Thursday, September 20, 2007

In support of fads

Fads tell us something important about freedom and the common good. On one level, of course, fads are pretty silly. People get caught up in a hairstyle, or a gadget, or a silly activity or kind of music. There’s a stampede in one direction, and a couple weeks, or years later, it’s forgotten. And I certainly support the traditional, the perennial. I often argue for the superiority of the old. A book, a piece of music, or even an idea that has lasted a century or more has proved itself worthy of continued interest, while the fads of today may be popular only because they are current. Most of them will not stand the test of time.

But fads serve an important purpose. I was thinking this morning about the wipers on the rear window of my car. Mostly I was thinking how useless they are. I thought, from the car maker’s perspective, they can add this dinky little feature for minimal expense, and it gives the (false) impression of luxury. But in fact, it does remarkably little good. At least over the summer, I don’t think I’ve used it once. Rear wipers are, to some extent, a fad: just something that everyone likes right now, and that may not stand the test of time.

But “test” is a good word. For now, rear wipers come standard just because they are trendy. But in fact, society, the “Market” as a whole, is trying something out. For now, they are just a fad, but whether this fad lasts depends on whether the Market finds them useful. Ten years from now, there will or will not be rear wipers to the extent that they have been found worth having.

They may prove useful for reasons their inventors had not considered. I’m just conjecturing, but maybe the inventor thought they’d be helpful for cleaning off bird poop, or for rain when you’re sitting in traffic. Maybe he didn’t think they’d be useful, he just thought they sounded cool, in a James-Bond kind of way. And maybe people will find that rear wipers are not worth having for any of these reasons, but they really come in handy when you’re defrosting—just for those couple minutes when you first start the car, a few months out of the year. And maybe people will determine that the investment is worth it, because defrosting the rear window is really a hassle.

I’m just conjecturing. But that’s the point. The free market allows ideas to be tested out. Rather than a centralized authority, whether he be an inventor or a government regulator, making all the decisions, the market spreads the test out to the teeming millions. The inventor may be wrong about why something is useful. The manufacturer may never even know why he is packaging a given feature. But that’s irrelevant. The market allows society to determine what products are more useful, and makes those products available.

And it does so, as the great economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, by making “planning” more broad. In common parlance, a “planned” economy is planned by some central authority. But in fact, the free market is much better planned, because it allows many more people to do the planning, bringing in a million times more insight. No one person has to understand everything, because the market coordinates the decision-making of the millions.

This is especially important considering the complexity of human needs. To push the limits, let’s take the example of the hula hoop, fad of all fads. This one failed. But what was the purpose of the fad? Society was “trying out” a new form of exercise and entertainment. At the same time, I think, adult society was “trying out” bridge. It found that bridge well-suited the needs of that time, providing married couples, or men at work, or ladies’ clubs, a way to interact and to use their minds. But bridge, we might say, is a “secondary” activity. Bridge, or any game, “serves” society not just because of it’s own inherent excellence, but also because of other things that are already in place: ladies’ clubs, small groups at the office, the need of couples to interact (arguably a product of suburbanization, where people no longer see each other on the streets). Bridge was also valuable, perhaps, because of the particular needs of the mind at that time. It “fit” the strategic requirements of the age.

Nordic Trak is a contemporary example. Nordic Trak provides a solitary, low-impact, cardiovascular workout. It is a fad, maybe passing by now. But it was valuable for people who had back problems, because of their sedentary lifestyle, and heart problems, because they don’t get out much. Its solitary nature might serve an age that likes to watch tv, but it also might serve an age that likes to have some meditative time alone. I don’t know which need sold more Nordic Traks, and no one really needs to know. The point is, it was a fad not just because it was stupid and didn’t stand the test of time, but also because it served the particular needs of a particular times. It stood, we might say, upon other fads. When those fads (low-impact cardiovascular exercise, alone time) pass, so will the Nordic Trak—not because the Nordic Trak is bad, but because it was good for that particular circumstance.

Last example: the jump rope. Perhaps the jump rope has achieved its greatest and most lasting popularity among black girls. They like it, maybe, because it allows them to spend time outside (which is arguably a central part of black culture, and certainly melds with the urban life) and get some exercise. It is rhythmic, and lends itself to black dance and poetic-improv traditions. It gives the spotlight to one girl at a time, which plays to the desire, both universally human and particularly black, for virtuoso excellence. In these ways, it has a lot in common with rap and jazz. But jump rope allows a group of girls, possibly of very different ages, to hang out, serving particular needs of the black community.

Who could have come up with this? Someone started selling jump ropes, maybe for white suburban kids, maybe for individual adult fitness. Or maybe not—maybe some black girls just found a rope lying around. (But where do you find ropes lying around? I don’t know.) No central planner could have deduced that jump rope would serve this demographic so well. It had to be tried. The hula hoop was short-lived. Jump rope lasted, for a certain group. And it will last as long as the particular needs it serves are in place, or until something better comes along.

That’s no small thing. Or rather, it’s the kind of small thing that really matters. Windshield wipers have made life safer and easier for millions of people; rear wipers may serve a small niche, and they may pass. Hula hoops didn’t go anywhere, but jump ropes have proved of enduring value for the health and well-being of a particular underserved community. Bridge was great in one period (when people felt isolated and needed mental stimulation), NordicTrak in another (when people wanted isolation and physical exercise). Who would have known? Certainly no central planner. These are all fads, most of them dependent on other societal trends; planning ahead for such things is enormously complicated. They have been subjected to testing by the masses, and the masses have passed judgment, voting primarily with their pocketbooks. And so fads have proved to be the most intelligent sort of planning. Through fads freedom serves the common good.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Family at Home? (Part Two)

In the previous post, I discussed, and approved, Allan Carlson's goals to create a pro-family culture, in which young people aspire to have big families. We agree that devotion to family is necessary to a healthy republic. But Carlson believes that an important way of promoting families is to promote telecommuting, so that fathers can be at home with their families. In the last post I briefly indicated why I generally oppose efforts to engineer particular social results through government action. In this post, I will explain why I also oppose the particular goal that Carlson is trying to engineer.

Carlson argues -- and I've heard this also from "traditionalist"-type Catholics -- that the great destroyer of marriage was the industrial revolution, because it caused fathers to work outside of the home. The theory goes that before the industrial revolution, you basically had Paul-Revere city dwellers and Charles-Ingalls farmers. (They don't use the examples, but I think examples bring things into focus. Charles Ingalls was the father of Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Paul Revere worked in his silversmithy downstairs, Charles Ingalls worked on the family farm, and both of them were always around to put their arm around their daughters, share meals with their wives, work side-by-side with their cute little boy, etc. It was all so idyllic and family-centered. Why not go back?

(Ironically, Carlson's way back is telecommuting, so Dad can work on the computer in the basement. I'll address the problem with the romantic vision of Ingalls and Revere, though I think there may be further problems with assuming that manual labor and computer labor are equally interactive.)

My criticism of the Ingalls and Revere vision is that it totally conflicts with my personal experience. As a full-time student and a dorm director, I have worked at home on and off ever since my first child was born, almost three years ago. My wife and I have found that it does not work for us, either as individuals or as a couple. (My wife was recently talking with another mother, a few years ahead of her, who said something to the effect of, "oh, having my husband at home sounds terrible. I have enough trouble doing my own work as it is!)

The trouble is that we spend too much time together. I know pro-family people aren't supposed to say that, but this is our experience. To be fulfilled, we need to work. (That, at least, is both Catholic and traditionalist!) I need to make progress on my studies, both so I can make money and support my family, but even more so I can develop as a person. My wife needs to clean the house, and cook, and take care of the children, again, both because those tasks need to get done for practical reasons, but even more because that is her vocation, and she feels dead when she is not fulfilling it, not doing the work she has been given. When I am home, we tend to sit around and talk all day, or even just to distract one another, both kind of wasting time because we see the other one wasting time.

We have found two ways to address this problem. (Just trying harder, it turns out, is not a very good solution. Perhaps before the industrial revolution people were just more virtuous . . . but I doubt it.) One solution is for me to leave. We have found, and have had to learn over and over again over the course of our marriage, that we are each happier as individuals and stronger as a couple when I go to the library all day. It's hard work, much more tiring than wiling away the hours at home, and harder to organize -- but it's so much more fulfilling for each of us, because each of us can be what we are, engaging our vocations, and moving forward, "wing to wing, oar to oar."

The other solution is like the first: I can just lock myself in my office. This tends to be less effective, because I don't stay in there. But in effect, it works out the same. We are each happier because we are not interacting all day. We are each pursuing our own tasks.

I suspect that Charles Ingalls and Paul Revere had the same experience. Revere could work in the smithy downstairs because he closed his door. It's nice to imagine the kids hanging out with him, but I suspect that a silversmithy wasn't a great place for kids, and that Revere wouldn't have gotten anything done if they had been there. Similar for Charles Ingalls. Whatever happened, I imagine he got work done by not interacting. Perhaps the kids helped out sometimes. But I don't think there were a lot of heart-to-heart chit-chats, or playing games, or whatever else. (Laura Ingalls Wilder may make it sound like they interacted a lot. But that is probably because the few times they did interact, it left a memory, not because they interacted all the time.) In short, pre-Industrial Revolution, fathers may have "worked at home" in some sense, but I suspect it wasn't very interactive, and thus not "family-centered" the way traditionalists would like to believe it was.

My wife suggests that the traditionalists may be looking for something else. They may be looking, first of all, for shorter commutes. Work itself is fulfilling (if not, the problem is the work, not the place), but an hour of traffic each way is awful. That, says my wife, is probably why so many fathers need a cocktail before they can interact. (She remembers her grandfather, who used to drive from Rhode Island to downtown Boston every day, and be unable to interact when he returned until he had a Manhattan. I have no problem with the liquor -- but I agree that the commute was probably not very humanizing.) So we should seek ways to cut down on commutes, and to make commutes more pleasant, rather than just trying to get fathers to work at home. And that would be more like Ingalls and Revere, who weren't interacting with the family all day, but could just walk back from the fields, or upstairs, when they were done.

The other thing my wife points out under the heading "Blackberries." A friend of hers just went on vacation, and her husband, a Congressional chief-of-staff, had to check his email every fifteen minutes. I'd broaden this category to just "too much work." Incidentally, I suspect that farm labor, despite our Tolstoy-esque Romanticism, was probably pretty deadening, and purchased many an absent, spent father for those romantic little farm children. In any case, the goal should, again, not be to get father to work at home, but to get him to work less. The method here, I think, is two-fold: prosperity plus less consumerism. If fathers make more real dollars per hour and spend less per year, they should be able to work less. In my opinion -- we'll have to flesh this out elsewhere -- what this really means is getting bizarre government incentives out of the market and letting the market do its job: find more efficient ways to get people what they want. A prosperous society, where families are not bowed down under taxes and pushed by perverse government incentives to work in ways that benefit no one, is a society where fathers can spend more time with their families.

I know it feels less satisfying, but that means the real "pro-family" tax code is the simple, minimal one, not the one with tries to force everyone to work from home and to promote the "right" kind of mothering.

(How to fight consumerism, which eats up earnings and requires parents to work more, is of course another issue. I'm not going to try to address it here, but I do think treating people like adults and letting them make their own decisions is more effective at promoting wise decision-making than is pervasive government interference.)

Finally, let me point out (as an intellectual historian) that before the Industrial Revolution, all the great theorists, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas, agreed that people like Ingalls and Revere, with their Romantic labor, were less than human, because they were engaging stuff instead of people. Add the third pre-industrial type: St. Thomas More, who did not work from home, and was often away on business, in the City for the day or even at Court for a week. In the view of the Tradition, the most humanizing tasks were the ones that got Dad out of the house -- and that humanization overflowed to his family. There is something perverse about a "traditionalism" obsessed with obtaining what the "Tradition" found abhorrent.

So I'm looking for work to get me engaged with the broader world, and I think my family will thrive more if I'm around a little less.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Family at Home? (Part One)

I had the opportunity recently to hear Allan Carlson speak. Carlson is, in some ways, the dean of the pro-family movement. I don't know his stuff real well, but he seems to be writing the most thoughtful stuff (he's a think-tank guy) on why families matter and how to promote them.

In this and my next post I will explain what I like and dislike about Carlson's position.

On the first part of his argument, why families matter, I am wholly in agreement with him. His new book, The Natural Family: A Manifesto, sets out to be a real manifesto, laying out why the promotion of family is necessary to a thriving republic. (He wrote it with Paul Mero, who seems to be more of an assistant than a co-worker.) Most of all, he wants to restore, especially in young people, the aspiration to have big families. He argues, and I agree, that without this aspiration, society is pretty much doomed.

Nowadays, even Evangelicals -- the mythical "Christian Right" -- almost universally proclaim that children are a burden on marriage, that young people should strive for "more" than "just" having kids (what a world view!), and that, if nothing else, you should spend several years building a "healthy" marriage before you think about having kids. All of these, Carlson and I agree, mean the death of the republic, because all of these mean minimal investment in the future, minimal care for the personal, and minimal love for Nature.

He also argues, and I agree, that a family movement that stages its battles on issues like gay marriage is hopeless. Once we concede all that we have conceded -- the new Evangelical view of marriage, plus no-fault divorce laws, societal acceptance of sex outside of marriage, in vitro fertilization and contraceptive sex, etc. -- there are really no grounds for fighting gay marriage. We need to restore a marriage culture. We need to engage the battle much farther up the hill. On all of this, I agree with Carlson.

But I disagree with his means. Carlson proposes a whole series of laws -- he's working closely with the mythic Senator Brownback -- to promote his vision of family. The laws include things like tax credits for stay-at-home moms and a whole series of things to promote telecommuting, so that families can be together during the day. Now, I oppose this stuff in principle because I really think social engineering is a bad idea. I'll talk about that more in other posts, but I think these things tend to give broad scope to limited ideas -- trying to force round pegs into square holes -- and they also tend toward abuse. Consider the mortgage deductions, which had noble intentions of promoting an ownership society, but ended up putting money in the pockets of people with good tax lawyers, killing urban real estate, and forcing renters to subsidize other people's real estate -- basically redistribution from the poor to the rich. Social engineering is bad.

In the next post, I'll explain why I don't like what he's trying to engineer.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Teresa of Calcutta: A further note

I've just been reading Michael Novak's commentary on Teresa of Calcutta. Novak is not my favorite spiritual writer, but he plays a valuable role, by putting forth decent commentary on things Catholic to be read by the broader conservative community. I can't link to his essay because it's for National Review subscribers.

But Novak makes an important point. Spiritual darkness doesn't prove (as Christopher Hitchens claims) that God doesn't exist. In fact, it "proves" (in another sense of the word) the opposite. Spiritual darkness is all about God being bigger than our minds. If God were just a figment of our imagination, there would be no reason to feel far from him.

I think that's a big part of the purpose of suffering, both spiritual and otherwise. Suffering reminds us that reality is bigger than we are. Physical suffering, or any natural kind of suffering, means we come crashing against something that we can't remove. Smacking against the pavement -- or against another person's rejection -- is so awful, in large part, because it is a slap in the face to our complacency. We are so used to our day-dreaming, and all of our efforts to make the world just how we want it to be. Suffering is the discovery that reality is not up to us.

Spiritual suffering, like Mother Teresa's, goes to the heart of this. It is the discovery that God is not at our beck and call. He is not our servant, not like the science-fiction machine where you just push a button and you feel good. What's really terrible about such a machine is it means complete detachment from the world around you. What's truly wonderful about suffering is it means profound awareness of the world around you. And profound awareness that God is so much bigger, so far beyond ourselves.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Teresa of Calcutta

There's been a lot of talk about Mother Teresa's "dark night," most of the talk not very helpful. I promised a friend to post something about it.

I'll just comment on some passages from her letters that I found in another article. I will follow St. John of the Cross -- though I know him mostly from secondary sources (especially Garrigou-Lagrange's Three Ages).

-"Always smiling, is what the sisters and the people say of me. They think that inside I am full of faith, trust, and love... If they only knew how true it is that my joyfulness is nothing but a cloak I throw over my emptiness and misery!"

Suffering, especially interior suffering, is said to be a gift from God, in order to draw us to him. We see that on the most superficial level in this quote. Someone who is holy, especially someone who is holy in a public way like Mother Teresa, is always at risk of losing her zeal for Jesus and getting caught up in the spotlight. I think the noisy atheist Christopher Hitchens has said that Mother Teresa was a product of television. Her interior suffering was a gift from God so that she could be deeper than television, so that her spirituality would not sink into self-worship:

"The interior suffering that I feel is so great that all the publicity and all the talk of the people has no effect on me."

-"Pray for me, that I do not reject God in this hour. I do not want this, but I am afraid I could do it."

These words go to the heart of it. The saint clings to Jesus. The saint knows that Jesus is everything, loves Jesus passionately, clings to Jesus. Because the saint knows that without Jesus, she will fall into nothingness. The sinner -- each of us -- thinks that he has it all together.

Jesus purified Teresa by letting her see the truth. There's nothing affected here. She's not preening, or anti-preening. She is just close enough to Jesus to see how far she is, to see how much she needs him. She knows that only grace, only the action of Jesus, can hold her close to Jesus.

-"There is so much contradiction in my soul, a deep longing for God, so deep that it hurts, a constant suffering -- and with this there is the feeling of not being wanted by God, rejected, empty, without faith, without love, without zeal.... Heaven means nothing to me; it seems a hollow place."

Again, we all think we are a gift to God. But in truth, there is nothing but his gift to us. This point is not marginal to the spiritual life. This is it, the whole thing. So deep that it hurts: she needs God, she loves him passionately. But she knows there is nothing lovable in her. It is all his mercy. And that makes her love him all the more. When she says she is empty, without faith, love, or zeal, that she does not long for heaven, she is just being honest. We . . . we think there has never been such sanctity, such spiritual perfection as ourselves. She has the courage to be honest.

But note: what makes all this so exciting for the press is that Teresa absolutely did not go on a speaking tour to talk about how humble she was. She did not "reach out" to people by saying that she feels like God doesn't love her. To others, she spoke the other side. To others, she was the example of sanctity, and of trust in God. Because she wanted to bring them to God. That is love. It is not love to talk up your doubts (and so get on Oprah). And this is not hypocrisy. She emphasized different things in different circumstances, and they were both true. To the public, she was holy. Before God, she realized that she was not so holy. Both are true: because she was holy, but only by the gift that God gave her, and never by her own strength. But what drove her choice of words in different circumstances was not a public (false) humility, not an eagerness to talk about her difficulties, but love: love for people, love for God, each requiring a different emphasis.

-"They say that the eternal pain that souls suffer in Hell is the loss of God... In my soul, I experience precisely this terrible pain of damnation, of a God who does not want me, of a God who is not God, of a God who in reality does not exist. Jesus, I beg you to forgive my blasphemy."

There's an irony here: it is only her trust in God that can let her admit her lack of trust. Only her trust lets her feel fear. Mother Teresa did not think God would abandon her. On the contrary, she could stand on the precipice, could see the possibility of damnation, could admit how unlovable she was, only because she trusted in mercy. And in this mercy, in her ever-deeper sense that God loved her because of who he is and not who she was, she could see more deeply how good he is.

-"If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation from you give you even a drop of consolation, my Jesus, then do with me what you will.... Impress the suffering of your heart upon my soul and my life.... I want to quench your thirst with every last drop of blood you can find in me. Don't be concerned about returning soon: I am ready to wait for you for all eternity."

And here is the ultimate love. Love is willing to do anything for the beloved. The deepest love is willing to suffer. The saints -- pretty consistently, and probably universally, if we could see their inner souls -- experience this willingness to hang on the cross with Jesus, to enter into the darkness of a dead God. Because only suffering allows perfect love. Only suffering gets to where love is not self-serving. Teresa doesn't want to be with Jesus just because he sure makes her feel good. She wants to be with Jesus because she loves him. And so she rejoices to suffer, rejoices, even, to feel distant from him. She is closest to him, loves him most perfectly, when she cannot see his face.

-"In this world that is so far from God, that has turned its back on the light of Jesus, I want to help the people by taking on some of their suffering."

And she shares in his love for sinners. On the Cross, Jesus takes on himself all the suffering of the world, all the abandonment brought on by sin. The Cross is where we belong, the only place that really makes sense in light of all our hatred and infidelity. But for most of us, if we saw the weight of sin, the weight of choosing self over love, of sin -- choosing anything over God -- if we saw this, we would be crushed.

But, say the saints, the process of sanctification involves entering ever more deeply into this darkness, seeing ever more clearly the truth of the human condition. This is only bearable for those who also see God. Until we know his mercy, we cannot bear to see the full weight of our sin. But in light of his mercy . . . ah, everything changes.

And that's all that happened with Teresa of Calcutta. Her interior suffering was only seeing clearly. It was a gift: the gift to see God's mercy and goodness in all its brilliance. But to see that, she had also to see her own darkness, the darkness of sin and of the human race. Neither really makes sense without the other. You can't understand her sufferings without also understanding her faith. And she couldn't see her faith, not fully, without standing before the Cross, and seeing her need in full relief.

Until she finally entered the final embrace. And now she sees nothing but light. . . .

(I don't know how to say all this without sounding trite. The thing about suffering is that it is real. This is the whole point: for Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this wasn't a trite little theory, it was a direct experience of the horror of sin, of man's total distance from God. It's pretty hard to talk about that and put it into theological perspective -- especially on a blog -- without sounding trivial. Hmm....)