Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Katherine A. Kersten and Mitchell B. Pearlstein: Close to Home

Book Review of Close to Home: Celebrations and Critiques of America’s Experiment in Freedom, by Katherine A. Kersten and Mitchell B. Pearlstein; Introduction by Michael Novak; Minneapolis, MSP Books, 2000. ISBN 1-892834-02-4

This anthology presents 50 op-ed columns from each of the two authors. These pieces have appeared in various Twin Cities newspapers, such as the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Minneapolis-St. Paul Business, and the Twin Cities Business Monthly. The brief essays are organized topically, such as by “culture and religion,” “families,” “education,” and “economic and social policy.” The book is offered by the American Experiment with larger gifts.

The point of view of these essays varies from traditional conservatism to libertarianism, with a touch of psychological aesthetic realism.

I’ll come to a main point. In the essay “Textbooks Push the Needs of ‘Self’ Over Marriage” (p. 51), Katherine Kersten presents the “paradox” that one needs to build a healthy self-image before approaching relationships and marriage, and that some people advocate spending time alone with the “self-date.” Then she writes:

“The problem with this approach to life is obvious. Everyone will be caught up in his or her own ‘lifelong romance’ with self to give much support to anyone else.”

Yes, the hammer-blow hit the nail on the head. You don’t often hear even conservative writers say this so bluntly (except perhaps George Gilder). Indeed, modern behavior codes centered on personal responsibility emphasize rational self-interest (that drug use and unprotected sex are potentially self-destructive, which they certainly are) and mute the idea of communal social standards which are not supposed to be questioned. There follows an essay “Aspiring to Perennial Adolescence,” which obliquely criticizes the “Oscar Wilde-Dorian Gray” worship of youth as an immutable value. There is another essay about a North Dakota couple that accepts marriage from the viewpoint that “this is the one that is given to me to love.”

Elsewhere on this site and in my own two books I have developed this idea myself (as in relation to psychological polarities and the balanced-unbalanced personality axis). But it is possible to encapsulate “supporting others” inside of “self-interest” (almost as if to be inherited in object-oriented fashion) if one builds into our social fabric the idea that taking care of others will be expected. This obviously leads to the gay marriage debate and gay parenting (but I didn’t see homosexuality mentioned in the book). One is left with the paradox of (heterosexual) marriage itself as an institution: it demands the passion of youth and idealism, yet requires that these passions be submitted to a kind of unquestioned realism, a willingness to give up some control of one’s own internal aesthetic choices (to “grow up”). You could say that marriage is the great “psychological equalizer”—until you have to argue about inherited wealth.

Many of the essays emphasize personal responsibility in a more conventional way, with a healthy disagreement with the left-wing attempts to settle issues with solidarity and political barter and to take both power and responsibility away from the individual and to leave it with the “professionals.” Kersten has a brief essay on Internet censorship (“Protect students from Internet porn”) and properly explains the danger that the most sadistic pornography can be “published” anonymously and made available to children with no supervision, but she focuses her main criticisms on the issue of allowing schools and libraries to filter Internet porn rather than on trying to stop people from publishing it. Pearlstein presents an interesting libertarian argument (“A Road to Weaker Families, Paved with Good Intentions”) that European style preferential treatment for families with children (over the childless and singles) may actually weaken families rather than strengthen them.

In August 2001 The American Experiment Quarterly published a special issue, Marriage and Children: A Symposium on Making Marriage More Child Centered. In “Are We Willing to Pay the Price?” William A. Galston questions our “more individualistic, choice-cenetered, gratification-oriented U.S. society of the past forty years” and notes “This cultural change has had a significant impact on institutions—such as marriage and child rearing—that require a high degree of stability, solidarity, and sacrifice.” Allan Carlson, in “Building Family-Centered Communities,” recounts the earlier “family wage regime” of the post-war period that “intentionally embraced gender discrimination in employment” until “the historically bizarre addition of the word sex to Ttitle VII of the Civil Rughts Act of 1964.” Again, there is the suggestion that “diversity” among lifestyles, while it may increase opportunities for otherwise disadvantaged individuals, can provide a serious anti-selection against the family as an institution that children, the elderly, and even most adults may need to depend upon.

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