, even starting to look at it now, it provides another reference point for today’s little sermon.
Let’s turn focus on a New York Times article Sunday by Michael Crawford, “The Cost of Paying Attention”, link here. Note that Crawford has also written recently about the virtue of working with your hands, something my own father would have extolled. Here Crawford writes about the need for quiet and silence, and rest of the mind from the bombardment of messages from the outside world. Crawford’s concerns are not so much with the personal, as with the plethora of commercials and trademark banners intruding everywhere, even in the TSA security lines at the airport.
Every time I write a tweet, I have to ponder the wisdom of sending it, given the followers I have, and similarly as it ports to Facebook. With blog postings, followers or friends aren’t so much an issue, as broadcast is the intention, but the permissiveness of the self-publishing environment (most recently challenged two weeks ago over the porn issue) renews or instantiates another question. The "culture" of social media does sometimes prod acting smart or clever, "on your own". Maybe this isn't always sending the right message. Do I care about the people in my audience, as people?
Of course, I “care” about many of the followers and friends; among them are people I can definitely imagine working with in the future, especially on film or other media projects. And I “care” about some persons in the real world whom I actually see but who prefer to keep a lower profile online for now. I have my own mental “list”. But what about “everyone else”, whom “I” am piercing with jabs about critical thinking, trying to underline the flaws in their partisan behavior? Do I “care” about the people who may hear my prattle or chatter and become indignant about their burdens which I get out of?
Ever since becoming published in the late 1990s, and especially after 9/11 and then “retirement”, I find myself challenged by approaches from door knockers (literally and not) from those who want me to renounce “objectivity” and go pimp their causes, and even take care of their kids and people. I’m approached by the same people who wouldn’t have wanted me around in the past. There’s a turnabount. Now, I see my own aloofness, and indifference. Yes, I don’t like to be barged in on, don’t like to be approached randomly in public, or take telemarketing calls now – even as I once worked an “interim” job doing just that “for a good cause”.
No, it’s hard to rejoin (or just join) a world for which I have been an alien observer, recording karma and taking notes (although not so much taking names). It’s hard to be a “helping hand” for some other new parent when I’ve never engaged in the act that could make me one myself. Eldercare, as I’ve documented, played a part in all of this table rotation. My life offered a parade of little events, each of which might build a Sunday School lesson or even children's story, but it's not clear what they all add up to, beyond the general area of karma, and transcending self-hood.
Let me come back to David Boaz’s arguments for libertarianism. I’ve posed them myself – like absolute responsibility for the self in the Introduction of my 1997 book. I’ve pondered (and enforced) self-ownership – personal autonomy or individual sovereignty. He explains it very simply.
He also reduces morality to harmlessness. You’re free to do what you want, as long as you don’t interfere with anyone else’s ability to do the same. Of course, you have to earn your keep. So, you’ve got to provide services or goods (either in a conventional workplace or on your own) that real people actually need (or at least want, and there can be a difference) and will pay for in a free market. That part gets dicey; I’ve often said that employment recessions are part of a “free market cultural revolution” that does indeed reinforce “paying your dues” sometimes.
There are two or three areas where other moral sense (religious or not) creates tension with hyper-individualism. One of these areas is that we don’t start in the same place in line in life. We wind up depending on the sacrifice of others in ways we don’t always see.
A second area has to do with the value we place on the lives of others just because they are human. That can lead to some paradoxes, if you think about it. If your right to refuse connection to another person “in need” is absolute, that setup can drag a whole culture to a new kind of totalitarianism, because it cannot afford to deal with “second handers” (to borrow from Ayn Rand). This can lead to new forms of extremism (and not the good kind that Barry Goldwater – “shooting straight” – liked).
Along with this is the whole admittedly ambiguous nature of one’s moral obligations to future generations, apart from the obvious responsibility for the specific children one has sired (or agreed to raise). This goes beyond the binary aspect of a decision to have or not have children. But sustainability, as a moral matter, has its own limits. The Neanderthals sustained themselves for 100,000 years, but not forever, because they didn’t innovate enough.
Libertarianism discourages “public” solutions to problems that come with essential inequality, where fortune affects or precedes performance. Is that just left to “family”? That’s another area of tension – taking care of “your own” compared to reaching out into the community and beyond (as churches and Tolkien call “fellowship”). Boaz offers some interesting perspectives on how to deal with poverty and inequality, however. He mentions the idea of fraternal communities as sometimes more effective than open markets. For example, it used to be common for specific groups of people to form their own insurance companies and banks (long before modern corporate merging). Yet, “fraternal companies” as employers can set up their own possibilities for “conflict of interest” as I have detailed before.
There is a challenging post on a site called “Everyday Feminism” by Sara Whitestone about how to respond to panhandlers, link here. I think that it generalizes or extends (beyond compassion) to volunteerism and helping others in a lot of other areas. I wouldn’t be comfortable with living up to some of this now.(I also think she extends the idea of "privilege" a bit.) Like, I’ll acknowledge someone playing music or offering artwork, sometimes, because that starts a legitimate conversation, and I’ll be comfortable with a donation. (There’s one keyboard musician near the Smithsonian Metro exit particularly good at this, and, yes, you can hear Mozart in the New York City subway.) I think she’s talking about something more fundamental than this. Again, I have an issue with gratuitous conversations (“How are you today?”) or with being recruited to anything (and nobody pimped the Ice Bucket on me). And I don’t like to approach others for “money” for “other people’s causes” even if I get the idea of need.
Yet, I have to agree with another libertarian author, Charles Murray (“Coming Apart”) that our social connectedness, in a real world level, is now very unpredictable and “quantum” in nature. We "belong" less than we used to.
So, returning to Strauss’s opera: how a “divergent” like me “should” behave becomes a moral question. It’s not much about making laws. But is about matter like responding to coercion or aggression, when people have become indignant or declared themselves as enemies. It’s also about what really works in a practical way with people you really want to work with. But how “you” react to those who knock is a moral matter, too.
One other thing about "getting involved". The French understand it better than the English and Americans. The French language has personal and impersonal forms of "you" (that is "tu" and "vous"). In English, it's hard to make the distinction with context alone.
Above, Ian Breckenridge-Jackson: "Cancun Can Wait" (Ted Talk). The video is actually called "Getting More Than We Give" and considers our debt for "volunteer tourism" -- rather turning volunteerism into being like internship or a short-term job, a graduation requirement, a dissertation experiment. It's a lot more personal than that.