Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Immigrants, Language, and Assimilation

Samuel Huntington, of the "clash of civilizations" fame, has written an article which applies some of his civilizational concerns to the U.S.; specifically, he's worried about "The Hispanic Challenge" which the flood of Spanish-speaking Mexicans and Latin Americans presents to America's identity. David Brooks has attacked Huntington's argument in the NYT; David Adensik and Matthew Yglesias both concur. I'm not sure they necessarily dispute any of the details which Huntington presents as part of his argument; David admits that he doesn't know "the first thing about demographics or immigration." Huntington presents a wealth of data (here, here, and here) to support his claim that this particular wave of immigrants--both legal and illegal--is larger and different from all previous waves, and certainly no one can dispute that many of our present-day struggles over education, inner cities, entry-level wages and so forth are to a significant degree functions of our complicated relationship with Mexican immigrant labor. Still, Huntington will no doubt receive a great deal of criticism for the article, primarily for exactly the reason David, Matt and Brooks don't care for it: they're troubled by the claim that English-speaking Americans possess a particular cultural accomplishment, that said accomplishment is irreconcilable with the Hispanic culture which the new immigrants are bringing with them, and that ultimately "Mexican Americans will share in [the American] dream and in that society only if they dream in English."

Brooks puts the complaint with making this a "cultural" issue this way: "Frankly, something's a little off in Huntington's use of the term 'Anglo-Protestant' to describe American culture. There is no question that we have all been shaped by the legacies of Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. But the mentality that binds us is not well described by the words 'Anglo' or 'Protestant.' We are bound together because we Americans share a common conception of the future. History is not cyclical for us. Progress does not come incrementally, but can be achieved in daring leaps. That mentality burbles out of Hispanic neighborhoods, as any visitor can see."

Nice, but unfortunately wrong, or at least significantly wrong. What Brooks is embracing here is a not uncommon version of civic nationalism, the idea that America (and maybe other countries too, but especially America, as we are "exceptional") is a modern construct, a nation of thought and feeling and commitment, a "future-oriented" and thus fundamentally open-ended experiment in identity--and consequently, the substance of American political and social life is infinitely pliable, not bounded by ethnic or religious or linguistic borders; all that matters is being a patriot (Brooks in particular mentions how Hispanics serve in the military--and die in military service--"at comparable rates" to the native-born) and accepting the intellectual content of our civic symbols: Lincoln for justice and equality, Jefferson for individual liberty, and so forth. This idea is really a transformation of culture--which should be properly understood in terms of what Hegel called Sittlichkeit, or in other words, an ethic embedded into a historical and situated life--into something purely ideological. It's the dream of many who wish to hold on to the idea of nationality and belonging, but don't want their belonging troubled by the idea that "belonging" may require more than a common desire to get ahead. This civic escape from the hard work of situating and belonging (of making all belonging into a Kantian Moralität, a principle rationally available to all humankind) has been thoroughly demolished by numerous thinkers (see David Miller, Charles Taylor, Bernard Yack, George Fletcher, Kai Nielsen, Neil MacCormick....just start here and here). To take specific issue with the matter of language...does Brooks actually believe that his "American" vision of the future--something that isn't "cyclical," but which leaps forward with "daring"--is perfectly translatable to any other tongue, any other cultural context, without any change in meaning? What kind of philosophy of language does he embrace? Surely, when this vision is spoken in a particular language, it entails a particular range of meanings, and for better or worse that range is altered (perhaps expanded, perhaps contracted, perhaps both along different dimensions) when it is put into a different linguistic field, with it's own range of historical antecedents and associations. I'm admittedly influenced by the work of Johann Gottfried Herder here, but that's just because his arguments make sense. Consider what this scholar wrote about Herder's (I think correct) grasp of language:

"[Herder's] doctrine denies that meanings or concepts are to be equated with the sorts of items, in principle autonomous of language, with which most of the philosophical tradition has equated them--for example, the objects to which they refer, Platonic "forms," or the "ideas" favored by the British empiricists [or the simple civic visions which Brooks assumes to be the sum total of the matter]--and equates them instead with usages of words [developed over history in a particular social context]....The argument is simple but compelling: Intuitively enough, thought is of its very nature conceptually articulated, articulated in terms of meanings. But now, if concepts or meanings just are usages of words, and grasping concepts or meanings hence is just being competent in usages of words, thought's essential dependency on and boundedness by linguistic competence...[is] both established and explained. Herder gives this argument in several places...[such as when he writes]: 'What exactly is the connection between language and mode of thought? Whoever surveys the whole scope of a language surveys a field of thoughts and whoever learns to express himself with exactness precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we mumble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding.'" (From "Herder's Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three Fundamental Principles," The Review of Metaphysics 56 (December 2002), 341, 347.)

There is not necessarily any important political point here; only that, well, language matters--and hence, it is worth pondering the possible truth of Huntington's warning that "continuation of [Hispanic] immigration (without improved assimilation) could divide the United States into a country of two languages and two cultures...[and while such a transformation] would not necessarily be the end of the world, it would...be the end of the America we have known for more than three centuries." That's a real question, not one that can be ignored. Which is not to say that Huntington's framing of the question isn't weak--it is. Matt's basic objection to Huntington is correct (he writes that: "It's true that it often takes several generations before English fully displaces Spanish as the language of choice...[but] the same things were true of other large immigrant populations"); there's a xenophobic undercurrent to Huntington's specification of this wave of immigrants being a truly problematic wave as opposed to all previous ones. But still, neither are Huntington's basic premises incorrect. The English language spoken in the U.S. is by no means the sum total of American identity, but it is a vital part of it. America is a whole lot more than an "Anglo-Protestant" culture, but that doesn't mean that heritage can be completely dispensed in understanding how it is that our country perpetuates itself. Assimilation, in one sense or another, is a real issue, and a hard one, and easily disregarded by universalists of one stripe or another on both sides. When folks like Brooks say that being an American just boils down to having "a common conception of the future," he's dealing in platitudes that make it easier for xenophobes to justify themselves. And when folks like Huntington impose rigid civilizational lines on complicated questions like, for example, language assimilation, it makes it easier for liberals to think that "culture" needn't mean anything at all.

Monday, February 23, 2004

My Nader Mea Culpa

Hmmm. Chun the Unavoidable has defended Nader's decision to run for president. This has inspired a great and reflective sigh from Timothy Burke, wondering why Nader-voters, and nothing else, ignites his youthful, inner flamer. Eric Alterman is, of course, simply appalled--but not necessarily worried, for (as Todd Gitlin and Ryan Lizza both show), it seems that Nader's efforts this time around may be more farce than anything else. Still, Chun's frustration with what he labels (unfairly, I think, but not entirely inaccurately) as the sanctimonious efforts of some liberals to trash the very idea of voting for Nader rings a chord with me. Given that some of the participants here (Burke, Chun, Invisible Adjunct) are talented, passionate bloggers that I definitely wouldn't want to have on my case, I'm not sure I should expose myself this way, but...

It needs to be said: I happily wrote in Nader for president in 1996, and happily voted for him for president in 2000. Why? Did I think he would be elected president? Nope. Did I believe he would make a good president if he was? Not at all. Did I vote for him because I was a Green? Not really; I'm more a Christian Socialist, one of those socially conservative leftist communitarians (I believe there are four or five of us) that thought (and still think, by the way) that Gephardt would have made a fine president, and would have been an even better one if he hadn't flipped his position on abortion rights back in the 1980s. Well, did I vote for Nader because I like the idea of third parties making their mark on the electorate? Partly; I do in fact think that the more than century old Democrat/Republican institutional dominance of electoral campaigns is a bad thing. That said, I had no illusions that, for example, if Nader had gotten the magic 5% and received federal matching funds that the Green party would have overthrown the two-party system anytime soon. So then, did I vote for him because I'm a believer in generating revolutionary crises? Er, no.

What does that leave? Tim's accusation that I "think of a vote rather like the little gold stars that elementary school teachers give prize pupils, as a badge of their virtue," I'm afraid. Except that I have a somewhat different understanding of (civic) virtue than Tim, I think. Do end states matter? Of course. Are they all that matter? Of course not. Political life, as everyone from Aristotle to Arendt has taught us, is not full (and thus not fully empowering or fully worth its costs) if it is not at least partly an expressive act, a putting of oneself into the agora, a contribution to the appearance of the public, as it were. (One of the reasons I greatly fear that, as Chun believes, Kerry will be annihilated is that there is little or no expressivity behind his impending nomination at all; his support is built primary out of metaparanoia about how "other" voters--the mysterious swing voters, perhaps--will react when Doomsday arrives.) Is any of that an argument for not voting strategically? Not at all. An idea or ideal can be expressed relative to or in conjunction with any number of different institutional or long-range intentions. In my case, I didn't believe for a moment Nader's overblown claim that there was no real difference between Clinton and Dole, or Bush and Gore. But I did worry about trade, and globalism, and systematic poverty, and the power of corporations over our civic life. Are those the most important issues in the world? Perhaps not. Were either Clinton or Dole or Bush or Gore talking about any of them in a serious or constructive way in either 1996 or 2000? No, not really. So was it worth putting forward my two cents as a citizen, and signaling a concern for issues that otherwise were going to be treated cavalierly, at best? I think so.

My caveat, which you can take for whatever you think it's worth: I lived in Virginia in 1996 and 2000, and Bush was going to (and did) take that state easily. Would my thinking have been different if I'd lived in Florida, or Oregon, or Wisconsin? Possibly. Knowing what I know now (or at least think that I know now), post-9/11, post-Iraq, about Bush and Gore, do I wish I had voted differently in 2000? No, if for no other reason than the above Virginia residency caveat. If I'd voted the way I had and had lived in Florida at the time, would I now be wishing that I hadn't voted the way that I did? Absolutely. (Counter-factual enough for you?)

Incidentally, Nader has no appeal to me this time around. Different world, different concerns, different ideas and ideals to be expressed, different needs to be met. Ralph Nader may have been, arguably, a historically important vehicle of expression in the America of the 1990s. Given that he isn't even bothering with the Greens anymore, I can't see how he could possibly be so today.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Update to the Update (Talking Parenthood and (Relative) Poverty)

Laura is having a far more negative reaction to the Slate discussion of nannies and motherhood than I have had. Perhaps it's right that she does--after all, she's much closer to the environment which these writers (Caitlin Flanagan, Sarah Mosle, and Barbara Ehrenreich) inhabit than I am, and therefore is probably a lot more sensitive than I to the agendas lurking behind their words. Yesterday, I was pleased as punch to read Ehrenreich make what I thought was the crucial point about class in this whole discussion: that employing nannies simply enables upper-class mothers to abstain from the real struggle for decent childcare for all. But Laura has thrown a wet blanket on my thinking, and maybe she's right to do so:

"Good childcare for everyone would be nice. But I am not sure what it would look like. I've never seen it myself. My kids have been in okay situations that have not harmed them in any way, but they've only been there part time. Even if childcare was free for all, I don't think I would use it full time, but that's just me. I would like a little more childcare, more opportunities to work part time, a chance to return a full time career in a couple years, and more respect from feminists like Ehrenreich for my work at home."

Maybe Laura is misreading Ehrenreich; maybe she isn't. Ehrenreich, waving her old-fashioned (or is it?) feminist flag, does claim that:

"Our goal as 'old libbers'...was to share the childcare and housework among the adults in the household, boyfriends and husbands included. We lost on that one, or gave up the battle, or whatever...[W]hen women moved into the workforce, men never picked up on their share of the domestic work--and, speaking as a total fool for anyone under 3 feet tall, I would add domestic pleasures....[Don't] confuse feminism, which is a political movement, with the movement of (upper-middle-class) women into the workforce. There's a connection, of course: Feminist activism helped open up the professions to women, and many young female aspirants to the professions were feminists. But they're not the same thing. Feminism is not a particular lifestyle, defined by having your own job and checking account, for example. It is a moral stance and one that has always valued the stay-at-home mothers just as much as the corporate strivers. Hence, for example, the feminist resistance (coming from NOW and not just from lefties like me) to welfare reform in the mid-'90s. We felt poor women, like affluent women (and ideally men too), should have the option of staying home with their kids--that the work of caring and nurturing should be valued just as much as flipping burgers, sorting inventory, or cleaning offices at night."

See, I think this is strong, smart stuff. But it is also, of course, not a little revisionist and rigid. For NOW and other "old libbers" did, in fact, mock and deride the (often, but not always, socially conservative) women who chose to give up careers and activism for the sake of their children; Ehrenreich is correct to claim that feminism is a moral position, concerned with delivering autonomy to women in all positions in society, but it's a little rich to claim--especially when we look at the actual life choices of the sort of nanny-employing women who write books like Flanagan's!--that there hasn't ever been a presumption against child-rearing as a truly "liberated" form of empowerment. There is a sort of class bias present in their writing which Laura picks up on, a bias which discriminates, now that I think about it, against exactly the sort of off-the-clock, "slacker," give-up-on-ambition-and-submit-to-the-rhythms-of-ordinary-life parenting which Laura and I have praised. Laura has employed sitters, she's used daycare, she's seen elite nanny-centered families up close, and wants to be able to say that compromises in one's own life and family duties shouldn't be a badge of shame. And she's right: agonizing over how one should treat one's nanny, or how one can better argue for "universal" childcare, or how we can (as Mosle concludes) turn this all into a campaign to bring systematic reforms to the low-wage labor (i.e., nanny) market, hides some fundamental rationalizations; in Laura's words, a basic "unwillingness to take on even a part of the boring, messy business of watching kids." They avoid more simple questions, like (Laura again): "Is it worth it? Could one parent work less hours, make less money, and have less childcare?" And Laura's invective, even if I don't entirely agree with it, reminds me that such questions are, when it comes to dealing with you and your child (which is really what any debate over nannies or childcare should be about!), far more important than any others.

As I said before, we've never employed a nanny, because we've never needed to, wanted to, or been able to afford to even if the need or want was there. My wife has worked as a "sitter" (to use Laura's term), and she's seen the weird kind of envy, resentment, dependency, and judgments which follow from being, or being forced, to turn away for the length of a workday from one's own kids. So I've got no patience with those who rationalize and agonize from their upper and upper-middle class perches. But I still like what Ehrenreich has to say, because even if she's oblivious to how her position and attitude may compromise her message, at least she's sending it out. It's a message that gets at the heart of the issue of autonomy and equality, themes which I tend to think about philosophically, but which have a real practical edge to them as well. In a world of competition and material structures, there are ingrained patterns of inequality and dependency; some (the wealthy, the majority, the culturally dominant) have more autonomy than others. Figuring out how to redress that inequality is hard, much harder than simple redistribution of resources and opportunities (though that obviously helps!). I tend to read political contests and trends in light of these abiding, class-based, culturally manifest patterns, and I'm delighted when I see someone else discovering them in the context of otherwise unnoticed social phenomena (like in the maintenancece of public museums, or in this case, in the issue of childcare). I read Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed as soon as it came out, and thought she'd expressed so much truth so well. But to be sure, there were limits to the "truth" she was able to put into those pages. A concern for the institutionalized socio-economic patterns which exploit many does not translate into a complete sympathy for those exploited, or a complete understanding of the ways in which people may be "empowered." For example, I remember that Ehrenreich, towards the end of that book, allowed that it wasn't the case that the working poor with whom she'd spent several months were simply inhuman, oppressed machines; they carved out lives for themselves in the midst of exploitation. She mentioned that she'd known a fellow housecleaner who'd written a science fiction novel in her spare time. I wanted follow up: did Ehrenreich ever read it? Was it any good? Was it fan-fic, or what? Did Ehrenreich just take this information and file it away, or did she ever consider maybe entering into her coworker's social or imaginary world, validating and enriching it through her contributions? I doubt it; in all likelihood, her coworker's economic condition is all that mattered.

Poverty and deprivation of all forms is bad; I know that. And I know the solution must involve something larger than just paying nannies better wages; and I'm a fan of anyone who helps reveal the structures and social obstacles behind the wage which should be our real targets. But targeting those structures, class-based though they may be, is not simply a matter of economics; it is a matter of how (and if) we can achieve humane autonomy and recognition. Dependency takes many forms besides financial; conversely, empowerment can happen many places besides at work. It can happen in one's imagination, it can happen at home, and it can (and should!) most definitely happen with one's kids. We shouldn't ever shy away from the hard issue of labor exploitation in the home--to say nothing of how we husbands contribute to such!--but Laura was right to indirectly remind me that, should we (as perhaps these women do) frame that exploitation in ways which internalize our own perspective ("oh what can we, the sort of women who already prefer the sort of arrangements which entail employing nannies, do to make our preferences just?"), then our solutions to it will be limited indeed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Update

I hope you're following the Slate discussion of Caitlin Flanagan's article about nannies and parenthood, which I mentioned below. Because if you aren't, you're missing the comments of Barbara Ehrenreich, and damn, is that woman right about so many things:

"In the golden days of the feminist second wave, our moral vision included high-quality childcare for all. What makes this 'nanny war' talk seem a little precious to me is that only about 20 percent of Americans are in any position to contemplate employing a nanny; the rest are scrambling for other, often group, forms of childcare....One thing that really bothers me about the nanny trend—in addition to the exploitation of so many nannies—is that it has removed the upper-middle class from the struggle for decent, universal childcare, just as the turn to private schools has removed them from the struggle to upgrade our public schools."

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Nannies and Autonomy

Laura over at Apt. 11D has spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks asking questions, and seeking answers, about the household economy, about who does the laundry, about fathers and mothers and others raising kids today. Frequently, in the midst of all these posts, she's pointed us to an article by Caitlin Flanagan (not available online, unfortunately) in the latest Atlantic Monthly. The article in question, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," takes a hard, painful look and the divide between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, and how it has come to seem necessary--indeed, almost expected--for the former group to make use of nannies and domestic help in order to enjoy the benefits of the women's movement. Not a new story, of course, but well told, just the same: in the modern world, too often the material autonomy of women--who are and, until genetic technology outstrips us all, will remain the members of our species who actually bear children--depends not upon some mighty transformation of the marriage relationship (as necessary as that might be), but rather upon low-wage workers to change the baby's diapers and generally care for it, in some cases practically full-time. For enlightened liberal women, this arrangement is a scandal, albeit one that no one is comfortable talking about.

There's a lot my wife could say about this--we've never had a nanny (couldn't afford it, and never desired one anyway), but she worked as one for a while; even took our two children along with her when she tended someone else's. For the time being, I will note two things. First, an interview with Flanagan is online here. Read it: Flanagan has many challenging and difficult things to say, about her own choices and those of others, about how her reliance on nannies made her part of an exploitive economy, about her envy of traditional (even fundamentalist Christian) mothers who give themselves over to creating loving environments for their children, and about her reluctant acknowledgement that, envy aside, she could never do that: as much as she loves her children, the idea of being a full-time mom scares her to death.

Second, I'll put on my philosopher's hat, and note that the uncomfortable dependency that modern autonomy has on the servitude of others is not only not a new discovery, but one covered in detail by one of the most discomforting thinkers of all time: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was pretty pathetic in the child-rearing department as well, for what it's worth). He writes: "What! Can liberty be maintained only with the support of servitude? Perhaps. The two extremes meet. Everything that is not in nature has its drawbacks, and civil society more so than all the rest. There are some unfortunate circumstances where one's liberty can be preserved only at the expense of someone else's, and where the citizen [substitute: mother] can be perfectly free only if the slave [substitute: nanny] is completely enslaved." (The Social Contract, Book 3, Chp. 15) Rousseau was talking about the way we delegate authority, the way we turn away from autonomy, because we refuse to countenance slavery. His point, however, was simply that being autonomous in a world of material dependency requires the constant exercise of that autonomy, and never letting it slide: if that means we need to find serfs to do the shit work, well...Rousseau isn't defending such an arrangement; he's just telling it like it is. Flanagan's moral sensitivity is greater than Rousseau's was, I'll warrant, but still: I'm sure she'd take the point.
Update: I've just discovered that Slate is running an online discussion between Sara Mosle, Barbara Ehrenreich and Caitlin Flanagan herself, discussing Flanagan's article, here. I'll be checking it out all week. According to Mosle, Flanagan is "an odd breed politically--a conservative on social issues and a liberal on economic ones, at a time when it's popular to be the opposite on both." Hurrah! That makes, oh, I don't know, about eight of us. Now I have to read more of Flanagan's stuff.

AFOE Update

I've posted a couple of pieces over at AFOE: a long one on James C. Bennett's recent discussion of the rise of "network commonwealths," and a short comment, via Stanely Hauerwas, on the value of a socially "established" religious environment, particularly in connection to education. Check 'em out.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Blogs and Blogging

A few quick introductions, and an announcement. Some folks I know have taken up blogging recently, and three more different blogs than these you're not likely ever to find linked together in one post. (That's one thing I'm especially grateful for in my life: a wide variety of intelligent, opinionated, and sympathetic friends.) First up, Matt Stannard's The Underview. Matt is a debate coach (and a very successful one) at the University of Wyoming; he is also an old and dear friend, a committed Marxist and radical thinker, who was at least as responsible (if not more so) than anyone else for my engagement in things political and philosophical. I always had those leanings, I suppose, but knowing Matt back at BYU in the early 1990s, watching him and learning from him as he protested the first Gulf War, articulated intelligent critiques of power structures all around us, and (as the years past) went through some very difficult times of his own, gave me inspiration, energy and direction. I've since veered off in a different direction than the one Matt and I were both on back in the day (and maybe he's veered a little too), but I'm as anxious as ever to hear what he has to say. I trust that sooner or later the rest of the strong left/socialist blogosphere will stumble across his writing, and stand up and take notice.

Rob Fergus is also an old friend from BYU (he and Matt and I actually all worked on an underground student newspaper together), and his politics are also much more radical than mine--and as with Matt, I like hearing what he has to say, because it keeps me on my toes, and helps me get to the heart of things. I don't know how much politics will appear on his blog, Urban Birdscapes, but I do hope a little sneaks in here and there. Rob is a dedicated environmentalist, and is very interested in turning critiques of our social and material economy into plans of action to help create more sustainable environments, for us and all our fellow creatures (particularly, if you couldn't guess, birds). One of these days I have to get down to Texas and go birdwatching with Rob. Until then, I'll just read his blog.

Coming from a very different point of view, Julie Sorrell is one of my graduate students here at ASU, and it's a delight to regularly read up on her thoughts at her blog, Julie's Cafe. Julie is a homemaker who has decided, now that her kids are (mostly) grown, to return to school and engage the world in a new and different way. Her mind has been set on fire by political ideas and international conflicts, particularly the war in Iraq. She's quite conservative, witty, fast thinking, at times sentimental but more often cynical (but in a good way), and willing to push her ideas as far as they will take her. (Not many women returning to school for the first time in over a decade would throw themselves into politics of the Middle East and Islamic culture.) Show your support, and stop by regularly.

Oh, and the announcement? I'll be guest blogging at A Fistful of Euros for the next week or so. I'll link whatever I write there on this page. If you're not reading AFOE, you should be.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Slackerdom, Religion, Temporality, and the Kids

Laura is asking about raising kids and the role of fathers in the home; Harry Brighouse is asking about the ways in which one can raising "counter-culture" kids--and whether religious believers (specifically American evangelical Christians) have something to teach secular liberals in this regard. In many ways, I think they are looking at the same thing: namely, how can you prevent the "outside" (the economy, the office, social expectations, what's on tv) from dominating what you're trying to do with your family and your children on the "inside"? Harry, to his great credit, isn't being suckered in the usual liberal nostrums of making sure your kids watch PBS instead of something else: he's willing to take on television entirely. Laura, meanwhile, urges her girlfriends to avoid careerist types, and marry the slackers: "They might not make senior partner, but they'll make your dinner and play with the kids. You might not be able to afford a house in a town with a good school district, but so what? He's made lasagna for dinner." As someone who just praised "slackerdom," how could I disagree?

Keep up with Harry's and Laura's comments, as I'm sure there is going to be plenty of good ideas and good arguments tossed around. But I'd like to make a more theoretical point, which may connect a couple of, I think, very important concerns. Harry's inquiry into parenting shows a lot of sympathy of religious believers, and their well-documented ability to create a rival--and, Harry acknowledges, in many ways better, especially when it comes to raising children--culture all their own. What is it that I see "slacking"--in the sense of being turned off by the world's fairly obvious agenda of, as Harry put it, "manipulat[ing our] children into bugging [us] for more toys, more fast food, more candy, more, more, more"--and "believing"--in the sense of being attuned and committed to something literally not of this world--as having in common? Well, perhaps not very much, sociologically speaking. But one thing I have noticed, in regard to which believers very much are "slackers," if not vice versa, is their attachment--or perhaps detachment--from time.

By time I don't mean simply the limits they may place on their own or their children's use of time, but the sense of time, or temporality, itself. As a lot of insightful people--like Charles Taylor and Sheldon Wolin, among others--have observed, modernity is significantly a function of a single dominant tempo, or pace: all the world is on the clock, and we need to fill up all this empty temporal space (through acquiring, improving, progressing, etc.) before our time is up. Religious believers, especially those labeled (rightly or wrongly) as "fundamentalists," have a different attitude: they believe that "time" might actually end, that there's a judgment awaiting us, that we are always being held accountable in light of those ends, and not by anything temporal. (I should note that I would not be considered a "fundamentalist" by any but the most stringent secularist criteria, but that's not to say I don't have a fair amount of sympathy for them.) As a result, such believers are actually well equipped (theoretically speaking) to challenge the dominance of a timetable which is indistinguishable from the marketplace itself--always racing forward, always revising itself, always fallible, yet always improving, addicted to the newest, busiest, most "progressive" (read: technological) thing. Of course, environmentalists and Marxists and all sorts of others resist this kind of measurement--but do they actually have a sense of a different temporal order, a sense of where they came from and where they are going, that will empower them to step outside the material(istic) world, to "slack off," to say, as Christians like myself often say (and try fervently to believe), "take no thought for the morrow"? We all have our beliefs, our myths. But can they withstand peer pressure, commercial pressure, cultural marginalization? I'm grateful for my faith, because even though it isn't nearly strong enough, it helps me be content with what I've got, focus on my children, and get off the clock.

To put this in more philosophical terms, here's what I wrote on this subject some years ago, with some interjections (it's not available anywhere online, but you can buy the book that contains this essay here):

"On the one hand, the modern worldview has allowed its harmonized temporality and deliberate inclusion of difference to shape pluralistic and liberating public habits...; on the other hand, this slow but sure replacing of any belief in ends with [modern] fallibilistic presumptions has left us unmoved or uninvolved in substantive, collective rituals, leaving us all...open to an impersonal, automatic temporal acceleration against which we only have weak, individualistic myths to keep us secured....[Sheldon] Wolin suggests that in the midst of what is essentially a temporal dilemma [wherein we have little or no time which is our own, to think or act fundamentally or counter-culturally], something old must be invoked: not a new revolution, for revolution has already been appropriated into a commercial myth [borderless neoliberal capitalism's appropriation of the rhetoric of global empowerment, anyone?], but rather something collective and ritualistic and unexpected: something, perhaps, like belief." ("Can Theorists Make Time For Belief?" in Vocations of Political Theory, pg. 106).

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Generation X Walked...

Kevin Drum asked a seemingly simple question, and opened up a floodgate: why don't kids walk to school anymore? (He cites his own observations, as well as a study showing that less than 1/3 of kids between the ages of 5 and 15 who live within a mile of their school walk or bike.) The responses were numerous and revealing: fear of crime (real, sometimes, but mostly imagined), poorly designed neighborhoods without sidewalks, loss of cross-walk guards and other services, heavy backpacks, addiction to driving, overprotectiveness, insanely busy schedules, obesity and laziness, two-career families for whom the drive to school is the only real opportunity for parents to interact with their children one-on-one, and so forth. Any one of these is worth picking up on and thinking about at length. (Keiran Healy uses the question as an opportunity to revisit the empirical complications of the "tipping-point" phenomenon.) Lots of good thinking all around.

What I personally found most interesting was the flavor of many of the comments on Kevin Drum's site. Kevin's crowd is very much a liberal Democratic one, yet again and again, if you read them closely, you can see language straight out of the conservative playbook: "times have changed," "kids today don't know how to play," "things really were different back then," "it's a changed world," etc., etc. Some of the commentators try to tie this into their general anti-Republican political orientation (blaming it on SUV addiction, or Bush's culture of fear, or some such thing), but most just let their complaints stand alone mournfully.

I can sympathize, and I wonder at the sociodemographics at play here. Some people like to make a big deal out the (ambiguous) evidence that younger people are turning conservative; others mock--or are appalled by--the very idea. I can't speak for the youth of America, and I wouldn't want to put such a broad label as "conservative" on whatever ideological transitions are taking place out there anyway. But there was a time when I--born in 1968, grew up in the 70s and, yes, walked or biked to school almost every day--fiddled with writing an essay titled "When Generation X Sends its Kids to School." Not surprisingly, I started thinking about this when our oldest daughter, Megan (now 7), started kindergarten, and Melissa and I felt ourselves surrounded, overwhelmed, by advice and strategy and counsel about how best to educate our little girl, and how to keep her productive and safe, and which schools would offer what and how much, and what we should fear and how we could be ready to overcome or circumvent it. We felt baffled and distracted. A lot of it was our own doing, of course--first child going off to school and all that. There was a fair amount of class and regional anxiety involved too (lower-middle-class family, breadwinner just out of graduate school, leaving Washington D.C. for a one-year position in Mississippi, of all places). But above and beyond it all, there was something down deep that Melissa and I both felt: that the education of children in America--both in and out of school--has become in the public mind a very big, very important, very delicate, very nerve-wracking affair, when really, it probably shouldn't be. This is not to ignore the very real problem of failing schools or dangerous neighborhoods or anything else; we we're fully aware of that. But the high-pressure, time-sensitive, goal-oriented world of today's public schools felt very odd to us, and not a little bit wrong.

I realize that this is much too heavy-handed a generational stereotype, but maybe those in their 30s today remember a time when neighborhoods were (more or less) intact enough, and teachers were (more or less) trusted enough, and the streets were (more or less) safe enough, and families were (more or less) stable enough, to allow children--namely, us--larger amounts of time, space, and responsibility. Bike to school. Be home by dark. Catch the bus downtown. Climb a tree. And so forth. This sensibility doesn't drive any kind of "conservatism," necessarily, but it does, for many of us at least, solidify a real discontent we have with a social world that (for economic and cultural reasons) has been so mercilessly measured and surveyed and risk-assessed. Not long before our experience with Megan, I'd read David Brooks's extremely depressing (for me) article on "The Organization Kid"--the child of baby boomers who has been prepped and watched over and groomed to excel. Heavy backpacks and programmed time with the parents forms the basis of this type of person's interaction with the world. The parents of my generation, on the other hand--the older siblings, perhaps, of those who rebelled (my dad listened to Elvis in high school, not the Beatles)--somehow missed out on the need to change the world, and the micromanagement it (not doubt unintentionally) entails. And they raised us to be slackers. A bad thing? In some ways. But if I can somehow make sure my daughters have the power and opportunity to slack off--to find their own way, make their own mistakes, develop their own little world, perhaps all while taking the time to walk to school--in the midst of this high-pressure, paranoid world, I'll feel that I've done some good.

Incidentally, Megan has yet to walk to school; we've always lived too far away from her building. And thanks to strapped budgets and tax cuts and that old tipping point phenomenon, the minimal bus service the districts we've lived in have provided would have required her to be out of house down on the corner by 7:00am. So again, it's not like my, and other Gen X-type's, sensibilities necessarily require typical small-government-conservative positions. On the contrary, I want more and better bus service, upkeep of the sidewalks, and planned neighborhoods. In the face of change, to conserve something precious--like "slacking"--takes money and collective effort. So again, in so many ways, if this is "conservatism," it's a new kind under the sun.

Monday, February 02, 2004

It's All Coming Together (Slowly)

In the past week, I've written a couple of long posts on poverty and intervention, as well as a couple of shorter posts addressing my feelings about President Bush. The common thread running through all of them, more or less, is the political salience of, and moral nature of, compassion--and consequently, the degree to which it does, or does not, validate or justify or explain policies of distribution, intervention, and even coercion. I give money to the beggar, Nicholas Kristoff buys the freedom of prostitutes, Bush spends money left and right and invades a country in (mostly) the name of liberty. Apples and oranges, or all of a piece? Is there any coherence to all my various feelings about all these disparate events and actors? And now George F. Will writes a column wherein he claims that both conservatives and liberals need to wake up to what President Bush is trying to accomplish: the articulation of "strong government conservatism," a ruling philosophy which, rather than attempting to undermine or limit the contemporary interventionist state, tries to turn its positive actions in the direction of individual ownership, empowerment, morality and education, rather than collective welfare neutrally distributed. Despite the many ways in which Will's claims can be qualified--particularly via demonstrating the degree to which Bush's "compassion" has been more about unpredictable political opportunism than principled action--I knew as soon as I read it that Will had touched upon something that might help me weave my meandering thread into an actual coherent tapestry. But I couldn't quite put it into words. Then, with gratitude, I noticed that someone else already had:

"This is an extremely perceptive column on the part of Mr. Will, one of the first by a mainstream conservative to truly grasp the import of the President's vision of an "Ownership Society." The hard thing for Republicans to reckon with is the fact that modern man turns out not to be conservative in the classic sense--does not choose to live life without a social safety net in a kind of social Darwinist free for all. The hard thing for liberals to accept is that neither does this desire for security in an emergency make men any more amenable to being constantly dictated to by government when they aren't in particular need of help. The future lies then in a synthesis of the desire for freedom and the requirement of security (what Mr. Will calls equality). Bill Clinton understood this on a very superficial level and Tony Blair seems to recognize it more deeply. But it is the GOP that has the best chance of creating a thoroughgoing Third Way, and not incidentally making itself a semi-permanent majority party. The key is that conservatives have to accept the seemingly perverse notion that government itself, even a sizable government, can be the instrument by which conservative values are cultivated in society."

Bush, Clinton and Blair: all in the same sentence, and moreover, all presumably trying to articulate and work out the same essential idea? That's a pretty controversial reading of recent political history, to say the least. But I've always kind of liked "Third Way" talk, and Orrin Judd's comments here help me go a long ways towards situating myself and my conflicted beliefs and convictions into that talk. I'm doubtful of his conclusion that the GOP is the most likely spot for seeing this sort of "(economically) strong (activist) government (social) conservatism" to emerge; from what I can tell, the last prominent Republican to really try it, and actually want to put the money up to pay for it, found no help on either side of the aisle. But I'll keep an open mind. I'm still trying to figure out what this entails for my political allegiances; I think I may be moving towards a full-fledged position here (note to my many friends who have long since given up hoping I'll ever fully commit to any political position: don't laugh; I mean it), but (of course) I'm not there yet. In the meantime, the one substantive criticism I have of Orrin's gloss on all this is that, while he very admirably ties the idea of strong, individually-directed government action to "reknitting families, neighborhoods, communities, and so on so that civil society resumes its central place in our lives," ultimately the intellectual underpinnings of his reading of Bush and our (I hope, at least) Third Way future is one that is dismissive of the group; in its defensible effort to focus on the individual, it drops the necessarily social, even collective, aspect of welfare, justice, virtue, and even (yes) liberty. There is a lot I still have to think about here. But my fear is that as long as the compassion of Bush and others like him, however sincerely and well implemented through government (and I acknowledge the criticisms of those who claim it is neither), is ignorant on this point, then whatever other good is accomplished, the egalitarian concern which, I think, makes the whole movement worthwhile, will be at best secondary, if not a sham.