Monday, March 05, 2012

Rick Santorum: "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good"; a just-in-time review on an older book


Author: Rick Santorum

Title: “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good

Publication: 2005, ISI Books: Wilmington, DE;  Paper, ISBN 1-932236-83-X; 452 pages, indexed, 6 Parts, 40 Chapters, with Preface and Conclusion.

Amazon link

This is an older book (six years), and it’s long.  It’s philosophical, and moralistic. But it’s important reading given the tone of the GOP presidential debate and primaries, and because of the concern of the boldness of some of Santorum’s statements.  It’s conceivable (as of today) that he could be in the White House in 2013.  Even if not, the issues he raises, rather bluntly and with a kind of sledgehammer, are important and phone home.

The title, of course, plays on Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village; and Other Lessons Children Teach Us” (1996, Simon & Schuster).  It is not exactly an antonym of Clinton’s work, but it anticipates another book “The Natural Family: A Manifesto” by Carlson and Mero (2007) that O reviewed here Sept. 18, 2009, and even looks back to George Gilder’s “Men and Marriage” in 1986.

So, let’s start with this: for Santorum, what does the “Common Good” comprise? It’s pretty apparent that it would imply a society where everyone has a chance to be needed by others and know that.  Santorum places particular emphasis that the Common Good means the capacity to bear and raise the next generation.  Other social scientists call this quality “generativity”. Of course, there is a likelihood that common goals are chosen based on religious precepts.

Santorum lists several “capital” components of the commons:  social capital, moral capital, cultural, intellectual, economic.  Social, moral and cultural capital are obviously interconnected.

He challenges the libertarian (or classically liberal) idea of individual sovereignty, or personal autonomy. His work comes across as a challenge to hyper-individualism (even Ayn Rand style) from the right. He derides modern individualism as “no-fault freedom”, and repeatedly. One of his most astonishing statements, on p. 264 as he quotes “Planned Parenthood v. Casey”: ‘“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, or meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Let me put that in plain English: you make your own laws, you are a god.’ Therefore, it follows that individuals in a Santorum-world will face strong pressure to follow goals chosen for them by others, even as adults.

This sounds a bit like an authoritarian society, or perhaps a cult (or collection of cults).  The opportunities for abuse by those in authority are obvious, as confirmed repeatedly by history. Doesn’t the de-centralizing aspect of individualism provide the best protection against tyranny, as libertarians believe?  Santorum goes to his Catholic bullpen to solve this one by bringing in the concept of subsidiarity, which generally means that problems are solved in the most local level possibly, usually the nuclear family, but sometimes the community, or larger governmental unit (state or federal) may have a role as an appeal point.  (But, in the pro-family past, did “subsidiarity” prevent slavery and then segregation, and other ills?)

The heart of society, then, is, of course, the traditional family. Without the strong and obligatory family (and some local organization of the community nearby), society tends to be run by whom he calls “the village elders” (in reference to Clinton’s book), who bow to pressures for political correctness and, in our culture, extend a false sense of freedom to individuals, where we live beyond our means, compared to cultures of earlier (Biblical) times.  One could say this sounds like a call for the return of patriarchal society as in the Old Testament.

Now, no social-political system of human activity is perfect and free of all possible contradictions.  (We need faith to deal with that.)  Santorum is bringing up a legitimate point, that man (in western society) seems to be becoming less social, more aloof, to the extent that there could be real questions about long term sustainability.  In describing and commenting on any social and political reform, a reviewer has to draw conclusions (or corollaries) of what he thinks the book author says; it becomes hard to distinguish between the ideas of the author and the commentator (me).
   
For one thing, Santorum’s focus on providing a future through children is obviously commendable, but he could be a lot more specific on other problems.  For example, he could look at the “inconvenient truth” of climate change.  He could spend more space on the aging population (which he deals with modestly in talking about Social Security reform, where I think he has the right ideas on eventual privatization).  He really could have come down hard on how this can affect younger individuals with a discussion of filial piety, which actually is defined by filial responsibility laws in about 28 states.

There is indeed an issue with “hyper-individualism”.  And much of it deals not so much with commission but with omission.  We become unresponsive to or disinterested in the real needs of others, and don’t recognize the bad karma, that we depend on them in ways we can’t see, and that we depend on laxity that tends to lead others in less fortuitous circumstances to put themselves in harm’s way.  I’ve written before about my concerns in this area in the Internet.  And although Santorum talks about pornography and violence in media a lot (he does mention P2P and piracy, but misunderstandstheir significance), he never gets around to the legal underpinnings of the downstream liability issues (Section 230 and DMCA safe harbor issues), or, particularly, online reputation and cyberbullying – or bullying in the real world, too. He missed a chance to weigh in on the CDA and COPA legal battles. (He does mention the library screening laws, and used of  iSafe (not to be confused with FOSI, Dec. 3, 2010 on my COPA blog). 

But Santorum’s emphasis on the “natural family” does bring up a really important point.  In a family, people care about each other, in a way responsive to need and complementarity (again, that’s a Catholic term), but only after dispensing with the idea that a particular person (starting with family member) is “imperfect” and that caring about him or her would be “beneath me”.  The same problem of false pride (and upward affiliation) spreads into the community in the way people start and then keep relationships.  Santorum may well be right that people are forgetting that they “need each other.”  (Remember how the Old Testament came down on both voyerurism and aloofness?) They may grow into adulthood unable to maintain, or even form, the intimate attachments needed to build a family and a future.  Santorum does, with some clumsiness, explain how this feeds back to the abortion debate (and even contraception).

And this observation seems to be a problem much more specific to the modern world than it was for past generations, where family members (particularly children) were viewed as a necessary economic asset. Today we have media – and fantasy, and various substitutes online for “real life”.

If one describes what’s wrong with our values with a broad paintbrush, a reader will then try to infer public policy changes that could be appropriate (Santorum is not as specific as he could be, given the length of his book), and then wonder, “How will this affect me?  Will I have to sacrifice?” (Ask yourself that if Santorum is elected.) This whole setting reminds me of the days of the draft and student deferments.

And there are really two kinds of problems.  One of them is the most familiar.  People make bad choices, want something for nothing, and don’t take responsibility for their “choices”.  Libertarians preach this.  (Look at the mortgage mess.)  But so did Dr. Laura.  If people didn’t get into “stupid conception”, abortions and single motherhoods wouldn’t happen.  Is the plethora of kids growing up in other than 2-parent-original-married homes (who are at a serious disadvantage, often) the sole responsibility of the individuals who had the kids in the first place?

The other problem is what I experience, and it’s more subtle, and it’s what affects gays and lesbians.  Yup, we’re perceived as avoiding responsibility by having access to sexuality with no risk of unwanted kids – in a world where the birthrate won’t replace the workforce and where families will die out.  (That sort of idea helps drive anti-gay bias in Uganda particularly. Santorum mentions Uganda and abstinence, but never mentions the anti-gay bills there.
   
Santorum doesn’t talk about homosexuals per se, and he doesn’t go into the Vatican arguments about “objective disorder”.  He does mention “original sin”, but mainly in the context that individualists think we can do without each other. (He could be right there.)  He does cast his objection to same-sex marriage as an issue about marriage itself, not about gays.  But, you can’t have it both ways.

His main objection to gay marriage seems innocent enough, but it can take us along a “third rail”. He says that it will lead to presentation of gay lifestyles to people in such a way as to legitimize them – and he avoids the debate over immutability (other Catholic theologians punt to “original sin” when presented with scientific evidence of immutability, which seems to get stronger all the time).  He then says that the debate and social legitimacy will lead young people to decide that they don’t need marriage and children (Uganda’s argument again, or call it “demographic winter”).  Of course, marriage was getting weak and divorce was skyrocketing (and the pre-nup business was booming for lawyers) long before gay marriage was gaining traction in courts and state legislatures (Santorum says, “you’re right and this has to stop.)  I think it’s rather obvious that marriage gets weaker in a technological society that satisfies adaptive needs more quickly, gives people more psychological surplus and more independence.

Later, he makes some scary comments about the “rule by judges” and their finding “fundamental rights” in the constitution under the 9th and 10th amendments.   In fact, until recently, many judges have followed the “Bork” model of saying that a fundamental right claim is not valid until it advances a “common good” interest, such as marriage and procreation, or perhaps faith, or child rearing, eldercare, etc.  It has been a matter of controversy (going back to Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986) whether an individual’s own purposes, when they don’t involve direct harm to others, are enough to create a right. Again, this is what Santorum says the liberals have invented as “no fault freedom”.  One must have some stake in the welfare of others, at least locally, and some exercise of complementarity (maybe even reciprocal “asylum” to those in bad families) before one has a claim for his own expressive rights.  (Elsewhere, I’ve called this “The Privilege of Being Listened To”, which might not exist until you have your own skin in the game.)  This idea certainly can affect the way we’ve developed the idea of “personal responsibility” in modern culture.

Santorum criticizes the findings (of “no fault liberty”) in the “Lawrence v. Texas” homosexual-only sodomy law overturning in 2003 by the Supreme Court, as inviting the legalization of gay marriage (he says that Massachusetts referred to the decision in its 2004 decision), a possibility Scalia had mentioned in his dissent.  But consider the implications of this reasoning. It means that sodomy laws could stay on the books, and that occasional harassment or bullying of gays by police (or peers in school) is acceptable so “uncompetitive” people (gender-speaking) will become conditioned to the idea that marriage and child rearing is expected of them if they are to have any access to sexuality or public expression at all.  Otherwise (unless they take a vow of celibacy and poverty, which the Catholic Church provides) they must remain in a subservient position, meeting the requirements of families set up by others.  They become second-class citizens, rather like “family slaves”.  (In fact, on p 33 Santorum makes a shocking comparison between marital commitment and slavery.)

Santorum (as have many other “natural family” advocates like Carlson and Mero) has been critical of the economics of the two-income family (and the erosion of the “family wage”), of the trend for women to “want it all”, and the disincentive for men (most of all gay men) to remain interested in others who need to remain economically dependent on them to give more time to raise children.  He is probably critical of professionals couples delaying children (and mentions that birth defects go up with age, but have been coming down with abortion, indicating that as a culture we are less welcoming to providing value to the lives of the disabled; I think many people would disagree with him).

I do think there is something to be said for the idea that people will need to accept more connections to others and more “locality” (or even “subsidiary”) to handle the serious challenges ahead.  A major breakdown in society’s technical infrastructure (whether from pandemic, war, massive terrorism with EMP attacks, or even solar flares – call it “The Purification”) could force people to rediscover their social capacities.

But to improve these social connections for everyone, do we need to put marital sexual intercourse on such a pedestal that those who do not or cannot enjoy it must subsidize it for others?  There seems to be a concern not only that everyone "pay his dues" and not "compete" unfairly with those who take on more responsibility. but also about the interpersonal intensity and attachment that sustainable family life requires, especially after a couple of decades where it has been looked at just as a "private choice".  I think the debates of gay marriage (and gays in the military) are more important to single, childless people than even to those in same-sex relationships (who do have legitimate concerns, as do children raised in their homes).  I found this out personally the hard way in the past years, with the eldercare needs of my mother, but also with the demands for unexpected intimacy and role-modeling that came up for me, a non-parent and never married man, as a substitute teacher.  There were a couple of incidents in that experience for me that seem to encapsulate all of Santorum’s ideas.      

Santorum mentions a couple of movies, particularly "The Ice Storm" (1997, Ang Lee), whih I saw with a friend in Minneapolis and found engrossing to watch families trapped by a winter storm lose it), and "Spanglish" (James Brooks, 2004), which I review on the movies blog Sept. 20, 2009), where a maid tells Adam Sandler's character, "There are mistakes you just don't risk when you have children". 


I see that there is a much briefer discussion of this book March 28, 2006 in comparison to Philip Longman's book ("The Empty Cradle") on low birth rates.

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