Archive for April, 2012
I’ve been holding off starting this post until I could finish the book I’ve been reading, but right now I’ve got about six pages to go, and I can probably make some preliminary observations.
And some observations are in order, really, because this is, in some ways, a very strange book.
It’s called The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, and it’s by Brad S. Gregory. Gregory is, according to his bio on the back flap, “the Dorothy C. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame…”
I copied that exactly because I was a little unsure of getting that right. In my experience, endowed chairs–which is what this seems to be–go to full professors, not associate ones. But that may just be me being out of date.
I want to give an overview of my conscerns with this book today, and then go on later to pick out individual questions.
In one way, the premise here is not particularly original. That the rise of the individual as the primary unit in a society, and the rise of the recognition of natural individual rights in this like speech and religion, are the direct result of the individuation of religious belief that came directly out of the Protestant Reformation is an idea that has been around for a while.
Neither Luther nor Calvin intended it to be so, but as it turned out, one of their primary convictions about the nature of belief turned out to be wrong. The meaning of Scripture is not “plain.” People do disagree about what it says, and about what it means, and about how it demands that Christians should live.
Once there is no longer a central authority making the judgment calls, it’s every man and woman for themselves.
None of the the substitutes for central authority that the Protestants proposed over time–the plain meaning of Scripture, Scripture read with the infused wisdom of the Holy Spirit, even reason–provided anything at all like a definitive standard that was compelling enough to get anybody to agree on anything.
That, however, is less important, at the beginning, than the brute fact of it–if every man and woman is to use his own judgment and interpret Scripture for himself, the a doctrine of natural rights in inevitable, because it is a primary moral imperative that each of us not only judge, but refuse to be budged from our judgment.
Standing firm by our principles even unto death becomes a kind of commandment, and the measure of an individual’s character.
At that point, we either get governments that observe natural rights, or we get a lot of bloodshed–and for about two hundred years, we got a lot of bloodshed.
It’s after this point where the book gets very strange, and in very strange ways, too.
Dr. Gregory does not like this development, or he doesn’t seem to.
He doesn’t like what he calls “hyperpluralism,” a world in which individuals all have their own, subjective answers to the most important questions about life: what is the good, how should we live, what should we believe.
He holds this “hyperpluralism”–and therefore the Protestant Reformation–responsible for a whole host of evils, the most important of which is what he calls “the goods life.”
The s up there is deliberate.
“The good life” is one in which most people pursue more and more Stuff, because Stuff has become, by default, the meaning of life.
And because this is the case, combined with the conviction of each and every one of us that we have the right to our own “truth,” we are unable to solve the problems of society, and especially the problem of climate change.
People will not stop pursuing Stuff, because Stuff is the meaning of their lives. And they will not listen to experts who tell them that living the way they do is destroying the planet, because experts have no right to tell them what to think, and if they don’t want to listen they have an absolute right not to.
Now, I’m a big fan of the proposition that none of us should be forced to listen to “experts” tell us how to live, and this book has not changed my mind. From what I can see, central authorities of belief do more harm than good even when what they propose for our belief and behavior is in fact benign.
The problem is that what central belief authorities propose is often not benign, whether that central authority is the Pope, or the Confessional State (think Luther Germany, or England under Elizabeth I), or the APA.
But what’s important to note here for the moment is that Dr. Gregory is a psychologically and philosophical ascetic. He is literally repulsed by acquisitiveness–by people who shop till they drop, who want more and better things, who seem to subscribe to the message on the bumper sticker: he who dies with the most toys wins.
I have no idea if Dr. Gregory lives his life in compliance with this repulsion–if he lives in a smaller house than he can afford and gives his money to the poor, if he avoids shopping, whatever.
I do know that he feels that to live a Christian life it is necessary to eschew the shopping and acquisitiveness and to live your life by giving to the poor whatever you have over what you need.
He spends a great deal of time giving an account of the Middle Ages which presents them as a time when religion was conceived as a “lived experience” in a community of faith meant to foster virtues, rather than a matter of following rules and being able to regurgitate doctrines.
Such faith communities, he says, are no longer available to anyone, because “the goods life” has become the foundation of all advanced societies, and is well on its way to becoming the foundation of all the nonadvanced ones as well.
We live in a world where avarice is no longer a deadly sin, but an actively courted virtue.
And this, in fact, demonstrably one of the ways in which Christianity has been taught and practiced since it’s beginning–if you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.
It is also something that has been reproduced in secular and even atheist literature. Peter Singer has written extensively on the idea that the only moral way for a citizen of an advanced society to live is to strip himself down so that he acquires only the bare necessities, and then send what’s left over of what he has to the Third World.
It’s the kind of thing that reminds me that Ayn Rand was a remarkably insightful woman on those subjects she was insightful about. It’s too bad that so many people never get past the other stuff.
For right now, though, what’s important is to remember that although Gregory argues that the belief claims of Christianity are not only true but could not be proved false by reason, he is not a conservative.
Not even a little.
And tomorrow I can go on a little about what he wants from our world, now, and what I think is wrong with it.
A friend of mine sent me this article when it was still only in hard copy, and now it’s shown up on Arts and Letters Daily.
It’s a truly WONDERFUL article.
And if he writes a book on the same topic, I’ll be first in line.
So I was thinking, yesterday, that I know what I like, and it comes down to one thing: I like historical periods that are on the edge of change. I am less fond of historical periods that have tipped over into the Next Thing.
This is interesting, in a way, because in academia I chose to study one of the most stable periods in human history.
If the High Middle Ages was anything at all, it was a time when a vast portion of the earth, all of Western Europe as we now know it, most of Eastern Europe as we now know it, England and Scotland and Ireland and Scandanavia, accepted a single and largely uncompromising idea of what a human being was and how he (or she) should be understood.
I don’t mean by this that there was no dissent in the Middle Ages, or no minorities with divergent ideas.
There were, of course, many instances of both. If there hadn’t been, nothing would ever have changed.
And obviously a lot did.
But there’s a difference between “there’s some dissent out there” and “doubt and dissent have become part of the very fabric of society.”
In the first case, what authorities there are–and not necessarily the obvious political and religious ones–are confident in their judgments. In the second, there’s a lot more humility, because the possibility is always before us that we may be wrong.
This is, I think, what is shared by the two more-or-less modern periods that most interest me: British Victorian and American Fifties.
In both periods, there was a lot of outward display of assurance that was not really all there, but there was always a lot of consensus about the good and the way human beings should be treated in order to achieve it.
Shared moral assumptions were still in place, but not so rigidly that they created the kind of inflexible rules-based insanities that characterize the Reformation and the Counterreformation.
Everybody is secure enough to handle a few challenges here and there, but not so secure that they feel justified in trying to suppress those challenges.
This produces interesting and productive historial periods, but those periods are–almost by definition–unstable. They cannot last, because they are what they are.
I suppose Robert is right, and all historical periods are in flux in some way, and doomed in the long run to be overturned for something else.
But some kinds of social structures last a very long time. They last badly. They develop little. They’ll never cure polio or build the Sears Tower, but they limp along and their elites are comfortable.
The social structures of the West do not do this, at least in part because the foundational ideas of the West are not conducive to endless limping along.
Philosophy is not a futile exercise. It tends to trickle down into consequences over time.
I also think the worst historical periods tend to be the periods just following the ones I like, when there are competing visions of the moral and the good, and no consensus in any meaningful terms, and everybody on every side of every question is trying to bully everybody else into adopting their own way.
Being a little unsure of your ground produces humility. Being a lot unsure of your ground produces panic, and panic produces not only bullying but often something worse.
At the moment, what we’ve got is a three-pronged problem: at one prong are the people Robert likes to call The Movement, and who mostly call themselves “Progressives,” who have a laundry list of often contradictory ideas about things like “tolerance” and “diversity” and “compassion” and “care”; at another prong are people who claim to be Conservatives and to champion Christian values, but who mostly have little or not idea of what Christianity was at any point before the one they’re living in, and therefore no idea how much they’re championing things that are neither Christian nor conservative; and at the third prong there are the people who man the vast and increasingly bureaucracies of the “helping” professions, whose goal is to impose and enforce a very narrowly defined definition of “normality” on everybody and everything, or else.
The existence of this last group in interesting in a number of ways.
Conservatives and libertarians tend to lump it in with The Movement, because it seems to share some of The Movement’s larger goals.
But the fact is, at core, the professionals are just as much opposed to the Movement as they are to the Conservatives. They see the world in medical and therapeutic terms. There is a proper way to behave, and if you don’t behave that way, you are sick. They are therefore “forced” to intervene, if not for your own good, then for the good of “the children,” who are valuable mostly as a class of definitionally incompetent human beings.
The simple fact is, the professionals hate “diversity” of any kind, and they’re not willing to tolerate much.
They get their power by defining the normal and the deviant and imposing those definitions on anybody they come in contact with.
And we pay them to do it.
Their power is ever expanding, because they are not required to prove that their definitions of “normal” and “deviant” are something objectively true.
They are automatically assumed to be practicing “science,” which in and of itself is all the justification they need.
Anybody who protests the findings of “science” is automatically assumed to be stupid, uneducated, and probably Republican.
The trick is that there is very little about what they purvey that is actually science, or even in touch with reality.
Small boys who can’t sit still in class all day and focus on Social Studies and Arithmatic have “attention deficit disorder” or “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” a medical problem that requires medication, intervention, and often a vast array of “services” provided yet more helping professionals.
And it doesn’t matter that there is no objective criteria for diagnosing either of these “disorders,” or that practitioners have admitted as much.
The same goes for the newly expanded “autism spectrum disorders,” and the one I like best “oppositional defiant disorder.”
A rebellious teenager is no longer an example of youth’s rejection of the compromises of age, or even of a desperate desire to grow up sooner.
She’s a “patient” who needs “intervention” to “cure” her “disorder.”
I think one of the biggest mistakes people make in trying to analyzing the present state of society in the West is to assume that the professionals and the liberals are the same people, with the same goals, and the same assumptions.
There is certainly some overlap, and in both directions (liberals who do professional work while still thinking like liberals, professionals who do other kinds of work while still thinking like professionals), but I think the professionals represent something new under the sun.
And I think that this time, while the Liberals and the Conservatives are arguing about “diversity” and “inclusion,” the professionals are instituting–often as regulations and practices that have the force of law–something else altogether.
That was an odd post.
Yesterday was Sunday, and I had the first really bang-up Sunday I’ve had for a long time. I had Pachibel, and this book I’m reading, and I cooked something I never had before for dinner–it was almost perfect. Perfect would be doing all that while looking out at the Pacific on Maui, but most of the time, you can’t have anything.
Anyway, as I said when I started this series of posts, there are, in and among these things I want, some very superficial ones, or at least seemingly superficial ones.
The superficial one for today is:
c) I want and end to the now ubiquitous television commercials about human plumbing.
Back in the Fifties and early Sixties, we used to deplore the crappiness and utter banality of American television, which we all pretty much ascribed to the censorship of both the FCC and the networks’ departments of Standards and Practices.
How could American television be anything else but bland when blue nosed neurotics refused to allow more than a hint or two of real life, and sometimes not even that?
Well, cable television came along and so did paid TV, and what we have is sometimes very good indeed–I recommend Band of Brothers.
Unfortunately, we got something else, and the something else is driving me completely out of my mind.
The biggest offenders in this categories are the commercials for various “colon” products.
Now, we had those in the Fifties, sort of. But in the Fifties, such commercials would just talk about keeping you “regular,” and trust to the viewer to know what they were talking about.
This viewer often had no idea what they were talking about.
These days, there’s no room for confusion. We get diagrams. We get animation. We get discussions of just how awful it is to be “slow” and how we should–well, you get the picture.
And it’s not like it’s just one product. There’s Phillips Colon Health. There’s Activia Yogurt, which has, for the first time, made me feel that I don’t want to see Jamie Leigh Curtis doing something. And there are half a dozen more.
I have reached the opinion that there is some virtue in having a class of things that is “just not talked about.” At least not on television in prime time.
But although the colon commercials are ubiquitous and getting more explicit by the day, the most explicit commericals are aired by law firms putting together or managing the results of class action lawsuits.
In aid of this kind of thing, I have now learned that you can get something put into your body called a “vaginal mesh,” and that meshes can also be installed for bladders, and other things.
And these devices have had a tendency to fail or to call complications, so you want to contact the lawyers involved and see if you qualify as a member of the “class” and are therefore due compensation.
The commercial then provides you with explicit details of what can happen to your vagina or your bladder, with text blocks and sometimes diagrams just so that you won’t mistake what’s going on here.
In fact, as it turns out, a lot of things can happen to your vagina that I never knew were possible, and there is no time of the day or night when somebody doesn’t want to inform you of them.
With a voiceover by an announcer who sounds like a refugee from an AIP Vincent Price movie.
I am definitely nostalgic for the days when you couldn’t say “vagina” on TV, or “penis” either.
I know the baby boom is getting older–but I’m part of the baby boom, I’m smack in the middle of it in fact, and I am not old enough to be obsessed with my internal organs and private parts in this way.
I will admit that it never occurred to me that the end of censorship would mean the end of being able to watch any commercial TV without blanching.
And no, I don’t think I’m advocating censorship here. I don’t want the FCC to lower the boom.
I want a return to a societywide consensus that
d) something things just shouldn’t be said in public.
The social equivalent of the human plumbing commercials on television is the tendency of everybody and anybody to say anything at all, no matter how private.
And with that has come the assumption that if you want privacy, you must be doing something wrong–after all, if you aren’t doing something wrong, why would you care if anybody knew what you were doing?
There is some little resistance to this among people and organizations–the ACLU is one of them–who oppose things like red light camera stops or searches by the TSA.
That resistance rarely extends to things like “oversight” by teachers and workplaces designed to “promote diversity.” The left is happy to have your privacy invaded in aid of promoting “tolerance.”
The right seems to be happy to have your privacy invaded in aid of anything else at all.
But all of that bothers me a lot less than the simple assumption of people on the street that we are all supposed to tell everybody everything at all times. When we don’t want to do this, we are being snobbish, or standoffish–or maybe just generally suspect, because we must be hiding something.
And this assumption colors things like police investigations and jury findings. How many times have you heard a cop say on one of those true crime programs “she showed no emotion at all”–as if that had to mean she was guilty.
Juries do the same thing.
I come from a long line of people who consider showing one’s emotions in public to be a very Bad Thing, the sign of someone whose emotions are very shallow or faked altogether.
I only have to hope that I’m never on trial for murder.
And this spills over into psychology, too, at least to that practiced by psychologists in schools and other institutions: if you’re the kind of person who prefers to read on your own rather than play tag at recess, there must be something wrong, it’s a “red flag” and you’re probably either being abused at home or mentally ill.
I was born, I think, just in time–at the beginning of the societal insistance that we all expose all of ourselves all of the time to everybody, but before it got any legal teeth.
Now I’d just like to return to an era when I not only had a “right to privacy” in some esoteric realm, but when people actually respected my privacy and accepted that it was perfectly normal for me to demand it in real life.
So, it’s Saturday, and I have transportation-related things to do, which means that I ought to be in a very bad mood. As it is, I got up this morning early, and instead of just jumping into stuff I put on my very favorite Mendelssohn CD and read that book I was talking about a few days ago, and I’m presently in a very good mood indeed.
It’s not going to last.
But while we’re here–
I’m not going to get into a debate about abortion at the moment. I’ve said before, and in other places, that I think I know the only substantive argument for a complete hands-off policy by government on the issue of abortion–all nine months, for any reason, without exception–but that I also know of no substantive moral argument for having one.
But it is an argument on a different topic, and it won’t help anyway, because at the moment neither side seems capable of having a rational discussion about the issue. People just yell.
Instead, let me go back to that list about what I want, with another Important (numbered, not lettered) issue:
3) I want performance and competence to be the only thing that matters when we engage in projects.
That last word is vague enough.
Let me see if I can’t clean it up a little.
If we engage in building a dam, then the object of our exercise should be to build a dam–not to fix race relations, spread the jobs around a statitically predecided percentage of men and women, raise the self-esteem of Arabs and Zulu warriors, or whatever.
The same should be the case if we want to send a manned flight to Mars, build a bridge over the Columbia River, or anything else.
People should be selected to work on such projects because the have exhibited the best performance at the tasks (or similar ones) indicated. along with other qualities (perserverence, integrity) that could materially affect their performance at this particular job.
Note that I’m saying “performance” and not “merit.”
It’s a useful distinction I learned from Thomas Sowell. The issue is not some intrinsic, spiritual quality, to be determined–how? Apparently subjectively, or based on whatever definition anybody can hammer into the legislation.
The issue is something concrete and objectively recognizable: how well the candidate for the job has performed in other jobs, or in school, or on competitive examinations.
I want to see an end to the use of everything–including hiring for jobs and “public works” projects and college admissions–as an extension of social work.
The problem with doing things the way we’re doing them is that it not only doesn’t work, but that in the process of not working they screw up just about everything else.
A bridge project that has to hire people who have not demonstrated their ability to do the work has two choices: either hire them over and above the number of people actually needed to do that work and then give the less competent hirees some makework kind of thing to keep them out of trouble, or hire the incompetent and hope they won’t do much damage.
Given the problem everybody is having with budgets, the usual thing is the second–and that means that it now takes longer to build that bridge, and the bridge is likely to have engineering problems that can hurt real people in real time.
This is, of course, only one of the reasons why we live in a world where Everything Takes Longer, where 11 years after the 9/11 attacks we still don’t have a replacement for the World Trade Center, almost twice as long as it took to put the twin towers up to begin with.
And there are other issues here–the proliferation of rules and regulations about the environment, work conditions, and other issues that sometimes may make things better but often simply add to the amount of paperwork and the amount of time that needs to be expended before anything can start in any direction at all.
But at the base of all of it is the way in which we have turned almost everything we do into social work. The purpose of building a bridge becomes not building the bridge, but “providing jobs,” “promoting diversity” and a whole lot of other things that may be good ideas on some level or the other, but that don’t do much to get a bridge built both quickly and well.
And this is exacerbated by the professionalization/corporatization of everything. There are rules, and we follow the rules whether they help with the project or not.
The issue is not whether a candidate got a piece of paper from a school down the road, but whether or not a candidate can actually do the engineering. We used to have alternative routes to proving that–competitive examinations, work experience. These days, we just demand the piece of paper and pretend not to know that in at least a large minority of cases, it’s absolutely worthless.
On this issue, unfortunately, NASA was one of the earliest miscreants, which is why Chuck Yeager never made it into the space program.
I do understand that there has never been a time when neptoism, corruption, bias and other factors haven’t entered into this, but there is a difference between an age when such things occur even though they’re recognized to be wrong, and an age when such things are prescribed by law.
And we did, in fact, have periods of time in this country when these things happened less, because there was a societywide consensus that performance ought to be the only thing that counted. And with uch a consensus, individuals are more likely to seek competence for themselves and in the other people they work for.
And, in fact, pockets of such consensus still exist in areas that are under the radar of the bureaucracies. Of course, as soon as they come out into the open to do material work in the material world, all that is likely to be over–once they’ve managed to get the environmental impact statement and the 27 other things they have to get before they’re even allowed to start.
I suppose I’d like to fix all that while I was fixing the thing about performance and competence, but I think my world would be well on its well to better if we got that fixed first.
I’m going to go off and see a man about a car.
I actually have a lot of things to do today, and no real time.
But I wanted to comment on Michael Fisher’s comment about abortion.
Because it’s not just abortion that is showing signs of a coming crack-down.
It’s pregnancy itself.
Consider: when my parents’ generation had children, women routinely had a cocktail before dinner throughout their pregnancies, and nobody thought anything of it.
These days, the local bartender, waiter at a fine restaurant, nurse in you child’s school is likely to inform Social Services of the fact that a woman is drinking even so much as a single glass of wine with her dinner, because the practice is automatically assumed to cause “brain damage” and “fetal alcohol syndrome.”
Of course, if such a moderate exposure to alcohol–or even a large exposure to tobacco–could cause brain damage and fetal alc0hol syndrome, the entire baby boom would have been born with FAS.
But it’s part and parcel not only of our increasing Puritanism about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, but of our increasing insistance that children belong to the state and the state has the right to regulate anything parents do to and with them.
And in aid of that, a woman who doesn’t “follow doctor’s orders” can be forced to have a Cesarian against her will, forced to stay in the hospital so that her food and drink habits can be monitored, have her child forcibly removed from her care at birth.
And no, I’m not making ANY of that up. Not only have all those things happened, but they have been affirmed by the courts as legitimate actions by the state, in spite of the fact that there are no laws against a woman having a cocktail or smoking a cigarette during pregnancy.
Hell, there aren’t even any regulations.
There’s been a lot of yelling over the last couple of months over Republican attempts to limit abortions by various intrusive means–the vaginal ultrasound is one of them–but the move to control and regulate women’s bodies in the name of the state’s interest in the unborn child started a couple of decades ago, and it wasn’t about limiting abortions.
In fact, given the extent to which a woman now loses control over her own body during pregnancy, abortion is practically the only defense she has against the state’s attempt to intrude on her decisions.
But I think these things are connected.
I think that we as a people have largely been unhappy about the entire abortion issue–we allow it legally, lots of us claim it to be a woman’s “right” (actually, woman do not have a “right to” abortion, only a right to be free of government interference in getting one), but I think most of us respond to it, almost viscerally, as morally unacceptable.
And I think that, because of that, we’ve unconscious switched our gut feelings about pregnant women from one where any such woman is presumed to have the best interests of her child at heart, to one where any such woman is a potential violent predator against her child, whether she aborts it or not.
And none of that is “nonjudgmental,” nor does it indicate continuing social libertarianism in our future.
For reasons mostly boring and mundane, Wednesdays are now the sanest days of my weeks.
I think I got that grammatically correct.
At any rate, Wednesdays are the days when I don’t have to run out and be somewhere and I don’t have to hurry up and do something, and today I took advantage of that to listen to Mendelsohn and read in the early morning instead of Getting Something Done.
The reading is, in a way, how I ended up in this particular discussion, but I don’t really want to report on the book just yet. I’m not all that far into it, and it’s a complicated thing, an intellectual history that is trying to explain how we got here from our Medieval past–what made Western societies not only secular but secular in the particular way they are secular.
Yeah, I know. A little light reading.
But that brings me to my next thing on the small list, and to a comment on the state of the important list so far.
Here’s the big problem with Federalism as a solution to a population that does not have any kind of a moral consensus:
It can only last so long.
As I pointed out when I started this, when the country was founded, we had exactly one moral fault line, one moral issue on which there was not a society-wide consensus.
And that was slavery.
We solved that problem with Federalism, and the compromise lasted less than a century before it kicked off a five-year-long Civil War that left over 600,000 soldiers dead.
There’s a reason for this.
No matter how many times various people say we shouldn’t be judgmental and that moral codes are all subjective and relative, nobody actually believes this.
On both sides of every moral issue, what we have is people who are deeply committed to the objective, irrefutable truth of their own moral convictions.
People who champion gay rights are no less absolutist in their moral beliefs than are people who claim gay sex is an abomination eternally proscribed by God.
And because both sides are absolutist in their beliefs, neither side can logically (or emotionally) agree to disagree with the people who reject their claims.
Modern relativists do not believe that all morality is relative to cultural or intellectual or subjective emotional circumstances.
If they did, they would have no problem with Mississippi refusing to officially recognize gay marriage while Massachussetts accepted it.
The same is true on a million different issues–abortion, birth control, racial discrimination, creationism and ID, you name it.
When moral relativism is brought into the public discussion of these issues, it is always a rhetorical dodge–if you can get your opponent to accept this, or the audience to accept this, then your opponent is disarmed, and you can go on advocating your own point of view from the same old absolutist perspective.
And, if you’re lucky, either nobody will notice (not likely, these days), or they’ll be so undercut by your assumptions that they won’t be able to proceed with the same vigor they had before.
Eventually, one way or the other, we will either reach consensus again, or we will cease to exist as a nation.
And both sides wants to ensure its own victory in the same way–by enlisting the Federal, state and local governments in its cause, to pass laws supporting its moral assumptions and to enforce them in any way possible.
This is why there is both abstinence education and days of silence, why there are antidiscrimination laws and dry counties in Kentucky.
And this is why the argument about the teaching of evolution in public schools has nothing to do with science, no matter what either of the sides say.
But the bottom line is simply this: we cannot do this for long. We can do it LONGER if there is true Federalism, but that will still be a stopgap measure.
Both sides are naive, however, for thinking that getting the government to enact their agenda will settle the issue.
It didn’t do that in 1860, when there was no radio, no television, no Internet, no text messages–when it was infinitely harder for like-minded believers to find each other and organize.
These days, short of establishing a police state as extensive as North Korea’s or a religious tyranny as extensive as Afghanistan’s under the Taliban, there’s no way to stop your opponents from simply setting up their own channels of information and organization and going from there.
Universities try “speech codes” and find themselves socked with lawsuits about free speech. They install gag orders on dozens of issues–say, the relative academic qualifications of affirmative action and non-affirmative action admits–and some kid takes their raw data and dumps it onto the Internet for all to see.
Churches try to handle “issues” “internally” and find themselves subject to investigative reports on cable news–sexual predation and misconduct, embezzlement, whatever.
None of us can hide from this any more.
I’m not going to predict what’s coming, because I don’t know–and I do know that too many people predict that the other side must be winning, because that’s what it feels.
I will suggest one thing–if you want to see how things are going, watch sex.
Because what’s been happening with sex has been very interesting.
We’re used to being told that this is a sexually permissive society, that people have a much wider field of sexual expression that they ever have had before.
And, on some aspects of sex, this is true.
Homosexuality is not illegal anywhere, as far as I know. You can get all kinds of pornography these days, and plenty of people are involved in groups that enable sexual practices nobody would have admitted to 40 years ago.
But in other aspects, this is definitely not true.
Forty years ago, an eighteen year old boy could have sex with his fourteen year old girlfriend and what would most likely happen to him was nothing, unless he got her pregnant, at which point he’d be required to marry her. If her parents tried to get him charged with statutory rape, the worst he’d have gotten even if he could be convicted (unlikely) would have been about a year in jail.
These days, he’d not only be convicted of statutory rape, he’d be a registered Sex Offender for the next 40 years of his life, pretty much destroying any chance he ever had for a decent life.
We’ve managed this return to censoriousness and Draconian punishment by redefining “consent” to mean not “the proposed victim didn’t consent’ to “even if the proposed victim consented, he/she didn’t really, because he/she is too young, old mentally disabled to really be able to.”
This is a sensible rule when we’re talking about a six year old, but not when we’re talking about a fourteen year old. Young and immature though such a person may be, naive and unsophisticated, the idea that he/she is incapable of wanting sex, seeking it out, or desiring it with a person older than him/herself is demonstrably untrue.
It’s demonstrably untrue even if we don’t go into the fact that Mary Kay Latourneau is now married to the kid she went to jail for having sex with.
Having adopted a public stance that sexual practice is private and should not be interfered with by the state, that everybody’s sexual practice and orientation is sacredly a central part of his identity and must be allowed free play for expression, and that moral proscriptions of sexuality are mostly the province of traditionalist and probably stupid people–
We find ourselves in a position where we have to go more than overboard in order to proscribe some sexual practices, which we still consider wrong.
But this is a compromise that won’t hold for long, either.
The moral hysteria of this latest sexual panic is ramping up just as groups in various states are trying to get the official age of consent for sex lowered–and those two trends are eventually going to crash into each other.
If the present state of things is any indication, the proscribers are going to win, and more and more sexual activity is going to go back to being culturally shunned and even legally banned.
There is really no other way for this to turn out unless we’re willing to allow NAMBLA’s contention that sex between grown men and six year olds is at least potentially beneficial, and I’ll guarantee we’re not going there.
We are on are way to a much more prudish age.
Whatever else we’re on our way to, I couldn’t say.
I was going to start writing today by bringing up my other Really Important item on the wish list, the one that goes like this:
2) I want us to establish, firmly and for the final time, that the nature of this country is democratic–that is, that all adult citizens are presumed to be capable of handling their own affairs unless substantively (and with full criminal due process) proved otherwise, and that they are equally capable of running their government. I want the experts dethroned and politically castrated. No more laws by bureaucratic fiat. No more experts trumping ordinary citizens about what rules we should all be living under.
This is, by the way, not a fundamentally libertarian idea–self government does not preclude the possibility of a public that passes laws to regulate private behavior.
We’ve had lots of such laws in our history, including during periods when the experts were not yet ensconced in their departments, telling us all that we’re too fat, too stupid, and ingesting all the wrong substances because we’re all so addicted that we think that’s what we want.
During most of this country’s history, states and municipalities have passed laws against gambling, “lewd” sexual practice (not just homosexuality, but often sex outside marriage), obscenity and dozens of other things.
The difference between those laws and the “regulations” we have now is that those laws were democratically passed. If we didn’t like them, we could try to get them repealed. If we didn’t like the fact that our government had passed them, we could try to throw the bums out.
It has always seemed to me to be the single most important achievement of the American founding–this idea, going against the collected wisdom of Western Civilization, that people should be self-governing citizens and not dependent subjects of a ruling class that simply had to impose rules and restrictions because, “obviously,” ordinary people were just too stupid and weak to rule themselves.
I can hear a lot of you out there going, “but democracy won’t get you what you want! people will still pass bad laws! representatives will be bought out by big money or resort to demogoguery or God (or whatever) knows what.”
And, of course, it’s true. There’s always that danger.
But there are other and greater dangers in rule by aristocracy, even if we label such an aristocracy “experts” and demand that people pay them homage as something demigods.
If there is one reason why I would never call myself a “progressive,” that’s it–the Progressive movements faith in and obeissance to “experts” is vast and unending, and continues even now.
And yes, I do know that lots of people are stupid, and lots of people are shortsighted, and all the rest of it–but you don’t make them less so by imposing a rule of experts on them and changing them from citizens to subjects.
And this brings me, oddly enough, to a place where I don’t know how to label what comes next.
Is Federalism a big issue or a small one?
In my mind, it’s mostly a mechanism–there is no reason assume that all the people in a nation will agree on everything, and it makes sense to break the whole down to small units that will each make their own rules for their own communities, some of which will contract the rules made next door by other units.
A return to Federalism–real Federalism, not “you each get to make the rules Washington tells you to make”–is, I think, the only way in which we have a chance in hell of getting out from under the present culture wars, or worse.
I don’t know if we are capable of doing it. Conservatives and liberals both want to impose their particular understanding of the good and right and proper on their fellow citizens. Liberals want abortion legal even in states where it is widely opposed. Conservatives want abortion illegal even in states where it is widel supported.
You can make the same kind of comparison for everything from public prayer to sex education.
I will say here as I’ve said before, that in a society with a democratic ethos and not much else–in a world where “the majority rules” is the only basis for accepting or rejecting any moral claim as true–
In such a society, the mere existence of a large body of people with opposing moral and political ideas is automatically threatening.
It indicates that your own moral and political ideas might not be true, because “everybody” doesn’t agree with them.
And, worse, if it turns out there are more of them than there are of you–well, then evil isn’t what you think it is, and neither is good, and you may end up with all your ideas branded beyond the pale and then be rightfully coerced into living otherwise.
It’s the “rightfully” that matters in that sentence. Federalism is the system by which we accept the fact that, in order to be self-governing, we have to let people govern themselves.
By now, I can hear a whole chorus of people yelling–but they’ll deny people their rights!
And all I can say is–define “rights.”
Rights as defined in the US Constitution are negative only–they are limitations on what government can do to you.
And those limitations, though very damned close to absolute, are broad rather than narrow and not infinite.
Yes, states must honor due process rights (I’d say in all cases, including child and family relations–but that’s just me), they must honor freedom of speech and of the press and of religion.
And in one very narrow case–African Americans–they must prevent ordinary people from “discriminating.” The special case exists because slavery did exist, and slavery being an extreme violation of the rights of one segment of our people, requires extreme measures to repair the problem we created for ourselves.
Beyond that, however, I see no reason why we should stop states and municipalities from making the laws their citizens want. Some states could recognize gay marriage while other states don’t (and the Federal government to recognize valid gay marriages while that is going on.) Some states could teach abstinence and others could teach comprehensive sex education. Some states could allow–gasp!–prayer on the premises and others could not. Some states could mandated the teaching of creationism or intelligent design and other states could ban it. Some states could allow smoking in public buildings and others could not.
And before you start screaming about how allowing prayer or creationism would trample on the freedom of religion rights of atheists and secular people, or people of minority religions–it wouldn’t anywhere nearly as badly as the laws in places like Massachusetts which require all adoption agencies to place infants with gay and unwed couples as well as married ones.
Forget about the rights of things like Catholic Charities. Think of one of my relatives who was and is very, very devoutly Catholic and who had a child out of wedlock at sixteen.
Her major consideration in giving the child up for adoption was that it be placed with a traditionally orthodox and practicing Catholic couple. Had she lived in Massachusetts under that law, her only choice would have been to refuse to allow the child to be adopted at all.
But under the kind of Federalism I’m talking about, I would have support Massachusetts’s right to pass such a law. There would, after all, have been other states where my relative could have gone to have the baby and have it adopted, that would have different rules.
But none of this is possible if we have nothing on which to base our sense of morality and truth but “what the majority believes.”
And at the moment, we don’t seem to have anything else.
Even our self-reportedly religious believers, who say they rely on God, seem to see morality as a matter of polls and opinions, let the most popular win.
So, it’s Monday morning, and I have a lot to do. I am also faced with a recalcitrant web site that I need desperately that’s had a “server problem” since yesterday.
So I’m here, and I’m almost transitioned out of writing mode.
But let me go back to one of the themes from the last two posts–for me, in particular (in other words, not speaking for all of us) what do I feel I’ve lost since the Fifties that I want back? And what do I feel was good riddance?
Maybe I should start with just what I want, period.
There are, of course, Big Things, like:
1) A world in which the first law of morality is that every single human life–including the lives of the old in dementia, the desperately ill, the disabled–is infinitely valuable, and therefore represents a life worth living.
I chose that last phrase deliberately. It was a clarion call of the eugenics movement and, of course, later of Hitler, that some lives are “not worth living.”
These days, of course, we’re a lot more squishy about it. Apparently, even some of our courts–see Oregon in the “wrongful life” suit that paid the parents for a “wrong” done to them when the hospital didn’t catch their child’s Down Syndrome so that they could abort it–to sign on to the idea that it’s somehow “better” for people who aren’t as…perfect…as we are to be dead.
In this case, of course, I’m probably not being nostalgic for anything. In all that I know of, there has been at least a large minority view that the old, sick and disabled are somehow burdens to themselves and others and ought to be “put out of their misery.”
People who are healthy, well and very bright seem to find it almost impossible to accept the idea that people who are none of those things can lead happy lives, or that they might prefer to be alive even in their disability than to be dead.
We may all look horrified at Singer and his followers when they suggest “after birth abortion,” but the idea that “defective” infants should be put to death is as old as Western civilization. In fact, the adamant objection to the practice n Roman society was one of the selling points of early Christianity to women.
So that’s my biggie. And since we’ve never achieved it in totality in any Western society, I suppose I shouldn’t expect us to achieve it now. I will say there have been periods when it has been more widespread a view than others. I’d like something more like that, than like now.
But aside from the big things, there are also little things, lots of little things. Some of them have been around during my lifetime.
a) I would like a return to the societywide assumption that most people are basically decent, most parents love their children and are unlikely to harm them, most spouses love or at least like each other and are unlikely to hurt each other, that most grandchildren care for their grandparents and are not likely to rip them off.
Before you jump up and say that we can’t think any of those things because none of them are true–the fact is that they are ALL true MOST of the time.
What has happened in the last thirty years or so is not that we have become a society where spouses are all batterers and parents are all abusers.
What has happened is that we have moved from assuming the best about people to assuming the worst.
And not even the best. “MOST parents love their children and are unlikely to harm them” is not a statement of some lofty ideal. It’s an everyday description of reality.
A world in which we assume that families are all violent and abusive is a world in which public policy is directed first and foremost at “protecting” family members from families and, inevitably, to forcing families into nonexistence as soon as possible.
At the very least, it is a world in which families require constant “oversight,” and if we can’t manage that by putting an observer in every home, we’ll deputy anybody a family member comes in contact with to report “signs” of abuse, violence, and neglect.
And those “signs” include a vast array of circumstances and behavior that are prevalent even in non-abusive situations, with the decision as to whether or not the “sign” indicates abuse left up to the subjective opinion of the reporter.
And then we tell the reporter–if you DON’T report when you “suspect” abuse or neglect, we’ll take your professional license away, fine the hell out of you and make your life not worth living.
Which makes it entirely unsurprising that most designated “mandatory reporters” jump to report just about anything. Because the determination of whether or not they “suspected” abuse is left up to—the subjective opinions of superiors, agencies and courts.
In the Fifties, the first loyalty of teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists and other “helping” professionals was to families. These days, the first loyalty is to a legal apparatus that treats the family as the enemy.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that so many parents come in to teacher conferences already loaded for bear.
So the first thing I want back is that, the society wide assumption that families are generally good things and that the lives of family members are first and foremost embedded in the family, so that “helping” professionals have as a duty to respect the family’s wishes unless there is serious, physical evidence that something else is going on.
b) I want a return to the society-wide conviction that money is not enough, and that it mostly isn’t the point.
Forget all the treacly Hallmark Card posters–some people are so poor, all they have is money–which point in vaguely the right direction, but that are on posters because people are not living there.
The fact is that we have reached a place where money is all that counts. And I do mean all. If you have it, it doesn’t matter a damn what you did to get it, and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done.
One of the reasons I think my students have so much trouble with the story of Dr. Jonas Salk is that they are very aware, on a visceral level, that in this society at this time, if you don’t have money you don’t have respect.
Money is the point. It is why we do what we do. Having stuff is what makes us happy. If we have money and stuff, why would we care that we got it being a madam or ratting out our friends or exposing our genitalia on the red carpet or, you know, whatever?
Goodness only knows, having committed a crime is no longer any reason why somebody should not be famous and celebrated.
Charles Rangel was convicted of eleven ethics violations and forced to step down as head of the House Ways and Means Committee–and now he’s got his own show on MSNBC. Tom Delay was found guilty of money laundering and ended up on Dancing with the Stars.
People yell and scream about “income inequality,” but what bothers me is not the lack of income equality but the proliferation of it–all money is created equal.
And the first thing you need to do with your money is to buy a lot of stuff that you can then show off to other people.
And that’s a start.
Note–I’m designating the “big” things with numbers (like 1) and the smaller ones with letters (a, b, c).
I’ll get back to this tomorrow.
The title to this post was suggested by my younger son. And, you know, whatever.
But let met get first to Cathy’s comment, where she says that society in the past was just as brutal.
The first is to note that what I was commenting on was not brutality in real life but brutality in the culture–in what occurs publicly, particularly in art, literature and music.
And I think I’d have no trouble proving that the culture in, say, 1935 or 1953 was far less brutalized than it is now. You could go to the movies day in and day out without seeing a single instance of graphic sex or violence. You could pick up any respectably published book without hearing a single f-bomb, or much else in the way of profanity. Song lyrics were about moons and spoons and Junes and not killing cops or raping your best friend’s ex-girlfriend. Even the vast majority of porn (which would have been illegal) concerned a heterosexual couple having vanilla sex instead of rape fantasies requiring clothes pins.
But I’m willing to bet that we’d find less brutality in real life in that period, too, if we looked into it.
Cathy says that I should look at the way women and children were treated.
But I think women and children were treated fairly well.
Granted, police did not respond to “domestic violence” the way we do now, but there is actually no evidence that there was more of it in spite of that.
When we’re faced with that lack of evidence, we’re told “well, a lot of it wasn’t reported.”
But that’s not evidence, it’s conjecture. A lot of crime is always unreported. The only evidence we have that the rate of nonreporting is significantly higher now than then is our conviction that “that’s what marriage is always like”–and that, in itself, is part and parcel of the brutalization of the culture.
You can see a similar think happening in the way we treat children. Certainly parents in the 1950s used more corporal punishment than do parents now, but unless you’re of the opinion that any corporal punishment at all is “beating,” there’s no reason to suppose that most of it was violent or extreme.
That is, there’s no reason except that we’ve changed our cultural view of the relationships between parents and children–as we have with our cultural view of the relationships between husbands and wives–from one of “probably loving and acceptible unless proven otherwise” to one of “probably abusive and horrible unless proven otherwise.”
And that, in itself, is evidence of the brutalization of this culture.
But I could go even farther than that, because there is affirmative evidence that the culture was far less brutalized in the 30s, 40s and 50s than it is now.
For one thing, the violent crime rate was much lower than it is now–and no, not just because crime was being vastly underreported. As late as the mid-1950s, women habitually walked at night in Central Park without worrying about being mugged or raped, and a case of robbery or rape in the Park, when it did occur, was treated as an outrage.
And yes, I do know that in the Twenties–the War on Alcohol–the FBI used to shoot at people with machine guns. By the Fifties and Sixties, however, they brought murderers into jail handcuffed to the front and without shackles. See the Clutter case, in Kansas, that made the basis for In Cold Blood.
With minorities, the issue is a little more complicated.
Lynching was certainly brutality, and its import was worse in that it was largely officially sanctioned, if mostly under the table. And getting rid of it was definitely a move in the direction of de-brutalization.
But I’m not sure exactly how we can judge the relative brutality of that and the present state of our inner cities.
In the 30s and, yes, well into the 50s, Harlem was a poor area but also a safe area to live in. People from other parts of New York went up to hear jazz and blues without worrying that the trip was going to get them killed. There were no drive-by shootings and no drug busts that could result in an eighteen year old kid going to jail for forty years.
And, of course, there was the obvious–families were mostly intact, schools were mostly safe and contained no metal detectors or random locker searches, and children could play on the street or in the parks without their parents having to worry that they’d be drawn into a drug deal or dead in a shoot out or signed up for a violent gang.
I’d say that, on the subject of brutalization–not of rights or cultural attitudes about whether women were up to running corporations, but of brutalization–the experience of minorities is mostly a wash.
It was possible to have a decent life in Harlem in the 1950s. These days, the only way you can have a decent life in Harlem is if you live in Morningside Heights, where Columbia keeps its students and faculty. And even then, you have to be on the alert every moment for violence happening around you.
Meanwhile, most of the black people have been pushed up to Washington Heights, where the living situation is brutal in the extreme.
I agree with Mike, that historical novels can be maddening when they drag in 21st century cultural judgments or (worse) include characters who seem to have time travelled from their graduation at Sidwell Friends.
But I understand how it happens. And why.
I can watch Perry Mason episodes all day, to a large extent because I appreciate the attitudes on so many things–especially the one that said most people were good and decent and well meaning all the time, and there was something wrong with you, it was an indication of your own bad character, if you thought otherwise.
I know I don’t actually have any interest in going back to the Fifties. I know that when I was living in the Fifties and early Sixties, I was a one-girl dynamo feminist before I’d ever heard of the word.
But the cynicism and gutter mindedness of this present situation sometimes overwhelm me, and I find myself willing to do almost anything to get rid of it all.
So I’m careful not to even try to write historicals, and to read not historicals but books contemporary with the era I’m having my little nostalgia fit for, because I know that, sure as anything, I’d have the same problem.
I don’t want to go back. I want to have some things we used to have that we don’t have now.
And I don’t know how that’s done.