Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Heroic Age

Starting on my light summer reading I've been at Thomas Cahill's pop history of Greece, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea.

Cahill begins with a rhapsody on the Illiad including quotes of the juiciest passages. It's hard not to be moved by Achilles rage and Hector's death, the pathos of Priam begging for his body and the tragedy of Troy.

But what is really going on here? Essentially gang warfare over a woman--blood and guts tricked out with burnished helmets and shields, violence and plunder in the name of honor, Iphagenia sacrificed like a child caught in a drive-by shooting. This is East LA in the high literary style. Homer worked with the materials at hand, and what he had was a brutal slave society that glorified violence and waste.

I understand it and am moved by it, this world of high drama at high stakes, honor, achievement, sacrifice and revenge. I can see myself in the fight. But the story under the literary surface always intrudes: butchery and waste.

Nowadays most people have better things to do and satisfy that yen for honor, violence and romance in art and sport. The Heroic Age only survives on the margins, in urban ghettos and the Third World--the global slum. We can read about in in detail and see it in high definition--suicide bombers, ghetto youths, white supremists: these are Homer's heroes.

There's no mystery why people do violence--it's what people like to do, and will do if there are no opportunity costs. The idea that their behavior has to be explained by reference to ideology, religious zeal, poverty, nationalism or even tribal loyalty gets it exactly backwards: these are rationalizations after the fact. I suspect that people who think senseless violence demands an explanation have never read Homer or else that they're so denatured or self-deceived that they don't recognize the impulse in themselves.

People want to fight, and that is what they'll do unless they have something better to do.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Third Rail: Stem Cells and Social Security

Bush Would Veto House Bill On Stem Cells - New York Times

When it comes to stem cell research conservative politicians can't win. Most Americans, including religious conservatives, have little sympathy for embryos and much as their leaders hint that at a nightmarish future in which soulless zombies are cloned for spare parts, they are not impressed.

Spokesmen for the Religious Right have to take a conservative line on stem cell research to appear consistent, cover their tracks and maintain their alliance with conservative Catholics. Their constituents however are not on board.

The Catholic Church has a coherent if not entirely plausible position on these matters teased out of subtle Thomistic doctrines and a long tradition of casuistry--and its position on stem cell research is part of a "seamless garment" which includes opposition the death penalty and a body of teachings on social justice that makes conservatives gag. When Catholics talk about the "Culture of Life" they mean it.

Most conservative Protestants, "values voters" and their right-wing camp followers do not. They have no interest in the rights of fetuses, much less stem cells: they want restrictions on the availability of abortion because they want to deter people, particularly young girls, from having sex--or at the very least to discourage casual, recreational sex. But the conservative leadership doesn't dare admit it so they're obliged to cover their tracks by claiming a commitment to the Culture of Life and taking on commitments to unpopular views on euthanasia and stem cell research.

Stem cell research forces conservatives hand in much the way that Social Security does. Very few Americans have any serious interest in an "ownership society" or believe that the government should cut public services and income transfers as such. They just want to see to it that benefits do not go to the undeserving poor--particularly the non-white undeserving poor. They firmly believe that the respectable elderly should live well.

No conservative politician dares to articulate the de facto conservative creed and very few of their followers can admit it, even to themselves. Who wants to confess: "We believe that people should have less sex. We believe that the government should support parents' efforts to control their adolescent children and, in particular, see to it that there are penalties for sexual activity. We believe that people should live in the style to which they're accustomed, that actors, pop musicians and athletes should be fabulously wealthy so that we can admire their excess, that the poor here and abroad should work hard and live meager lives because they're used to it, and that the respectable middle-class should own their own homes with the full complement of motor vehicles and household appliances. We look for the life of the world to come, where all adults are straight and married with children, where men do men's work and women do women's work, where everyone plays their designated role and everything looks right. Amen."

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

How Family Circle Messed Up My Family

Family Circle Total Know-How Archive

I caved in and bought the latest issue of Family Circle from the supermarket check-out rack: I couldn't resist the "The Whole Family Guide to Getting Organized" advertised on the cover.

I've been reading Family Circle, Women's Day and, less often, other women's magazines since the age of 11, devouring the Helpful Hints and features on decorating, cleaning and organizing. About two years ago I decided to kick the habit: the decorating schemes were never to my taste; the tips on household organization and maintenance were always the same and never worked.

This month's feature (not yet online) was no surprise:

Clean-sweep as a family Each night before bedtime, clutter-bust for 15 minutes. To avoid arguments, take turns choosing the pick-up music (Dad's Otis Redding or Junior's Jay-Z) and race to see how much debris can be raked before the song is over.

I don't know who Otis Redding is much less Jay-Z. I've tried to stage these communal clean-up projects and got nothing but resentment. Are there really women out there who get their family picking up clutter to music as a jolly bedtime routine?

Share chores with neighbors Child care, bulk grocery shopping, even lawn-mowing during vacations can be rotated with neighbors to save time and build your community network.

Where are these bucolic villages where neighbors chat over the backyard fence and exchange chores? I've never even borrowed a cup of sugar, or known anyone who has. I know people want to live this way and believe that they should--I certainly do--but does anyone really?

Hire a local student Have him run occasional errands for you--the small expense may turn out to be a big bargain.

Where is this pool of students available for baby-sitting, errands and other casual work? Students old enough to work are flipping burgers or, in the case of the girls who live next door, selling Avon.

Forget about Martha Stewart, the impossible ideal: does anyone really live according to Family Circle standards--covering coffee cans with contact-paper, cutting up greeting cards with pinking sheers to make gift tags or using egg cartons and shoe boxes for 100 different purposes? I used to save egg cartons and tried to use them to organize paper clips, screws and "other small items" as recommended but it made a complete mess. Now that we have curbside recycling I feel a little less guilty about trashing those coffee cans, egg cartons and margarine tubs, but I still feel inadequate.

Some of the projects featured in Family Circie are clearly idiotic. Every year or so they run a story on women who save thousands of dollars on groceries by couponing. Typically, they feature a Couponing Queen who spends a year clipping coupons from packages and women's magazines, maintains elaborate coupon files, meets with other couponers from her neighborhood weekly to trade coupons and then (with the author of the article in tow) uses her coupons to buy $500 worth of brand name groceries for pocket change. Why on earth would anyone do this? Anyone who can tolerate this kind of drudgery could make lots more money as a secretary--part-time.

Still I worked hard and unsuccessfully to achieve the Family Circle lifestyle--with disastrous results. My husband was chronically furious about my household organization schemes and attempts to save money; my kids have never forgiven me.

Three years ago I gave up. Now I never even ask anyone to pick up or flush after themselves much less help with the housework--they never did, and now at least they don't yell at me. I don't try to save money: I buy whatever the kids want immediately, no questions asked. It's depressing: one of the central goals in my life since I was a child was to have a beautiful, completely organized house and to save as much money as possible. At least I have my job, which I like.

Does anyone ever manage to follow the recommendations in women's magazines? Are there really women out there who make the egg carton system work? Who make monthly menu-plans or freeze the week's meals in advance? Who have family calendars with schedules and assigned chores that people actually do stuck to their refrigerator doors? Who are they? Where are they? How do they do it?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Wow I am done!

I have sent off a revision of a paper due tomorrow and cleared my email box, commenting on second, third and fourth drafts of term papers. I've been at this for three weeks now since getting back from my last conference. I did 4 conferences in 5 weeks and have been catching up ever since. I'm not going to do that again.

Not exactly done though...the term papers will be coming in tomorrow and I give logic exams on Thursday and the Tuesday after. Oops--just got some more term papers. I'm too wiped out now to do anything seriously productive so I've been commenting on more student papers, running errands and sorting things out. Tomorrow exam week office hours, department meeting, and I start on a paper I have to get in for a May 25 deadline. Another for June 15. Then back to the book and all summer to do research!

This is the best job in the world! After 22 years I still can't believe I'm working. I can get almost any paper online. I download the pdf's, open on one side of the screen and on the other side take notes, and write papers. Every month I get notice that a paycheck has been direct deposited to my account. I still can't imagine why. I'm not punching a clock--other than teaching classes 9 hours a week and keeping my office hours. I'm not typing and filing or scanning people's groceries. I set my own goals, prepare my own classes, read papers, go to conferences and write--I'm not stuck in an office sorting paper clips to look busy, waiting for the end of the day. There's something to see when I'm done. I'm not doing repetitious tasks. I'm not bored. How can this be work?

Monday, May 02, 2005

One of those counterfactuals...

I wish I knew what conservatives believed would happen if liberals had their way--and I would be most grateful if someone would tell me. In fairness, I should give an account of what I think would happen if conservatives were able to push through their agenda.

Suppose that conservatives had a free hand and reorganized things in the US so that there would be less bureaucracy and regulation, lower taxes and less support for public services, and much of what government delivers in other affluent countries would be the responsibility of individuals, families, churches and other private organizations.

Life would be much, much riskier: the kinds of lives we lived would depend far more on dumb luck. The luck of the draw--whether we were born rich or poor, black or white, male or female, smart or dumb, able or disabled--would play a greater role in determining our lot in life and at every stage of our lives we would be vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Those of us who could afford it would be able to save or to buy into insurance schemes to protect ourselves, but the ability to afford these hedges would itself be a matter of dumb luck.

If conservatives have their way, most of us will be more dependent on the good will of others. Workers will depend on the good will of employers for reasonable wages and decent working conditions, and employers who are morally committed to treating their employees decently will find it hard to compete: nice guys will finish last, and the Walmart model will triumph. The elderly will depend on their children for housing and financial support and the poor will depend on the voluntary contributions and support of those who are better off.

Public facilities will become a last resort for the poor. Outside of wealthy suburbs, where very few of us can afford to live, public schools will become charity institutions for the destitute and near-destitute. As middle class parents opt out of the system, public schools will increasingly become holding tanks for the "unsalvageable."

Society will become increasingly fragmented and tribal. The rich will live in gated communities patrolled by private security guards, send their children to private schools, generate their own electricity and drink bottled water as they do in other Third World countries. The white working class, attracted by affordable, segregated housing will increasingly migrate to exurban boom towns floating on a low-wage, low-skilled service economy (like Surprise, Arizona). Urban areas will become the exclusive property of the very rich and the very poor--the urban elite, gay and straight, who neither marry nor are given in marriage, living and working in glitzy high-rises, in a world without children, surrounded by squalid slums where the non-white underclass, new immigrants, and all the disabled, chronically ill and elderly who have no families to look after them, live in fear of violence and crime.

As opportunities and support services for women diminish, educated women married to high-earning upper middle class men, who can afford to stay home, will drop out of the labor force. At the same time, as wages and benefits for working class males decline, more working class women will be squeezed out of the home and forced into dead-end pink collar shit work in the expanding service sector. More women on net will enter the labor force but sex-segregation and the wage gap will increase as women become a permanent class of drudge workers.

On the bright side, as we become poorer, less educated and willing to accept less desirable work at lower wages, off-shoring and out-sourcing will decline. Firms, both domestic and foreign, will increasingly exploit cheap, largely female labor to do tedious tasks for low pay. Maquilladoras will move across the border to the US, sweatshops will flourish and Indian firms will contract work to American call centers. The declining dollar and exports of sweatshop products will diminish our trade deficit and, as we take our place in the Third World, people in other poor countries may resent us less and even forgive us.