Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Womanly Virtues Wednesday: What is good for all of us?

Let's start by quoting the exiting archbishop of Canterbury:
Identity politics, whether it is the politics of feminism, whether it is the politics of ethnic minorities or the politics of sexual minorities, has been a very important part of the last ten or twenty years. We are beginning to see the pendulum swinging back… and we have to have some way of putting it all back together and discovering what is good for all of us.
As is typical of the good Rowan Williams, that pronouncement seems terribly profound until you try to unpack it. But he is plugged into the zeitgeist. An empty pronouncement it may be but it is an empty pronouncement that perfectly sums up what the university educated elite think everyone should be trying to do right now.

The hope behind authenticity (and that is where identity politics comes from) is that being what I really am will be good for me and society. It's not, please note, about being who I am really supposed to be because that would open up the question of who it was that decided I was "supposed" to be something. No, identity politics was supposed to be about, well, authenticity.

And it ought to bother us a whole lot that we keep reaching the stage where we just end up sounding like Rowan Williams and saying phrases like "what is good for all of us" and not meaning much by it. There is a vague belief in the background here that things ought to work out best for everybody; there is a belief that there is a way of organizing society where everyone can be happy.

In its extreme versions, this belief even includes the belief that really angry, antisocial people have "needs" and that society could be organized in a fashion that those needs could be met and then angry, antisocial people would stop being angry, antisocial people.

But what this belief does not include is any notion that all of us are meant to serve any higher purpose. That's the great power of authenticity—it's not a higher power, it's not about being made for some purpose, no it's really about ... well, that is where we start to get bogged down.

Okay, let's talk about men opting out as I was last Thursday. Some women have noticed and Lisa Belkin thinks there is a double standard. About a decade ago she wrote an article about women opting out and a lot of people got angry. Now men are opting out and she isn't noticing any anger. And she wants to know why.

Well, a good part of her answer is that she isn't looking in the right places but I think she has a point in a certain sense. The people who aren't getting angry are the feminists and progressives. They see men as lost, perhaps, but they aren't angry at them for opting out the way they were angry at women who did. Women who got first class educations and then decided they'd rather stay home with the baby were seen as letting the movement down. Here is how Belkin puts it:
Probably because, at first blush, one looks like "going forward" while the other looks like "going backward." Women ratcheting back on work to smooth life at home feels like a rejection of everything women have fought for, while men doing the same looks like an embrace of the same. That's progress, isn't it?

Not as much as you'd like to think. 
For Belkin, the women who decided to opt out were challenging the system. It is as if they were saying, "I'm not going to join this so you'll have to change it to meet my authentic needs." And the trump card here is that authenticity. And that brings us to the shocking assumption at the core of Belkin's argument. It's in the next paragraph I cite, see if you can spot it.
Amy Vachon is the author, with her husband Marc, of the book "Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting The Rules For A New Generation Of Parents." They, too, thought that the future would look different than this -- one that looks like their own carefully crafted life, where both men and women find work that is fulfilling (but does not take 70 hours a week) and are reasonably well paid (though not enough to necessarily support a family without a second income) and both partners share equally in chores and child rearing, but also get time for themselves. 
The thing about vague notions of "authenticity" is that somewhere at the base is a very regimented notion of what human life should be. No matter how much you "rewrite" the rules, they are still rules. Amy and Marc Vachon think everyone should live like they do. And no matter how rebellious they seem, they have a lot in common with James Dobson on these matters: they think an authentic life is about marriage, the home and child rearing. They think they have a more agreeable vision of marriage than Dobson has but, in the end, it's still a vision of a world where people get married and raise families. It's not a world where everyone just has fun. (Personal note: Marc Vachon is a distant relative of mine.)

And that is why men opting out is a problem. A lot of young men aren't thinking about improving marriage and work, they are thinking about maximizing their fun. Not because they are against marriage and work but because they just don't think it's worth it—especially with all the easy alternatives available to them.  They don't want to to work any harder because they think they can get enough of what they want without the extra effort. And they seem to be getting "enough" that it doesn't bother them.

So what are you going to do about that?

The obvious choice is to tell them to man up and lots of writers have tried just that approach. But do that and you hit an obvious problem because you can't tell women to "woman up" can you?

The thing about changing the world is that you can't change just your part of it. Women thought they could put marriage off, pursue a career for a while and then be able to get married later and have a child and that there should be a supply of men willing to along with that. And they thought that if, at some later date, they decided the marriage didn't work for them, they should be able to opt out through a "no-fault" divorce and get custody of the child along with healthy support payments from the man and men should just go along with that too. But what if there isn't enough men willing to go along with this? Are women's wants more "authentic" than men's so women should just get what they want? And even if you believe that, how are you going to enforce it?

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