Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Music has the right to children

John from commonplacebook has at times wished to be able to say in good faith that art can stand up to political and economic power, and not merely restate its demands. This is a noble wish, and it is to John that I dedicate the following quotation from the conclusion of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. To apply it one must simply understand “biological” in a Marxian sense that includes creative production in general as part of what’s natural to our form of life.
[E]very new baby is a blind desperate vote for survival: people who find themselves unable to register an effective political protest against extermination do so by a biological act. In countries where state aid is lacking, young parents often accept a severe privation of goods and an absence of leisure, rather than accept privation of life by forgoing children.

3 Comments:

Anonymous John said...

Thanks for that quote.

I was standing today in The Midtown Scholar and saw Art and Technics by Mumford. I wasn't going to buy it, but I flipped open to a random passage rather like the one you quoted, but directly about art and production, so I decided to buy it. (I also bought Sontag's Under the Sign of Saturn--the one with the essay about Benjamin. I'll let you know how that is.)

3/30/2005 8:51 PM  
Blogger it said...

I wonder, then, if you'd have anything to say about this post on the Weblog:
http://www.adamkotsko.com/weblog/2005/03/right-of-intervention.html

Your blog is splendid, by the way.

3/31/2005 9:48 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

Rules of Engagement

I read the Adam Kotsko post, which I quote below. My response follows the quotation.

The Right of Intervention

If children are public goods, then it stands to reason that there should be a general citizen's right to intervene and stop shitty parenting from happening. For instance, mom buys already-fat child another candy bar; concerned citizen steps in and places it back on the shelf. Along those lines, there would be a general right for citizens to band together and remove all children from McDonald's restaurants. In addition, we need to get over the pathological and overstated fear of child sexual abuse and allow strangers to touch children—for example, cover the kid's mouth when he's screaming in the grocery store.[1] Children would be a lot less likely to "make a scene" if they knew that, rather than their parents joining in and making the scene much more disruptive (sighing, wondering aloud how the kids got to this point, suddenly and arbitrarily administering corporal punishment that leads only to more noise), they would be subject to the intervention of random strangers.

If children are our future, then we cannot allow self-centered and lazy parents to ruin the future for all of us—not to mention the present. But as things stand now, every intervention by someone outside the family results in a ridiculous circling of the wagons, where no matter what the child was doing, the fact that someone stepped in is automatically a much more serious problem (see note 1). This applies equally if one attempts to talk to the parents to get them to control their children—since one is intruding on something that is none of one's business (despite the fact that it's happening right in front of one and is causing one notable distress), there's even a chance that the parent will encourage the child to misbehave more, to punish the intervener for such a horrible sin.

But this is impossible, because in real life, children aren't regarded as public goods—they're regarded as the parents' property. So (not that I'm paying taxes right now, but in principle) if I'm not going to have a say in whether your little snot is going to make my trip to the store into a living hell, then maybe you don't want me to help you out with all those tax subsidies and such. But again, thinking about it in those terms routes all social relationships through money—one should have a right to intervene because one is in some sense paying for those children.

[1] I'm not saying that child sexual abuse never happens or that we should take a lax approach to it. This comes up because my mom, who got her teaching degree in December and has been subbing since then, was having trouble with a child in her class who was being disruptive and rude and who wouldn't look at her when she talked to him. Therefore, she grabbed his face and turned him toward her so as to look him in the eye. The parents complained, and she is no longer allowed to sub in that building, because
she touched him . That, to me, is the symptom of a social pathology.

Now, I can’t quite figure out the author’s position on the normative question of whether children ought to be considered public goods. But I reject the peculiar hypothetical statement he advances, that if something is a public good, then private interventions in its defense are warranted. That seems to me to be a terrible inference.

Traffic safety, for example, is a public good, but it is absurd and dangerous for citizens to attempt to enforce traffic laws. It’s hard enough to follow them oneself.

Not that citizens should never intervene immediately to defend a public good—it seems reasonable enough to ask a stranger not to litter, for example—but some confrontations with citizens whom we—fallibly—judge to be irresponsible or destructive are better left to professionals. Without public, institutional support in place to defend a public good, private defense will often look like wild, desperate flailing, no better than the original perceived wrong.

Now, what are we to make of the types of intervention the author discusses? I think his post has a sort of reductio structure, and that we’re supposed to agree that certain private attempts to intervene in child-rearing would be ridiculous. But don’t we detect also a note of bitterness and disappointment that such interventions aren’t socially acceptable? Clapping your hand over some child’s screaming mouth or putting its candy bar back on the rack—that would be absurd—but we ought to be able to ask that child’s parents to exercise greater control or to pay greater mind to nutrition, the author seems to suggest. Again, I repeat that am not certain of the author’s view. I devote the remainder of this post to attempting to articulate my own.

I endorse the social norm that proscribes random private interventions in the lives of other families. Not just because such interventions are unlikely to make a positive difference. To challenge someone about how they’re raising their kids is usually to stage a class confrontation. And it feels that way especially to those who are confronted.

It wouldn’t be uninteresting to consider—and address as the proper target of ameliorative efforts—the economic factors that contribute to harmful parenting. Families fail for all sorts of reasons, but it should be obvious enough by now that it’s way harder to be caring, nurturing, and patient when you are the verge of economic collapse. Cephalus is right to argue that while wealth doesn’t guarantee virtue, it is a powerful aide to acting well, and that its privation is a serious obstacle. If you are anxious and fearful because you’re economically unstable and can’t provide for your family, you won’t be persuaded to act well by some stranger who reminds you that you’re not cutting it as a parent.

Non-random, institutionally mediated interventions—volunteering at a school, becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, dropping a dime on a habitually abusive family next door—might be different, not because authority by the very fact of its involvement legitimates the intervention, which it doesn’t, but because the object of the intervention is more likely to see it that way. (I might be wrong about this.)

No one is moved to change their behavior because someone else has pointed them out as inept, morally defective, and basically low-class. If you make someone feel angry and ashamed, they are going to resent you and attempt to defend themselves. But if you really believe in the goodness of your paternalistic mission—and some paternalistic missions are good—then you need to give the people you intend to help a way to see for themselves, from a position that is available to them, that a different mode of conduct might better suit their ends, which ends we must regard as basically good. If your intervention doesn’t show respect for the subjectivity and moral autonomy of its objects, then you ought to reconsider your own motives for intervening.

4/02/2005 7:45 PM  

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