06 April 2009

Why Not Democratize Away Our Mores?

See Luke's post immediately below for context. I really have no idea what Poulos is going on about;I'm not sure what this "legalism" is that's supposedly forcing children to be more sensitive to one another, though I suspect that Luke's right in identifying it with that perennial bogeyman of the American right (sometimes misguided, sometimes not, on this issue): political correctness. And Poulos seems to be saying that this social reprogramming is helping implode the conventional liberal public/private distinction. Apparently, gone are the days when your child's soccer coach could utter an insensitive remark about the mentally disabled without reproach, but gone too are the days when what goes on in the bedroom stays in the bedroom. Why the two phenomena are supposed to be linked, sadly, is likely to escape any reader who has the misfortune of glancing at Poulos' drivel (seriously, do not follow Luke's link, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, if you want to maintain your mental faculties at their optimal levels).

I also don't have much of a grasp of what Luke is saying, but in this case it's probably because I haven't read Foucault carefully, and more importantly because I don't really understand why it is so important, so good in itself, to curtail our human nature (read: "beastly appetites") or even regard it as "human nature," and not merely contingent patterns of behavior no more eternal than current tastes (which I share) for rather vapid indie music or the passing fad of divine right monarchy.

Poulos seems to be worried that contemporary liberals and progressives have turned the public-private distinction on its head by policing the way children are taught to interact with their fellows while adopting licentiousness towards the "sexual mores of the young" (and what about the sexual mores of the old?). Again, I don't see how this is supposed to work, but it seems to me the problem here is simply that Poulos would like the former to be "re"inscribed in the private realm (and so cast outside the purview of scheming liberal social engineers) and would like the latter to be policed a little, at least to the extent that it is public.

I could point out, additionally, that progressive licentiousness isn't actually such an overwhelmingly totalizing force, given some fairly obvious (and counterproductive) policing practices that have seemed to survive it: the war on drugs and the absurd censorship of movies that masquerades as "content ratings" are the two most obvious examples. But I won't take that road because that argument is too easy to make.

Of course all of these distinctions become pseudo-distinctions when we realize that the "private" is simply what we hold to be felicitous to leave purely to individual judgment and the "public" is simply what we hold to be felicitous to have out in the public forum for deliberation and legislation, and the content of the two is going to shift according to where we think we would like to go as a political community. I don't fear for liberalism, and I don't worry that giving our children a sentimental education by promoting empathy for the feeling of others is going to somehow topple our structure of individual rights (which seems to be Poulos' fear, for I don't know what else it could be). Similarly, I don't fear for the salvation of humanity, and I don't worry that insufficiently policing our children's sexual mores is somehow going to undermine liberalism either.

The bottom line is this: there are some aspects of human life that we generally feel are a matter of public concern, and some that we feel are obviously not, and the content of those two spheres is continuously renegotiated. As long as that renegotiation is carried out in the name of two overriding liberal-democratic principles - "let's not be cruel to others" ; "let's prevent human suffering" - I'm not going to lose sleep over the future of our liberal virtues and values.

Postscript, to make more concrete what I mean: If there comes a day when the country's basements are converted into personal meth labs that are causing a lot of mass suffering, even if personally inflicted, it will make sense for the state to make the content of those basements a matter of public concern, if only to preserve the integrity of the nation's teeth. If there comes a day when bigotry and discrimination become such minute factors in the life of the polity that virtually nobody suffers it at the hands of her fellows, then sentimental education aimed against such behavior may become superfluous and we might safely relegate it to the dustbin.

1 comment:

Luke said...

Yes, Aldous, I agree with you. If this is the sort of thing Andrew Sullivan thinks passes for intelligent conservative commentary, I'm a tad less inclined than previously to think highly of him.

Also, I probably mentioned Foucault too often.

Also (and this is an ad hominem, I admit) the man has tacky facial hair.

That is all.