Saturday, July 21, 2018

Family Values

A significant majority both on the right and the left believe in the importance of family in the life of all Americans but especially in the life of children. Those on the right may be more vocal about that and put forward a different definition on the family than that offered on the left. But all value the family as they understand it.
But the word “family” of course refers to a wide range of relationships. My grandfather remained a bachelor until age 50, when he returned to his hometown and married a schoolteacher. With her he had two children but for the rest continued his life as before. He spent his days at the chess club or in the library where he read history voraciously. His role in the family was benign but distant. His wife no longer needed to teach schoolchildren. Instead she was now in charge of the household, supervising a cook, and two maids, and the children’s nanny.
For my grandparents, family was a sexual and economic arrangement. My grandfather supported an affluent bourgeois household. When necessary he helped one or the other of his five brothers or their children. Family imposes obligations or allows one to ask for help. The permissions or obligations extended only to persons of the same ancestry.
In other families intimacy is more central than the obligations of mutual aid. In different settings intimacy has different meanings. Often shared work is at the heart of it. Families run a farm together or a business in the city. A father sells cars or installs electrical networks. As the business expands, sons and daughters join the firm as well as cousins and nephews. Being together almost daily, having many joined interests and concerns that need discussing, family members get to know each other intimately and learn to live well together.
My parents understood family intimacy to mean that some matters would only be talked about within the family. Sharing secrets with outsiders was a serious breach of family loyalty. Family intimacy often means that members, very familiar with one another, find other family members when they need comfort or advice or when they need help to think through difficult decisions. Family members may help each other raise their children. There have been, and still are, cultures where teens live with relatives to learn how to live a decent life and perhaps to learn a trade. Families care for each other's children. They also care for the common ancestors when they get frail in old age. Families know each other's history intimately. They use the lives of their relatives as models to imitate or perhaps as lessons of what to avoid doing.
It is interesting but quite distressing to see how family of the second type is becoming progressively more rare. This became very obvious to me on a recent trip to Latin America. In times of economic crisis, significant numbers of mostly younger people emigrate in order to find a livelihood outside their own country. Families that have lived in close proximity for generations are now scattered widely over the globe. Oceans separate family members. They may return for extended visits every few years. But they have now made lives for themselves in other countries. They have close friends unknown to their family; some of them may well be substitute families. The intimacy that close and almost daily contact had bred before is no longer there. Family members become estranged from each other. Family relations become much more distant. The importance of the family slowly fades. The emigrants’ children may speak a different language and have difficulties communicating with their grandparents when they return to Latin America.
Instead of celebrating graduations, weddings and childbirth together, families are in touch on social media and exchange photos on Instagram. The previous intimacy bred in frequent and extended contacts is no longer available. People keep track of each other. Grandparents have pictures of grandchildren but do not know them as they would have before when they were in and out of their house almost daily. The meaning of family is altered irretrievably. The loud insistence on the value of the family is a thinly veiled lament over its disappearance (when it is not an attack on LGBQT persons).
Nor are these phenomena limited to the developing world where migrants try to escape poverty and political turmoil, often sponsored by some US government agency. Few families remain in place in our country. Children often live at great distances from their parents. They escape the country and smaller towns to live in big cities that are “cool”--where is a lot going on. Grandchildren rarely see their grandparents. Grandparents are not involved in the growth and development of their grand children. Text and email replace this family intimacy. Images take place of living presence.
Family values are progressively more imagined than real. In politics they become a stick to beat those who live marginal lives or offend celibate men. In our social life, family values are disappearing mourned by denial.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Conversations about politics

One of my instructors in college, soon after the end of World War II, insisted that if the US government had wanted to establish concentration camps, it would not have had difficulties finding guards. In every nation, he insisted, one could find people given to violence and brutality to match the guards in German concentration camps.
The separation of babies, infants and children from their parents as they come across the border with Mexico, reminds me of these conversations in college. It appears that there is no shortage of border guards who are willing to take children from their parents. According to one story a nursing baby was taken from its mother's breast. The President has succeeded in persuading enough people of the evils of unlawful immigration to dispose over an adequate force of men and women ready to detain those immigrants and to split up their families.
How can we deal with these fellow citizens who loyally execute presidential policies that a majority of Americans regard as repugnant and inconsistent with our values?
Democrats are rallying to take back majorities in the House and the Senate by making sure that everyone on their side will actually go and vote this November. That is clearly a good policy but, by itself, it is incomplete. If they succeed and House and Senate will once again have democratic majorities, the quarter or a third of our population that is persuaded that their economic problems are to be blamed on illegal immigration, on Muslims, and other people from abroad will, once again, not have effective political representation. But they will remain where they are, waiting for another electoral cycle when they, once more, will have significant political power. Conservatives currently force their vision on liberals and progressives. If the Left wins the upcoming elections, they will be in a position to force their views on the Right. But the conflict will remain unresolved. The democracy we aspire to in which all the people govern themselves together will remain as remote as ever.
If we are to strengthen the democratic aspects of our society, we need to reduce the extent to which opponents coerce each other. Besides changing the majorities in Congress, we need to talk to our fellow citizens whom Trump inflames with his rhetoric. But how will we talk to them? Can we persuade them that they are wrong and we are right?
Conversations about political disagreements, for instance about immigration usually begin as attempts of each side to convince their opponents that they are mistaken, that what they regard as facts are actual errors, that their inferences are faulty, and their values questionable. But soon these attempts at mutual persuasion degenerate into shouting matches. Emotions rise, mutual understanding fails completely.
We tend to blame this failure of conversations about politics on the irrationality of our opponents. Instead of listening carefully to our arguments, examining our evidence and trying to pinpoint agreements and disagreements, they reject out of hand what we have to say. Irrationality manifests itself as unwillingness to listen carefully and respectfully. Rationality involves respect of the opponent in all but the most extreme cases. A necessary precondition of serious conversations between political enemies is mutual respect. We cannot talk to each other if we secretly believe the other side to be stupid, misinformed, brainwashed by propaganda. Any sort of political conversation that might actually be useful presupposes that each side is willing to recognize the other side as an equal partner in the conversation, as a partner to learn from and not merely as a benighted ignoramus to be an enlightened by our superior understanding.
But this form of irrationality is not the exclusive characteristic of conservatives. Leftists and progressives too often fail to listen with care and respect to their conservative opponents. Both sides to political controversy need to make, often difficult, efforts to listen and respond respectfully to their opponents.
You cannot have that kind of mutually respectful conversation with everybody. Some opponents may be too rigid or, yes, too unintelligent to be able to participate. Some are unable or unwilling to manage their strong commitments to a specific political stance. But there are enough people one could have a useful conversation with if only one tried.
Many families have members on either side of this political divide. If family members do not get along, have never gotten along, have always secretly despised each other, a useful political dialogue is not in their future. But there also are family members who sort of like each other except for their very different political orientation.
These are the people that should give each other the benefit of the doubt and explore quietly their differences as well as their shared values in order to discover why they have such different assessments of the President's agenda. Here is a chance for each to learn something, to broaden their understanding of one another and perhaps even to learn from each other.
Similarly, friends and acquaintances, co-workers are in relationships that allow for possibly enlightening conversations. Rarely will they persuade each other to give up cherished political principles. But instead of remaining completely at loggerheads, unable to understand each other or to have informative conversations, they may find enough agreements to engage in joint actions. Even though they continue to differ in deep ways, they can resolve disagreements sufficiently to act in concert.
As long as each party to current political divides insists that they are right and their opponents incompetent, bumbling, and mistaken our political system will oscillate between "progressive" and conservative majorities coercing their opponents. When each is in power they will force the others to follow their policies. Cooperation will be rare and insignificant.
Cooperation is possible only among groups that manage to have useful conversations and those are possible only when each party is genuinely willing to listen to the other and is prepared to change its mind, to appreciate the insights of the opponent in order to forge some kind of, however limited, consensus. The determination of each side to shoe the other side the error of its ways, instead of being of the essence of rationality, makes rational conversation impossible.
For that to happen both sides need to speak to each other respectfully.