Sunday, April 27, 2008

LGBT people could be affected by talk of "demographic winter"


Recently I leafed through the Monarch Notes for Crane Brinton’s history text “A History of Civilization” when I took both semesters of world history at GW the summer of 1963. On p 53 there appears a summary of “social Darwinism” with brief identifications of Herbert Spencer, Cecil Rhodes, and ideas like eugenics, "Rascism" (that's how they spelled it), and elitism, as they developed in the 19th Century. (Charles Darwin alone was not the “culprit.”) Even in those days, before the Civil Rights movement blossomed fully, college texts and professors had to treat these subjects (they seem to go back to ancient Sparta) with great respect and care. World War II was a much fresher memory. I noticed that I underlined some ideas, not to agree with them but because I thought I would need to remember them for exams. Even given my personal experience at William and Mary in 1961 and then as a “mental patient” at National Institutes of Health in 1962, I did not fully grasp how ideas could shape my own life yet.

As I would discover in the early 70s when networking with activists, leading to my own “second coming,” the practical effect of capitalism is to have a world where some people are better off than others, and where we want to associate their station in life with some idea of their worthiness – we call it “meritocracy.” John Stossel even says that some times: “our system is supposed to be a meritocracy.”

How do we separate ourselves from the horrific abuses of this type of thinking in the past? For one thing, we believe in giving everyone a chance. The Americans for Disabilities Act has sometimes enabled to the personal development of some of our most productive people in the workplace, especially in fields like information technology. The same can be said about special education, which (as with autism) sometimes really does work. Our legal system embraces the libertarian notion of non-aggression and non-coercion, or at least it’s supposed to. My own mental perception of this idea as an adult has been more the viewpoint of objectivism. I devoured “Atlas Shrugged” while in the barracks in the Army (as did several other “buddies”) and it certainly influenced my adult thinking. One more critical concept is "equality before the law" but not necessarily in outcomes; yet in practice this sometimes invokes arbitrary prerequisites and group identity.

I bring this up on my LGBT blog, because it does relate to how I have experienced my own life as a gay man and with the pressures I feel today from some people. In the 1990s, particularly, objectivism, and a focus on “personal responsibility” (developed out of necessity during the AIDS epidemic) became popular within some segments of the gay community, such as Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty. It was “logical.”

In fact, that’s where I have a bone to pick with religion. Christian faith generally stresses the idea that one cannot always be “lord of his own jungle,” that one needs others, one needs God, one needs Grace (especially -- I like to mediate that with karma), and sometimes has to accept living life on the terms of others despite one’s best efforts. (I remember a 1972 sermon on “The Rich Young Ruler” – “only God is good” and “don’t pander me.”) That seems counter to freedom. “Righteousness” and “justice” are not always equivalent concepts.

I have sometimes encountered expectations that I be willing to center my own life on the needs of another person(s), even if I did not elect to do so by marrying and having children. In a few cases the demands on me are quite determined. There is resentment that I would even enter the public limelight and “catalog” political issues “objectively” without first having more personal accountability (even as an adult) to other people. I should experience the same exposure to material and emotional risk as anyone raising a family, before being heard from; otherwise, anything I say seems (to them) to float on top of an attitude of detachment and contempt. One way mandatory family responsibility can develop is with eldercare. In some families, single people have been called upon to raise siblings’ children after family tragedies. I don’t want to go into more personal detail than necessary, but I don’t think I am the only gay man stumbling into this kind of quicksand.

I wrote about the limelight issue in 2005 with an essay “The Privileged of Being Listened To” and that created a bit of a stir. Some people reacted with, “well, why not run for office then” or at least be willing to work for political candidates? It seemed more important to win converts that win arguments.

There is something particular about all this, that the therapists at NIH made a lot of during my “hospitalization” in 1962: the “upward affiliation” (a favorite term of conservative pundit George Gilder) that I’ve often mentioned. During my “second coming out” in the 1970s, I did have to focus a lot of attention on my own “social needs”. (People who remember my participation in the talk groups at the Ninth Street Center then will testify to that.) I eventually found that if I accepted being alone for stretches and developed my own skills (whether social, professional, or expressive, as with writing or music) I could attract the people that I “wanted.” I would tend to “feel” (like a “psychological subjective feminine” in Center terminology) for those men with whom I could “affiliate” – those men whom I perceived as “better” by some personal set of “standards,” which could include appearance. But I would remain emotionally distant from everyone else (including blood relatives). I found that this approach to life would actually “work,” because my capacity for emotion was channeled where I wanted it to go; it seemed to express “integrity”. But as my life progressed through time and past all of these political issues and changes, others with needs and who perhaps believed I owed them an emotional debt came to express the idea that this approach to life was unethical, unfair, and deprived others of the support that they had once given me. The idea of "fairness" seemed to them an abstraction, as were all of these global Internet expressions; "real life" was to comprise codependent familial or communal relationships for their own sakes, regardless of inevitable externally imposed hardships.

One way they would sometimes deal with this is to present me with an “opportunity” that fit their agenda for political and social (and maybe religious) correctness, adjusted for the 21st century world. I would be asked to serve as a “role model” and become emotionally involved with certain people (children or boys) in situations that I would not have chosen and that I did not believe to be appropriate. It seemed that my serving in this manner could make them feel better about themselves, and perhaps less exposed to criticism for their own “weaknesses”. This struck me as an odd turnabout, after decades of “urban exile” and political debates about keeping the exclusion of open gays from the military and from adoption or involvement with children. Suddenly, the world realized it needed everyone, partly because of the eldercare caregiving crisis, and because of the need for teachers, and because of the possibility of a “demographic winter.”

My reaction to all this is two-fold. First, I would be more willing to “change” how I related to people (and consider jobs where typical parental “socialization” is needed) if there were certain legal reforms, like ending “don’t ask don’t tell.” If you need everyone to be able to “serve”, come clean about this, please, and admit it openly. Another reaction is that accepting “leadership responsibility” in areas in which I had never worked or made any significant individual contributions toward, would disrupt my own “psychologically feminine” psyche and ability to respond according to my identity.

Some people, however, are particularly taken back by this sort of proclamation. Gay men don’t often say things like this in polite company, but on the recesses of the Internet, on some message boards and chatrooms, one finds comments by some men that they want “relief” from the “responsibilities” of initiation expected of men, and particularly the expectation that they can “protect” families with women and children. (In the modern world, most women, it seems, want to protect themselves and want their own independent lives anyway, they say.) This is not the same thing as a trans-gender identity, but sometimes it leads to consideration (and glorification) of certain self-destructive acts. Although gay men generally aren't thinking about "political defiance" during intimacy, others may perceive the public openness about it as rejecting one's own "blood" in a competitive and sometimes hostile external world. Families of these men may feel jeopardized by such statements. School systems find this particularly problematic with male teachers.

Where does this all lead? An easy way out is the "politically correct" and partially scientifically valid idea of homosexuality as immutable. There are problems with this, when comparing to some other possibly genetic "behavioral" inclinations. But to me, it seems insulting: it ultimately panders to the notion of homosexuality as a quasi-disability, because if interferes with almost obligatory biological reproduction and "life affirmation".

With some people, this seems to lead to a moral principle that everyone should be accountable to someone else and prove that he or she can provide for others (especially blood family members) regardless of actually having children and marrying. If you don’t have your own kids, some other responsibility will be assigned to you. This sort of thinking would seem to confound the notion of marriage as we know it today (even before considering gay marriage). In the past, however, the maze of apparently logic-driven ethical contradictions could be skipped with a prohibitionistic policy toward homosexuality (especially for men, with its “upward affiliation”). Now, it is coming back. It could reintroduce a world where having children becomes a cultural and economic necessity. Parents will behave as if marriage needs to be pampered, honored, and sheltered from distraction if lifelong monogamous commitment is to remain "worth it".

I do think that modern generations have lost sight of this problem: this is how it was, folks, in the 50s. It started to “break down” with the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and then will all that followed: the violent year 1968, then Stonewall, the collapse of the Vietnam war, and Watergate. Libertarians will say that this is a matter that should be resolved within families (as with wills). But the law does get involved. States, under financial pressure, might start enforcing filial responsibility laws, and that could target GLBT people. (The gay establishment doesn’t want to talk about this, because of a fear that publicity would bring it on. But the coming "crisis" comes in large part from medical practice that can prolong life without vigor and independence, while at the same time families are smaller.) Tax policy obviously will pay more attention to dependents (unless we could some day have a Forbes “flat tax” or a Huckabee “Fair Tax” but even then, there will be issues.) Employers have to deal with family leave, and paid family leave can become a political issue where the childless subsidize the childed.

We do need to start talking about this openly. In that regard, discussions about “demographic winter” that seem to have originated with the political Right may be welcome, even if some of their assumptions are flawed.

Correlated post, here. That post presents a more integrated "material" view of karma, whereas this one is more about the psychological, familial and emotional view.

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