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The Culture Wars – What They Are, What They Aren’t   Okay. If you bring children into the world, you should make your kids your first priority. There’s no real controversy about that. You should stay committed to your spouse until your kids are grown. Again, no real disagreement. The best thing for any child is to be raised by a biological mother and father, committed in marriage. Even that sounds like a good baseline postulate.  -- The cultural war is more about all the other freedoms and psychological priorities that people create as individuals, and what happens as these become public. Personal expressions and behaviors, as they become known, have an effect (at least, sometimes providing major distractions or temptations, as well as economic competition) on people trying to carry out family responsibilities. Private choices tend, over time, to become public. This is a most inconvenient truth, and it may generate the need for new rules and social paradigms.

 -- So what, then, exactly, is the Cultural War?  For one thing, it seems to be a struggle over the boundaries, not just of individualism, but self-ownership and personal autonomy. It is a test, balancing rationalism and logic against faith. The Culture War (another wording!) is not fully appreciated when seen in terms of various narrow issues (like abortion and gay marriage) that lend themselves to deceptive simplification of the real problems at more psychological levels.

  -- At an opposite end (from "objectivism"), the Cultural War deals with the struggle between our biological and psychic natures. How important is biological procreation and family lineage to be, when balanced against aesthetic values of a modern technological culture? The “war” is about the renunciation of complementarity as a moral necessity, and its replacement by more subtle mechanisms of psychological mating and affiliation. The struggle comes about as biology recedes as the main reality that man knows and values (the world of families, land, crops and livestock) and is gradually replaced by culture, aesthetics, art, information, and virtual space.  The gay person faces ostracism, although much less of it in modern western society than in previous generatiosn or poorer communities, because he seems to refuse to ratify the biological meaning of his parents' marriage by continuing the lineage. This idea of biological lineage and continuation of family meaning is so axiomatic that to some people an intellectual discussion of the idea undermines its existence.

   -- This, of course, gets back to what sounds like a trite phrase, “family values,” or the role of the family as a socializing unit of society.  -- In fact, for most people in most of modern history, the biological family provided an important source of personal identity.  This needs to be understood in a couple of contexts. First, the family is seen as a unit that can be helped or harmed, carrying along all of the individual members to the same outcome.  By doing so, the family provided a saftey net and gave "meaning" to its individually "weaker" members.  Notions of abstinence until marriage and gender complementarity tied sexual self-interest to the altruistic aims of the family with respect to its members. But, more important, success in parenting and raising a generation of children was supposedly the one opportunity open to everyone, regardless of economic status or circumstances.  For most of history, society accepted inequality among social classes as something that could not changed and placed emphasis on morally appropriate and generous behavior within the family and local family; even the Gospels reflect this view. High school history texts emphasize this point, that in earlier American society "the family" was a source of morality and kindness, whereas ruthlessly competitive behavior among heads of households in the business world was accepted as a necessary part of capitalism. The universal opportunity offered by family lineage depends on monogamy and faithfulmess, and explains the mathematical objection to polygamy, which would throw a lot of people out as unsuitable "ancestors." The "focus on the family" as a limiting institution meant, therefore, that the nuclear family could quickly, for many people, become a surrogate for hidden self-aggrandizement. Even so, reduction in the cultural value of the nuclear family takes away the one source of identity that many people “have.”

  -- The heterosexual family, then, provided a convenient cover for gross social injustices, including slavery, segregation, various kinds of discrimination. Sometimes it added in to an attitude of tribalism, and, aided by political or (today) religious ideology, would contribute to war or asymmetric violence.  --  Therefore, revolutionaries tried all kinds of systems to deal with these injustices, often replacing one political system (monarchy) with other authoritarian systems (communism, and fascism, both atheistic and religious). In the west, most of all the United States, notions of liberty and democracy would evolve, and yet have to deal with living with a lot of contradictions and inequities.

  -- In the 1960s and 70s, the civil rights movement, followed by feminism and especially the gay rights movements, all gaining credibility from government failures in Vietnam and Watergate, gained traction. At first, the political strategy focused on the idea of suspect classes and disadvantaged groups, but in time the libertarian idea of individual rights and corresponding personal accountabilities became paramount. What began to lose ground, it seemed, was accountability to other people.

 -- Political issues would come up, and be debated narrowly, in a polarized fashion. Abortion, for example, would challenge the sanctity of human life. But what would be forgotten, and what is most relevant to cultural wars, is the sacrifice and commitment required of everyone to protect human life and preserve it. This would become apparent as technology developed to keep people alive longer while birth rates fell.

 -- Family values had provided a paradigm for reconciling individualism with the needs of the group. That is, in order to earn your place in the world as a first class citizen, you had to prove that you could compete to provide for other people, particularly your own flesh and blood, particularly if you were a male. Of course, this did not sit well with a lot of people. Some people can’t “compete” well, and others simply want to define their relationships with others on their own terms, in a more creative fashion. Why isn’t that an individual right? Good question, and over time, into the nineties, psychological freedom became a fundamental right. On the other hand, just having a family by itself doesn't make you grown up; you have to be able to perform to provide for it.

  -- Now, trouble was, for one thing, a lot of people got left behind in this new meritocratic society that places so much emphasis on individual “performance” and even “attractiveness.” People, with the aid of expressive technology, could retreat into their own worlds, apart from socialization. Some families (particularly those not in the top economic tiers) found it harder to raise kids among so much distraction from the family dinner table. Another risk was that all of this freedom seemed to be geared to a technological infrastructure that could be seriously undermined, by terrorists and by mega disasters. Our consumptive lifestyles were risking the stability of the planet. An inconvenient truth. We were in for a “purification,” an event that would throw everyone back to their biological family, like it or not.

--  So we filter down to a basic moral question, about how we will, as individuals, share the responsibilities and sacrifices that it takes to preserve our freedoms. If past is prologue, we have issues. Our notions of individual worthiness have influenced the way we allocate the sacrifices. When we had direct military conscription, in the Vietnam era, we tried to defer married men with kids, and wound up deferring "smart people," creating a lot o f social unrest about the unfairness. The whole idea of social obligation became discreted as we migrated toward less fettered individualism.

  -- An important aspect of the “individualistic age” has been free entry into self-promotion, especially on the Internet, with the help of search engines. Particularly with GLBT people, this comports with a gradual shift from privacy and being left alone (the emphasis in the 1970s) with openness, honesty, and public pride in who one is. The need for openness developed as the community had to deal with the AIDS epidemic starting in the early 1980s.  Particularly in earlier years, there was a tendency for some people to feel threatened by the openness of ‘gay culture,” with its (for men) somewhat boastful and paradoxical upward affiliation. Men who may be struggling to “compete” to raise a family may feel threatened by exposure to knowledge about other value systems and other ways of looking at “masculinity”; these men may feel that they are being watched and “judged.”  Similarly, parents could find themelves having to "protect" their children from ideas promulgated by self-promotion by those not sharing the same level of gender-driven responsibility (this gets back to COPA, above).  "Normal" people should have outgrown their narcissism, and should be able to cover up the intellectual paradoxes implicit in psychosexual maturity with emotion and "faith." It is particularly troubling when someone draws attention to himself in a narcissistic manner (a capability very easy with today's Internet technology) and at the same time acts disinclined to make emotional connections to other people  based on reciprocating real needs and support (most of all in "blood family").

--  But those "permanent adolescents" who made themselves into aesthetic artbiters presented a real drain on those with "responsibilities." In the past few years, the notion that people who draw attention to themselves could present security threats to others around them (especially family, whether chosen or not) has emerged—particularly when we contemplate whether we (as a nation) are really at war since 9/11. While with the Internet we have struggled for the past decade to develop a body of law about what should be objectively legal content (and online behavior), a new perspective has emerged: a person’s suitability for employment can be judged on more subjective terms based on how he (she) presents himself online or how others perceive him online.

  -- If you walk back in time to the 50s, you remember a system where people implicitly understood that their social acceptance as fully mature adults depended upon their marrying and creating families of their own. Many adults did not (childlessness and singlehood were much more common than many people realize), of course, but they were expected to hang around as extra support to relatives actually raising children. Many religious communities tended to develop support mechanisms to help encourage less “competitive” members to find spouses and marry—despite the strong pressures that their societies put on adolescents to conform to social expectations. There was a certain, somewhat hypocritical, double standard. Competitive distractions were to be relaxed to help certain people fit in and conform. There was the “Rudy” solution – dramatized in the 1993 film by that name where an athletically disadvantaged young man is cheered on as he suits up and gets on the football field for just one game during his senior year in college at Notre Dame.

 -- Today, we have a world of low birthrates and an aging population. The demographics can elevate the question, of how the responsibility for caring for people no longer self-sufficient should be shared. But this is just a subcontext of a larger context of sharing “burdens” and collective responsibilities as individuals (rather than blowing them off with taxes and government programs).

  -- We also see a reflection of our cultural issues in our crime problems. It’s easy to attribute young male crime to economic inequalities, gangs, broken homes, past discrimination, and indignation among certain young males about the unfairness of things.  That’s all true. When you look at the variety of crimes committed by older persons – ranging from financial scandals to sexual offenses – you see something else that is really quite disturbing. There is a disconnection from participating meaningfully in meeting the needs of others, or in valuing others outside of a narrow, self-selected range.  (The buzzowrd is something like "psychoseuxal immaturity.") There seem to be basic character failures, leading to failures in performance and in maintaining real connection to others, and a life of a lot of fantasy instead. In some cases, fantasies are carried out. This pattern shows up repeatedly in a number of spectacular law enforcement and court cases that capture the attention of the national media. Ultimately, the individualism of modern culture has allowed a number of people to go through life undetected while they cheat the system. It’s easy to punt and look for religious explanations, but in a pluralistic and secular culture we have to find common, real solutions to these problems, which seem to be increasing in a media and information oriented culture.

  -- All of this suggests a certain strategy for the cultural wars. Personal psychology has changed with technology and civilization, and we can’t expect people to “feel” about family and community the way they did in the past, when these institutions were so easily abused. But we can make people conscious of what the actually do, as they grow up. So we would strengthen some rules. Even people do not have their own children will share some of the “village” responsibility for the next generation, and may share more eldercare responsibility. Every one will learn the adaptive skills required for participation in the care of others. You could call this a “pay your dues” society.

-- Many people of earlier generations grew up with the idea that you (particularly if you were a male) took care of your ancestral family even if you didn't procreate your own. Family responsibility was a given; it didn't come into being just by having children. Notions of abstinence and marriage did reinforce this idea. Deferential family loyalty, in competition to individualistic moral objectivity, was also a given. These social attitudes had grown out of an unstable and unequal society where an "unfair" social order with occasional war and conflict or other collective hardship had to be expected. The individualist could, unintentionally perhaps, put others in his extended family at unknown risk.

 -- One can imagine a public forum where some of the specific "collective responsibility" issues are discussed. These could include military and national service, filial responsibility laws, and the way people enter the public space with their speech. Some attention would have to be given to the effect that free entry publication, in social context, can have on others, and family units might have some publicity rights here. Attention would be given to the sharing of sacrifices to deal with the coming major problems like global warming. But the underlying idea is not just that groups share responsibility, individuals must share it, to an extent not understood today. If all of this were done, issues like gay marriage and gays in the military would not be so polarizing, since they would be tied to the notion of shared responsibility--a concept that recognizes the limits of "rationalism" and of assuming everyone has complete control of their own "moral hazard." (We can't realistically tell everyone to live in an area where there are no natural risks.)

 -- What about the attention to fundamental rights that has commanded so much our attention in struggles over liberty and individual rights? In the late 1990s we are often talking about rights in terms of private choices, to associate in intimate fashion with adults of our choosing. Indeed, individual rights were the ultimate counter to the collective abuses of political power. Yet rights and responsibilities have always cohabited. The past dozen years of so has seen an explosion of self-promotion and self-publication, so the individual private activities of people suddenly seem to have public and at least symbolic or contextual significance. Even in other parts of the world, religious struggles are exacerbated by the “invasion” of individualistic culture, even though these struggles (with Islam) also have a lot to do with foreign and land occupation policies that transcend what an individual does.

-- As someone who is "different," the moral calculus my expressions from my rights becomes a life-defining issue. I realize that many of my goals are expressive and aesthetic rather than "biological" and can invoke a degree of fantasy and even narcissism. There is always a risk of bad judgment and "crossing the line" when there is not enough direct accoutability to other people who may be affected by what I do and express. In extreme outcomes, I can become the "witch" and be perceived as an enemy. Those who are different have the advantage of perspective from a distance and of assymetry, and we wonder why the majority doesn't see that it is admitting failure of personality responsibility when it sees the outsider as the "enemy."  I think that it important to collect, correlate and publish information with objectivity and intellectual honesty, but some can be "harmed" by the process, especially when self-generated, and people ask why I am not more concerned about benefiting specific other people before claiming that I have accomplished something by opening my mouth. Loyalty is a virtue too, and it is at odds with objectivity. A variation of loyalty is relativistic cooperation. Others behave as if they would feel reassured if I would just present myself as a minorty group member and then assert myself as if mine own personal ideas about merit did not matter.  What lies beneath all of this is self-righteousness: a desire to know that one's sacrifices are morally required and can be expected of others.

-- "Equality" is an important word in the political debate, but its meaning is contextual. The practical reality is that, since I did not have family responsibility for most of my adult life, my own cultural interests could be "sacrificed" or take a back burner to those with more responsibility for others--an idea that becomes more important if catastrophic events force more sacrifice from individuals for the benefits of those with the most "legitimate" needs. The contradiction comes in that I was driven away from this responsibility for a few decades. Equality in the ability to take responsibility for others (whether military service or in forming and raising a family) can become a very important part of defending one's own individual liberty and continuing right to make and execute one's own decisions.  "Equality" gets elaborated to mean equal capacity to compete to provide for others; but if so, one needs still to follow one's own path in life in doing so, something that was problematic earlier in my life -- I was driven away from the idea of supporting others. But the underlying "cultural war" concept is not just equality for its own sake, but personal liberty, whatever one's emotional makeup, especially in view of the challenges provided by the needs and perils experienced by others in one's personal environment. The way these risks and hardships are shared, and their effects on socialization -- the capacity to act as one's "brother's keeper", seem to be the centeral cultural war issue. Blood loyalty is related to the sharing of risks because the family is the ultimate safety net, but family loyalty is mediated by the idea of a filial duty to pay back what was done for one as a child; as a moral concern, sharing is much bigger than family loyalty and it certainly impacts individual freedom.

  -- But the most fundamental lesson of all remains to be said. Civilizations survive, and people as individuals succeed, when their basic freedom of choice is respected and honors. But there is a new sense of urgency in how people will carry out their responsibilities to one another. There is even a deeper paradox. Libertarianism accepts the idea that people can hold different views of personal and moral accountability without legislating things uniformly. Still, however, we need a much more public discussion of how to balance individualism with filial loyalty.

  -- ©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka      

I have two other major blogs
. intellectual property law issues are at http://billboushka.blogspot.com
. retirement issues are at http://billretires.blogspot.com

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