Thursday, March 29, 2007

David Blankenhorn: The Future of Marriage

David Blankenhorn. The Future of Marriage. Encounter Books, 2007, ISBN 1-59403-081-2, 325 pages, hardcover, with appendices and index. This book is supposed to be the lynchpin of the newer, more collective “conservative” ideological opposition to same-sex marriage. The central theme has to do with a concern of de-institutionalizing marriage, or literally letting gays redefine it out of existence. That seems a little hard to believe if only 5 percent of the population (to be generous) would ever usually try to use full legal recognition for gay marriage. However, Blankenhorn reluctantly and gradually admits that he has to cast the problem in terms of balancing rights. Here, the balance is the birthright of a child to two married parents of the opposite sex, biological parents whenever possible (that is, a legal structure that makes that as likely as possible for any particular child that gets born), against the rights of adults to live their expressive and personal lives without interference from others. And there can, honestly, be some real problems. Rights, he says, are meaningful because they do come into conflict and create real conundrums to be resolved. And here it is worth noting that Blankenhorn labels himself as a mainstream Democrat.

The practical concern for families, of course, is that a competitive, individualistic world of “extreme capitalism” is very hard on many of them. Liberals will tend to want to fix these problems with social programs (some of them certainly well intended, such as universal health care and maybe even single payer), and with regulations against big business to stop it from racing to the bottom by exporting well-paying jobs overseas. But of course you can’t do that without eventually addressing the “sacrifices” to be made by individuals, whether businessmen, consumers, or sometimes childless adults or particularly homosexuals. In particular, an unpleasant topic is the degree to which childless adults (or people not inclined to have children) should share the burdens of families, out of the moral idea that we all owe debts among generations and have a stake in the next generation.

Some of the “sacrifices” are everyday things that I am used to and have no real problem with. I start this observation with a bit of merciless logic: in mathematics, two elements (number) are either equal or not, and you can always well-order things by "measuring" them. As a single, childless gay older adult, I don’t object to sharing reasonable real estate taxes to support public schools, although I admit some selfishness here, as I have employment with the school systems. I don’t object to laws regarding public “indecency” as they usually are implemented in a reasonable fashion. But the problems get much deeper. There have always been some employment areas in which my presence would not be welcome – the most obvious right now would be the United States military, at least in uniform. It used to get much worse. And there are jobs (including education of younger children, at least) where people presume that I have the social communication skills that people usually learn in marriage and intense family commitments, and not in the ordinary competitive world.

Getting into this, I mention that Blankenhorn gives a pretty detailed history of marriage from the view of anthropology, with all of its perks, rituals, ceremonies, and legal complications, most of all in earlier tribal societies. Although people tend to think of marriage as a private relationship now and of the legal structure as having to do with property and lineage, it is certainly much more. Particularly, marriage socializes men (literally, as Blankenhorn points out, conditioning the flow of their brain hormones) to break out of the usual adolescent competitive self-interest (which often itself has a strong group component) and redirect themselves emotionally in order to become stable husbands and fathers, and remain sexually interested in one person. Human biology, Blankenhorn argues, does some of this by concealing estrus in women, so that men have more incentive for long-term “investment” of their erotic selves into families. But the real reason this is necessary is not just social stability; it is specifically to raise children, and, to some extent, to provide immediate caretaking of other less competitive blood family members in kinship settings. It does work.

Now, we get to a logical paradox. To work, marriage needs to “own” sexuality, the way a root segment owns child segments on a database. Whether that ownership is just social approval of heterosexual intercourse (and giving it a somewhat patriarchal or matriarchal "meaning" that includes the natural right to demand deference from others when needed badly enough), or whether it should encompass all sexuality, certainly forms the center of moral debate. But we all know what “public morality” used to mean. Men were supposed to grow into learning to protect women and children and set aside sex for marriage. To accept any other lifestyle or psychological paradigm as morally legitimate would undermine the whole system, so, sporadically, people who could not or would not conform to these public expectations needs to penalized and stigmatized. To work as a socializing model, marriage needed to transmit its own version of moral self-righteousness, even if its original purpose was only generativity with respect to children and objective neutrality about the outside. It needs to coerce those who could contradict its aims. In the modern world, this has led to a number of issues and debates that often wind up getting turned into illogical circles. But what we do know is that, in some areas, the need for personal sensitivity to the needs of families and the sharing of their burdens may be very real. But that is in itself the problem. You really do have to debate rights and responsibilities, and not play the software engineering game of “information hiding” with marriage.

The desire to keep marriage issues under the rubric of familial emotion leads to some rather odd confrontations. People can challenge me, for example, by trying to get me to perform as a conventional protective male role model (for disadvantaged males in a school setting) and then come back and say, “If we are to listen to you and read your public writings, why don’t you think enough of your own family (and genes) that you would have wanted to give it children?” In a sense, that’s a good question, even if it’s word salad. It certainly turns the usual moral spin about abortion around. Now it’s a sin to claim “the knowledge of good and evil” and decide not to procreate when having sex. (But then, contraception became legally protected in 1962, forty years before Lawrence v. Texas). The point is, if a gay man is public about his upward affiliations, other straight men may feel that he is passing personal judgment on who really is a fit future ancestor, and given their socialization, that makes them very uptight. Understandably.

I still think that this whole line of reasoning of Blanhenhorn (and Maggie Gallagher, in her many columns) is a heavy dose of institutionalism, defining policy in terms of how large numbers of people can be predicted to behave if society’s “institutions” (marriage, for one) can manipulate or channel their sense of self-interest. The modern classical liberal, or libertarian, sees collective efforts to do just this as morally repugnant. Perhaps, accepting socialization really does have a religious component, as it can be viewed as “evidence” of faith. By focusing on institutionally manipulated good, Blankenhorn can outflank the obvious idea that social manipulation will pressure people to pair off and marry and have kids for the social perks and approbation, and that such "carrots" will corrupt the private part of the marital relationship. After all, Blankenhorn says, marriage isn't about the couple as individuals, its about their kids and, in that sense, our collective vicarious future. He doesn't want a future world of "Children of Men."

Blankenhorn, to say the least, should have given more details about how he would handle the contributions of gays and lesbians given the symbolic threat that they (or their values) represent to the abstract birthright of a child to a mom and a pop. Maybe he would favor lifting the military ban and repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” so as to make it clear publicly that gays can carry their share in defending freedom and our way of life. This was indeed my priority back in the 1990s, as I saw marriage as a private matter that could be settled in the vocabulary of rights and responsibilities. The collective argument has, however, become pernicious, and impositions upon my own space have occurred as a result.

A person focused on individual rights and "personal responsibility" (in the modern sense) would wonder if the over pampering with perks and "institutionalizing" of marriage -- even for the sake of kids -- opens marriages to corruption. The "moral traditionalist" would say that this is the wrong question to ask. Accept, and participate fully in a social structure (the nuclear and extended family) that raises the next generation (the kids) optimally and takes care of the less competitive persons in that structure (those "second class citizens" or "less than" people in the view of the global world), before you even talk about your own station in life and your own expressive aims. Do not claim to "know" more than your own family until you first emphathize with its needs (and the people in it). That sounds like the world of the 50s, and it may have been utopian for some. Arguably, the structuring of sexuality through family and procreation helped adults learn and maintain empathy, and therefore some cohesion, at least within their families and local communities. The expressive capacity of some people (especially gay men) to question the whole institution of procreative heterosexual marriage can undermine the capacity of some less "competitive" men to remain focused on marriages that they already have or for other men to even attempt marriage and family. But there has never been a successful society that socialized people through coercion without serious injustices on a much larger, macro or global scale.

There is ultimately no real choice but to get our debate back to fundamental rights and the responsibilities that should go with them. Hopefully, if we did so, the polarizing issue of gay marriage would become less contentious and less easy to use as bait. In practice, then, the practical future of marriage could be rather bright.

Related post:

Link to doaskdotell book review (along with a Jennifer Roback Morse book review).

Picture: Blue Mountain Tunnel, PA Turnpike (sorry, no relation to marriage!)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stephen King: Cell

Stephen King. Cell (2006, Pocket Books, ISBN 1-4165-2451-7, 448 pages, paper).

The premise of this book – that humans can become “infected” with something and be transformed into monsters or into beings with super strength or oddball powers – has been tried before. Look at the film “28 Days Later.” But here, the virus or Internet worm or what have you is spread through cell phones – but even that was tried back in 1997 by Minnesota author Edmund Contoski with the novel “The Trojan Project” (American Liberty Publishers) where a firmware telephone virus brings people under control of an evil government. Here, the “virus” sends people wild, as they simultaneously levitate and disintegrate and liquefy like victims of Ebola, or perhaps babble with Tourette’s. King is not afraid to unleash the violence and some disturbing metaphors. He also compares people to computers, suggesting that they could be “protected” from a worm like this in a manner similar to protecting computers from EMP effects with a Faraday Cage. “Save to system” is his buzzword for that. Apparently, to save themselves people have to get to an area beyond the reach of wi-fi or cell phone reception. King has some nonsense acronyms throughout, good for Jeopardy quiz questions, like “KASHWACK=NO-FO”.

The book is in a number of long chapters, themselves unnumbered and always having their own title pages. Personally, I like books to have TOC’s (a table of contents), a map (although King usually stays in New England – here, Boston and NW to New Hampshire, in October in a year that it snows early, despite global warming – make the extent of the wilderness in which artist Clay Riddell must wander after The Pulse). I think that Tolkien has the right idea with all of his Middle Earth maps and imaginary geography (good enough for a model railroad if that world had trains, which it doesn’t), and even a meaning for “To the West.”

The first section of the book is called “The Pulse”, the event that starts the “infection” of people with technology – but that word has been used for a classic horror film Pulse (Kairo) from Japan in 2001, remade by Dimension in 2006 in English). The idea that survivors need to find a safe harbor in a communications "dead zone" appears in these movies, too.

Actually, the book could be compared to King’s masterpiece, The Stand (1978, 1990), where a superflu (= avian influenza or bird flu, except manmade) destroys most of the world’s population, leaving the good people (poor Tim Cullen) to migrate to Boulder and the bad people (=Randall Flag = “The Walkin’ Dude” which one co-worker once called me, and even Trashcan Man) in Cibola (that is, Las Vegas) and try to connect along I-15. That book led to a wasteland, and in this novel it is reduced.

As for King's other books, I can recall women in the breakroom at work reading "Misery" around 1990 and screaming at the climax. (Katy Bates would do a number on James Caan, chopping off the trapped writer's feet in one scene.)

It looks like Eli Roth and Dimension Films (aka The Weinstein Company) will have this novel (Cell) on film later in 2007, with the freaks pretty much turned into zombies (or "phonies") like in “Dawn of the Dead” or even “Night of the Living Dead”(1968). The film should not be confused with New Line’s “The Cell” (2000) where a psychiatrist (Jennifer Lopez) enters the mind of a criminal.

The idea that technology changes people – as a pretext for horror – suggests a broader cultural problem. People go off on their own and compete on the global stage as citizens of the world, needing very little conventional emotional feedback from others except on their own terms. That strands a lot of other people, depending on them to support a local emotional world, filled with pampering and needed to raise children and take care of the less competitive. People are dropping out of the whole maturation process it takes to start a family, and that observation seems to drive all the concerns of writers like Maggie Gallagher on the failure of the institution of marriage.

Is that a good subject for a novel? Of course? For horror. I think so. I have my own King-like novel – with my own stamp – on my hard drive, mixed with my own spin on the cultural wars and all the issues. I hope it will make it out in the open.

This pocket version contains an excerpt from the new novella "Lisey's Story".

Friday, March 23, 2007

American Prospect insert booklet on Creating a Family-Friendly Workplace

The American Prospect, March 2007, has a special booklet-like insert called “Mother Load: Why Can’t America Have a Family-Friendly Workplace?” There are several articles: Heather Boushey: “Values Begin at Home”; Ellen Bravo: “Reconciling Work and Family”; Kathleen Gerson “What Women and Men Want”; Joan C. Williams, “The Opt-Out Fallacy”; Jodie Levin-Epstein: “Responsive Workplaces”; Ann Friedman: “Setting a Low Bar”; Janet C. Gornick. “Atlantic Passages”; Scott Coltrane: “What About Fathers”; Tamara Draut: “The Mother of all Issues.”

Draut’s summary essay really does zero in on the problem. “In America, child rearing is a private responsibility, not a social one, which still means the buck stops with mom. There is no ‘village’ to provide a helping hand in raising children, and it’s not at all clear that parents think there should be.” Later she points out that most well-to-do families perceive themselves as “middle class” so the “real middle class” lacks the political solidarity it needs to get real help.

But, of course, it’s unsatisfying, it not irresponsible, to pose this question without figuring out the impact on other individuals, including the childless. You can say, for example, that everyone should own up to responsibility for others in some fashion; otherwise, yes, a singleton will wind up doing more at work for the same pay and being cut out of some kinds of opportunities that require real socialization.

Making employers cough up paid family leave of various kinds of course could reduce opportunities. Freelance and contractor jobs (as in information technology, and often with writing) provide wealth and income and they could be jeopardized. Free speech and free content on the Internet depends partly on this mechanism. But there really is a problem with the “salaried professional” workplace. In the late 1980s, with all of the leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers, employers began to realize that people without family responsibility would do more work for the same pay (including more of the nightcall carrying pagers), and during layoffs people with family responsibility could be edged or lowballed out. (Hence, discussions of "family responsibility discrimination".) Extreme capitalism or market fundamentalism doesn’t always produce socially stable results, even if it pushes up productivity in the short run.

Some of the articles emphasize the changing roles of women, as they entered the workplace and advanced, sometimes making the two-income family almost a necessity, and pressuring stay-at-home moms, and even changing we way men feel about what makes their spouses attractive. They explore this in quite a bit of intellectual detail. They never get around to discussing the effect on gays and lesbians. I suppose that most of the more liberal contributors would extend the benefits to gay couples with children and support gay marriage and adoption, but that is speculation. People without their own kids can wind up with serious eldercare issues, and feel ashamed to ask employers for help.

The writers do discuss European workplace benefits, and a good question is whether European paid benefits systems could work here, as single-payer health insurance could free employers of the burden of health care in exchange. But that raises all kinds of other questions about how well the European economies work, although the family-friendly policies are helping birth rates recover.

The April 2007 "Atlantic" also has Clive Crook "What War on the Middle Class?" -- which maintains that the middle class isn't hurting so much except for the real problems of pension and social security bankruptcy, and runaway health care costs, which require sacrifice, public expenditures, or taxes. But what is the middle class?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Rhonda Byrne's The Secret: the paradox of giving and sacrifice

Author: Rhonda Byrne.
Title: The Secret.
Publication: New York: Atria / Beyond Words (Simon & Schuster), 2006. ISBN 1-58270-170-9,
Description: 198 small pages, hardcover, illustrated, heavy paper.
Other contributors: (John Assarat, Michael Berrnard Beckwothm Lee Brower, Jack Canfield, Dr. John F. Demartini, Marie Diamond, Mike Dooley, Bob Doyle, Hale Dwoskin, Morris Goodman, Dr. John Gray, Dr. John Hagelin, Bill Garris, Dr. Ben Johnson, Loral Langemeier, Lisa Nichols, Bob Proctor, Lames Arthur Ray, David Schirmer, Marci Shimoff, Dr. Joe Vitale, Dr. Denis Waitley, Neale Donald Walsch, Fred Alan Wolf, Ph. D).

This book is so much reviewed on the web that it is pretty much a “non-secret.” The “secret” is the Law of Attraction. The book presents some Rosenfels-like concepts like the Creative Process, and Love and Action, with a more centralized notion than in the polarity theories of Paul Rosenfels.

Of particular interest and controversy is her distinction between giving and sacrifice (p 118). Giving comes out of love, from what you have developed and can offer to others. Sacrifice is a loss of self and the goals of the self because of the practical needs of others. It implies lack and failure. This point has stirred anger and resentment on the web, as some people see sacrifice as central to a concept of social justice, or the sharing or burdens needed to achieve justice.

I certainly relate to the idea that one’s own thoughts have an influence and create energies that take one through life and influence others, even if one does not beget his own children. When I lived in New York in the 1970s, I attended a few meetings of a group called “Clearer Skies,” run by singer Paul Wagner – and one of the speakers was a witch, who presented witchcraft as simply the fact that “you create your own reality.” That can affect others, and did so ever since ancient times. Jesus knew how to use this power to make himself very public in an era two thousand years before there was a This sort of wisdom is sometimes held to have created "the invisible empire of the Rosicrucians" (reference to AMORC). I look back on my life and see lots of curious ironies and twists (as would befit a novel) that are meaningful to me but hard to explain except in a screenplay.

The book has a DVD film, more expensive than the book itself, distributed by Drew, and not yet available from Netflix.

The book was discussed on ABC "Nightline" on March 23, 2007, with physicians and scientists maintaining that is dangerous to rely on the precepts of the book.

"Nikki" suggests this correlated link (about the Seven Spirtual Laws), which I pass on to readers.

Update: Feb. 6, 2008

Oprah Winfrey discussed this book today, interviewing Louise Hay. The guest said that we create matter with our thoughts all the time, that this comes from quantum mechanics. She did talk about forgiveness as a "letting go" of something, and presented life as a kind of emotional openness. Link is here. Another link is here.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Chris Hansen, Dateline Host, explains the stings in a new book

NBC news anchor and journalist Christ Hansen, who often appears on NBC’s Dateline and has been the point man on a notorious series where men come to a sting house (an operation carried out at least eight times now in a number of states) after chatting with someone (from a volunteer team called PJ) whom they think is a minor over the Internet. The men are usually arrested and charged with solicitation of a minor or sending indecent materials to a minor.
The book is To Catch a Predator: Protecting Your Kids from Online Enemies Already in Your Home. New York: Dutton, 2007. ISBN 978-0-525-95009-7, 243 pages, hardbound (Amazon link). The subject matter is indelicate on a advertiser’s blog. But let me get into the philosophical points. It seems ironic now that Arnold Schwarzenegger made a 1987 movie with this word as the title.

First, Hansen wrote the book to get into these matters, which he thinks are better explained in book form than just in television journalism. He talks about the families of the suspects (most of the men are married with their own kids), about the treatment options (and treatment is very difficult), and gives reasonable advice for parents to keep their kids safe online.

Of course, the underlying issue is that now we have the Internet – social networking sites, blogs, and chat rooms, and we allow any member, however untrained in legal matters, to use them, including kids. It should not be surprising that we learn that kids can invite unconceived danger into their homes and even endanger other family members.

The other point is that the Internet seems to invite men who have never been in trouble with the law. They believe that they are simply engaging and extending a harmless fantasy. They may believe that nothing is really going to “happen,” as they get into this with a step-by-step process. (Yes, the chatlogs and the items they bring with them in their cars often do show real intent, but maybe not always.) The anonymity online may be inviting them do to down a dangerous “road less traveled.” And this process does not constitute legal entrapment. “Ordinary men” with positions of custody and trust (teachers, including special education teachers; ministers, members of the Armed Forces) have fallen into this. One of the most disturbing cases was that of Rabbi David Kaye, who was prosecuted nine months later under federal jurisdiction (the Virginia and New York stings did not result in on-site arrests). Another was a Texas assistant prosecutor who did not come to the sting house, but shot himself when police tried to arrest him at his home.

Chris Hansen appeared on “Larry King Live” on March 15, 2007, and again on March 17. Here is another blog entry on his Internet Safety Kit.

Another blogger reference on the conviction of Rabbi David A. Kaye after a delayed a federal prosecution on Coercion and Enticement is here.

A good question would occur if a sting operator actually sent images to someone in a chatroom, where the images (taken of an actor 18 or older) purported to be that of the minor.  But apparently Peej did not do that.

Here's a video of how Rabbi David Kaye gets caught, Youtube link here