Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Dinosaur Perspective

This latest entry requires a bit of setup because it began as a dialogue across the divide between conservatives and liberals. I discovered, on a "right-wing" website, a link to Pussification, a deliberately outrageous satirical essay by one Kim du Toit (kimdutoit.com), who delights in playing the unreconstructed male chauvinist gun nut. I found the piece funny, sharp and, in the way of good satire, incisively true in many essentials. Du Toit had also created a link to an extended dissenting opinion at a website called Philosoraptor (philosoraptor.blogspot.com). I read this essay as well and had a mixed reaction to it. The prose resonated with the usual liberal tone of superiority, and much of the argument marched down the predictable dogmatic path of secular egalitarian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I sensed here and there an intent, an aspiration even, to be fair and even-handed: Philosoraptor went so far as to allow that du Toit's argument included elements that in less 'neanderthal' hands might be worthy of further thought. I also suspected that the attempt at even-handedness was being undermined by youth, naivete, or both. For example, he began his argument thus:

"I’m torn about Kim du Toit’s essay about, as I’ll put it, avoiding his gratuitous crudity, the wimpification of the Western male. I’m inclined to ignore it, since it’s unlikely that anyone who found the essay insightful will listen to anything I have to say about it; but du Toit is full of shit, and that, combined with the apparent popularity of the essay on the right wing of the web makes it hard to ignore. I’m torn about it also because… I do think that the threat of wimpification is worth discussing. That’s why it’s too bad that du Toit’s essay is such a piece of crap--the wimpification point gets lost in a torrent of bigotry, falsehoods, and right-wing fantasies."

I thought it laudable that he would consider up front the possibility that "wimpification is worth discussing." I thought it very X-gen that he would haughtily shrink from the word "pussification" and then use the word "shit" in the very next sentence. As he proceeded with his extended denunciation of anti-feminist reaction, I also found myself doing a double-take at a few of his assumptions:

"Conservatism is currently the Colossus of American politics. Extremist conservatives control the Presidency and both houses of Congress, and conservatives exercise virtually unchallenged control of the political agenda… Never in my lifetime has one end of the political spectrum so dominated American public life."

Let's see: the last time one party held the presidency and both houses of Congress was… 1992? And then there was this:

"Here’s another textbook fallacy (note: sounds like “phallus,” but means something different. And, although I know you think that using a phallus makes you smart, using a fallacy does the opposite.) This fallacy is called the “post hoc fallacy” from post hoc ergo propter hoc. That’s Latin, which is an old language that smart people used to use. It means after this, therefore because of this. See, what you are saying is that government got bad after we foolishly started treating women as if they were human beings, letting them vote and suchlike. So, since it happened after women got the vote, it must have been women’s voting that caused it. Textbook fallacy. Oops...I meant: textbook fallacy, dumbass. First, government has probably gotten less intrusive since women got the vote. The government has, since then, become less likely to interfere with sex acts between adults, abortion, and contraceptive use. It was, until recently, less likely to tell us what we could and couldn’t read. But, far more importantly, the country has become far more just and fair since women got the vote—think about the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the early ‘60’s. Since these were passed after women got the vote, should women get the credit for them? You know, men did have al little something to do with ‘em. Especially Lyndon Johnson. You should like Johnson—he’s a little like W. He’s from Texas, and he lied to get us into a war. But he cared about civil rights, so he's different, too."

Government less intrusive since 1920? (Time out for head scratching.) I was convinced I was reading the work of a youngster, and so, looking past the actual subject of his diatribe, I sent Philosoraptor an email in which I suggested that his perceptions were distorted by ignorance attributable to his youth. I was somewhat patronizing but not hostile. I suggested that he suspend his automatic assumption of superiority over dinosaurs such as Du Toit and (by implication) me.

I promptly received a courteous reply from Philosoraptor. He told me I was mistaken in my assessment of his youth. He told me he was 40 years old. (More head scratching.) He shared some particulars of his background and upbringing. He reemphasized his scorn for du Toit but conceded he might have been wrong in his assertions about a trend toward less intrusive government. He also allowed that there were extremists at both ends of the political spectrum but opined that the extreme left had been effectively marginalized, while the extreme right had contrived to capture the center of political debate. He thanked me for writing.

Thereupon, I was moved to write the following:

Dear Philosoraptor,

I grant that 40 isn't a kid anymore, and I was initially surprised when you clocked in at that age, but it has caused me to rediscover an idea I've considered in the past. I am 50, older than you but only moderately so in chronological terms. Yet the idea I'll share with you is that the particular ten years of difference between us amount to a whole world of experience and perspective that is critically important.

I am not insulting the character of your youth and upbringing. I accept that they are as you say they are. Why, then, do you still strike me as naïve? For example, your email statement that the far right is now taking over the center, while the far left is marginalized sounds to me, well, ludicrous. Why?

The ten years I have over you takes in the American culture and politics of the late 1950s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the mounting protests against the Vietnam War, the sudden arrival of drugs, the semi-revolutionary generation gap between teenagers and parents, SDS, the Black Panthers, the RFK/MLK assassinations, feminism, Woodstock, Altamont, Kent State, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Watergate. Granted, you were also alive during some of this, but you were not witness to the extraordinary transformation of the country that happened in this short period of time, and you cannot know with real emotional conviction the "before" that gave way to the "after" we have all inherited.

Before the transformation, liberal Democrats were JFK and LBJ. They differed from conservatives in believing that government should be more activist in trying to ameliorate inequities in the population. They wanted bigger government, more federal controls of business, more federal law in areas such as civil rights. Republicans wanted less of all these things. Both Democrats and Republicans were united in their defense of the nation against foreign threats. Democrats wanted, perhaps, to spend less on defense, not because they wanted to undermine the military, but because they wanted more to spend on social programs.

It is popular now to regard the "before" era as a repressive, stultified dark age. For some percentage of the population, every age is a dark age. In every age, some constituencies suffer more injustices than others. This does not mean that every age is inherently without value and virtue. So it is with the "before" I remember that you cannot.

In the context of that time, your assertion that the far right has occupied the center is absurd. What happened in the 1960s was that the entire nation lurched, or was hijacked, left. What used to be a leftism so secret that it often accompanied membership in the Communist Party became the accepted left wing of the Democratic Party, which re-engineered the party's nominating process so that Democrats strong on national defense could never again be nominated. The influence of this part of the Democratic Party combined their reflexive responses to Vietnam and Watergate into a permanent hostility to the use of American military power overseas and to the executive branch, especially in matters of foreign policy and especially when Republicans held office.

In the "before" era, the current posture of the Democratic presidential candidates toward the president and his foreign policy would have been unthinkable. Harry Truman faced at least as difficult a situation in Korea as George Bush does now, with far fewer immediate national security issues at stake, and while he faced political opposition to his war policy, he was not accused of lying, cronyism, imperialism, self-aggrandizement, and fraud. JFK brought us so close to nuclear war that I can still remember days of direct, continuous cold fear, but in the aftermath, no one sought to turn his government inside out for the purpose of ridiculing his decision making and his honesty. I know you are itching to leap in here with your current events expertise to make the usual liberal case for why all these charges are true, but bear with me for a moment. Regardless of what merit you believe your case holds, what you cannot see is that the whole context in which it is socially acceptable to hate George Bush with the open venom you (or your colleagues, if I'm being presumptuous about you) display is a function of "after" -- after Vietnam, after Watergate. These events gave the permission for the politics of personal destruction, a kind of total war that could bring down even the President of the United States. That's right. It didn't start with Nixon. Or with Clinton. It started with demonstrators outside the White House in 1966: "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?"

You can argue all you want that it's better now, that the transformation was justified. I will contend that it wasn't, while allowing for opposing views. What I insist on is that much that was good has been lost. My father loathed JFK; during that president's term in office my father spent almost half his time overseas on business. And when he was on foreign soil, he refused ever to say a word against Kennedy or the policy of the U.S. government. Neither did his fellow Americans.

Many rank-and-file Republicans were bitterly disappointed that Nixon refused to contest what appeared to be flagrant voting irregularities in Mayor Daley's Chicago, which represented the county that gave JFK Illinois and the election. Nixon refused to turn the presidential election into a partisan legal battle because of the dangerous precedent it would set. Before. Politics at both the citizen and candidate level had some standards of decorum.

Other things have been lost as well, notably quality of life for the overwhelming majority of Americans. In the 1970s, this country embarked on the most radical social experiment ever attempted by a human society, without even allowing itself to recognize that it was an experiment. I'm referring to feminism. Five thousand years of accumulated traditions and roles were almost immediately junked. If you never knew the "before" it's easy to see why all this seems like it must represent all that is best in humanity -- justice, freedom, equality, and so on. Yet it also seems that no one is counting the cost. The divorce rate has skyrocketed, illegitimate births have risen to astonishing levels, juvenile encounters with drugs, crime, and sex have moved from virtually nonexistent to epidemic, educational achievement has plummeted to near ruin, and a new statistic called "abortions per year" was developed, computed into the millions, and then banished from the pages of the almanac because we don't like counting it anymore. Do women at least seem happier to those of us who remember the "before"? No. They don't seem happier. Their marriages crumble, the new equality deprives them of the protections they used to enjoy in the event of divorce, their children are too often unsupervised, too often kidnapped by their unsupervised peers into addiction, sexual promiscuity, and premature cynicism. Further, women feel obligated to pursue careers that turn out to be -- surprise! -- tedious, stressful, wearying, and debasing (whether in the factory or the boardroom, the "Company's" most universal motive is debasement). They abandon age-old protections of dress, behavior, and speech, and -- surprise! -- they pay for it with date rape, violent assaults, the need for abortions, and worse.

And for some of us "before" dinosaurs, these kinds of unintended consequences aren't even the worst ones. What we failed to take into account in our unacknowledged experiment was the real socio-political role the nuclear family played in the culture -- in every culture above the hunter-gatherer level known to recorded history. The few years a child has in the home with its mother and father before reaching serious school age, 6 or 7, is the only time when the goodness latent in that child can be developed without countervailing influences from institutional culture. It's a brief window during which parents can instill curiosity, manners, awareness of right and wrong, the meaning of responsibility, altruism, and honesty.

We have failed to understand that every organization in which we become members, all our lives, will exert amoral pressures that benefit the organization and work, directly or indirectly, to mold the identity of a person into a shape different from its initial individuality and humanity. That we have good and virtuous people who are ever proof against corruption, seduction, and greed is a function of what happens in those first six or seven years of life.

Now, we have enticed mother out of the house, away from her children (and please don't preach to me about economic necessity: there is absolutely no need for the exorbitant number of parentless households we now tolerate), and we have attempted to plug the ugly holes in the fundament of our culture with -- what else? -- new, more intrusive institutions of government, which reach deeply into that once private preserve of the home to monitor the children's welfare and begin the process of absorbing them into institutional identities at an earlier age than any society has ever attempted.

Perhaps the change in the children is not sinister or even detectable if you weren't there before. A close friend of mine has spent the last six years living in a household with a contemporary American teenager of good reputation and recognized academic and personal merit. He told me in a recent letter, "I have no doubt she has been trained so well in accordance with the accepted standards that if she chanced to become a junior executive, fresh out of B-school, with the Final Solution Corporation, she'd have no trouble managing the day-to-day schedules and operations reports of the divisional crematory. As long as she didn't have to work too much overtime and could phone in sick pretty often after an all-nighter with her current boyfriend."

Some of us, including "bigoted idiots" like du Toit, can't help remembering ladies. They were our mothers and grandmothers, our friends' mothers and grandmothers, and they had no idea they were prisoners of a vicious sexist culture. They knew how to smile, how to make strangers and shy ones feel welcome, they knew how to dress up for a party, how to dance to ballroom music, how to practice countless skills that made houses into cheery homes, and we loved them. In every possible way they exemplified the essential human virtues and mediated their children's vulnerability through their own. They were playing a life-and-death role, especially in those first six years, and one that fathers couldn't play because their role back then was different. Fathers weren't second-string mommies, always playing catch-up on the sensitivities not born into men. They were, when all was said and done, judges -- the ones charged with preparing the children to be strong against the institutional temptations and corruptions that were coming after the time of safe haven was over. Their job was not to be taken in the way mother could be by an artful grin or pleading. Their job was to say no, to describe the consequences, to levy the punishment so that the lesson would be learned in the home, not in the dangerous realms of the outside world.

"Before" there were fathers and mothers. "After" we have "deadbeat dads" and a plethora of lawyers, doctors, journalists, executives, and bureaucrats, all with ticking biological clocks and an enduring confusion about the difference between home and government. If they can't be in the home, then they want the world as a whole made as safe as a home. They want more laws, more protections, more services. They beg the government to come deeper into the home, inside the car, into the chemistry of their children's brains. Your post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis is dead wrong. The women's vote has played a pivotal role in the rise of nanny government precisely because they're always looking back in the direction of a home that is no longer what it was.

And as I've said, you're perfectly welcome to prefer the "after" to the "before." It is just that the certitude you display about your preference for what has been a very recent drastic change is as shallow as it is rigid. The so-called return of the right-wing has not rolled back the clock in any material way in any part of the culture. GW Bush is proposing and signing levels of entitlement spending that would have made him a leftwing Democrat "before," and in his domestic policies generally he can only be called conservative by a contemporary leftist. Your apparent blindness to these contradictions in terms is what makes you seem naïve. And to some of us, probably, you also seem presumptuous in your automatic assumptions about the world reactionaries would like to have back, at least in part.

Doctors made housecalls. People who went out to dinner at nice restaurants dressed up for the occasion. Fathers were as stern about the importance of being a "gentleman" as they were about the importance of being a man. To hit a girl or to swear in public was not just wrong. It shamed you.

Shame was apparently a function of class oppression, because now there is no shame. Why did so many of us rightwingers hate Clinton so much? Because he was obviously no gentleman, and the president should always be a gentleman (or a lady). Then he proved it and shamed the nation before the whole world. What did we rightwingers really want to happen with the Lewinski scandal? What we couldn't ever have. We wanted him to resign because that would have been the right and gracious thing to do. A fanciful archaic throwback of a notion? Maybe. But if Clinton had resigned, then perhaps President Gore might have focused more national attention on a certain piece of violent Arab street trash and prevented a few thousand deaths.

Funny how being a gentleman can sometimes also be a pragmatic and positive act. If Al Gore had been a gentleman like Nixon (!) before him, he would have disdained to contest the results in Florida. He would still have won his popular vote victory, despite the electoral defeat, and he would have been well positioned, even admired, as a candidate for 2004. (Pause: Compare this scenario with the erratic hide-and-seek irrelevancy Gore has since become.) Meanwhile Bush might have been spared the rancor and bile of the Democrats, and the new "tone" everybody had hoped for might have been achieved. And by the time foreign policy decisions became so horrendously critical, the Democrats might have had a respected advisory role to play. Hell, they might even have played a respectable role. Instead of seething on the sidelines, characterizing every single presidential decision as a new low in corrupt right wing power politics. If a few more of our leaders had behaved like gentlemen, in fact, our foreign policy might be more successful at this very moment.

"Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?" That's our tone. It's been our tone ever since. It was the tone of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. It's the tone of civil rights leaders since the assassination of Martin Luther King (though it wasn't his tone). It was the tone of the Watergate scandal. It was the tone of about 2,000 book-length feminist screeds about men and the unfairness of being born with a uterus. It was the tone of the Reagan haters. It's the tone of both sides of the abortion debate. It was the tone of the Thomas and Bork hearings. It was the tone of the impeachment debate. It was the tone of the 2000 presidential election aftermath. It's the tone now. And some of us are tired of that tone precisely because we remember the time before it was there.

It's the tone of spoiled kids, boys and girls, who are just plain pissed at not getting their way, at not having every obstacle removed from their path by someone else. They should get their way because they're entitled. And we have made that principle the basis of our great secular religion, the religion of "after." Never mind the consequences. Even though the economics is slam-dunk against women in divorce, never mind that. Fire them up about their freedom to throw the bum out if he has an affair. Never mind that she, and her kids, will be paying for his affair forever. And by the way, don't teach the boys about being a gentleman -- even in courtship and marriage -- because that's an elitist term, and if we start talking about gentlemen, then somebody else might be tempted to start talking about ladies, and everyone knows that women have to be free to do whatever in hell they want, regardless, damn the consequences, because that's what equality is all about. And if they want, they can dress like sluts from grade school on, and talk like sluts from grade school on, and act like sluts from grade school on, and do all the drugs that any slut might want to do, and have as many abortions as any slut would want to have,.and marry the first idiot who asks, and divorce him when he cheats, and marry the next one, and maybe do some cheating herself, and have a kid, and divorce the next one, and then set up shop as a bitter single mother who has it on good authority that all men are no-good bums. Now, how about all those government programs she'll need to get by as a single working mother…? And isn't this absolute paradise compared to the days when women weren't free, and men weren't permitted -- by their fathers or each other -- to be total, irresponsible slobs?

In fact it's all working so well that we can try another experiment, and start bringing the boys up to be more like girls, so that they can dress like sluts from grade school on, and talk like sluts from grade school on, and act like sluts from grade school on, and do all the drugs that any slut might want to do, etc etc. After all, the only difference is that girls have sockets and boys have plugs, and they can start connecting to one another (and calling each other slut and ho and bitch) from grade school on, because that's what freedom and self esteem are all about. And look at all the other progress we get with this approach: no more toy guns, double the cologne sales, and a fantastic new growth market in condoms.

Of course it's better. That's how we can be absolutely sure it's okay to sneer at the idiot Republicans who hearken back to the evil racist sexist "before," because we all know what they really miss is being able to use the N-Word on the servants, and commit secret incest with their daughters, and treat their wives like slaves, blah, blah, blah.

And because we also know that it's very very dangerous to allow ourselves to consider, for even a moment, that maybe most women were better suited to the old way, and maybe only a small percentage actually belong out here in the nasty rough-and-tumble, and maybe our kids and all our home lives would be better, happier, if we could admit that the nuclear family is the indispensable foundation stone of an entire civilization, and that dynamiting it away without a single forethought might have been a criminally stupid thing to do.

But no. It's always been this way. For everyone 40 and younger. It's the right way. The conservatives are stupid, bigoted, immoral, and wrong. "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today? Not as many as we're going to kill in the next 50 years…"

Forgive me. Yes, we get heated. That's because we're so stupid. And wrong. And immoral. Maybe you could bear that in mind, and treat us dinosaurs with a little kindness. Like a gentleman.


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