Thursday, June 13, 2013

To live a mediated life

Reading yesterday's post, the Lemon Girl leaned over to me and said, "What is a mediated life?"

It's a good question and a good answer would probably be a book length project. I'll give you the idealized version. A mediated life is a matter of boxes within boxes. You are a member of your immediate family, your extended family, your church, your community, your profession, your province or state, your country and, ultimately, humanity. Each of these groups defines you and imposes obligations on you. At each stage you have a role that you must play. Some of my roles are: husband, brother, Catholic Christian, writer, homeowner, taxpayer, man. Each of those words carries connotations. Even if you know nothing at all about me, you will legitimately expect that certain moral traits come along with each of those roles.

Okay, that seems obvious. What other alternative is there? (Note that "immediate" as in "immediate family" contains "mediate" within it.)

Well, that's interesting because the idea of an unmediated life has a clear political heritage and, like so many ideas that have swept the modern world, it came out of the French revolution. At one point the revolutionaries effectively banned any corporation that wasn't for making profit. You could incorporate a hardware store but not a chess club. The revolutionaries did this because they feared the power of religious corporations, of local provinces and of fraternal societies. They wanted to reduce everything to the citizen and the state.

There still are people who push such an agenda in our time (so many that you shoukld be able to come up with examples without trying). That said, the principal force for unmediated lives in our time has been, ironically, the drive for individual freedom, especially sexual freedom. The drive to marry, or not marry, and to have sex with whom you would (and not have sex with whom you wouldn't), and under the conditions you would, drives across mediation. Nineteen-year-old Jill is falling in love with twenty-seven-year-old Alistair but Jill's mother dislikes and distrusts Alistair. Jill can see why her mother thinks the way she does and she doesn't think Alistair is good husband material but dating him is fun and she has always wanted to date a guy with a certain kind of English class and charm (and the accent to go with it)  and Alistair has it right down to the ground and, besides, she just wants it. But she doesn't want to upset her mother and she just wishes she wouldn't make such a big thing of this.

Communities, any community, will necessarily impose restrictions on sexual behaviour. Spouses, for starters, usually want considerable say in whom their husband or wife has sex with: i.e. "no one but me". Open marriages don't work but even if you were stupid enough to think they might, you would be inclined to put some limits on these things, i.e. "not my sister". (Read the history of the 1960s musical group The Mamas and the Papas" if you don't believe me*.)

But what limits and how do they work? David Brooks is fundamentally wrong in his diagnosis for some sort of mediated life is inevitable. We prove this thousands of times a day on the schoolyards of the nations. Let the kids out of school and, as a consequence, free them from the mediation of the classroom, and they very quickly form into little groups that each require commitments and loyalties of different kinds.

Everything that Edward Snowden did reflected the expected morality of a nerdy geek. And it's easy to see the morality of an entitled elite at work in Brooks logic.

Which is why Glen Reynolds' (aka Instapundit) reply is so good.
 WHEN WOMEN COMPLAIN ABOUT THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHIVALRY, I’m prone to point out that chivalry was a system, one that imposed obligations of behavior on women and girls as well as on men. Likewise, when David Brooks complains that Edward Snowden is an unmediated man, I must note that in the civil society Brooks invokes, Presidents and other leaders were also mediated; they were not merely checked by Congress, courts, etc., but they were also checked by themselves, and a sense of what was proper that went beyond “how much can I get away with now?” Obama, too, is unmediated in that sense. That Brooks couldn’t see beyond his sharply-creased pants to notice that when it was apparent to keen observers even before the 2008 election is not to his credit. If the system of civil society has failed, it is in no small part because its guardians — notably including Brooks — have also failed.
One fairly standard way to put this is that you don't want to live in a society in which the authority flows up and the responsibility flows down. That is the problem Reynolds describes above. Brooks wants the authority to rest with the elite class that he is a member of but doesn't see that that requires greater responsibility from that class. He looks at Snowden and says, "The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed." He forgets that the founders were far more concerned about the unilateral decisions made by the execcutive branch than of rogue 29 year olds.

And with good reason.

But I leave you with this question for now. As I said above, some sort of mediation is inevitable but what kind is best? I'm not sure I know the answer to that question.

* Sample line from the Wikipedia write up about one of their hits:
"I Saw Her Again" was inspired by Doherty's brief affair with Michelle Phillips, then married to John Phillips, which resulted in the brief expulsion of Michelle.
There is a fascinating bit of very old-fashioned sexism here, by the way, one of the male members of the group has an affair with the wife of another male member so the kick the wife out of the group? The song sets out the sexual attitudes that drive someone towards an unmediated life perfectly:

The blonde woman who pulls up in the E-type Jaguar at the start is Michelle Phillips. John Phillips, her husband, is the first man to appear in the video and the second is Denny Doherty her lover. (Michelle looks so much like my first girlfriend Ellen, so much so it's a little jarring for me. Everything about her is reminiscent her face, her body, the way she moves and the way she dresses is pure Ellen. Not that that matters to anyone but me.)

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