Indifferent and Irresponsible

 

I am reposting here two essays I wrote in 2013 that strike me as pertinent today. They seem to share a certain perspective regarding the loss of personal freedom — though from different parts of the world at different times. Please excuse the length.

The following characterization of the rise of autocratic political societies was written by the Japanese political satirist Nakae Chomin in 1887 attacking a stubbornly despotic government in his country.  As our country becomes increasingly autocratic, run by the few power brokers who are gradually and with fixed purpose neutering the voting population, who couldn’t care less, I was struck by the sober truths in this passage.

“Even in this case another and even more dreadful source of disease arises. What is it? People support themselves by their labor, submit part of their income to the government, and consequently feel their duties to the state are completely fulfilled. They grow indifferent. Scholars think only of perfecting their writings. Artists think only of polishing their skills. Those engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce think only of high profits and become indifferent to everything else. Under these circumstances, the function of the brain gradually shrinks, and the complete human being is reduced to a mere digester of food. In other words, the scholar’s writings, the artist’s skills, the works of those engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce eventually become sediments at the bottom of a barrel, without vitality or change. The entire nation becomes a mere lump of slimy, jelly-like flesh.”

It’s not only the autocrats who would like to run the world and deprive us of our freedom, it is also the presumed “experts.”

In a most interesting chapter of that most provocative book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch has a careful analysis of the cultural phenomenon I call the “parental paralysis. ” I speak of the apparent inability of so many parents in this country to simply rely on their own intuitions in raising their children because a host of so-called “experts” have convinced them that they (the experts) know so much more about raising children than do their parents. For some reason parents have bought into this nonsense. The experts, whom Lasch calls the “helping professions” consist of social workers, teachers of “domestic science,” academic experts on “marriage and the family,” marriage counselors, family therapists, psychologists, and other social scientists of their ilk.

(It is curious that we tend to ignore the legitimate expertise of bona fide scientists who continue to warn us about the warming of the planet, but we will buy into a bunch of malarkey put out there by a host of social scientists with questionable credentials promoting doubtful procedures regarding child-rearing.)

In any event, Lasch traces the development of parental paralysis back to the 1920s and calls the first stage of the take-over of the family by these experts the “behavioral” stage, when behaviorism was the prevailing arm of psychology and popular books written by such folks as John Watson and Arnold Gesell began to undermine the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their children and persuaded them that the kids were so much better off if their parents simply listened to the authors and raised the kids “by the book.” Of course, there were a great many books by Watson and Gesell and people like Ernest and Gladys Grove who promised kids “freedom from emotional bondage to their parents.” Seriously.

The second stage came in the late thirties and forties. The growth of the progressive movement in education (which was “child-centered” rather than “subject-centered”) coupled with “debased versions of Freudian theory, [resulted in] excessive ‘permissiveness.'” During this stage, the child and his or her “rights” became the center of the home and parents were warned not to thwart their child’s development by punishment and discipline — words that began to take on pejorative meanings in the social sciences and among parents and teachers as well. Coincidentally, the role of the state began to expand as the courts asserted their right to take children away from their parents if there was evidence of abuse — evidence that was at times questionable at best. During this stage the man at the center was Dr. Benjamin Spock who has been widely mistaken for the chief proponent of permissive child-raising because of his warning to readers of the damage parents could do to their offspring by an excess of strictness. However, the good doctor also attempted to warn against excessive permissiveness, but his message was somewhat cloudy and confusing to many parents. In any event, during this stage, the parents were increasingly targeted as the main element in the deterioration of the family unit. In the view that had become orthodox among so-called “experts,” parents were the “problem” that required solution if the children were to be saved.

This brought about, in the 1950s, what Lasch calls “the cult of authenticity” in which parents were told to “let it all hang out” and be honest with their children whom they were told should be treated like adults. Children were not to be restrained in their various modes of self-expression, since all feelings were legitimate and parents were admonished to befriend and discuss problems with their kids rather than attempt to correct them. Punishment, especially corporal punishment, was definitely taboo. Whatever authority the parents might have once had over their children was by this time a thing of the past: the child was now the center of the family and the parents were supposed to be incapable of raising them on their own. After all, parents were regarded as unable to distinguish right from wrong, as were all folks in what was becoming an increasingly relativistic age — except the “experts, of course, who were still regarded as those who knew best.  Note, please, that parental love never seemed to enter into the equation at any stage, even the final one. Perhaps this is because love is not quantifiable or reducible to behavioral terms.

The fourth stage, which is the one we have reached at present, resulted from

“rising crime rates, juvenile delinquency, suicide, and mental breakdowns [which] finally convinced many experts, even many social workers, that welfare agencies furnish a poor substitute for the family.”

Unfortunately, the damage had been done; a great many parents remain convinced to this day that the books written by the experts map a clear road to successful child-rearing and the courts remain able and all-too-willing to take kids away from parents who are regarded as unfit for many reasons — not all of which are legitimate. As Lasch points out,

“The state can now segregate deviants [i.e., children] for no other reason than that they or their parents have refused to cooperate with the courts, especially when refusal to cooperate appears as prima facie evidence of a bad home environment.”

In a word, as the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their own children has waned, the power of the state has grown exponentially in its ability to remove children from what may well be loving homes, based on the testimony of the ‘helping professionals” who may or may not have children of their own and who almost certainly have learned what they know about appropriate child-rearing techniques from books written years ago that are still erroneously regarded by many as the last word in sound parenting.

If Lasch is to be believed,

“the deterioration of child care has been at work for a long time and many of its consequences appear to be irreversible.”

Parents have been listening for so long to those who claim to be experts, they have forgotten that love of their children, coupled with consistent and coherent discipline, are paramount (and natural)  and, while they will assuredly make mistakes, parents should trust their instincts — which for so many centuries have seemed to be a fairly safe path to follow.

Parents? Citizens? Whither your freedom??

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Cultural Parallel

 

Lately I have been reflecting on the demise of the humanities and of Western culture generally. I have expressed my disappointment and even my dismay. But several years ago I had already begun to note the problem and in reading a number of novels written by great Japanese writers came to realize that what we are going through is very much like what the Japanese went through after World War II. Granted, the parallel is not exact, but we are seeing the gradual replacement of Western culture by a shallow commodified culture where everything has a price. Our present situation is not unlike the experience of the older generation in Japan after the war who watched helplessly as their culture and values were replaced by Western ideas, movies, dress, baseball, and above all, materialism. They, too, were becoming a commodified culture. The problem is that this indicates the death of spirit and this is why the problem is worth exploring, though I must apologize for the rather long post as the issue is complex and I have added a bit here and there.

I have been somewhat immersed of late in the writings of such great Japanese authors as Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, and, most recently, the satirist Nakae Chomin. What all of these authors have in common, despite their many differences of style and approach, is a shared concern regarding the trauma Japan suffered in leaping from a Feudal age into the modern world in a very few years. While they knew that the modern world would bring benefits to the Japanese people, they also knew that something precious might be lost in the process. The parallel with our own history struck me and seemed worth reflecting upon. This is not to say that the history of the East exactly parallels that of the West. After all, our escape from the Feudal age was gradual and we did not undergo the sudden shock of alien ideas overnight. Nor did we suffer the devastation of more than five hundred bombing raids setting our world on fire, followed by the dropping of two Atom bombs that brought our nation to its collective knees. None the less, the concerns of these remarkable authors are the same ones many of us share in this hemisphere, especially the worry that in breaking with centuries-old traditions we may be leaving our world devoid of meaning.

In this regard, the delightfully satirical book by Nakae Chomin, titled A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, is especially interesting. Chomin lived during the Meiji era, from 1868-1912, and was witness to the rapid changes that were taking place around him. In fact, he was responsible for many of them himself, given his fascination with ideas he picked up in France, especially, where he became an expert in European philosophy and political thought. He wrote copiously about enlightenment ideas and, especially, about the necessity for Japan to embrace democracy, if not all European ideas. Japan’s despotic government was not entirely convinced that democratic ideas were palatable and Chomin’s idea of universal suffrage was especially anathema to those in power who were suspicious of liberal thinkers like Chomin. He was for a time expelled from his native city of Tokyo and was repeatedly silenced by a government that feared his keen wit and outspoken writings. His Discourse, especially, came under government scrutiny and as a result became extremely popular and quite effective in helping to bring about many of the changes that Chomin thought Japan needed to embrace.

But, at the same time, Chomin was aware that these changes were diametrically opposed to a great many ancient Japanese traditions that he himself revered and realized were essential to Japan’s national identity. He was the son of a Samari warrior and was of two minds when it came to agitating for change in Japan — as his Discourse points out. In that book two protagonists, hosted by Master Nankai, who acts as something of a referee and (more importantly) keeps filling their empty drinking cups, wage a war of words about the pros and cons of radical change in Japan. The Gentleman of Western Learning, a philosopher/idealist, embraces Western ideas and argues somewhat naively that linear progress is inevitable and of unqualified benefit to the nation as a whole. His opponent, the Champion of the East, is a conservative, hawkish character who embraces war as a manly activity and worries that Japanese culture is on the verge of annihilation at the hands of the West (especially Western materialism) and young Japanese activists. This concern is echoed in one of Mishima’s novels in which a group of young idealists plot the murder of several key Japanese capitalists. Chomin himself at times embraced both of these views, which is what makes the Discourse so compelling. It steers away from simple solutions to complex issues and reveals the heart of the dilemma that Japan faced at the time.

As hinted, many of the issues raised in Chomin’s Discourse are also raised in the novels of the other authors I mentioned above, which simply demonstrates the truth that poets see problems more clearly and sooner than the rest of us. And the fact that these thinkers wrestled so strenuously with real-world concerns that also trouble us in the West is remarkable. They saw, for example, that democracy was inevitable but that in its Western guise it was inextricably bound to free-enterprise capitalism and that the ideas of economic and political freedom would become conflated and at times impossible to separate. In fact, like Chomin’s Gentleman, there are a great many so-called “conservative” thinkers in this country today who still maintain that freedom necessarily entails free-enterprise capitalism, while the stunning example of the Scandinavian countries demonstrates the fact that political freedom can be blended nicely with a socialistic economy. Indeed, recent studies show that the people in those countries are among the happiest on earth.

Thus, the fact that a number of Japanese intellectuals wrestled with what we would like to call Western ideas and, especially, that they worried that the modern age would mark the end of traditional values such as honor and duty and replace them with the pursuit of pleasure and a preoccupation with creature comforts, while at the same time they embraced democratic ideas and worried about the dangers hidden within a materialistic world view, must give us pause. It was, after all, honor that was at the center of humanism in the West at the outset and honor that began to dissolve as capitalism gradually expanded its influence. The hints can be found in both Shakespeare’s plays, especially Julius Caesar, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote where the Don’s sense of honor is made to appear comical if not a bit mad.

But in the end we must note that many of the problems we face are also seriously pondered by people on the other side of the planet. And they seem to be caught up in the same quandaries we are. It is certain that they face the same problems of survival as we do on a planet that is under attack by greed and corruption and populated by increasing numbers of bellicose humans.