Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jeff Sharlet: "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power": when Jesus constitutes everything

Author: Jeff Sharlet.

Title: "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power".

Description: New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-056005-8, 454 pages, paper

The author is a visiting research scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media. And his thesis, which he tries to document with some street experience, is that American political and economic power, throughout his history, has been directed by a cabal of businessmen and politicians who meet as a kind of semi-secret society, under the veneer of fundamentalist (maybe evangelical – that’s not the same thing) Christianity. The cabal is responsible for the National Prayer Breakfast and for many other faith-based initiatives that have been pushed by largely Republican administrations.

His first chapter, in fact, depicts his own stay (I think in 2001) at an estate in the northern (wealthier) part of Arlington VA called Ivanwald. Here, some religious men live together in a kind of pseudo-monastery-like community. Sharlet alludes to a tad of hidden, latent homoeroticism, when he talks of the swimming pool and of one younger resident particularly proud of his buff, hairless chest. And at various points in the many succeeding chapters, tracing religious and conservative leaders back to the 18th Century, he does also note the evolution of anti-gay rhetoric, as somewhat of a corollary of a deeper need for moral rationalization of a power base. But this is all familiar stuff, to anyone, like me, who lived in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible Belt, during the Reagan years (when AIDS broke out).

Then, there is the issue of the title of the book, “The Family”. On p. 180, mentions the idea that in a religions nation of rugged individuals, “family captured that paradox more neatly, a nation of cozy little kingdoms ruled by Father.” Remember that in the “Manifesto” book by Carlson that I had just reviewed, the “family”, rather than the individual, is the granularity of self-concept, and this passage hints of that; but what “The Family” here addresses is a more conventional view of conservative morality: the world needs to make sure that every individual “pays his dues”, and while “family values” tend to push that, the real way to make the world “collectively” moral is Christ-centeredness. Sharlet discusses a concept called piety, where religious faith seems to exist for its own spiritual ends (saving souls, perhaps, as I always heard in Dallas – and the entire inerrancy debate) , but the effect is to get every individual to understand his God-intended place in the world where a social and political order seems controlled by others (indeed, by “The Family”). So Faith and Politics become interchangeable or convertible, like Einstein’s mass and energy.

Sharlet has an odd “general relativity” equation, that reads “Jesus + 0 = X”. (In cosmological physics, unlike group theory, there is no additive “zero”). That is, Jesus is everything, and is all you need; nevertheless there is a paradox, perhaps expressed by that notorious Parable of the Talents: in the rightful moral order, some people will have more than others (both in terms of possessions and public limelight) because if Jesus is at your heart, it finally doesn’t matter; it’s just an operational necessity. Sharlet’s book, almost 400 pages, constantly goes through various metaphors expressing this kind of paradox. For example, on p 290, in a chapter called “Interlude” (a kind of introduction to a symphonic finale, his book’s Part III), he concludes with

“What the elite and populist movements of American fundamentalism have together wrought is not a culture war but a cultural evolution, one that is adapting to the twenty-first century faster than secularism. This religion isn’t an opiate of the masses; it’s the American Christ on methamphetamines.”

It's also noteworthy that Starlet, in covering the WWII period, addresses the tendency of religious fundamentalism to migrate toward fascism. On p. 133 he writes, "It is Christianity itself that has prevented fundamentalists, America's most authoritarian demographic, from embracing the cult of personality around which fascist states are organized." But even as Carlson hinted (previous review here), hyper-individualism can flip over into embracing fascist aims. Imagine a "truly indie" movie titled "The Fundamentalist".

In his last section, Sharlet does talk about hypocrisy and the fall of some fundamentalist or evangelical Mega-church pastors, particularly around Colorado Springs, the “Jerusalem” of evangelical Christianity, and particularly Ted Haggard, although he skips the details of the gay trysts that led to Ted’s fall (as in the book by Mike Jones reviewed her Feb. 15, 2009).

The operational effectiveness of this “cabal” has another significance: many (although not all) of today’s socially conservative think tanks and websites are derived from this “Family”, according to Sharlet. That comes as no surprise. But it raises an alarming question. We’re seeing a backlash to the “Wild West” era of the Internet that guaranteed everyone a voice with no risk and no capital. If that’s lost, as I have suggested in previous posts, organizations like the Family will have a lot more control over how things get debated.

Indeed, we’re going to arrive at the view that “drawing attention to yourself” publicly automatically subsumes that you must have responsibility for others; the concept of accepting dependence doesn’t wait for sexual intercourse or for making babies. Just think about the little known areas where this could lead, to the delight of people like the Family: added enforcement of filial responsibility laws, for example. If you believe in individualism, you have to wonder if you owe an intrinsic obligation to support others. That kind of concept transcends religion, but maybe it is the essence of the morality that Jesus (plus zero) taught. But it also expresses a deeper kind of systemic justice: "If I had to do it, then you have to." Chairman Mao knew (and tried to implement) that moral paradigm.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"The Natural Family": Oh, no, not another "Manifesto"! Is procreation "almost mandatory"?

A couple weeks ago (on Sept. 6), on the Issue blog, I discussed a column by Washington Post commentator Cheryl Wetzstein, itself mentioning the 2007 book by Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero, “The Natural Family: A Manifesto”. The book is published by Spence in Dallas (known for conservative and Christian books), has ISBN 1-890626-70-8, is 256 pages hardcover, and carries a copyright owned by the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, (link) and the Sutherland Institute ("Personal Responsibility as the Basis of Self-Government") (link). The cover has a picture of a “tree of life”, almost like the tree on another planet in the last scene of the movie “Knowing.”

The book has a website called “family manifesto” (link) which seeks endorsements, and offers a PDF download that right now does not work. I had to order the book from a reseller on Amazon.

Most people are suspicious of any book or paper that calls itself a “Manifesto” (Marx wasn’t the only culprit; my own “Do Ask Do Tell” in 1997 was affectionately called “The Manifesto” by some). But this book’s Introduction does explain the word. I don’t think many high school English teachers will assign a “manifesto” as a type of theme to write for class.

The central point of the book is challenging enough. That is, the nuclear family, of a (married) father and mother and children is a natural social institution, preceding the state or corporation, and it is founded on intrinsically natural differences between the genders, necessitating complementarity. Furthermore, however, the family used to be (and still ought to be) the locus of personal identity. The goals of the person should center around his or her family, not just around himself or herself as an individual. Until he or she marries and has an "own" family, he or she should accept the group identity that goes with his family's genes: that sounds like the most shocking idea. Human beings, to that extent, are social animals and not atomistic loners. The authors maintain that every man naturally should aim to become a father and every woman a mother, in marriage – that is, procreation is, if not exactly mandatory, inevitable, except for a minority of people genuinely unable to do so, which the authors think the “family” should simply protect at home from the outside world. (An important quote from p. 14: "Even if sometimes thwarted by events beyond the individual's control (or sometimes given up for a religious vocation), the calling of each boy is to become husband and father; the calling of each girl is to become wife and mother." Human beings need to learn social attachment as part of their development so that they can become parents. The family provides a natural toggle pivot between altruistic and communal behavior (within) and competitive behavior (without), and the "family" lives outside the world of political ideology. Individualism, as envisioned by political libertarians, fails in this view because it advances separate views (whereas the family unites these visions) – I’m not sure how this kind of thinking could deal with religious diversity. Sustainable freedom, the authors maintain, can live only inside stable “natural” nuclear family units; individual cultural accomplishments are meaningful only when they lead to support of families. (Forget that when writing resumes.) An important corollary of this kind of thinking is that the right to "chose" significant others as an individual and to refuse unwanted intimacy is restricted in a world where blood loyalty is required (for extreme examples, look at how radical Islam behaves). Until one marries and has his (or her) own children, one's loyalties must remain collectively focused (in an "ability-need" axis) on other blood family members as a major locus of identity--experienced by some as a kind of forced intra-family "communism". (This is what happens on the soap operas -- and I wonder if this "moral vision" justifies crime families!)

One of the biggest concerns is depopulation among established families and among people economically able to raise children. This brings us back to the “empty cradle” argument of Phillip Longman (or even “demographic winter”), and leads to a number of “social contract” provisions to encourage families to form and to have more children. Today, the main public policy vehicle is tax credits, but in the past (before feminism) it was the “family wage” (an idea that was advocated by Illinois Senator Henry Hyde in a brief “Mom and Pop Manifesto” in 1994, in Policy Review).

The authors do go on some moderately anti-gay adventures, criticizing the attempt to lift the military gay ban and try to pass laws encouraging gay equality, including gay marriage. But the real issue is that “equality” is a meaningless concept in a world where everyone is loyal to a social group rather than his own ends. The authors pay little heed to arguments about "immutability", as they see "identity" as a matter of accepting other members of a social family unit (and their "problems")as one's own, although at one point they do acknowledge that some people do not reproduce for reasons beyond their control (or for religious vows).

Now, I would counter with this line of thought: Modern society, with its rapidly layered technology, offers “individuals” modes for success and expression that do not require long term committed intimacy or having families. This has become particularly important for women and for gays. But any social contract to favor the family and childbearing and rearing would tend to require “sacrifices” from singletons, and these could become quite crippling. On the other hand, “hyperindividualism,” which uses political “equality” to promote personal sovereignty, can leave families weakened and unable to care for their own weakest members (including adults), leading to more dependence on the “state”, as the authors point out.

An example of this could come with eldercare. Due to demographics, the childless are likely to wind up “paying their dues” with a larger share of the “burden”. I’m surprised that the authors don’t mention filial responsibility laws, and the possibility that budget-strapped states may start enforcing them strictly, as a “pro-family” measure. They do suggest tax credits for people who care for the elderly in their own homes (but not their parents’ homes), and who suggest that family caregiving should earn social security credits.

My own experience growing up could reinforce some of the precepts of this book. I remember resenting the attention that my parents demanded to chores and mechanical and sports activities irrelevant to my talents in music and academics. In retrospect, I can see that these exercises were more about getting me to be able to fit in to a social unit, be able to raise children and “protect” a future wife myself, and do my part in defending the country (otherwise others have to make the sacrifice). I did pick up on the idea that the head of a family has “prestige” for the commitment he has made. But I felt that any such person should be “worthy” of the approbation. Since I was taunted for being developmentally behind physically, I developed the idea that I was not “competitive” enough as a “man” and that it made more sense emotionally to laud those who did (by external trappings) seem competitive enough. I did get "excited" by certain people with certain attributes; although it was a passive experience, it had some sort of moral significance; a person should be "worthy" of that kind of emotional ardor from me, and why would someone who would depend on me be worthy of it? That’s the “Existential Trap.” I wanted the “freedom” for my own emotional and erotic life which, in those days, was still seen as “private” (it is much less private today in an Internet age). But what (existential) “purpose” does that serve? It seems as though it might feed an idea of perfection promoted by the state (hence “body fascism” -- which arguably could someday encourage real fascism again, on another planet, at least). It’s ironic, that the one public venue where there is almost no obesity is a gay disco. We know the challenges in “gay history” in the past few decades; in the 1980s, the challenge was to fight for our own lives; now, it may be to care for the lives of elders. To pay your dues and enter the outside world, it seems as though you have to have a family to support. As John Grisham wrote on the first page of "The Firm", "that was mandatory." If you want to be heard from, shouldn't you be expected to value your own potential lineage enough that you would want it and take responsibility for it? Yes, I can see where the authors of "The Manifesto" are coming from here.

I do understand that socilogists like Carlson, Mero and Longman are saying that someone like me has an undue incentive to "get out of things" by avoiding certain levels of intimacy and connection to others in a social group ("family responsibility" from sources other than direct procreation). The problem is, if someone like me does wind up having to take care of people after not having children (because of filial responsibility, for example), I wind up as a "second class citizen," serving the interests created by the marital sexual intercourse of others when I am not "competitive enough" (or am "too self-absorbed", as Longman says) to procreate msyelf. But then, Carlson asks, if we all become family-centric, then no one (except God maybe) needs to "measure people" globally to "keep score" as to "station in life".

Carlson, with some naivete, perceives the world as automatically a place of plenty, to justify his call for larger families. The climate change crowd would disagree with him, but one could instead make the argument that the need for generativity and sharing of social experience in the future within smaller, local communities argues for family-centered sense of identity.

On p. 13 Carlson and Mero really paint a Rockwell portrait of the "natural family": "We see true happiness as the product of persons enmeshed in vital bonds with spouses, children, parents, and kin." Fine, but it sounds compulsory! "We look to a landscape of family homes, lawns , and gardens busy with useful tasks and ringing with the laughter of many children". Sounds Amish. In another way, sounds bourgeois. Yet, the "natural family", as an irreducibel unit, is immune to "ideology." Yet the authors' value system here amounts to an "ideology" of its own.

Carlson authored a book “Family Questions: Reflections on an American Social Crisis” in 1988. There Carlson had spoken of the "family wage" as a social contract provision (in the past) that protected families (especially with stay-at-home momes) from the "logical consequences of radical individualism" (p 111), and these consequences can be considerable and brutal indeed. There is a similar book “Men of Steel and Velvet” by Dr. Aubrey Andelin from 1982.  Both of these are a bit prescient about today's debates on "sustainability".

Compared to other mammals, human beings can develop both socially and individually. All other primates are social; but humans (especially males) are both social and solitary (like carnivores). A cat lover would say that humans can act both as lions and tigers. The problem is, when too many lions desert the pride (if allowed to), the pride falls apart.

The book concludes with declarations from the World Congress on Families (link), in Geneva and Mexico City.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Carla T. Main: 'Bulldozed: "Kelo," Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land': Connecticut at Texas

Bulldozed; "Kelo," eminent domain, and the American lust for land.
Author: Carla T. Main.

Title:'Bulldozed: “Kelo”, Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land'

Publication and Description: New York: Encounter Books, 2007. ISBN 1-59403-193-2. 304 pages, hardcover; with endnotes; indexed. Includes 8 pages of black-and-white photos. (Publisher website). The author's own website is here.

I mentioned this in this posting Aug. 20 on my main blog that I wrote in response to a Washington Post column by George Will on free speech and frivolous litigation. That post mentions the litigation surrounding this book; when I ordered it from Amazon, it took a little over a week to get it.

I’ll keep this a “kinder, gentler” review, then. The book is in two parts, with the first telling the story, in detail, of the litigation between the Gore family (not related to former VP Al Gore) and its shrimp and seafood business, and the City of Freeport, TX and real estate developers, one in particular.

I lived in Dallas myself in the 1980s and visited the Houston area often, but I don’t recall driving through Freeport, which is about 60 miles to the SW along the Gulf Coast, very exposed to hurricanes. I do recall similar areas, like Beaumont and Texas City (well, not that similar), and, of course, Galveston, and NASA.

The writing is vivid as to the character of the town (you can sense the hot salt air in the bayous and dikes) and its “good old boy” Texas politics (a lawyer friend of mine who helped me in the 90s on another small matter just says “it’s dumb”). But as to the “facts” in the case, I will plead self-protection and say that the City and the “developers” can state their side of the story. I cannot objectively say who is right as to details.

The second half of Main’s book is another story. She carefully traces the evolution of eminent domain from Revolutionary times. Financial turmoil and practical realities tended to make the colonies and early states somewhat greedy and prone to grab property, all of which contributed to the ideological debate on the nature of federalism and the need for a Bill of Rights. She then moves into modern time, and gives the details particularly of some precedent cases in Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, and most of all Connecticut, where “Kelo v. New London” wound up before the Supreme Court in 2005.

The book gives some dialogue from the oral arguments (as well as some other courtroom drama, worthy of the movies, for some of the cases back in Freeport – if this book becomes an indie movie after all, some of the screenplay already must exist -- also in a couple of process service renditions). Philosophically, as well as legally (and constitutionally as regards to the Takings Clause), it comes down to just when is it OK for a community (or state or the federal government) to take private property for supposedly “public purposes”, when the actual owners will be private developers? And what then is just compensation, when lifelong residents and families (often seniors and the aged) are displaced? Is “economic development” a prerogative of government? Is removal of blight? All of this is very tricky. But it’s clear that the eminent domain problem sometimes does seem to be a battle between the established “powerful” and ordinary citizens, who might now want to benefit from the opportunities afforded by modern asymmetry.

The book raises many interesting side points along the way. For example, in the first half, Main mentions a controversy as to whether an umbrella policy (common with auto and property insurance) should cover a defamation claim – that could become a big issue in the future with bloggers and users of social networking sites. Later, she talks about how Freeport could try to control leafleting and handbills, perhaps an outdated effort in the Internet age. She also gets into how elections can be manipulated to make it harder for working class people to vote in touchy initiatives or political races. That was a bit interesting to someone who has seen the strict procedures of working polls on election days.

Wikipedia link for public domain (now) LA Times picture from Freeport, 1923.

Update: Nov. 16, 2009

One of the companies that bulldozed so much of New London CT is leaving, that is Pfizer. Look at this AP/Washington Times story.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Online flex texts may help college students reduce the cost of textbooks; maybe good for high school, especially in AP

The Washington Times has an interesting story on Wednesday, September 2 about textbook pricing, by Karen Goldberg Goff, “Digital texts could turn the page on rising book costs” (link here) for college students and sometimes in high school.

The article discusses an innovation called the flexbook, which is particularly useful in science and math, with a typical example here. The flexbook application presents the material in a variety of panels that helps the student focus on specific concepts and related equations.

It’s easy for me to imagine how this software could be used to present political science concepts, as in my own books.

E-book texts are still pricey, but about half the cost of printed texts.

Textbooks are heavy and expensive partly because of the strict editing requirements and the amount of detail (including illustrations) that they must contain. You physicians, remember your organic chemistry text as a junior in college? Even the lab text (describing all the preps) was humongous.

The flexbook concept assumes that the student will do more homework online. This might run counter to the desires of parents to control family online use, and is most appropriate for students with more maturity, as in AP courses for college credit while in high school; their use presumes a certain level of online maturity among the kids. Just look at the book reviewed in my last post to appreciate the potential concerns.