25 January 2012

The Parenting Trap

In an interview with Rick Santorum, New York Times reporter James Freeman describes the Republican candidate (some of whose opinions, to be frank, on social and cultural issues I find myself warming to quite easily) as arguing that

"the cost of Europe's massive welfare states [makes] it too expensive for young people to have families."

Of course I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the truth or relevance of that statement (assuming it was even an accurate summation of Mr Santorum's views). And so I won't.

But it did get me thinking about some possible factors in present-day American society that make it difficult, expensive, in some cases even debilitatingly exhausting for people of any age to raise families. Among these possible factors, I couldn't resist considering one in particular as pretty close to the top. I mean the tragic inability of so many employers to pay, to one or both spouses, a wage live enough to minimize the need of both parents to juggle two, three, four - perhaps even five? - jobs between the two of them. Which is to say, a wage live enough to enable both parents to meet not just the much-debated emotional needs of their children, but even some of their physical needs as well. Or at least to meet those physical needs adequately enough so that the much-derided Public School System, in many districts, isn't called upon to serve those same kids not one, not two, but three meals a day.

Honestly, who could have imagined the State being so "vital," or parents being so "useless"? Except I'm sure that, in many if not a majority of cases, the parents aren't nearly so much useless as they are highly useful to a certain Somebody Else aforementioned. Somebody who in fact has an almost consuming need for them, whenever and however he may require their services. And like the proverbial professor in college, the way he hands out assignments, you'd think they had no other instructors but him, and no other courses besides his. Much less other life-responsibilities.

22 January 2012

Thoughts on a Pastoral Visit

I wonder:

Do you think it's still possible - even in a rigorously perfectionist, profit- and results-driven Age like our own* - to have too much faith in a given medical or other clinical expertise?

* At least compared to that ignorant Old World of pre-1995. 

I don't just mean the kind of faith that optimistically misjudges the skill of a single practitioner, clinic or hospital. I mean the kind of faith that grossly overestimates the degree of progress - or even  worse, capacity for progress - of an entire industry. What is it about these Particular Times anyway, that makes us think we've got all sorts of perennially complex problems so unprecedentedly figured out? So comprehensively "in the bag"? Such that if, in spite of our most brilliant efforts, your condition - what? still isn't responding properly to treatment, the problem must lie with you and not with the solution?

Again, just what is it, that seems to have elevated Today's particular solutions into a kind of provisionally almightygod-like Program? Until, of course, we come up with a better god? The kind of Program that more and more folks, however dire the nature of their condition or concern, are expected simply to get with OR ELSE? Have we hypermoderns really become so wise, or so technically perfect (in which case, I suppose, who needs even moral competence, much less excellence?), that our demands must needs become only more Draconian, "fear-factored" and intimidating? And not just of workers and volunteers - at least of the really good, conscientious ones I know - but of beneficiaries and clients? Right on up to and including cancer patients?

And why do I sense that, in the case of so many people I know who are "up against it" - and no matter how serious the ailment or other problem they're up against - the response of the person trained to help is something just teetering on the edge of "Dammit! You're not trying hard enough!"?

Anyhow, at the rate we're going, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the labels on our drug-bottles include the following message:

WARNING: Product disclaimers are intended ONLY to limit patient's expectations of drug performance, NOT to lower clinician's expectations of patient responsiveness. 

16 January 2012

A Decade in Perspective (Mine)

Greatness. Apparently some nations are born to it, others achieve it, while others thrust it away from themselves at the first opportunity.

So far as I can determine, the second category is a fair enough description of the United States in 1941. The third is a not inapt description of its weak, vainglorious grandchild 60 years later. Indeed, as I do my poor best to recall the America of 2001, what comes to mind is a country (or was it rather a wholly new, POST-Western civilization?) zealous to embrace every challenge except those involving its own real security. For one thing, and try as I may, I'm simply unable to grasp just how one manages the defense of an entire country chiefly upon the good faith and sound character of its cronies and capitalists. Surely national security, in its widest and most permanent meaning, has always been an affair not just of the well-connected - or even of "experts" and professionalized elites - but of the whole Nation?

Then again, just what sort of security challenges did America face at the turn of the millennium? Certainly our most immediately deadly enemies were elusive, insidious, infectious enough. That societal disease which I think we now most accurately call jihadism was nothing to trifle with; at very least it was determined to speed the collapse of what it presumed to be the hollow, rotten edifice of American and Western life. But note how small in scale these challenges might have appeared, how slice-and-diceable, how utterly manageable - perhaps even containable? - had we but tried to approach them with the right sort of national resoluteness and cohesion. After all, in one very practical sense an attack on everybody is also everybody's fight. And seldom, it seems to me, in  the history of any country had there been one occasion so richly capable of bringing out the best in every kind, level and class of citizen. That is, had we but cared to educate and motivate our people even half as well for citizenship as we'd been doing for entrepreneurship. (Then again we had an entire globe to compete with. And apparently repeated studies had shown how weak and futile, as sentiments go, was American love of country when matched against Chinese pride of civilization. Just kidding.)

It should also be remembered that in 2001, despite the shame of Enron and kindred debacles, we Americans were near the peak of a kind of economic high. One that, admittedly, carried far more weight in the realms of emotion and ideology than on the scale of any really hard, verifiable numbers. At the same time any pinnacle, real or imagined, from which a nation feels itself on top of the world can be an awkward perch to come down from. And I suspect the sad truth is that America c. 2000 was so busy choking on its own self-infatuation (remember how we and China were going to rewrite economic history? - or at least so ran the subtext) that it was in no good place to meet existential challenges of any kind. As distinct, I mean, from the all-important economic ones.

So let's take some inventory. On the face of it we had, in the wake of 9/11, an unparalleled opportunity to be Americans; we chose instead to be ever more vindictive Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and collectivists, sham liberals and pseudo-conservatives, phony socialists and crony capitalists. Most urgently we all, for one reason or another, in one degree or another, chose to be corporatists. In the face of a uniquely savage assault on the very bedrock of human dignity everywhere, one might think we had an unprecedented opportunity to cherish, conserve, develop and maximize the potential of our Deity's most precious creaturely gift: ourselves and each other. Instead we chose to deify the organizational works of our heads and hands. We had a rare chance to remind some of our most productive, enterprising countrymen and -women that they too were Americans and citizens, and not just global producers and distributors; that they actually had families and neighborhoods, and not just colleagues and clients; that they themselves had bodies and souls - even their own! - to manage, and not just capital and overhead. Instead we encouraged how many of our employers, both corporate and non-corporate, both profiting and not-for-profit, to become a Thing so far removed from the root meaning of corporation, it was, if anything, more like an anti-body, an anti-Church, in which not only was eye telling ear, but head was constantly reminding just about every member, faculty, organ and cell: "I do not NEED you." (And no doubt there is something highly exhilarating - at least to our nasty, hardened, shriveled flesh - in having the "freedom" to say that.)

Lastly, considering we faced an enemy on the one hand so utterly new, antithetical and total, and on the other so non-expert, so wholly civilian and amateur and makeshift, you'd think an imaginative response might have found scope for every sort of talent, and a place for just about every hand on deck. Whereas instead what did we do? We told the overwhelming bulk of the ship's crew to go shopping.

And boy did we ever.