Memorial Day marks different things for different people. For some, a time to remember the fallen. For many, an opportunity (weather permitting) to gather far-flung family for the ritual opening of the grilling season. For my wife and I, it’s the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We’ll be heading up to Ontario later this weekend, but already my thoughts are turning north.
I’ll have much more to say about the Festival once I’ve actually seen some of this year’s productions – I’m very curious to see how Stratford handles the whole “original practices” thing, and will no doubt have specific thoughts on that subject in addition to my reflections on the plays. But in the meantime, I thought I’d say a few words about a production of a very different bit of Canadian theatre that recently passed through New York (unfortunately, I caught the show almost at the end of its run).
Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, recently mounted by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble at Soho Playhouse, is a three-character comic drama about a Toronto-based actor “embedded” on a farm in rural Ontario doing research for a collective theatre project about the farming life. The scenario is based on a reality – the 1972 production, The Farm Show, which was created in much the manner described in The Drawer Boy, with Toronto actors heading out into the countryside, living among the farmers, and creating a theatre piece based on their experiences.
It doesn’t sound like a particularly portentous topic, but the 1970s was the decade that birthed the first real expression of Canadian nationalism, and that nationalism expressed itself in the arts as an effort to identify authentic and distinctive Canadian experience. To write, in the late-1990s, a play about an initiative like that means, inevitably, to grapple with those forces, and with what they might mean to us now, at a very different moment in Canadian history (not to mention a very different period in the history of the theatre).
It’s striking to me, therefore, that The Drawer Boy doesn’t turn out really to be about the clash of cultures between actor and farmer, or between city and country. Nor does it really turn out to be about the quest for an authentic national spirit in the arts. Rather, it reveals something essential about the Canadian national spirit almost inadvertently, even as it explicitly sets out to make an apology for the power of art in a very contemporary spirit.
You see, the farm our actor has embedded himself in is not managed by entirely ordinary characters, but by a distinctly theatrical pair. Morgan, an emotionally closed-in farmer (played by Brad Fryman), could pass for typical, were it not for the presence of his farm hand, Angus (William Laney), who has a curious mental incapacity: he appears to have no short-term memory (and his long-term memory isn’t so great either). Morgan’s affection for Angus is obvious from the first, as is the sadness with which that affection is mixed. The actor, Miles (based loosely on actor/director Miles Potter, and played in this production by Alex Fast), is immediately fascinated by the dynamic between these two farmers, and tries to worm his way into Angus’s confidence and pry loose the secret of his disability. While he does learn something about the farm life (though his purportedly avant-garde theatre group seems nonplussed by his first-person account of a cow desperately trying to produce enough milk to avoid selection for slaughter, exactly the sort of thing I would expect a 1970s-era theatrical collective would have loved), it’s plain that the human drama is what really piques his interest.
One night, he hears Morgan telling Angus a story under the stars, a story of two boys who went to war. In London, they both fell in love. One of the boys got injured, and lost his memory. He recovered, somewhat, and both his friend and his love stood by him. The four of them came back to Canada, had a double wedding, and built a pair of joined houses for the two families to live in. And then the two women were killed in a car crash, and buried together on a hill, the highest point in the county. This is Angus and Morgan’s story, and Angus asks Morgan to tell it to him every night, because he can never remember it properly.
Until Miles steals the story for his show, and plays Morgan on stage. This has an electrifying effect on Angus, who is suddenly able to remember all sorts of things forgotten – indeed, at one point he behaves as if he were still in London with Morgan during the war. And it quietly enrages Morgan, who tries to throw Miles off the property until Angus objects. And when Angus realizes that he’s never seen his wife’s grave (or doesn’t remember ever seeing it), and wanders off in search of it, it’s clear that something has permanently changed around the farm.
Eventually Angus comes back, the truth comes out about what really happened, because Angus demands to know it. And, surprisingly, much of the story turns out to be true. Morgan bears some personal guilt for Angus’s injury, because he got hurt while running an errand for his friend, and, more to the point, because Morgan convinced Angus to join up in the first place, when Angus could have gone to university instead. But otherwise the wartime story was pretty accurate. They did fall in love, with two English girls, just as Morgan described. Angus was injured in pretty much the way he was told. And their loves did follow them back to Canada, but Angus’s disability was too much for his own girl to stand after a while, particularly when it made Angus belligerent. After one-too-many incidents, the two women returned home, leaving Angus under Morgan’s care, and Morgan bereft of his own love. Angus was distraught at losing his girl, and couldn’t understand what had happened (because he couldn’t remember), and so Morgan cooked up the car accident story to calm him down. And so their life settled in to its permanent pattern. Now, it will return to that pattern again, but every night he will tell Angus the truth, the whole truth.
On the surface, as I say, this is a story about the power of art. The story Morgan tells has the power to pacify, even tranquilize Angus, and the play Miles makes of the story has the power to excite and agitate him. Art enables us to tell ourselves lies that make sense of our lives, and art forces us to confront and expose those lies. But that all felt quite conventional to me, almost pat.
What struck me most (apart from the winning performances on all parts, and the charmingly wry humor of the piece) was the Canadian-ness of this story. If this were an American play, I assure you, the big revelation wouldn’t be: I told you your fiancee died because it calmed you down. The big secret Morgan is hiding from himself is how angry he is at Angus for causing him to lose his own love, an anger he can’t let himself feel because he feels so guilty for being the cause of the injury in the first place. That’s a very real and human emotion – but if this were an American story I rather think Angus’s actions would be a bit more operatic.
Why write this play, about this seminal moment in Canadian theatre history? The play’s answer, it seems to me, relates to this quest for a Canadian truth. The truth, up north, is just the facts, a negation of stories taken from elsewhere – cliched stage cows we’ve seen a hundred times before, as Miles rants at one point, but also the American self-creation myth of Gatsby, or the British myth of a world-girdling empire. But the facts, faced head-on, don’t offer much comfort – nor, indeed, much catharsis. The cows need to produce milk, or they’ll be slaughtered. Some English girls can only take so much for the sake of love, while some Canadian farmers do much more for the sake of duty.
I’ve declined to comment on the whole Richwine saga because, frankly, the whole thing struck me as tediously familiar. In fact, I tried to write something and found myself bored by my own prose.
Fortunately, Joe Biden came to my rescue:
Joe Biden spoke last night in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month. . . . The thrust of his largely unscripted monologue is that Jews have contributed enormously to the United States. That’s obviously a standard spiel for praising any ethnic group, but Biden took care to emphasize that Jews have not just contributed their share to the United States, but far more:
The Jewish people have contributed greatly to America. No group has had such an outsized influence per capita as all of you standing before you, and all of those who went before me and all of those who went before you …
You make up 11 percent of the seats in the United States Congress. You make up one-third of all Nobel laureates …
I think you, as usual, underestimate the impact of Jewish heritage. I really mean that. I think you vastly underestimate the impact you’ve had on the development of this nation.
You can add to the list, of course. Care to know the Jewish percentage of the Forbes 400? Of top Hollywood executives? Of top executives in Silicon Valley? Care to examine the lists of great mathematicians, medical doctors, scientists, composers – you know the drill.
Why this extraordinary success?
Obviously, America has, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, been an exceptionally hospitable environment for Jewish people. America has no hereditary aristocracy. We have a weaker sense of common blood origin than many European nations (though France gives us a run for our money), to say nothing of East Asian nations. We have a very broad conception of religious freedom. And we have a pervasive national mythology of self-creation.
But all of those factors should be just as beneficial to, say, Greek immigrants. Who have, indeed, done very well in America! But there’s no real comparison.
So: why the Jews?
I don’t pretend that’s an easy question to answer – and I’m not going to try to answer it. But it seems to me that the universe of possible answers fall into broadly four categories:
- Jews are doing something right. We work harder, or we value education more, or we nurture our children more effectively, or we don’t waste as much time on narishkeit.
- Jews are doing something wrong. We’re clannish and insular. We cheat and steal to get ahead. We take advantage of soft-headed and soft-hearted gentiles.
- Jews are lucky. It’s just an accident that certain economic and social trends coincided with a moment when Jewish immigrants were particularly well-positioned to take advantage of them. But it won’t last, and it probably won’t be replicated.
- Jews are naturally gifted. Ashkenazi Jews have, on average, higher IQs than non-Jewish whites, and there’s a significant (though not necessarily dispositive) genetic component to IQ.
The first category of explanation is what we’d usually call philo-Semitic and the second category what we’d usually call anti-Semitic. What they share, though, is an implication that moral qualities are attributed to a group on account of their success.
If you really believe the first kind of explanation, then you will be inclined to believe that Jews should be emulated. And a failure to replicate that success would reasonably be interpreted as a lack of effort or seriousness on the part of those doing the emulating. I hear this kind of thing – a lot.
If you really believe the second kind of explanation, then you will be inclined to believe that Jews should be, in some fashion or other, persecuted or restrained. This has been the historic anti-Semitic response to Jewish success – disproportionate success is itself deemed sufficient proof of perfidy. And the dynamic is not limited to anti-Semitism, but is more broadly applicable to “market-dominant minorities.”
By contrast, the latter two explanations don’t impute either positive or negative moral qualities to extraordinary success. Perhaps the success is “earned,” but it depends on underlying natural advantages that are, themselves, unearned. (Obviously, you can make more or less of your natural endowments – I don’t mean to suggest that nothing is ever earned.) Or perhaps the success is “unearned,” but not in a perfidious sense, only in the sense that historical events are enormously complex and chaotic, and sometimes the dice fall just right for one person or group of people. Which doesn’t itself prove the dice are loaded.
So, my question is: why is it considered a moral outrage to entertain the possibility of the last explanation, when it is an explanation with no obvious moral implications?
And so we come to Jason Richwine. Richwine is being pilloried for saying, in effect, that the relatively greater economic success of Anglos versus Latino immigrants is not due to Anglos being harder working, or more committed to education, or better at nurturing their children. Nor is it due to Latino immigrants being shiftless and lazy. Rather, he attributes it, in part, to having an unearned native genetic advantage in competing in the contemporary market economy.
I’m not saying he’s right – I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to that yet, not by a long shot. I haven’t read his dissertation, and it strikes me as entirely plausible that it’s a shoddy piece of work (I’ve heard it described by people who have read it as little better than a literature review).
I am saying that there’s something very peculiar about believing that the worst thing you can say is that one group of people was born with a somewhat less-prevalent natural gift for manipulating three-dimensional surfaces in their heads, while saying “it’s all culture” – which means, in so many words, that the group is living wrongly, and, if they want to better themselves, are obliged to emulate our superior ways of doing things – is much more socially acceptable.
I want to separate debate about human biodiversity premises from the typical conclusions drawn by hbd enthusiasts. For example, Richwine thinks that if there are enduring group differences in IQ, then we should re-tool our immigration policy to attract higher-IQ immigrants. I don’t see why that policy conclusion either depends on or follows from his premise.
Even if there are no genetic differences between groups that drive differences in IQ, there are measurable differences in IQ right now, and there’s no evidence they are going to go away soon. Saying, “all we have to do is eliminate poverty” or “all we have to do is fix education” is saying, “all we have to do is something we have no idea how to do” and then everyone will be equal. Believing that poverty causes low IQ rather than the other way around provides a really good argument for working to end poverty. It doesn’t provide much of an argument for mass unskilled immigration. The whole argument from genetics is unnecessary.
And it’s insufficient as well. Maybe we need more smart computer programmers in America. But maybe we need more spot welders. Maybe we need both – or neither. I worked for several years for a company that was a pretty good approximation of Huxley’s island of alphas, and it was very successful, but it wasn’t very successful at everything. The most efficient way to identify when it’s worth importing labor to alleviate shortages of particular skills is through the market, which is why I favor an auction system for visas rather than handing them out to politically-favored industries (and also because the revenue from the auction would offset the negative externalities of immigration which are currently socialized).
Does that mean that the argument from genetics is irrelevant in policy terms? No, I don’t think it is. But I don’t think it leads necessarily to the conclusions that either racialists hope or anti-racists fear.
If there are deep differences between groups that broadly affect job performance in a wide variety of fields (which is what differences in IQ would suggest), then some aspects of anti-discrimination law will have to be revised. If disparate impact reflects actual differences in group performance, then how can it be prima facie evidence of discrimination? On the other hand, I would argue that evidence of such differences actually makes the diversity rationale for some kinds of affirmative action more compelling. That rationale is that a diverse society requires a diverse leadership, both for political credibility and because different groups bring importantly different experiences to the table. If all differences will wash away in a generation, then perhaps that rationale isn’t terribly compelling. But if they are enduring? Even permanent?
I’m even more confident that evidence of enduring differences between groups provides a strong rationale for redistributionist economics. Actually, I think that case is pretty strong even if no such differences exist, merely on the grounds of deep differences between individuals. Why does the fact that I was born with a high IQ “entitle” me to keep the lion’s share of my earnings, however large, while somebody else born with a lower intellectual capacity struggles to make ends meet? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that, precisely because I started life with a leg up, I’m more obliged to do more for the less-fortunate? But differences between groups, if they are enduring, add another dimension to this case, particularly in the international arena.
Then there’s education. I’m a big believer in the whole different learning styles thing. And I’m also a very big believer that if you spend the time and energy to work with a population that, on its surface, looks like it has less educational potential, you’ll discover all kinds of surprises. I’ve seen it, over and over again. But: that doesn’t mean we’ll all wind up equal. And it potentially requires a great deal of time and resources, which are not necessarily available, certainly not at scale. Lots of really smart experiments are being conducted by charter schools. Meanwhile, under the pressure of education “reform,” we’re doing a lot to wreck the regular school system by making it even less responsive to the diversity – the intellectual diversity – of the student population.
Personally, I think a greater comfort with the reality of differences between people – differences in intelligence, as well as differences in the shape of that intelligence – makes it easier to think about tailoring teaching to the needs of actual students. It’s not obvious why the possibility that there are differences between groups as well makes this process worse. On the contrary, it seems to me that, at least in policy conversations (not so much at the level of an actual educator, who doesn’t have any legitimate reason to think about groups rather than individual students) that fear of stepping over that taboo line has made it harder for us to think clearly about differences between individuals.
Finally: there’s a whole other debate to be had about the validity of IQ. It’s clear to me that IQ is measuring something real, and that that something has a great deal to do with making one’s way successfully through modern life. But it doesn’t escape my notice that modern life is increasingly organized by people with high IQs. Why assume they are disinterested? Even without imputing malice, isn’t it possible that the people predominantly making the rules don’t realize how hard it is for many people to follow them? It’s just possible that we’ve long since passed the point of diminishing returns to society from sorting the population by IQ, and have moved into the realm of negative social returns – increasing the returns to having a high IQ while actually producing net costs to society as a whole. (It’s also possible that the whole system has become pervasively corrupt, and isn’t even sorting fairly by its own standards.) But how can you have that debate if “we all agree” that intelligence is determined by environment, and that therefore stratification of society by IQ is merely the just distribution of rewards?
My bottom line: in the hands of people who want to entrench inequality, of course human biodiversity arguments provide ammunition. But in the absence of that ammunition, they’ll find something else. Privilege never lacks for arguments in its defense, and when arguments are exhausted there’s always force. Meanwhile, in the hands of people who want to address inequality, the truth or falsehood of human biodiversity arguments actually does matter. Because if you want to change reality, you first have to understand it.
To me, the palpable terror of human biodiversity arguments among the elite reflects a suspicion that we don’t trust ourselves with that kind of knowledge. Not that we don’t trust the great unwashed who will undoubtedly believe what they like no matter what people at Harvard say they ought to believe, but ourselves, the meticulously-selected overclass. Why? What do we know about ourselves that we don’t want to admit?
So let me get back to Joe Biden. He’s absolutely right: Jewish people in America have achieved extraordinary levels of success. And I, like many Jews, feel ambivalent about that – but I don’t think I feel the same ambivalence that most Jews do. The ambivalence I usually hear is the one Jonathan Chait articulated: on the one hand, pride in that success, while, on the other hand, fear of how the gentiles will take it. And that’s not my ambivalence.
My ambivalence centers on what William James called ”the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS” – which, along with identifying success largely in monetary terms, James concluded was “our national disease.” And I hear that disease – a lot. I even hear it sometimes in shul.
I think our conviction that anyone’s success is entirely “earned” has had a widespread corrosive moral effect. Our panic about the possibility that it might be easier for some people – or some groups of people – to “earn” success is due to our knowledge that our social order is premised on bestowing moral authority on the successful. We don’t want to believe that our own success imposes moral obligations on us, and so instead we look for evil forces and individuals to blame for any inequalities we don’t feel comfortable calling just and deserved. And all the while, we get better and better at casually assuming that more and more inequalities are just, and deserved.
This is not the traditional Jewish understanding of how justice works. But I fear we, along with so many of our fellow Americans, are acclimating ourselves to it.
As someone on record as being against seriousness, but who has also argued that the Great Recession made it all the more imperative that we realign our spending priorities, this Paul Krugman post hits me where it hurts:
It was obvious during the runup to the Iraq war that what was going on in the minds of many hawks — and not just the neocons — was not so much a deep desire to drop lots of bombs and kill lots of people (although they were OK with that) as a deep desire to be seen as people who were willing to Do What Has to be Done. Men who have never risked, well, anything relished the chance to look in the mirror and see Winston Churchill looking back.
Actually, I suspect that even the torture thing had less to do with sadism than with the desire to look tough.
And the austerian impulse is pretty much the same thing, except that in this case the mild-mannered pundits want to look in the mirror and see Paul Volcker.
Much of the problem in trying to stop the march to war was precisely the fear of many pundits that they would be seen as weak and, above all, not Serious if they objected. Austerity has been very much the same thing — and again, it’s not just the right-wingers who are afflicted.
I think there’s a great deal to this psychology. I certainly recognize it in myself. I’m not an Austrian because I think Austrian economics isn’t really economics at all – it’s not even trying to predict the outcome of particular economic decisions with any kind of accuracy. It’s a philosophical position, and I’m not sure it’s even subject to falsification.
But I’m not a true Keynesian in part because, well, there’s something fishy about it. The financial crisis that kicked off the Great Recession was a real event that changed people’s real risk tolerances. That sounds, to me, like a profound psychological change that requires a similarly profound adjustment to correct, not a technical problem requiring a purely technical fix. I cannot believe that dropping money from helicopters or paying people to dig and fill holes would actually be efficacious at all.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an advocate of austerity. I agree much more with Krugman than I disagree on the questions of what our fiscal policy should look like (expansionist) and on what our fiscal priorities should be (less spending on defense, more on improvements to the nation’s capital stock, and I suspect we agree that we should be seeking more efficiencies in health care spending as well). I suspect I’m out on a lonely limb with those sentiments at this magazine, but fortunately my employers let me write what I think.
But perhaps I am being too serious. I applaud Krugman for saying, earlier this year, that he doubts inequality is an important contributing cause of our sluggish recovery. That’s an argument against interest on his part, and against instinct, as it would be for me as well. Which is a habit to encourage, not quash in the interests of appearing serious.
Please, go read Conor Friedersdorf’s lengthy meditation on – well, he covers quite a number of topics, from the difficulty sustaining a post-collegiate conversation about the cornerstones of one’s life to the sexual ethics of extreme pornography (which is where this conversation began), to the social purpose of condemnatory language. I endorse wholeheartedly his early statement that this, this kind of back-and-forth searching dialogue between people who speak quite different languages, is precisely the promise of web journalism, and something I wish I saw more often. If nothing else, Emily Witt should be very pleased with the conversation she started.
The heart of Conor’s essay, though, is about Kant, and whether, per Pascal Emanuel Gobry’s suggestion, Kant provides a common language for traditionalists and modernists to talk to each other so that, while they may not agree, they may at least come to mutual understanding. Specifically, a Kantian approach to sexual ethics would go beyond demanding mere consent, but would demand that, in our relations, we treat each other only as ends, never as means, regardless of whether either of us is willing to be treated merely as a means.
Conor illustrates what that means in practice with the following example:
Imagine that Sean meets Jessica. Soon they decide they are in love with one another.
After six months, he moves into her apartment. It’s spacious and comfortable. Another six months passes. Gradually, he realizes that he doesn’t love her anymore and wants to break up. But the day he planned to do it, he loses a freelance client. Moving out would now mean finding a shared apartment rather than a studio of his own. He decides to keep dating Jessica for another couple months, until a new client comes on and he can again afford his own place. He has treated her as a means rather than an end. I’m confident that many secular modernists with consent-focused notions of sexual morality would agree that Sean has acted like an immoral jerk.
That’s certainly my moral intuition.
Now imagine that Sean instead told Jessica, “I never would have believed it when we moved in together, but we’ve somehow grown apart in the last couple months, and I think we should break up.”
And Jessica replies (however implausibly), “I’d miss you terribly if you left now. So stay here until you’ve saved enough to move to a better apartment. You don’t love me anymore, but I know you still enjoy the sex, and it’s my desire to keep you around a bit longer. I still love you, even if you don’t love me, and while your continued proximity may ultimately just make it harder for me to get through the breakup, I desire it anyway. What do you say? Let’s sleep together right now.” Once again, even most non-traditionalists would agree that the more moral thing for Sean to do is to refuse this offer. Perhaps that intuition is partly rooted in Kantianism.
You see his point? In the second example, if the relationship continued, both sides would be consenting, and yet there’s still something wrong, from a Kantian perspective – because, we might say, Sean is just “using” Jessica. (Or, perhaps, he’s letting himself be used. After all, in this scenario he is basically letting her pay him for sex – the payment is the right to stay in their affordable apartment – so that she can prolong for herself the illusion that their love hasn’t died.)
But I’m skeptical, as I usually am, of rule-based morality of this sort. So let’s change the scenario a bit. Suppose, instead of being a couple who’ve been dating six months, they are a married couple with a six-year-old child. And Sean wakes up to find his love has gone cold.
What, now, would Kant suggest?
Well, if you take his ideas about sex seriously, this isn’t actually that hard a problem – but Conor doesn’t take those ideas terribly seriously (nor do I). So: what would Kant advise?
Suppose Sean were to tell his wife, Jessica, that he’s fallen out of love with her and wants to break up – the way the six-month-dating Sean did in Conor’s hypothetical. That would be honest. It would mean not treating her as a means, I suppose. But what would it mean for his dependent daughter? To treat a child as an end can’t just mean honesty in interpersonal relations. It must mean ordering one’s life, in a fundamental way, around the child’s primary needs. Is it possible that breaking up a marriage is doing so?
I won’t say it can’t be – there are marriages that are worse for children than divorces. I won’t even say that it’s a rule that it’s better (for the children) to stay married if all that’s wrong is that love has died. I know people who grew up in such marriages who disagree, who wish their parents had divorced and ended the torment of living with two people causing each other so much pain. But, at a minimum, I would say there’s a big problem with a rule that says: the only moral choice for Sean is to break up the marriage, because anything else would be treating Jessica (or himself) as a means, without bringing the child into the equation as a primary factor.
So let’s say Sean decides to stay, for the sake of his daughter. Now what? Should he tell his wife he no longer loves her? Or should he lie? No, he’s not allowed to lie; that’s using her as a means, not an end. So she knows he doesn’t love her. Can he now seek extra-marital satisfaction, but stay together as parents? Well, is there any way to do so that doesn’t involve treating the other woman as a means rather than an end? Presumably not. So: does his wife have any obligations to satisfy her husband sexually? Even if it causes her pain to sleep with a man she knows doesn’t love her? Presumably not as well – that sounds like a textbook case of using each other as a means rather than an end. Even if she could rationalize putting aside her own pain so as to do a service to him, what possible excuse does he have other than his own needs? So what we’re left with is marriage as a kind of prison sentence: two people obliged to stay together in sexless, loveless mutual solitude. What a wonderful environment in which to raise a child. Maybe they should break up after all.
You see where I’m going with this. Kant’s ethics are an ethics of distance. They are animated by a fear of transgression that militates against intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy, most particularly a sexual intimacy intended to last a lifetime. Once we enter this particular dark wood, I don’t think Kant provides much of a map. Indeed, the whole “map” metaphor probably needs to be chucked.
Later on in his piece, Conor says: “It seems to me that, whether we’re talking about a three-week college relationship or a 60-year marriage, it is equally possible to treat one’s partner as a means or as an end (though I would agree that “treating as means” is more common in hookups than marriage).” I think that parenthetical is debatable. Well, I won’t opine on what is common in hookups; I don’t have enough direct experience (college was a while ago). But precisely because of the prolonged intimacy of marriage, it’s almost unavoidable that you wind up treating one another as means rather than ends, at least some of the time. Frankly, the real work of marriage is avoiding getting used to so doing.
What we should be concerned with is not rules but with cultivating a sensitivity to the qualities of our relationships. The right thing for Sean to do isn’t to ask “what actions would or would not constitute treating Jessica as a means rather than an end, because I don’t want to do anything that would transgress that line” but “what is it going to take to make this marriage work – work as well as it possibly can – because, for my daughter’s sake if not for mine or my wife’s, I don’t want it to fail.” That internal conversation – and, ideally, conversation with Jessica – needs to be as honest as possible. Which means leaving everything on the table, at least initially – including the possibility that the marriage can’t be saved, but also including the possibility that saving it will require some real creativity – rather than prematurely closing off options by saying, “but that would be wrong.”
And that applies equally well to six-month-Sean. In Conor’s hypothetical, Sean and Jessica are going to break up. The only question is whether they are going to break up now, or in a couple of months, after he’s agreed to keep having sex with her in spite of their mutual knowledge that the love is gone. Conor’s Kantian explanation for why Sean shouldn’t do this, even with Jessica’s consent, is that it’s using her (or she’s using him) as a means rather than an end. But another road – my preferred road – to the same result would be to say: what’s their relationship going to be like after the extra, say, two months of loveless sex? How will they feel about each other then, in the future?
In Conor’s hypothetical, Jessica says, “while your continued proximity may ultimately just make it harder for me to get through the breakup, I desire it anyway.” So she knows the right answer. What else do we really need to know?
As the film moves to the second act, the action begins to condense around the interrogation of a resistance fighter. Don Pietro (not the same figure who participated in the bread riot) emerges as a central figure. He is the conscience of the film. His is not a removed, impartial faith. He helps the resistance hide guns and uses his relative freedom from curfews to deliver messages to the underground.
But neither is Don Pietro a revolutionary in priest’s garb. After being forced to witness the prolonged torture of a suspected insurgent, Don Pietro curses the Germans and then stops, horrified at what he has done: “My God, what have I said? Forgive me Lord.” It is Don Pietro who will eventually deliver the film’s thematic coda when he says that “it’s not that hard to die a good death,” and then continues, “what’s hard is to live a good life.”
This mentality – as horrified by its own anger and cursing as by the oppressor’s tyranny – may seem foreign to a modern audience. After all, we are steeped in revenge narratives and the rhetoric of cultural and political self-righteousness. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the film is that it makes Don Pietro’s self-approbation appear natural, human, and normal. He is not an exceptional Christian; he is a normal Christian in exceptional circumstance. . . .
It is hard to imagine a seeing corollary character to Don Pietro in Zero Dark Thirty, someone who would look at terrorism and torture and be repulsed by his or her own drive for vengeance. In the world depicted by that film, history extends only as far back as 9/11. The traumatic years of war in Rome, Open City are place in a broader, cosmic historical span that helps guard against our tendency to see our own moment in history as exceptional.
I am not going to suggest that “Zero Dark Thirty” is going to become a cinematic classic, nor that “Rome Open City” is anything less than one. But it’s worth considering the possibility that Bigelow is showing us what we are, what being “steeped in revenge narratives” and believing that “history extends only as far back as 9/11″ have made us, rather than endorsing what we are. As I wrote in my review of Bigelow’s film:
Listen to the underscoring of the last half hour of the movie. It’s doomy and anxious as the stealth helicopters rise up and head into Pakistan. It stays that way all through the assault on bin Laden’s compound. That assault, by the way, is resolutely unromantic – but, again, that dovetails with the “journalistic” approach I talked about. But the camera lingers on discordant elements – the growing crowd of curious and angry Pakistani onlookers, the anxiety of the SEALS who know they have to get out efficiently, and, most notably, Hakim (Fares Fares), an intelligence operative on the team who’s clearly a native of some sort, and who seems particularly affected by the carnage in the compound (dead bodies, screaming women and children), and the potential for worse carnage if the crowd outside doesn’t disperse. And then, with a pause to blow up the disabled helicopter, we’re headed home – and yet we’ve still got the doomy underscoring. There’s no triumphalism. Indeed, if you blinked you might have missed that the mission is accomplished, that bin Laden is dead, that the “good guys” won. And that underscoring carries through to the big final question on which the movie ends: where do you want to go now?
I don’t think that adds up to “we report; you decide.” Katheryn Bigelow is actively undermining the “natural” mood of an American audience when they see bin Laden get shot. She’s saying: this, in and of itself, is just another assassination. If it means anything, that meaning comes from context. But the context she provides is ominous rather than triumphant.
That final question is asked of Maya, the gal who got bin Laden. And, rather than answer it, Maya tears up. What is she thinking? Normally, we’d have some basis of answering based on Maya’s character. But Maya, though she is supposed to be based on a real character, doesn’t have a character – not in the sense of a personal history or backstory. She has no friends. She has no interests. But she’s not just a monomaniacal person – we’ve met those types before in movies. She is her monomania. There isn’t anything else to her. . . .
Which leaves Maya, in my view, as more symbol than character. She is the embodiment of our own national demand for retribution. She is the force that commanded: we’re not stopping until we get the guy who murdered 3,000 innocents in cold blood on September 11, 2001. We’ll do whatever it takes. Nothing else really matters.
That’s what this movie is about. It’s a movie about that demand, that force, that virtually all of us felt, and that transformed, for a while at least, possibly permanently in some ways, our relationship to much of the world, to the national security state, to our sense of morality. That force is real, and we are protective of it, and now that it has done its work we don’t know where to go, nor precisely what to make of the work that it did, through us.
Bigelow’s approach, which denies us an easily-accessible moral perspective from which we can evaluate the world we are shown, is morally risky. After all, while I would argue that she doesn’t endorse our post-9-11 psyche, she doesn’t critique that mentality very directly either – the critique that I see as implicit in the film is gleaned from subtleties. And those subtleties don’t play that way with all viewers. A very good friend of mine saw the film and came out saying that he felt like he could have just seen a piece of North Korean propaganda. And I understand that reaction – indeed, based on a cursory review of the reviews, a wide swathe of critics saw the film as ending on a positive, triumphalist note of “mission accomplished,” which isn’t what I saw at all.
But it’s a little weird to critique Bigelow for not achieving realism because none of her characters (including Chastain – I don’t buy for an instant that her failure to participate in the initial torture scene is somehow exculpatory) are not repulsed by torture. Is such a character an important part of our national post-9-11 hunt for bin Laden? If not, in what way would inserting such a figure serve the cause of realism? For that matter, would it do anything to further our own moral education?
And while Bigelow’s methods are wildly different from those of the neorealists, they share a central concern with the texture of reality. The plots of Bigelow’s recent films (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” – the ones Mark Boal wrote) feel rather paint-by-numbers, and the characterization is relatively shallow. But how deep is the characterization in “The Bicycle Thief” or “Rome 11 o’clock”? These aren’t stories with complex character arcs. They aim to show us what life is really like. And that, in my opinion, is Bigelow’s primary concern as well. It’s just that she’s interested in a different world than Rossellini and De Santis and De Sica – not the working class, but the men and women who fight our wars for us.
The neorealists, of course, had a political perspective that drove their cinematic concerns, and Bigelow is much shier, in her films and in her interviews, about articulating any agenda. I say perspective, though, rather than agenda, because it’s the perspective that survives – the concern that we don’t really know what the lives of the working poor are like, and so we need to see. Personally, I would argue that the same is true of the men and women who are Bigelow’s primary concern.
But what really divides them is precisely the difference in method, which in turn is driven by a difference in subject matter and in political agenda. The Italian neorealists were not only doing films about the experience of poverty; they were working from a stance of impoverishment. They used non-actors, filmed on location without elaborate sets, and so forth – they worked in a quasi-documentary style partly because that aesthetic served their message, but also because it was affordable, and affordability also served their message.
Bigelow also directs her films to feel “real” in a quasi-documentary fashion, but this is merely a style, and it is not at all affordable. To show the world she wants to show requires a lot of money, and (infamously) requires the cooperation of the authorities. Those constraints, in turn, shape the kinds of stories she winds up telling – more to the point, they drive her to tell fairly conventional stories, those paint-by-numbers plots and pat character arcs that I mentioned and that Hollywood is so good at. Her films would be stronger and less-compromised if they eschewed these narrative props, and stuck to giving us the experience of the particular realities that interest her most.
But if she did that, her films would never get made.
I don’t normally write about immigration, because it’s not really my “thing,” but I agree with the restrictionists that there’s something very puzzling about progressive willingness to embrace a particular kind of business talking point. Here’s Kevin Drum doing it:
[The North Carolina Growers' Association] is required to heavily advertise for native workers before their applications for H-2A guest worker visas are approved, but these efforts seldom pay off. Even when unemployment was at its height in 2011, they received a grand total of only 268 referrals. They hired 90 percent of the applicants, but only 163 showed up for work on their first day—and that was the best response in NCGA’s history. . . .
Within two months, 80 percent of the native workers had quit. By the end of the growing season, only seven were left.
Now, as Matthews notes, this report doesn’t exactly come from a neutral source. It’s from a pro-immigration group working with a group of pro-immigration farmers. But unless they’re flat-out lying here, the numbers are pretty compelling. Most Americans just aren’t willing to do backbreaking agricultural labor for a bit above minimum wage, and if the wage rate were much higher the farms would no longer be competitive.
Anyone want to send me some contrary evidence? I’d be interested to see it. But all the evidence I’ve seen in the past points in the same direction as this study: it’s all but impossible to get native workers to fill field labor jobs. Immigrants really are doing the work we won’t.
So, here’s my question: is there any other situation where progressives are inclined to believe that low wages are the key to competitiveness, and that this is a good reason to keep wages low? Any other industry granted this exception to the general progressive view that workers deserve compensation commensurate with the dignity of labor as such? Are progressives inclined to believe that, say, coal miners should be paid only slightly above the minimum wage for their back-breaking (and dangerous) labor, as opposed to getting the much higher average wage that they earned (in large part through unionization)?
What would happen if agricultural labor were better-compensated? To some degree American agricultural enterprises would become less-competitive—we’d import more of some kinds of food from abroad. Which would mean more money flowing into the agricultural sector in those countries, and more employment for agricultural labor there, as opposed to here. From the perspective of the farm laborers that’s not obviously a bad outcome—they have jobs and not have to uproot themselves to get them.
Another possibility is that American farmers would innovate, and find ways to get the same crop yields with fewer workers, through the application of automation. That advance in productivity would reduce agricultural employment overall, with the remaining employees earning a higher wage, more conducive to economic and social security. Genuine advances in productivity are usually counted as a good thing for everybody.
The American agricultural mix might change. America farms might focus more on those crops where there is a greater return to the application of capital, while more labor-intensive agriculture moves to countries with lower labor costs. There might be environmental consequences to that kind of change, but these could be addressed with regulatory legislation. If the end result is greater specialization, that, again, is not obviously a bad outcome for anybody—comparative advantage and all that.
Or America might shift not into more capital-intensive agriculture but into higher-value agricultural products. For example, suppose a greater percentage of American farms produced organic food. Organic is more labor-intensive, so that would seem an illogical response to higher labor costs. But it’s also a premium product that commands a premium price. Is it completely impossible that Americans could be convinced to pay a greater percentage of their budget on food, and a smaller percentage on other consumer goods, because the food is of “higher quality”? Clearly a certain percentage of Americans already do that—the question is whether that market could be expanded. I don’t see why not. The result might be the purchase of fewer plastic toys from China, more money spent on organic grapes and strawberries, and higher wages for the stoop laborers on those organic fruit farms. Again, not obviously a bad outcome.
We don’t know precisely what would happen, but it’s never as simple as “if this input factor changed, we’d all be out of business.” Business isn’t infinitely adaptive, but neither is it that rigid.
So here’s the point: would progressives make arguments like this if the minimum wage were $12/hour? Would they be arguing that farms should get a special exception to employ workers for less than the minimum wage, because otherwise they’ll go out of business (and, I guess, we’ll have no food)? I think to ask the question is to answer it.
And here’s another point. The smart pushback against the Jason Richwine argument—that measurable IQ differences between Hispanics and Anglos prove that mass-immigration from Mexico means importing a permanent class divide, with serious fiscal consequences—is that class affects IQ as well as the other way around. Take a group of kids who, based on ethnic and class background, would appear to have limited academic prospects, and put them in a situation where they have more resources (and those resources are applied well) and you discover that there’s more diversity in ability than was visible at the outset. I’ve seen this dynamic at work in the charter school network I was involved in founding, so I find it persuasive (though I think there are very tough questions of scale to be addressed before blithely acting as if we have the “solution” to things like the test score gap).
But, if we’re going to argue that mass immigration isn’t going to create a fiscal problem so long as we don’t allow class divisions to deepen and fester, then shouldn’t we be doing something to make sure class divisions don’t deepen and fester? Like, make sure wages, even for relatively low-skill manual labor, are high enough to allow a semblance of a middle class existence? If you believe that low IQs are partly caused by growing up poor, then isn’t a low-wage policy even more pernicious than it would otherwise appear, as it hobbles a substantial portion of the next generation as well? Wouldn’t a low-wage policy wind up making it seem like Richwine was right after all?
Personally, I’m in favor of relatively liberal labor markets, which generate real aggregate economic benefits. But I’m also not under the illusion that labor has equal bargaining power to capital under either hypothetical laissez-faire conditions or the world we actually live in. And I’m acutely aware of the how good private interests are at promoting policies to privatize profits and socialize costs. Immigration is one of those policies. There are real economic benefits to a more liberal immigration policy. But there are also costs, and those costs ought to be accounted for—and paid for—like any other externality. My personal policy preference—a substantially higher minimum wage and an immigration system that auctioned work visas and green cards—is designed both to make our labor markets freer and less encumbered by bureaucracy and to make sure this doesn’t lead to a negative wage spiral.
Maybe I’m wrong about that policy mix. But starting from the proposition that low wages are a bad thing is immensely clarifying. I wish more voices on the left would bring that clarity to bear when they discuss immigration.
To balance out the topic of the last post, I thought I’d say a word about consent.
Tonight is the beginning of Shavuot, or Pentecost, the celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (and also the second of three harvest festivals). I don’t plan on doing much to celebrate this year, but I’ve done more in years past, when I was more religious, and picked up a tidbit or two from study sessions along the way. Here’s a favorite bit of mine.
Among the various embellishing accounts in the midrash regarding the events at Sinai are two radically opposed views of just how Israel received the Torah. Radically opposed – but with a key element in common.
First, when Israel received the Torah, they accept it by saying, na’aseh v’nishmah – “we will do, and we will hear.” How is it possible to do first and hear later? This is glossed by saying: the Torah was actually offered multiple times, to multiple peoples, and all rejected it because they found something in it that they objected to. Israel, by contrast, answered, “we will do and we will hear” – that is to say, we accept it without actually knowing (or understanding) what is in it. Acceptance was a leap of faith, not a contract.
The second midrash says almost the exact opposite. At the same point, the people of Israel are described as being camped tachat hahar – “under the mountain.” How could they have been “under” the mountain – surely they were camped beside it. Nope, goes the midrashic gloss. What happened was, Israel did not want to accept the yoke of the law. So God lifted the mountain and suspended it over the people, and a voice boomed out: accept the law, or this mountain will be your grave. So, faced with death, the people accepted.
In one account, the people accepted a binding covenant without reading it. In the other account, the people were coerced into a binding covenant. In neither reading, though, are we dealing with informed consent.
Which makes sense to me. My God is the God of reality. And you don’t make deals with reality; you just deal with it. I don’t always get along with God – these days, I am much less-interested in winning His favor. But I don’t go in much for raging against Him either, any more than I go in for raging against the ocean’s tides.
I’m going to have to think about my reaction a bit more, since people I deeply respect came away with a very different emotional response to the piece. But let me make a couple of clarifications.
First, why was I coy about the activities described in the Witt piece? Because I couldn’t think of a way of describing them that would be acceptable in this space, and merely alluding to them as “sludge” or “filth” would be doing exactly what I didn’t want to do. But I suspect Alan is right that this coyness made my argument seem more plausible than it might otherwise have seemed.
Second, would I attend such a thing? I hope not. I don’t think I could stand it. And I don’t want to be able to stand it. It’s not a goal of mine to plumb those particular depths.
But I suspect I could stand looking at images of those goings on (though I don’t think I would be aroused by them). I certainly could stand reading about them – I did. And that was precisely my point about mediated experience. The activities described are financed by the marketing of those images, but the images are not the thing itself. And neither is an article’s description. And in this case, I strongly suspect, a great deal of psychological and cultural significance is going on in that particular gap.
Third, what did I mean by “pretty civilized” behavior? Am I reducing civilization to consent? No – but I may be reducing it to rituals of courtesy, with which the scene that Emily Witt described was replete. Assuming she was describing it accurately, it sounded like a strange and (to me) unappealing culture, rather than an attempt to repudiate civilization. Of course, she may be describing it inaccurately – or I may be reading her wrong. Or my definition of civilization may be wrong. I am open to all possibilities.
Finally: why didn’t I judge the scene itself as morally horrifying? Because I just wasn’t interested in that question. How interesting is it for anyone to hear that I don’t like the ritual degradation of women – even women who (again, assuming the article is accurate) have enthusiastically signed up (not merely consented) for the experience? And what else, really, is communicated by my saying “shame, shame”?
There’s a titillating quality to these ritual condemnations that I distrust almost as much as I distrust the pornographic impulse in art. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
I was interested in Emily Witt after reading her piece. Interested to talk to her. Interested to understand why she felt – this is what I got, in part, from her piece – kind of guilty about not really being on the life-is-to-accumulate-experiences-the-more-the-better train, not being able to articulate what other trains might be. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to condemn that particular train in order to talk about what life is like on a different train, or to note that most people quite sensibly prefer to ride different trains than that one. I did not feel pity for her; I felt compassion.
I had started writing something about this (to me) fascinating (and extremely graphic) n+1 piece about San Francisco, extreme pornography, the wealthy (in monetary and information markets terms) world of Google, and a whole bunch else. But then Rod Dreher beat me to the punch again.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I came away from reading the piece with a very different reaction from Dreher’s. Dreher summarizes the moral of the piece as follows: “Unlimited money + unlimited freedom = Hell — created not by God, but by humans.” But it seems to me that that’s a moral he could have written without ever reading the piece. What I don’t know, from reading his commentary on the piece, is how the experience of reading it changed him.
Because it’s quite an intimate piece. Emily Witt isn’t a detached observer. She doesn’t just describe what she saw (though she does that, very well), but what she experienced, and how it made her reflect on other aspects of her experience – and not only her sexual experience. In that important sense, it isn’t a pornographic piece. It isn’t designed to provoke a reaction – whether of sexual excitement or, as in Dreher’s case, righteous anger. It’s designed to bring us into her experience, and reflect on it with her.
The moral she draws, it seems to me, is much subtler, and more interesting:
It’s tempting to think that life before internet porn was less complicated. There are sexual acts in porn that it would not occur to many people to attempt. We have more expectations now about what kind of sex to have, and how many people should be involved, and what to say, and what our bodies should look like, than we might have at a time when less imagery of sex was available to us. But if the panoply of opportunity depicted in porn seems exaggerated, the possibilities are no less vast outside the internet. The only sexual expectation left to conform to is that love will guide us toward the life we want to live.
What if love fails us? Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
Emphasis mine. I’ve read Dreher’s wonderful and moving book, so I know he knows something about being unable to conform to an idea, and how bad that failure can make you feel. He also knows something about adopting a new idea as an alternative basis to conform to, and how bad it makes you feel when you are failed again by that idea. The problem just might lie in trying to conform your life to an idea, whether that idea is one of life as a relentless experimental journey or of living according to the dictates of an authoritative tradition. And, frankly, I have a hard time believing he really feels that he, personally, suffered from too much freedom to be who he really is.
And yet, he had a visceral reaction to a bunch of freaky Friscans flying their freak flag. Why? What’s his stake?
The answer, I think, lies in the earlier portions of Witt’s two paragraph peroration. The truly suspect position is not that of participant in this kind of event – indeed, if you read Witt’s essay, you’ll see that the participants, including those in the audience, all appear to be behaving in pretty civilized ways. The suspect position is our position, viewing safely from a distance, watching the pornographic video whose existence of makes this activity financially possible.
What’s our stake? The mere existence of these objects for consumption forces us to react – to affirm or oppose, accept or deny, look towards or look away. Of course, that’s the nature of community, and human beings are social animals – we don’t really exist, as humans, outside of a community. So it’s hard to object simply on the grounds that we don’t want to have to deal with what we don’t want to have to deal with. But we do not exist in communion with people we watch. There’s a one-way mirror in between us and them.
This is true of any mediated experience. When it aspires to art, mediated work takes us into its world. We don’t consume it; it consumes us, and after the fact we can reflect on an experience we’ve had, in a kind of fantasy. That’s what losing it at the movies is all about. Pornography goes the other direction, away from art. It is designed to move us to action – not to invite us into an experience, but to cause us to do. That’s why I talk about jihadi websites as being essentially pornographic – their purpose is to incite violence, just as the purpose of pornography is to incite sexual release.
The people attending (and, at the margins, participating in) Kink’s extreme pornographic shoot are, in a sense, participating in a much more extreme version of the kind of immersive theatre that I really appreciate. Everyone there was implicated by his or her presence. And you can see the effect of that presence in the tender details that abound in Witt’s description of the event. The participants could not deny that they were present, could not give vent to actual sociopathy because they were in a social space, with other human beings. None of that is part of the porn-viewer’s experience. The porn viewer is “free” of what makes him most essentially human – his communion with other human beings. And porn – inasmuch as it is porn (because nothing in life is all one thing or another) – is designed to exacerbate and deepen that isolation. Which in turn feeds the demand for more of the same mediated “experience.”
Lurking behind Emily Witt’s complaint that there is nothing “left” to conform to but that love will be her guide to happiness is a kind of status competition – am I living enough of a life, a life I can brag about. I am very, very familiar with that kind of status anxiety, and like pretty much all other forms of status anxiety – about wealth, or social position, or, for that matter, religiosity (pay a visit to Borough Park some time to see that one in action) – it’s toxic. And when she talks about porn, what she notes is the same dynamic – a kind of status anxiety triggered by the knowledge that someone out there is living a more exotic sexual life. But why surrender to that anxiety? Why even take it as a given?
When Witt says that love “failed” her, because she didn’t ultimately learn what she desired, I thought to myself: were you really looking for that? That is to say, were you really trying to find out what mattered to you? How you wanted to live? Or were you nagging yourself with the question: shouldn’t I want something different? And if so, why? Are we really prepared to blame pornography for a failure to know ourselves? Who is responsible for consuming whom?
The desire to conform to social expectations is built pretty deeply into human nature, because we are social animals, and no doubt wouldn’t function well as armed groups without a strong instinct to fit in. But in the internet age, that desire is dangerous, and needs to be interrogated. Now, not being ourselves, not knowing ourselves well enough to be ourselves, is dangerous. It’s not just that there is a massive media edifice out there, of which pornography is only a part, determined to convince us that we are not happy being ourselves, and showing us alternative selves that, if we only did what that edifice wants, we could become, and thus be happier. It’s that all the more or less happy freaks now have their own corners of the edifice, where they can replicate the same alienating dynamic. And as more and more of our waking hours are consumed by mediated experience, more of our psyche is subjected to this alienating dynamic. Even if Princess Donna says, as I suspect she would, that what she is doing is so much more authentic, ethical, and artistic than what porn was, say, thirty years ago, her industry’s mind-share is so much larger than it was then that the ways in which it remains alienating matter more.
Those who have made the most of freedom for themselves may find themselves in the business of cage-construction. Because it’s the only way left to make a living.
UPDATE: I should be clear that the above reflects my reactions to the article, not to participating in the kind of extreme sexual “event” described, which is nothing I’ve ever done, nor plan to do. It’s possible that my reaction to actually being there would be wildly divergent from what Ms. Witt experienced. But I guess that’s part of my point: were I to put myself in that position, which I don’t plan to do, I couldn’t avoid having a direct, unmediated experience. Watching a video, or reading Ms. Witt’s article, isn’t at all the same thing, and though Ms. Witt’s article was, to my mind, not essentially pornographic, that’s because it allowed me to enter into the experience of Ms. Witt’s mind, not because it allowed me to enter the experience of being in that San Francisco dungeon with her.
I am planning to visit San Francisco next month, though. I’ll let you know whether I see any brimstone falling from the sky.
As soon as men and women … acquire the habit of weighing the individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action—or, as we might also put it, as soon as they introduce into their private life a sort of inarticulate system of cost accounting—they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting the cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be economic assets.
This is unquestionably correct – but so what? Good china isn’t an economic asset either, but people buy it. Neither is that vacation home – for which you sacrificed a great deal of money to buy, and now have to spend time and money to maintain, and have to drive through traffic to get to, etc. Talk about personal sacrifices!
The conventional wisdom now is that experiences, rather than assets, are what give us the most satisfaction. And experiences are entirely ephemeral – they depreciate to zero immediately. Well, children provide a wealth of experiences – and they don’t depreciate anything like as fast as a skydiving adventure. So why aren’t they exceptionally rational investments, from a utilitarian perspective?
Silas Marner, before the little blonde girl shows up, was certainly maximizing something with his hoard of gold under the floor boards, but he wasn’t maximizing utiles.
Most people in developed societies want children. Most people want more children than they feel they can afford. They are not reluctant to make very substantial personal sacrifices – but most are status-conscious and reluctant to risk downward mobility.
And there’s little evidence that modern societies with “thicker” family bonds have higher fertility rates than those within more attenuated bonds. Indeed, the most recent evidence goes the opposite way. Remember that chart of European family structures? The weakest family ties were the “absolute nuclear” families, where new couples leave home to found their own homesteads and primogeniture undermines filial piety. That would, on the surface, appear to be the family structure least-oriented towards treating children as economic assets – workers in a family business, for example – and it predominates in England, Denmark, southern Sweden and the Netherlands. By contrast, the other family types – “stem,” “incomplete stem,” and “egalitarian nuclear” – that dominate elsewhere in Europe create stronger economic bonds between the generations.
So: how does total fertility vary across European countries?
Either the relationship is the opposite of what the Schumpeter quote would suggest, or some other factor overwhelmingly predominates.
By the way, if you look beyond Europe you see:
None of these are countries with weak family ties. Iran’s government actively enforces traditional religiosity. South Korea has a fierce Confucian tradition of filial piety. But they both have below-replacement fertility.
These countries have different predominant religions and different predominant ethnic groups, but they are all less-urban and less-economically-developed than the prior group of countries, and have not made a similar commitment to promoting family planning.
The overwhelming drivers of female fertility are urbanization and female literacy. Urbanization makes children more expensive. And literate women exercise more control over their fertility. Once you’ve made the transition to a modern, predominantly urban, literate society, the key variables that affect how many children women have relate to expense: the cost of housing, the cost of childcare, the cost of education. Make those cheaper, and fertility goes up – to a point. Make them more expensive, and fertility goes down – even way down. France, a European country where medieval family type varied by region, has one of the highest fertility rates in Europe – 2.08 children/woman. They’ve also got a longstanding pro-natalist bent to government policy.
And, by the way, this was true in medieval days as well. Age of first marriage went up and down with economic conditions – because there was no other reliable way to control fertility except to remain unmarried. Back purportedly before people weighed “individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action” parents were very concerned to make sure that a prospective husband could provide for his bride before they would agree to a match.
I think the mistake is in assuming that modern people don’t engage in a true process of self-creation – that all they do is shop. No, children aren’t free farm hands anymore. And yes, if that means children are now a consumer good, then they are a pretty risky consumer good to take on. They’re hugely expensive, there’s no quality control, and you can’t even sell them at a loss if you don’t like how they turn out, the way you can with a vacation home.
But if raising children is more like tending a garden, or learning to play the oboe, only much more demanding and much more rewarding, then I don’t see why there’s any reason to assume a rational individualist would decide to be childless. Unless that particular individual specifically didn’t want children. And most of us, several generations into modernity, still do.