Psst: Life's a bitch. Pass it on.

by CarlD

Due to periodic moments of weakness in which we contribute to NPR, we have a ‘free’ subscription to Newsweek. Making virtue of contingency I have discovered that Newsweek is perfect bathroom reading – so much so that I suspect it is edited with this venue in mind. Each issue has a perfect mix of shorter and longer pieces calibrated to characteristic contemplative dwell intervals. Interest is generated quickly and no great commitment is required. This may not make it a great source for a deeper understanding of the world, but it’s a useful niche nonetheless.

So in the natural course of things I recently read a review of Judd Apatow’s new movie, “Funny People.” In general, this confirmed my impression that Judd Apatow movies are to be avoided. The one I’ve seen is “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which I found to be an unpleasant, cringe-inducing mess. The same people who liked that one seem to like this one, so no thanks.

Newsweek’s reviewer, Jennie Yabroff, illuminates my own impression by pulling on the thread of Apatow’s widely-noted misogyny, observing that it’s part of a more comprehensive misanthropy, a generalized “poisonous hostility and rage.” Adult life is a joyless slog of self-destruction, disappointment, betrayal, and constipation. But wait, there is redemption! “The one bright spot in Apatow’s dark vision is children—the point of sex and marriage; the friends who will never betray you.” She concludes with this uplifting summation of Apatow’s oeuvre: “Life, his movies suggest, is filled with angst, frustration, and tedium. The best you can do is laugh about it all, then pass it on.”

Well, I sure agree on the laugh about it part; I think the rest is largely a matter of intention and interpretation. But taking the point at face value, what are we to make of this notion that children exist to redeem dreary adult existence? How many movies does it take to notice that inflicting this nasty life on critters you’re planning to love, and then milking them for all the joy they can produce before ushering them into a long, miserable adulthood, is nothing but another betrayal, perhaps the biggest of all?

In the last couple of posts we’ve been talking about memes as units of culture whose first priority is to reproduce themselves. They don’t do it mindfully, or even ‘selfishly’ in any intentional sense; it’s just what they do, whether that’s a good idea in the scheme of things or not. I’ve generally observed that humans (like ducks and viruses) work the same way. When I was newly married in my early 20s I pretty much just assumed we’d go ahead and have a couple of kids. My then-wife didn’t think that was a good idea; we were young, poor, not done with our schooling yet. I argued that we were better off than billions of other humans who had managed to raise kids successfully, but she had a higher standard in mind and wisely prevailed. It wasn’t about whether, though, it was about when. In the years following I watched other people ‘decide’ to have kids and it gradually dawned on me that the thought of not having them at all had never been entertained, or if it had been was swiftly dismissed. The decision was not about whether, it was about when.

Of course if people actually decided whether to have kids, there would be many reasons not to and that would happen much more often. But it’s not a reasoning process, or rather, ‘reasons’ to have kids come and go. Many of us don’t think any more that God wants us to have children, or that this is women’s essential mission, or that family names and properties need to be preserved. And anyone paying attention to climate science knows that Nature doesn’t need us to have any more children at all, although Nature (of which we are a part) will just adjust to whatever we do, including the one where we breed and consume ourselves and the rest of the world’s biota into extinction. It may be, as Apatow thinks, that life’s a bitch. This would seem like a good reason not to have kids (or not to be a jerk in general), but instead he’s twisted it into a reason to have them. Or it could be that we need to balance everyone else’s bad babies with our good babies, by whatever standard. Mine, I’m sure, would be magnificent and make the world a much better place. Of course everyone thinks theirs are good, and someone must be wrong. The point is there’s always a ‘reason’ to reproduce if reproduction is the unit default. That doesn’t make it a good idea, though.

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41 Responses to “Psst: Life's a bitch. Pass it on.”

  1. To have a child is to gamble with fate. Children are born to surprise us. Sometimes the surprise is a good one. Too often, it seems, it is not. But, speaking from personal experience, to win this particular lottery is a truly wonderful thing.

  2. Children are the best thing that can happen to a person. I truly believe that. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is they represent hope, a chance that maybe this time things will be different. We project ourselves through our children, our hopes and dreams. They also represent a second chance not at having the childhood we never had, but at having the parents we never got, through ourselves. So its another chance to redeem your father or mother by you being a better parent and thereby re-parenting yourself. This time with hopefully better results.

    Life is a bitch? Yeah, tell me about it. I am not sure it must be. I am lead to believe that it really is possible to “have a life worth living.” Whatever that might mean. I suspect it involves making different choices than the ones I’ve made so far. Which is pretty easy in hindsight. Not so easy the regular way.

  3. Hmmm. I do not experience Apatow movies in the way that you do. Actually, not at all. While he did not write, he did produce Forgetting Sarah Marschall, and while it was full of the usual cringe, it was tremendously uplifting (the cringe provided acute arc). And his Knocked Up also was oddly uplifting. In fact, it’s not just “laugh” but a pervasive joy-in-the-face-of that I read. I don’t know about the misogamy. It’s a kind of woody allen misogamy.

  4. A couple of unconnected points:

    This is a better post than Apatow and his movies deserve.

    Is reproduction indeed the “unit default”? Don’t most people decide whether they ever want to have children or not? This wasn’t the case in the 1960s, but there’s been a whole “childfree” movement since the 1970s.

    Also, as best I can tell, Newsweek isn’t edited at all any more, or fact-checked either, but its writers sure have a lot of opinions.

  5. A sound argument against reproducing, and the same one I’ve always used.

    As far as Apatow is concerned, I haven’t seen many of his films, but I can endorse the now cult classic tv series Freaks and Geeks that launched his career. Anything I’d like in his films would probably already exist in some form in F&G, anything I didn’t like would probably be the sort of typical big-budget PG-13 humor that tends to be geared toward awkward adolescent boys who are obsessed with but fear women.

  6. It is interesting, isn’t it, that people have to find arguments against reproducing. Are these arguments something like incest taboos, supposed to guard against something that people both want and fear?

    I would be curious, too, about the ages of those speaking here. In my twenties I had a lot of good reasons not to have children, who would cramp my style and limit my choices. At 65, with a truly amazing daughter and two marvelous grandkids, I don’t blame friends who chose not to have children. In an overpopulated world it is probably a rational choice. But, yes, I do feel a bit smug. Can’t help wondering how much I am hearing is regret for lost opportunities and fear of growing old and dying all alone.

  7. John, I think it’s just as interesting that people have to find arguments for reproducing, and for the same reason. And I’m glad that you’ve gone insane the way I’ve come to believe all parents should, the kind of insanity where it seems to make sense to eat pre-slobbered crackers and show complete strangers pictures of your unique precious critters. Of course your daughter is amazing – I do know some of those, I’m one myself if my parents are to be believed – but mostly sons and daughters are just people, not particularly distinguished, and unique only in the sense that all snowflakes, rocks and horseflies are unique. We are of course most attuned to our own gifts to the universe. 😉

    Your final question implies a crass ideological coverup for a pathetic psychological syndrome, and I suppose I can’t blame you as turnabout is fair play. To answer it for myself, I’m 46, and as I said my breeding years would have been during my unreflective 20s. I was married the first time for 18 years and feel I learned a lot from that experience about how things can go terribly wrong for good people. I have no fear of being alone although I don’t prefer it for long, I have a terrific wife (artist of the images in this post) and many good friends, I don’t worry much about how old I am, and I’m fine with death whenever it comes. I like many children the same way I like many people, and dislike some the same way I dislike some people. I try not to be picky or partisan about that.

    Noen, your remark about hope is lovely but provokes a doubt. If we crooked timber can’t get our own selves straight, what makes us think our kids will do better? Where’s the historical evidence for that? It would be interesting if we all made a pact not to breed until we make the world a good place for everyone to be now rather than tossing the garbage forward another generation. At the moment the strategy seems to be to sequester resources to create little bubbles of good for particular lucky children, and although I’m glad for them and grateful to be one of them, in a larger sense I find that unsatisfying. So as to hope, if we don’t have it for ourselves that’s the problem to address directly and responsibly. Maybe get us all some swan feathers like in “Joy Luck Club” and go from there.

    Undine, thanks. I wasn’t aware of the childfree movement and it’s not in evidence anywhere in my environment, which is rollicking with breeders. I could see childfree being a bit of a precious academic niche, which is all I am come to think of it.

    AL, lol. “When they get what they want, they never want it again.”

  8. Yes, I have kids and I’m in my 50’s. Is over population something we can effect on an individual level? Choosing not to have kids just makes room for those who make the opposite choice. Wouldn’t it be better addressed on the collective level? So we fight overpopulation not by choosing to have fewer kids but by changing the environment so that everyone freely chooses the K-selection strategy rather than r-selection. Therefore we should make sure people have enough to eat, end wars and cure diseases. That way everyone has a sense of stability and instead of investing in having many kids they invest in fewer.

    Isn’t that always the way though? People respond to environmental problems in the same way. “If I reduce my carbon footprint I can make a difference”. No, you can’t. You’re better off changing public policy than individual behavior.

    In general, I think it’s a mistake to respond to problems at the wrong level. If crime is a problem the solution isn’t to get tough in individual sentences. If pollution is a problem the solution isn’t for individuals to pollute less. If teen pregnancy is the problem the solution isn’t to preach to individual teens. People, in general (not here), seem to personalize and particularize problems. They don’t think abstractly, they think “What does this mean for me?” I think that is a mistake but I could be wrong. I’m just an anonymous person with an opinion.

    I don’t think I’ve seen any of Apatow’s movies and I’m not likely to. I did watch “Blindness” the other night. Which I liked quite a lot.

  9. I forgot:
    “If we crooked timber can’t get our own selves straight, what makes us think our kids will do better?”

    Celebrate your crookedness. Enjoy your synthome. Crooked Timber makes the best coffee tables. 😉

  10. Yeah, Noen, I think your point about addressing structural problems structurally is exactly right and if I said anything that implied I think I’m saving the world by not reproducing, or that others are personally ruining it by doing so, I hereby denounce it. I would further agree with a possible implication of your argument, that the moralizing of nonbreeders who are simply enjoying the fruits of K-selection-friendly resource bubbles is odious. I think I made something like this point earlier in the summer. I don’t think either blame or rationalization carry us far in these conversations, but that’s usually all ya get.

  11. “Celebrate your crookedness.”

    Now I’ve got a motto! Thanks, man!

  12. Carl, thanks for that “turnabout is fair play.” Now that we’re past the rationalizations, what I’d really like to hear is your and others’ views on a notion that Ruth and I have been kicking back and forth for a while. The notion is that one of the great unmarked cleavages in contemporary society is that which divides those, now probably a minority, who not only grow up in intact nuclear families but grow up in families where intact families have been the norm for generations and those who grow up in single-parent or remixed families that may also be continuing cross-generational patterns.

    At this point, I don’t have any solid data to offer. I recall, however, hearing around the time that daughter Kate was entering Annapolis that children of intact nuclear families are disproportionately represented among those accepted to Ivy League and other elite educational institutions. If so, why that should be is an interesting question, since it clearly suggests that children of intact nuclear families start with a leg up in the social mobility sweepstakes. Is this simply a matter of economics, with intact families likely to be more affluent? Or does it have something to do with the (perhaps misdirected) existential confidence that comes from growing up in relatively stable circumstances? Whatever the case, if what I heard is true, it has important implications for the reproduction of social class and the pervasiveness of myths that associate intact families with successful bourgeoise and “broken” families with lower classes. Or so it seems to me. What do you think?

  13. John, that’s an awesome question and I really hope readers participant and lurking will weigh in with observations, hypotheses and guesses. I’d especially love to hear from Susurro on this.

    I share your reluctance to cut the analysis short at the obvious ‘family values’ causal inference. Too many people from broken homes succeed (e.g. this President) and too many from intact families fail, or succeed after lots of failure (e.g. the previous President) to make that a whole account. (I also think there are many successful ways to live a life that involve neither a two-parent heteronormative family nor advanced degrees.) I think affluence must be a factor, in some feedbacky ways where affluence makes staying together ‘pay off’ differently.

    I suspect that there’s also a feedback and amplification effect in family expectations when there are multiple active strands present in the child’s life. For example, my dad came from a working class family but drove himself all the way through Thayer, Brandeis and Brown to a Ph.D. and job in philosophy. My mom came from a gentry family with roots in Swarthmore and tendrils in St. John’s, Carleton, Oxford, etc. Expectations for my brother and me were not articulated or even enforced, but they were high and distributed throughout an extended family on both sides. As an index of this, I’ve never been to any of my graduations (except high school, which was mandatory). It still amazes me when I see people act as if graduating high school, college or even grad school is a big deal. It just feels like ordinary process to me, like getting a driver’s license.

    Of course a working class family that stayed together would not have the same direct influence, but I suspect the general sense of stability is still conducive to that existential confidence you mention and that I personally know to be a real and powerful thing. I also think the current President is an example of how that confidence can come from other forms of stable family and community solidarity. I guess I’m gravitating toward your implied hypothesis that the key variables are stability and expectations, obviously conditioned by the general opportunity space of the society as a whole. We can raise everybody right and that still isn’t going to give us more seats at Harvard, or more jobs for people with that education.

  14. Carl, that’s an awesome reply. So let me toss in another couple of observations.

    First, it may be useful to distinguish shooting stars, success stories like that of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton (or, for that matter, Ray Kroc, the founder of MacDonald’s) from the routine reproduction of middle-to-upper classes.

    Second, but related to the first, I recall speaking to some doctors at the Yale Medical School who stressed the importance of normal variation in individuals. They said that every doctor who treats children is familiar both with golden kids who do well in even the most appalling family circumstances and, conversely, with genuinely evil kids who turn out rotten despite being members of what appear otherwise to be ideal families.

    There might be something to the notion that what broken homes do for golden kids is to contribute to the kind of never enough drive that sends them to the top. Kids like my daughter are, all other things being equal, likely to turn out as moderately successful people who enjoy comfortable and interesting lives but lack the insatiable ambition/anxiety that would take them higher. Existential confidence may be good for gathering low-hanging fruit, but existential anxiety the key to genius breakthroughs.

    Just brainstorming, but what do you think?

  15. I’m like your daughter. And that motivation thing fascinates me.

    Extending my analysis from the first reply, it’s not just that both strands of the family are in play with intact families but both sets of networks as well. The feedback and amplification extend outward.

    So we had this family friend named Duncan MacDonald, an entymologist at Middlebury College who had been one of my mom’s favorite teachers at St. John’s. He was the guy who got us into bug collecting. He had a dry wit and told this story about a wealthy couple who were unable to have children. They tried and tried but had almost given up when finally, nearing middle age, she became pregnant. It was an ecstatic time and they busied themselves preparing everything to be perfect for their miracle baby.

    Percy Wilberforce was born healthy and happy and they saw to it that he remained so. No expense or effort was spared to see to his every need. All seemed well until in his second year they became aware that he had not yet spoken a word or even made a sound. The family doctor assured them that all children have their developmental quirks, but when he still hadn’t spoken by age three panic began to set in. Top experts were consulted but they could find nothing wrong. Every test seemed to show a perfectly healthy and normally developed boy except for the mysterious lack of speech.

    Finally the couple accepted that their son was not like other boys. Of course they continued to lavish the utmost attention and care upon him, until his sixth year when one morning at breakfast he looked up from his bowl and declared “Mother, you know that I quite prefer a moderate portion of sugar on my Corn Flakes.”

    Presently they recovered and ventured to ask how it was that he had been silent all this time when apparently he was entirely capable of speech. He replied “Well you know, everything was perfectly alright until now.”

  16. I always wondered why Newsweek was printed on quilted paper.

  17. John – Just, before delving into the why, to stick with the what for a moment – is this factually true?

    I recall, however, hearing around the time that daughter Kate was entering Annapolis that children of intact nuclear families are disproportionately represented among those accepted to Ivy League and other elite educational institutions.

    I remember being given propaganda to this effect when I was a high school kid in Texas, but had sort of assumed, given the obvious agenda, that we would have been given this sort of information regardless of its truth status… ;-P Certainly the strategy of circulating material with claims like this in my high school, had shall we say a “chilling effect” on those of us aiming for university, who didn’t come from anything like an “intact nuclear family”.

    But knowing the “what” of this would be interesting, regardless of my high school’s dubious motives. It would also be interesting to see that “what” disaggregated a bit. For example, is “family intactness” more or less of asset, given other forms of socio-economic advantage? Or, once you control for socio-economics (given that non-intactness can have its own impact on socio-economics), might you account for much of the difference? etc.

  18. Carl – On this:

    As an index of this, I’ve never been to any of my graduations (except high school, which was mandatory). It still amazes me when I see people act as if graduating high school, college or even grad school is a big deal. It just feels like ordinary process to me, like getting a driver’s license.

    In this case, you haven’t attended because of an environment that takes these achievements for granted on a certain level. But strangely, I didn’t attend any of my graduations (high school included) either – but sort of for the opposite reason. There was nothing in my broader environment that valued this sort of achievement (I hid in closets to read complex texts growing up, because being seen to read them publicly would have seemed to be taking on airs…). As a consequence, the desire to do this sort of thing developed as a very internal thing – disconnected from what it might mean to someone else. As a consequence, I always found graduations, on a personal level – don’t begrudge anyone else for wanting to attend them – beside the point. I knew when I’d gotten what I wanted from a course of study – the external awards always felt quite disconnected from that process…

  19. NP@19, I suspect you’re a bit of an outlier here, one of John’s golden kids from an academic standpoint. Although I know a couple others like you, and it’s important to think about the enabling networks that afford opportunity for success in such cases, but we might have to drill down into the particular kind of psychology (somewhere thataway on the autism spectrum, no doubt) and/or developmental environment that disable reference group expectations as a decisive variable. For many folks with a mainstream noggin and some kind of robust community, in my experience, the reaction to rites of passage like graduations tells them everything they need to know about how far they’re expected to go and how well they’re expected to do there. Anyway all I know is that I didn’t get a car for graduating high school, so I’m bitter.

    NP@18, if we got serious about this analysis I bet it would get granular pretty quickly. For one thing if we’re talking about social mobility sweepstakes we’d have to get serious about how much social mobility actually occurs. If we find that the affluent are disproportionately represented in status-conferring institutions, we can then think about the conditions and incentives that might create a disposition toward optimizing certain forms of, not just family but extended social network, that deliver children reliably for class reproduction. It could be that if you get the extended networks right and have the right dispositions toward ongoing parental involvement, a divorce is not that damaging to life chances. It also could be that an intact family is generally an indicator of class reproduction in all class fractions, which means it could be a bad thing from a mobility standpoint. Following in your parents’ footsteps and all.

    Of course there may also be a self-confirming bias in the institutional admissions and inclusion process toward those who display the correct profile (e.g. the kind of sports participation that is best enabled by multiple dedicated caregivers), not to mention various embedded biases against applicants and participants who don’t that subtly disable or ‘chill’, as you say, their efforts. This might be operative throughout the feeder system, gradually weeding out candidates for upward mobility until only the most resolute and/or successfully assimilated remain. I believe there’s plenty of research to this effect been done, but it’s been quite a while since I was actively involved with the sociology lit.

  20. “once you control for socio-economics (given that non-intactness can have its own impact on socio-economics), might you account for much of the difference?”

    That’s right, at least as far as I’ve digested the empirical evidence. Single-parent households are on average poorer than dual-parent households — this seems almost self-verifying, in that two breadwinners earn more than one. Controlling for SES, academic achievement of kids from single-parent families are indistinguishable from those from “intact” families. Being economically on the short end of the stick puts you in poorer neighborhoods, where among the adult and kid peer groups academic achievement isn’t as highly regarded culturally. Plus there’s the raw economics of school funding, which in the USA comes largely from property taxes. Poor people tend to live in cheap houses that generate less tax revenue, which results in underfunded school districts.

  21. Right. And even where states or school districts attempt to equalize school funding per capita, affluent parents just step in to contribute their kids back up to the customary advantage.

  22. …and then there are the private schools and charter schools and so on, draining the rich kids toward better teachers and especially toward a more stimulating peer culture among the student body. Our kid attends a very high-performance non-charter public high school in Boulder: never mind the parents; you wouldn’t believe the competitive pressures these kids put on each other.

  23. I really like and support the quixotic/robinhoodic attempt to use public schools to level the playing field for access to social goods. The problem is there are too many variables outside the schools’ control to make that entirely successful, starting with the combination of parental favoritism toward their own children and a political economy that allows unequal resource distribution. If we accept that parents want the best for their own children, in a resource-unequal environment it’s just obvious that some parents are going to be able to use their affluence one way or another to tilt the playing field. How can we even blame them? (I can, but I can also imagine privileging the general good over my own and my children’s immediate interests. Then again this conundrum is another of the reasons I don’t have kids.)

    If we really wanted to level the playing field we’d abolish inheritance and take children away from their parents at birth to raise them in collective creches. Everything short of that is a kludge (beyond that is “Harrison Bergeron”), although I’m prepared to say that metered access is better than no access at all.

  24. Carl; “If we really wanted to level the playing field we’d abolish inheritance and take children away from their parents at birth to raise them in collective creches.”

    Kvon: Or we can just make everyone watch Michael Apted’s “Up” series!

    But what of the organicist notion that children are more than educational/economic bearers of “social goods”. Perhaps children, even disadvantaged children bear a social good that no person or theory can track down until it is needed – the recording of a history of effects and consequences, a making alive and voiced not only ills, but the cultural wisdom rises up around those ills, a rich resevoir of “knowing from the bottom” so to speak.

    Yes, playing fields should be leveled, but not for the sheer sake of leveling. Life’s richness (and wisdom) comes from its topographies.

  25. Kevin, I’d agree with that more readily if I didn’t enjoy my life of relative privilege so much and wish its real opportunity for everyone. Of course there’s that sense in Hegel that the slave is a more complete person than the master, but I doubt we’d want to see that as a recommendation of slavery; so then we have to ask if the perspectives generated by the bottom are worth the cost, especially when the cost is distributed unequally. The functionalist argument that them’s the breaks is available, of course.

  26. I don’t mean this as a criticism at all, but when you say, “Kevin, I’d agree with that more readily if I didn’t enjoy my life of relative privilege so much and wish its real opportunity for everyone,” I am very suspicious of my own thoughts when I say to myself: “If everyone were much more like me they would be much happier”. Such a thought is always implicit in any aim to help others (I suspect), but it is pernicious in many ways. For instance, while you *culturally* experience your life as rich and fulfilling, other persons might look at your life and *culturally* see it as devoid or deficient.

    And I’m not saying that it IS deficient.

  27. No, you’re right, I had that same thought. It’s not that I think everyone should have or even want my life, or that the world would be a better place like that or whatever. It could be the extinction of my type of critter would be a net gain by some compelling criteria. I’m just conscious of my occupation of a node in social space that’s deemed desirable (‘privileged’) by many. I’d like the good options, whatever they’re judged to be in any particular configuration, to be available to all.

    The critique of privilege is an odd thing. On the one hand what I’ve got is supposed to be a general good that this configuration has illegitimately concentrated in a few hands. So in some sense the obvious claim is that everyone ought to have what I have. On the other hand the claim is that privilege produces a certain experiential and cultural vacuity and that a harder life in contrast produces more robust, appealing personhood. Um, well – count your blessings? Happy to take one for the team? I suppose we could argue (I think my dad would so argue at this point, on existential, aesthetic and environmental grounds) that what we need is less privilege in general, that is, a leveling toward the bottom. That’s not usually how the outrage is articulated, however. Strangely, no one wants to be the flower that blooms brightest because it’s rooted in manure.

  28. What about something simple like the ability to cope with stress? I seem to recall an NPR story about how kids from different backgrounds were able to handle the stress of combat. Supposedly the military feels that kids from stable (suburban) homes are better at coping than those from broken (urban) families. It seem counter intuitive because kids from the “school of hard knocks” have an outer veneer of being tough. I don’t know if any of that is true. I would presume that it’s based on figures or studies conducted by the Pentagon.

    My personal life experience seems to back it up. People who have that hard exterior do seem to be a bit more fragile. And isn’t moving far from home at the age of 17-18 and having a lot of expectations suddenly put on you pretty damn stressful? I would think so.

    Having the emotional tools to handle high stress environments combined with a family that gives you some real support would sure help a lot. I could have used some. Looking back on my life it seems to me that had certain events gone just a little bit differently that would have made all the difference in the world.

  29. Carl: “Strangely, no one wants to be the flower that blooms brightest because it’s rooted in manure.”

    Kvond: Hmmm. I don’t know if this is true at all. In fact I can think of many ways, both cognitively and sociologically, in which this simply is not the case.

  30. That’s interesting about the military, Noen. Vietnam was a classist war of course, with college kids able to evade the draft. The PTSD aftermath cost the Defense Dept. a lot of money and bad PR. Maybe the Pentagon figured they could avoid PTSD if they got the middle class kids into the fray — like WWII, where every red-blooded lad joined up and PTSD (seemingly) wasn’t an issue. There were studies funded by the Pentagon trying to identify “premorbid conditions” that would predict PTSD, partly to try to get themselves off the hook. Similarly, Dow Chemical funded studies of Agent Orange syndrome, trying to turn it into a psychosomatic illness experienced by hysterics or second-borns or whatever. So when the military launched Iraq and Afghanistan with an all-volunteer (= professional) fighting force drawn from the lower-middle class, they hoped they could avoid PTSD and its costs. This has failed, at least with respect to incidence of the disorder among returnees. (They’ve managed the PR a bit better by keeping soldiers on active duty far longer, so fewer fucked-up soldiers return to civilian life.) War sucks no matter who’s doing the fighting, and sucky wars suck even worse.

  31. Kvond, do tell!

    Noen, I agree — the people I know who come from high-stress backgrounds tend to be hard but brittle, not flexible or resilient. They function very well in charged situations and seem even to seek them out (or create them), but they’re tuned to a very high vibration and over time it just seems to shake them apart internally.

    I think having more than one strategy is really important. If you can move your feet within situations you’ve got a better chance of sidestepping the brunt. I’m a little reluctant to say that suburban hothouses produce people with those skills, however. More likely they just have a backstop sense of deep privilege that things are going to work out right for them that is largely unshakable by facts.

    John, I am honored to work with our troops every day, some going, some coming, and no, with occasional exceptions (especially officers of course) they’re not lower-middle class. They’re working class all the way, with money and stability replacing the draft as the means of classist recruitment.

  32. Right, working class makes more sense — same demographics as always. In what context do you work with the troops, Carl? Is your college near Camp Lejeune or something?

  33. Carl wrote: ““Strangely, no one wants to be the flower that blooms brightest because it’s rooted in manure.”

    Carl, regularly the “lower class” takes pride in their earthy, gritty successes, the culture of being the flower bloomed from the shit. I remember in a recent documentary of the origin of the Crips and the Bloods, a black activist talking about the Watts riot, and saying exactly that, That the white cop who came into the ghetto with his batons was stepping into a cesspool, that everywhere he would be stepping in shit, a cesspool whose very dereliction was the power of the people they were fighting. There was (and is) definite pride in blooming in the shit, despite disadvantages.

    And there certainly is a cognitive truth to the appreciation of how emotional and physical difficulties produce happiness when you over come them. Regularly people who have had very hard lives, and thrived, look upon the “easy life” folks as pale, vapid, really un-alive people. It is not uncommon at all that one’s manure becomes one’s badge and strength.

  34. Ft. Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne. Of course they’ll tell you they’re lower middle class, but that’s because of the success of the hegemonic ‘middle class’ swindle by which we’re all part of the same big happy class family.

    Kvond, I see and agree completely. But my point is that this makes the critique of privilege incoherent, since on this ideology it’s actually hardship that makes better human beings. However there’s quite a lot of stigma management mixed into those posturings.

  35. I don’t think it makes the critique of privlege incoherent. It just allows multiple levels of that critique. And this is pretty much how it works anyways. Everyone critiques Capitalists (you know, the dirty plotting types) because they push an unfair system, but also because they themselves are deficient in a some moral or ethical way. This becomes a critique of culture as well. The question ultimately is one of thresholds and voices. Standpoint theory, for instance, argues an epistemic virtue of being on the other side of a hegemonic relationship. What ends up happening is something of an ideal of the virtue of “owning your shit” and part of this comes to “listening to the voice/wisdom of those standing in shit”. A parallel of this is granting dignity to those who seem to be deprived of it.

  36. To revert to the original question (because I don’t have time right this minute for the subsequent foray into privilege, resilience, et al.), my desire for children, such as it was, was completely conditional. I was willing to have them iffi I had a partner who wanted to have them. I was not interested in being a de facto single parent (i.e., partnered with someone who regarded his time taking care of the children as “babysitting” rather than “parenting” and who would need to be coached on every last household/parenting task). That did not happen in my life, and I am therefore not going to have children (I’m 51, so I feel pretty secure saying that). As a friend noted, one cannot do everything (she chose to get her tubes tied at the age of approx. 32). And I profoundly disagree that “children are the best thing that can happen to a person”–that statement implies that people who do not, choose not to, cannot, whatevernot, have children are somehow missing the “best thing” that could have happened to them, when, in fact, just because it was the best thing for some number of people does not mean it is the best thing for everyone.

    The larger point around which I am circling is that not everyone approaches the children-having thing in the same way; some take it for granted, some make it a conscious decision one way or another, some make it conditional in some way. But all of that is premised on women being able to control conception, which has only been legal in this country (in some sense) since Griswold and has only been available widely in the past century or two–and even then, all methods that include intercourse also include a failure rate.

  37. Narya – yes, you’re probably right. I misspoke and was just using casual language to describe my own personal experience. For me, my two daughters were the best things in my life not because they were just wonderful all the time. On the contrary they were (I don’t see them so much any more) a profound challenge for me. They were, as I said, a chance for me to re-parent myself through them. I don’t know of too many other ways of doing that open to most people.

  38. Once again on this blog the discussion has far surpassed the original post. Thank you all.

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