Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hooking Up

I am slowly, very slowly, making my way through a backlog of newspapers during a week’s vacation at Lake Anna, a.k.a., the cooling lagoon for the North Anna Nuclear Generating Plant (we are staying on the “warm” part of the lake, which can run about 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the lake. Swimming is reminiscent of taking a bath). The fishing is good, especially landing catfish with three eyes.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two articles on the front page of this past Sunday’s Washington Post, the first a report on the rise of political independents in the American electorate, and the second, a report on the declining importance of children in a survey on the bases of happy marriage. Taken together, the two articles document the deepening American commitment to non-commitment, more evidence of the vaunted American “individualism” which Tocqueville diagnosed in the 1830s and seems only to become more realized with each passing year. Partisanship becomes yearly more disreputable in the electorate, with some 30-40% of voters expressing their independence from the political parties. They are the fastest growing part of the American electorate, but are especially noteworthy on grounds of gender and religion: independents are generally male and less religious. In part the dissatisfaction with the parties arises on the understandable grounds that neither party is likely to wholly satisfy the variety of views of individual voters. However, many of the respondents report a deep dissatisfaction with politics itself – perhaps also understandable except when we consider that “politics” is the way in which we deliberate and govern ourselves as a democratic polity. Non-partisanship is often the expression of disengagement from the effort to participate in the hard work of politics in which compromises must be made and imperfection accepted. Self-satisfied independence can often be a mask for indifference and even the absence of public spiritedness. It can often reveal a pride in which our purity and separateness trumps our concern for common weal. The fact that independents are less likely to be religiously observant would seem to confirm that such a stance comports with a rejection of, or unfamiliarity with, original sin and its attendant temptation of the pride of independence and rejection of an acceptance of our shared need. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a legacy of our Fall.

The other front page article further attests to our growing rejection of commitment on the grounds that it may interfere with our individual satisfaction. The survey – in which respondents ranked nine contributors to a happy marriage – found that having children was one of the least cited reasons, trumped by such other factors as a happy sexual relationship, household chore-sharing, economic factors and shared tastes and interests, among others. Marriage might be increasingly described as an arrangement between roommates who hook up. The article notes that the survey shows “how separately marriage and children are viewed,” and one of its primary investigators, Andrew Cherlin, summarized the findings as revealing that “marriage today, like the rest of our lives, is about personal satisfaction.” Distinguishing marriage from child-rearing makes it more possible for marital partners to view themselves as individuals contingently and contractually involved in a marital arrangement until prevailing reasons for the marriage (e.g. a happy sexual relationship, economic factors, or shared tastes and interests) no longer provide sufficient satisfaction. Cherlin thus noted that these more contingent rationales “allows us to grow and change throughout our lives, and most Americans value that. On the other hand, our relationships are much more fragile, because we think we should leave them if they are unsatisfying.” By severing the connection between marriage and children, we make the possibility of exit all the easier, just as when our political parties do not satisfy all our preferences and politics continually disappoints, we declare ourselves to be independent of the political process.

Almost 40 years ago Albert Hirschman wrote a book called “Exit, Voice and Loyalty.” In the book – one that was explicitly a study of economic relationships, and even brand loyalty – Hirschman noted that most economic relationships were marked by a high possibility of “exit” which was the option most likely to be exercised when a consumer grew unhappy with the quality or price of a product. However, in some instances – one thinks of the introduction of “New Coke” about two decades ago – people develop a loyalty to a product, and in the face of inadequacies or dissatisfaction, exercise a different option to that of “exit” – they employ “voice,” or active involvement by means of vocal or written communication articulating and thereby influencing the direction of the company. “Voice” is the option that is exercised as a consequence of “loyalty”; absent such loyalty, the more frequent and easier option is “exit.” What fascinated Hirschman was that loyalty and “voice” occurred at all in economic relationships, and why that was the case.

Hirschman’s study was mainly one of economic relationships, since – one imagines – the economic agent’s first and most likely recourse to “exit” seemed so inappropriate to other forms of human relations, personal, communal, and political. However, in many respects the analysis of the book has proven more relevant and applicable to all domains of human life as our loyalties have declined and our resort to “exit” in all spheres of life has increased. On the one hand, it would appear that economic thinking increasingly colonizes all parts of our lives, driven above all by the consumerist imperative of “personal satisfaction.” On the other hand, perhaps the decline of loyalty to loyalty itself (nod to Josiah Royce) – and its attendant willingness to sacrifice some part of our individual satisfaction to the good of others, including our children, our communities and our nation – has fostered the conditions in which the virus of short-term individualistic and often economic “rational” decisionmaking (qua “exit”) increasingly dominates those parts of our lives, personal and political, where it never ought to have applied. Thus, far from being discrete pieces of random news that happened to appear on the front page of the same newspaper, the news of our deepening unwillingness to commit is really bad news for the culture as a whole, a culture that depends upon, but increasingly lacks, loyalty to our families, our communities, and our nation.

1 comment:

ken mcintyre said...

In his essay 'On Being Conservative', Michael Oakeshott addresses this disposition to discard. He writes that "we are acquisitive to the point of greed; ready to drop the bone we have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future...One activity vies with another in being up-to-date': discarded motor-cars and television sets have their counterparts in discarded moral and religious beliefs."

He goes on to say that, though there are human relationships in which such a utilitarian disposition makes some sense, (e.g. a man whose barber keeps giving him bad haircuts), “even these relationships seem to lack something appropriate to them when they are confined to a nexus of supply and demand and allow no room for the intrusion of the loyalties and attachments which spring from familiarity” (e.g. that man, me, who continues to frequent his barber because he likes the company he finds there).

Nonetheless, Oakeshott notes that there are other more significant human relationships which are defined by being intrinsically valuable. Friendship is his primary example, but he also refers to one's relationship to one's country and the common human engagement in conversation as human relations (and I would mention the relation to one's family in the extended sense of the term). He writes that “the relationship of friend to friend is dramatic, not utilitarian; the is one of familiarity, not usefulness…To go on changing one’s butcher until one gets the meat one likes…is conduct not inappropriate to the relationship concerned; but to discard friends because they do not behave as we expected and refuse to be educated to our requirements is the conduct of a man who has altogether mistaken the character of friendship.”

Perhaps, this person, who treats all people from father and mother to spouse and child as if they were some anonymous producer to be educated in consumer preferences, is the last man of whom Nietzsche disparagingly speaks, after all.