Saturday, October 01, 2005

What I think Principled Centrism Means

I was talking to my mother this morning, as I do every Saturday. We were having a friendly argument about the causes and solutions of social problems, as we do every Saturday. I was not satisfied with the solutions proposed by some leaders of our party, but definitely disagreed with the opposite solutions. Mom wanted to know what was in between. This led me to a helpful, spontaneous clarification.

Let me put this in a too-strong way at first in order to be clear:

A centrist wants to promote what is best for society, tolerate what is good enough, and prevent what is harmful.

Conservatives want to promote what is best for society, and prevent everything else.

Liberals want to promote all options (except the truly dangerous ones) as equally good.

If your first reaction to this is, “Who is to say what is best?” you are a probably a liberal.

If your first reaction to this is, “Why settle for mediocrity?” you are probably a conservative.

If this bell-curve picture of the social options seems reasonable to you, and you have no principled objection to making discriminating judgments – welcome to the Gruntled Center.

(Feeling centrist, but not gruntled? I will take that up tomorrow).

Friday, September 30, 2005

Diversity Means Same-Sex Marriage is Not Inevitable Everywhere

Maggie Gallagher, in the her article on gay marriage that I wrote about a few days ago, says that the most powerful argument advanced by the proponents of same-sex marriage is simply that it is inevitable. Canada recently became the fourth nation (after the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain) to legalize same-sex unions. Several states and cities have been doing the same. In the “blue” cities of America, this may seem to be an inevitable trend. My wife and I used to live in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, one of the great gay and liberal centers in America. If we had only read the local press there, and only talked to our neighbors and people like them, the complete normalization of homosexual practice would have seemed the only rational outcome for the wheel of history. As a college professor I live in a blue enclave which believes the same thing.

However, I am a college professor in Kentucky. I live in a small blue enclave within a very red state. Which brings me to the point. Kentucky passed an amendment to our state constitution in 2004 which specified that marriage meant only the union of a man and a woman. It passed by a huge majority. And similar laws passed in seven other states then, in nearly all of them by large margins. Kentucky is not Washington, DC, and it sure isn’t Dupont Circle.

Let’s consider a parallel case to see where the same-sex marriage issue might go. The debate about gay marriage is recent as a national issue. The debate about gay ordination, however, has been wracking the mainline churches for a generation. The Presbyterian Church (USA), a pillar of the mainline and one of the most liberal denominations in the country, was first obliged to face the issue and make a decision in the 1970s. The liberal leadership of the church, coming off triumphs in fights to make the races equal and then the sexes equal in the church, expected a routine triumph. Instead, the church articulated a “definitive guidance” that, while people with homosexual orientation were welcome in the church, homosexual practice was a sin according to the Bible. Members who disagreed with this position were welcome to stay and argue the point, but they could not be ministers and elders of the church. This conclusion has been tested many times since then. To the surprise of many, the center has held. Despite bitter annual fights on the subject, the church has not changed its position because most members, elders, and ministers agree with it.

What does this have to do with same-sex marriage in America? In this great land of ours, we find all kinds of individuals, and all kinds of communities which vary across a wide spectrum of opinion. Vermont may pass a popular law allowing same-sex marriage. Kentucky will not, not anytime soon. This is what democracy yields. If you are actually in favor of diversity, it seems to me that you not only have to accept the diversity of the results of democratic decision-making, you should celebrate it.

The debate about same-sex marriage is not over. It has barely begun. The attempts to short-circuit the debate by judicial imposition is, as I have written, the wrong way to make a social revolution. As we enjoy the long, slow, sometimes ugly process of democratic debate and legislation, we should not expect that every jurisdiction will end up with the same result. And this is, from my centrist perspective, a good thing.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Learning to be Individuals: Self-Assertion for the Top Classes, Sucking It Up for the Bottom

An interesting new book, Adrie Kusserow’s, American Individualisms: Child Rearing and Social Class in Three Neighborhoods, looks at the ways in which parents and preschools teach the kids of different classes to be “individuals.” She compares children in the upper-middle-class enclave of Manhattan’s Upper East Side with two Queens neighborhoods, one petty bourgeois and one working class. Families in both boroughs want their kids to be individuals, in the good old American way. But how they realize that individuality, and why, differs dramatically by class.

The kids from the bottom classes are taught what Kusserow calls “hard individualism” designed to toughen them up. Parents want their kids to be independent and self-sufficient – within a social hierarchy. Good kids obey their superiors, and show initiative and independence within their assigned role. Within the preschool world, kids compete to climb the ladder to status.

Kids from the top classes learn “soft individualism” in which they express the feelings and creativity that come from their unique selves. Good kids show independence and initiative against any constraints on their imagination. Parents and teachers try hard not be exercise power over the children. Within the preschool world, all are equal and everyone is your friend.

Rich parents want kids to be flexible to take advantage of life’s opportunities;
Poor parents want kids to be flexible to bend with life’s limitations.

The irony of this education is that the curriculum of hard, competitive individualism aims to produce people who will fit in to a fixed structure, and rise within it by following the rules. The curriculum of the soft, egalitarian individualism, on the other hand, is the training for the “masters of the universe” who will sit on the top of the social structure and set the rules that others abide by.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why Baptists Can Adapt to Same-Sex Marriage Laws Better Than Presbyterians Can

Nearly all Christian denominations, both evangelical and mainline, read the Bible as opposing homosexual practice. As a result, they do not perform same-sex marriages. Most denominations, though, have a separate debate about whether same-sex marriages should be allowed by the government. Here, the two groups differ. Evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, oppose legalizing same-sex marriages, whereas several mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), support legal same-sex marriage or civil unions. This is not a hypocritical position: the church is a voluntary association whose members have chosen to live under Biblical rules, while the state is an involuntary association whose citizens must abide by the secular laws. The church can set itself a higher standard than the state can demand.

In the United States there is no established church, and therefore no dissenting sects in the classic European sense. All religious institutions are equally denominations, on a level playing field. Yet each denomination has a distinctive understanding of its role in relation to the larger culture. Some denominations are more churchly, some more sectarian, and which attitude toward the state and the culture it has usually reflects its pre-American heritage.

Baptist churches were born in Europe and New England as dissenting sects. In the South, the Southern Baptist Church is culturally dominant and in many counties is numerically a majority. Yet the Baptist churches tend to approach the state and the culture as a sect. A sect does not expect the World, and especially the government, to be godly – usually quite the opposite. The Southern Baptist Convention often has a strong message and rule for Baptists, and usually the same strong message for the state and for society at large. But if the state adopts a rule that the church does not accept, a sect always has the option of dissenting from the state and creating a separate counter-cultural enclave.

The Presbyterian Church, heirs of the established Church of Scotland and the culturally hegemonic Calvinist church of Geneva, tends to see itself as one of the stewards of society. The Presbyterian Church accepts the principle of the separation of church and state. Yet Presbyterians have been instrumental in developing many of the institutions of American society, especially the educational institutions. They did so not with the idea of Presbyterianizing everyone, but as a way of being good stewards of the gifts given to Presbyterians to use for the benefit of all. Mainline churches in general, and the Presbyterian Church in particular, are used to having their views, the laws, and the norms of society all correspond. While the mainline has not be identical with the Establishment for more than a generation, it is still disorienting to a churchy denomination to have its norms run counter to the laws.

Maggie Gallagher, in an excellent analysis of the arguments about same-sex marriage, notes that “If same-sex marriage is a right, … the capacity of schools and faith communities to transmit the marriage idea to the next generation will be sharply curtailed. People who believe that children need mothers and fathers will be treated like bigots in the public square.”

Baptists who oppose making same-sex marriage legal would nonetheless know what do to if and when it does become the law: they maintain their own counter-worldly rules within the church, and work to elect individuals who will change the law back. If that means that they are in tension with the world in the meantime, that is only to be expected; Baptists have been there many times before. Ironically it is the Presbyterians, who support civil unions and even a form of legal same-sex marriage, who are ambivalent and uncertain when they get their way in the law, but society treats them as bigots and hypocrites for having a different rule in the church. Stewards of society are not ideologically prepared to be in such high tension with the World.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Magical Motherhood for the Upper Middle Class

Poor teen mothers in the slums choose to have their babies now, and hope that someday they will marry – and while they are at it, have a good job, a house with a picket fence, and a personal unicorn. See these earlier blogs for the details. William Galston rightly calls this “magical thinking.” It is of a piece with other poor teens telling researchers that they plan to be doctors and lawyers – while flunking out of high school. Galston’s solution would be to provide some kind of middle class mentors to give the kind of guidance and reality check that middle class kids get at home.

I teach middle class kids. They have a realistic understanding of the connection between school and careers, which they pursue diligently and well. They have a clear understanding of the value of marrying before having kids, and definite plans to do so, someday.

Some of the women I teach, though, show a different kind of magical thinking. They believe that they can finish college, then get professional training, get their careers well launched, start to look for a husband, get married, get their two careers coordinated, and then start to have children – all before their eggs get too old. This is the problem that Sylvia Ann Hewlett described so well in Creating a Life. The very high achieving women she studied had made a “creeping non-choice” which left them in their fifties with no children, or fewer than they wanted.

From the perspective of the teen mothers, the fifty-somethings who have just figured out the fertility cycle seem amazingly naïve and benighted in their thinking. They trusted in magic, too.

The most effective treatment of this kind of thinking is the one Hewlett recommends: ask these young women to describe what they want their families and work lives to be like at 45, then plan backwards to their current age. When they see what milestones need to be reached by when, and in what order, they are usually shaken, then moved to new action. I often get to see and share in the wonderful spectacle of smart people reordering their lives on the basis of true understanding and critical thinking.

Ultimately, the solution to magical thinking about work, marriage, and children at both ends of the social structure is the same: truth and critical thinking. And the sooner the better.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Doulas: A Good Centrist Family Idea

Doulas are “wise women of birth” who help pregnant women have a healthier and happier pregnancy, and then advise mothers through their baby’s infancy. High-end doulas work with upper middle class first-time moms for $1,000 per birth. A new movement has started among family helping agencies to employ doulas to assist the poorest and least-prepared mothers.

Centrists should, I think, support the idea of doulas at both ends of the economic spectrum. The high-end doulas are a market solution to the problem of professional-class women who have uprooted themselves from the experienced mothers of their own families. Subsidized doulas help the women and girls who need them most. Mothers benefit, children benefit, and the public benefits, including the long-term economic benefit of healthier babies and children.

A doula service can sensibly be found on both sides of the public/private divide. Government social service agencies could employ them just as readily as private family-support groups can. Tax money could be channeled through faith-based agencies for doulas without having to enter the minefield of church/state issues around contraception and birth control.

Every well-intentioned effort to help solve a problem can, of course, unintentionally create more of that problem. Nonetheless, I think providing help to inexperienced mothers who are already pregnant would not do much to add to the number of poor teens who get pregnant in the first place. It is also likely that a number of doulas, like the ones featured in Jodi Wilgoren’s recent New York Times story and the related PBS documentary, will be former poor teen moms themselves. Creating a doula service would give work to women who need it. Beyond the immediate help that they can give, women who learned the hard way about the difficulties of teen pregnancy may be the most effective counselors to teen mothers to keep them from having their second too-young pregnancy.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Elite Young Women Want Kids and Careers

Louise Story has an excellent piece in the New York Times this week, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” Story, a recent Yale grad and now an MBA student at Columbia, surveyed and interviewed over 200 Yale women, with some comparable information from other elite colleges. Many of the women she interviewed planned to start serious careers, but to suspend them to be home with their children.

The story is interesting for its main finding that many elite college women are planning to be home with their kids. I am also interested in the framing of the story – that these young women do not find it to be a big deal that they plan to be leaders in society by being stay-at-home moms. On the other hand, some of the Boomer feminists interviewed for the story are shocked that these young women are, as they see it, so backwards. “They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they're accepting it," said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women's and gender studies at Yale. Cynthia E. Russett, on the other hand, a Yale professor from a pre-Boomer generation, says that, "The women today are, in effect, turning realistic."

As KC noted in the comment I responded to a couple of days ago, young women – Millennials, not Boomers or even Gen Xers – do put a high priority on arranging their lives to give the best of themselves to their children. For many, that means being full-time moms when their kids are little. I do not think that they are backward or ignorant of the ways in which “the personal is the political.” I believe, as Prof. Russett suggests, that they are being realistic. Unlike the pioneering women of Yale and places like it a generation ago, these high achieving women have read the research and can count the years from age 22 to the likely end of their childbearing years. They know that they can have it all IF they plan for marriage and children early.

The one important thing I thought was missing from Louise Story’s account is that she frames the choice these women face as either/or – either they have a career, or they have children. Yet life is long, long enough to do both. Women with degrees from Yale and other elite colleges could stay home with kids in their late twenties, all of their thirties, even into their forties, and still have a 25 or 30-year career. They won't lose their brains raising kids, and will gain an age of confidence, experience, and multi-tasking ability.