Thursday, June 20, 2013

Free-market agrarianism

I am really struggling to define my personal politics right now.  In general, I'm libertarian -- I believe that the law should stick to the bare minimum of what's necessary to protect everyone's rights.  And I think I believe in free markets -- because if you are not free to purchase, sell, and trade what you want, how can you be said to be free at all?  Meanwhile I've read a lot of economists and it seems clear to me that a free market is the most likely kind to result in prosperity for everyone.

However, I'm also to some extent an agrarian.  Not that I believe that everyone should be a farmer -- that would be counter to the idea of self-determination, considering that not everyone wants to be a farmer.  But I believe it shouldn't be so hard to be a farmer if you want to.  I think you should be able to make a living on a small farm.  People will tell you it's impossible, but what they really mean is that it's impossible in our current economic climate.  So I would favor changes in the economic climate that made small farms possible.

I also tend to believe that small farms and businesses are better than large ones, because they allow more people to be owners and fewer to have to be employees.  They can be more personal and responsive to people's actual wishes, instead of (as the mega-companies do) trying to create wishes in "consumers" for products we didn't previously want.

I believe that every human being has a responsibility for other human beings.  If an economic or political system does not work for the very poor, it does not work.  It doesn't matter how rich some people are able to get or even that the majority are doing fine.  If the bottom 1% is starving to death in the streets, that is a bad system.

Last of all, I believe we have a duty to be good stewards of the environment.  We are on earth only for a short time, but the land we live on and use remains after we die.  We have to leave it in good enough shape that our children and grandchildren can live on and use it too.

For point number one, allowing more people to farm or homestead, there are a few simple, free-market changes that would help.  First off, we have to get rid of our current Farm Bill with its system of subsidies for the biggest producers.  It is extremely unjust the way we pay people to make massive amounts of commodity crops (corn, wheat, and soy), and that the biggest subsidies always go to the richest farmers.  No farm bill at all would be better than what we have, though I am still studying the intricacies of agricultural economy and I'm not yet certain that no farm bill is the answer.  A truly free market would have no farm bill ... but before I could support that, I would need to be certain that this wouldn't result in catastrophe for farmers due to wildly fluctuating crop prices. 

Historically, there have been issues with farmers growing too much and creating a massive surplus.  That drives the cost of grain down, so that the only way to survive is to plant even more and create an even bigger surplus.  The original farm bill worked by paying farmers not to plant so much.  They got a check for not working.  Since the 1970's, we've done the opposite -- encouraged farmers to plant as much as they could, and paid them a subsidy to make up for the rock-bottom grain prices.  Then, to deal with all that extra grain, we've created grocery stores full of junk food made of corn, wheat, and soy derivatives that cost almost nothing to produce and make a fortune for food processors.  The rest goes to animal feed (read: feedlot cattle => McDonalds) and biofuels which cost more petroleum to farm than they actually replace.

Could we get by with no subsidies for anyone -- would the market adjust to this?  That's what I want to know.  Certainly for every other product, the market determines a fair price based on supply and demand.  But crops are special, first because the supply varies hugely from year to year based on weather, and second because we all have to buy food.

For point number two, small vs. large, the free market can definitely help too.  Pages and pages of regulations make it hard for new businesses to start up, and make the cost of a small business proportionately bigger.  I've talked about this before; part of why we don't have more small businesses is because we don't have a free market.  It's not inevitable.

Without the Federal Reserve ripping us off, without bailouts for Wall Street -- which make it possible for them to make a fortune on risky ventures, leading to bubble after bubble and volatile prices -- we would have a much more equitable division of wealth than we do.

And yet, no matter how smoothly our economy was running, the poor we will always have with us.  Even when there is opportunity for everyone, there will always be widows, retirees who didn't save enough, disabled people, and people who didn't make the best choices.  If even one person starves to death in your system, something is terribly broken.  I don't think libertarians talk enough about this.

Of course the short answer is "private charity," but this answer isn't entirely satisfying to me.  What if people don't give to charity?  The same sorts of people who talk about private charity fixing everything are the ones who think that running a business that hires people is philanthropy.  It's not -- it's self-interest which happens to help others too.  I guess the answer here is the same as I always say -- the free market will not be virtuous for you.  Personal responsibility still exists, and sometimes you will have to do things that aren't personally beneficial.  Haven't you ever voted for a tax hike for schools or fire departments?  Most people have, and if this wasn't taken care of by taxes, they could give the same amount of money directly.

On the other hand, I don't completely agree with the "taxation is theft" rhetoric.  A small amount of tax -- my preferred tax is property tax, for reasons I'm going to have to go into later -- can provide a safety net for anyone who falls through the cracks of private charity.  I respect people's desires to have free choice over where every cent of every dollar goes, but I simply don't see the right to property as absolute the way the right to life is.

Last of all, the environment, and this is where it gets the hairiest.  Because we all know that it is often more profitable in the short term to destroy the environment than to care for it.  Strip-mining, water table depletion, pollution, and the mistreatment of soil are pretty much rampant, despite many laws intended to curb excesses.

John's answer is that if environmental depletion affects anyone besides yourself or crosses over your own property line, you should be punished.  And the lawsuit is the way to do that.  People should freely be able to sue if they are dealing with your nitrogen runoff, your feedlot stench, your coal slag, your fracking residue, or what-have-you.  If someone's well goes dry because you sucked up the whole water table to make bottled water, they should be able to sue you.  If they can present evidence of harm, they should get a hefty payout, partly to reimburse them for what they lost, but mostly to punish you, so that eventually it is too expensive for them to do business that way.

But that's not entirely satisfactory to me.  What about damage you do to your own property?  It's not going to be yours forever.  You can say, "Well, if I hurt the resale value, I'm only hurting myself."  But some people don't intend to sell.  There are businesses -- like Avtex here in my town -- that pollute the heck out of a parcel of land and then go out of business, leaving a worthless stinking eyesore behind.  Or you might die and leave your strip-mined mountainside to your son.  Is that fair to him?  When there's plenty of good land around, it's easy to say "Well, people will choose to buy unpolluted land, so owners will avoid polluting to keep up their property values."  But clearly this is no motivator; people still pollute.  And what happens when all the land has been polluted and there is no clean land left to buy?  I'm thinking particularly of soil depletion; most of the farmland in America is losing topsoil at such a phenomenal rate -- tons per acre per year -- that it's turning to rock dust which is only farmable with more and more chemical fertilizer.  Without natural gas to make the fertilizer, we could face a very sudden wakeup call that we no longer have much fertile land in this country.

It seems to me you're stealing from future generations when you mistreat the land, even if it's your own property.

Must we rely, yet again, on people's better natures?  That never seems to get us as far as I want.  But probably what is needed here is education -- that, and a halting of those subsidies that encourage polluting, unviable industries.

Whenever I talk politics, I end up at the same point again: what if people don't do the right thing?  It isn't just capitalism; it's any system.  Democracies are great, at least the Athenians thought so (though it only worked for them because they shut poor people and women out of the vote).  But in radical Islamic countries that adopt democracy, they use it to vote to persecute the non-Muslim minorities.  When a majority chooses to kill or otherwise injure the minority, democracy has failed.  And yet there is always some incentive to do it, because if you're the majority, why shouldn't you do everything it takes to get what you want?

Republics like the US should be, to some extent, immune to this because we have wise men representing us, right?  Except that every republic in history has learned in a hurry that representatives can be bought.  Take five minutes to research the Farm Bill or the so-called Monsanto Protection Act and you'll find that out in a jiffy.  And that's only because we're lucky enough to know about it.  I daresay there's much more corruption that we don't know about.

Monarchies can be good or terrible.  Alfred the Great's was good.  Louis XIV's was horrible.  It's just luck of the draw, whether you get a good egg or a bad one, and most of the eggs appear to be bad, if history is any teacher.

And anarchy?  It doesn't last.  When there is no government, we create one.  Rousseau liked to talk about the "state of nature."  Much as I love hutner-gatherers, the state of nature does not exist.  The most primitive tribe in the world has a social system that's been developing for countless generations.  Every time government disappears -- like in Sicily a century or two ago, or some areas of Afghanistan now -- mafias and organized crime rings take its place.  Because if there is no one to stop them, bad people will always try oppressing other people.

No, there is no magic bullet that is going to make people live in peace and harmony with no poverty or oppression.  We aren't in Eden anymore and there will always be problems.  We can minimize those problems by three means:

1.  Practice a life of personal virtue.  That means giving to charity (10% is a great benchmark, if it doesn't impoverish you), treating employees fairly, giving a good day's work for a good day's pay, taking care of the environment, and not overconsuming the goods of the earth.  That is your job.  No government in the world has successfully been able to make people do this 100% of the time, but you can do it 100% of the time all by yourself.

2.  Systems of checks and balances.  The Founding Fathers were so afraid of excessive government power that they split power any way they could slice it in the hopes that the different levels and branches would counter each other.  Certainly that's better than the alternative, though sadly it isn't working as well as intended.

3.  Keep leaders accountable.  That means government -- vote, write your representative, get involved on the local level, investigate corruption.  And it also means business -- refuse to buy from companies that exploit people.  That may mean a sacrifice in your standard of living.  Even so, you might not be able to do everything you'd like to.  I can't afford to stop buying mass-produced grains, meat, and vegetables, though I do avoid processed food (neatly boycotting both Nestle, one of the world's biggest offenders when it comes to exploitation, and all its competitors too) and I have a plan to work toward not buying the other stuff too.  I can't afford to give up the car, because John drives it to work, but we just have the one and avoid unnecessary driving.  I can completely boycott clothing producers, because I buy clothes at Goodwill -- which is great for the environment and obviously isn't an expensive decision.

It's clear enough to me, the more I study the issues, that while the free market may make it possible for me to live the agrarian dream, even if I could set up a system custom-designed for what I want, it still could not guarantee justice or happiness.  That part is our job.

However, I think that, since agrarianism is a movement rather than an economic or political system, it can coexist with capitalism.  That's why I think of myself as a free-market agrarian.

Do you think I'm just kidding myself to think I can be both?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Save Three Lives

I love the gardening shelf at my library.  I've also discovered homesteading books in there and a couple farm memoirs.  But there aren't many, and I figured it was just the fault of my small library.  I tried the catalog for "farming," "homesteading," and "self-sufficiency" and came up with zero results.

Turns out I should have asked my librarian husband.  There was a TON of books on all the topics I wanted -- several shelves over, listed under "agriculture."  I've been missing out for two years!  I brought a big armful home.

The first one I read was Save Three Lives: A Plan for Famine Prevention, by Robert Rodale.  It's an excellent summary of the causes of chronic hunger in the Third World, especially Africa, and a detailed plan for soliving some of these problems.

The main point Rodale opens with is that famine relief sent by Western nations isn't just unhelpful -- it actually makes the problems worse.  We export our own super-productive, hybridized or GMO grains, especially corn, and encourage poor farmers to grow them as cash crops.  The trouble is, these grains are very hungry for soil nutrients; they won't grow well in Africa except with a lot of fertilizer.  It's hard to get fertilizer to all the remote places where it's needed, and often the farmers have to go into debt to buy it.  And then the soil itself becomes impoverished and even more reliant on artificial fertilizer the longer they keep doing it.  These crops are also very thirsty for water, and the impoverished soil, low in organic matter, doesn't hold water very well.  All it takes is a little drought and the crops all fail.  Since the farmers relied completely on the cash crop, not growing any subsistence crops, they lose everything.

We've been sold the idea that technology is going to save us.  But those who have studied different farming methods can tell you that more fertilizer and more pesticides only give improved yields for a short time before wearing out their usefulness.  As soil declines in organic matter, more and more nitrogen is needed.  And as pests become resistant to pesticides -- and their natural predators are killed by the same chemicals -- more chemicals are needed, and with less effect.  The book gives this statistic: "Percentage change, since 1945, in the amount of insecticide used on US crops: Plus 900%.  Percentage change, since 1945, in the portion of US crops lost to insects: Plus 86%."  And yet we are  giving these technologies to Africa, where the soil is much thinner and there are many more pests.  Consider this:

"In temperate growing zones, 15 separate diseases have been reported to attack sweet potato crops.  In the tropics, there are 111.  Rice?  Fifty-four diseases treaten harvests here.  But 500 to 600 have been recorded there.  Tomatoes?  In your backyard, this favored summertime crop may have to resist as many as 32 different diseases.  Move to the tropics, put the same plants in the ground, and now you're up against 278."

Meanwhile the idea of exporting Western-style agriculture, where a monoculture of cash crops brings wealth to everyone, isn't working very well in a place plagued by instability:

"Consider the roads, for instance.  Even if it made ecological sense to import those genetically engineered superplants and the chemicals and diesel-fueled equipment necessary to grow them, it simply can't be done, mostly because the roads just aren't there.  Where there are roads, there are also soldiers, waiting to waylay such shipments (and relief convoys as well), kill the drivers, and steal the trucks and their contents.  The chemicals, seeds, and equipment are then sold on the black market.  Relief food goes to soldiers.  Sometimes it is simply destroyed."

And then, worst of all, once famine does hit, we send big tankers full of American grain.  This is actually US law, to send grain instead of money, so that we can support American agriculture at the same time.  Sadly, the result of this is to undercut local farmers in the area who do have food to sell.  Other countries have had the smarter idea of sending cash and then buying grain just outside the famine area, which gets there faster and helps the impoverished region much more.  Rodale tells the story of a drought in Ethiopia which lasted three years.  By the time Americans had raised the money and sent food, the drought was already over: "Much of the food arrived, ironically, as local farmers were bringing in their first good harvests in years.  Harvests that, unfortunately, were now worthless to those impoverished farmers because the country was flooded with free grain."

Rodale urges that we must find local solutions, "Small solutions.  Too small for powerful people to trifle with.  Too small for an army or a group of soldiers to care about.  Too small to attract a lot of attention in troubled times.  But big enough to feed the family who tends this small solution."

His first solution is to plant drought-resistant "famine plants" instead of corn. Sure, according to American agronomists, the yields are lower.  But they're more reliable - they will keep producing their modest yields even in a dry year.  And many of them are more nutritious than corn -- like amaranth, for instance, which has twice as much protein as corn and many trace nutrients corn lacks.  You can also eat amaranth greens.  And since they won't die in a drought year, you don't have bare fields eroding in the wind.

Next, he talks about the problem of firewood.  The people of Africa use wood for their cooking fires, which also keep away mosquitoes and provide light.  Attempts to convert them to using fuel-efficient stoves has been unsuccessful; they can't afford the stoves and, since they just cook food and nothing else, the Africans don't want them.  But their search for firewood has been destructive: the hillsides are becoming bare of trees.  That means more erosion on the hillsides, less water brought to the surface by deep roots, and less rain altogether -- since evaporation from trees helps increase cloud formation.  And it means more of a burden on women, whose job it is to gather firewood as well as do all the farming, cooking, and water carrying, because they have further to go to get wood.

Rodale talks about the success the alley-cropping technique has had.  This is the method where trees are grown in alleys between crop fields.  This way the wood is right there, no long walks needed, and the farmers care for the trees personally because they own them.  Instead of cutting down the whole tree, they cut back the branches every year or two and use the prunings for wood.  The leaves make animal fodder and also help add organic matter to the soil.  The rows of trees stop erosion, especially in flood-time.  Rodale describes some amazing native trees that are able to live on barely any water, fix their own nitrogen, and grow in harsh conditions.

Next he talks about how to deal with pests without expensive pesticides that also pollute fresh water.  Most of his ideas are familiar to anyone who has gardened organically -- encouraging beneficial insects and birds, planting deterrent plants, and avoiding monoculture.  You see, when an entire continent plants the same variety of corn, pests leap from field to field like they're following a superhighway.  When each farmer has a field of this and a field of that, it's much harder for pests, whether weeds, bugs, or disease, to spread.

Organic techniques can also help increase organic matter in the soil so it will hold water and nutrients better.  He mentions a few native green manure plants that can do a lot of good.

Importantly, he talks about addressing any teaching to women, since they are the farmers in most regions.  Western farming experts have made the mistake in the past of addressing everything to the men, who nod sagely while the women keep on doing exactly the way they always have.  Increased education and rights for women fight poverty more than anything else.

Last he talks about water -- how to harvest it, preserve it, purify it, and make the best use of it.  He has page after page of small-scale ideas for different circumstances -- no giant dams required.  Among these are diverting small streams, terracing hillsides, and even raising fish in brackish ponds that are no good for drinking.  Turns out tilapia don't mind those conditions, and it means nutritious food with very little outlay.

By the end of the book I was angry about famine relief that doesn't work and so eager to change things, I was wanting to join the Peace Corps.  So I was hoping he would tell me what charity I could give to that was doing all this stuff.  Instead, he discussed how to lobby charities to start using smarter tactics.  You should write to them, detail the sort of projects you'd like to donate to, and tell them you have $100 you'd like to donate if they can guarantee it will go to that kind of project.  Pretty clever.  Better yet, he says, get your friends together and offer a larger donation.  His own charity is called the Famine Prevention Project, but I can't find any mention of it online, so my guess is that it's defunct now.  Probably because the author, as the forward tells me, was killed in a car accident in Russia in 1990.

I would recommend this book to anyone, especially if you've ever dealt with the argument (as I have) that we need GMO's [or pesticides, or whatever] if we want to feed starving people in Africa.  What we need is to teach them how to feed themselves, with native plants and ecologically sound techniques.

And if anyone knows a charity that actually does any of the projects listed above ... I'd like to hear about it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Repost: Libertarian parenting

Creepy thing happened today.  I followed a link to one of my favorite posts on this blog, the one on libertarian parenting from February 2012.  Only the post was not there.  I looked every which way; it's just been deleted without a trace.

At first I thought the NSA did it because they don't like my dislike for authority.  On second thought, it's probably because it had a picture of Marko with no pants.  But I'd hate for the post to be lost for good, so I rustled it up on the Wayback Machine, and here it is.

* * *

John and I are both fervent libertarians. We are willing to forgo most government "help" in order to get something we want more -- freedom. The prime directive of libertarianism, as I express it, is that we possess all rights that don't interfere with anyone else's rights. So I believe in your right to smoke, for instance, but not in your right to share your second-hand smoke with me.

So it's no wonder that we tend toward a more hands-off parenting style. Of course, children don't have exactly the same rights adults do. They have more right to be taken care of, and they do not have the right to harm themselves. In this way, I see us as keeping our son's body in trust for him for when he's older -- I'd like to deliver him a healthy body at 18. I can't do that if, in the name of "freedom," I let him get himself killed by a passing car. Obviously.
However, I would consider our family to be fairly libertarian in its governing style. Not anarchist, mind you! Anarchists don't believe in government at all. Libertarians believe in government, but believe that it should restrict its actions to defending individual rights and organizing things that could not be done individually, like the building of roads. In the same way, like I said the other day, John and I are the boss of our family. There is no question of that, and I think it's impossible to avoid being the boss of your kids at least in some ways. It's just that, as the leaders of our tiny "state," we decide not to legislate most stuff.

We have a bunch of hard-and-fast rules. No hitting. No destroying property. No really unsafe stuff, like standing on our bed. All of these are rules we had to make for the common good. But rules like "say please" or "wear clothes in the house" or "play with the toys this way, not that way" just don't make much sense to me. I'm just not interested in micromanaging my kid. And I'm not convinced that two years old is the time to "civilize" him into a miniature adult. As he grows older, he will pick this stuff up, but for now, he's kind of like a little chimp (I mean that in the nicest possible way) and I don't really mind him running a little bit wild.

I keep reading sciencey studies lately about parenting. They tend to say, "Attachment parents are stunting their children because they 'helicopter' around them and micromanage their lives." Every time I see that nonsense, I want to ask: what "attachment parents" are they talking to? Most of us are pretty laissez-faire, in my experience. We provide snuggles and food upon request, but we don't stop our kids from playing the way they want to.

The one thing most studies seem to agree on is that we shouldn't micromanage our kids. And that makes sense to me. For all the complaining I hear about "lax parenting" being the reason kids are "so bad nowadays," the universal trend in parenting over the past 50 years has not been laxity. It's been control. We in the modern world pay an unprecedented amount of attention to our kids -- not affection, mind you, but attention. No mother before 1900 ever thought it worth her while to time her child's feedings by a clock or keep a diary of bowel movements. They all just fed their children when they were hungry, picked them up when they cried, and when they were happy, they plopped them on the floor or in a sling and ignored them. At night, there was no way they were going to lie awake all night listening to their child "cry it out" in a one-room cabin or yurt. That kid went right in bed with them, and nobody kept track of how many times it woke up.

Once a child was older, they'd give it a few simple toys and let it go. By four or five, kids didn't really need much, and would play in the yard all day. A few years later, and they'd roam far and wide, just messin' around, being kids. Think of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Tom Sawyer. They weren't constantly getting schlepped from one structured extra-curricular to another. They just took off. When they were with their parents, they had to learn to work. Once they'd done their work, they just played. Their parents didn't make up their games for them.

This is one of an excellent series of articles on child psychology. The author, Peter Gray, is my new hero lately. He gives a survey of child raising among hunter-gatherer cultures which I find just fascinating. In every one of these cultures, children spent most of their time in a big gang of other children, either unsupervised or at least without adult interference. The rest of the time, they spent watching adults and joining in adult work.

Today, parents spend a lot more time supervising and organizing their children's play, adjusting (whether through reasoning or punishments) social behavior, and doing "learning activities" than ever before. When I go to the library, I usually plant myself in a comfortable spot in the children's area and open a book. Some parents do the same. Others feel the need to sit down on the floor with their children, show them how the puzzles work, put letter chains together for them, and so on. Now I do keep an eye on my kid, and intervene if he starts smacking somebody or knocking over their block towers. But I see no reason to show him how to play with the puzzles. Either he'll figure it out ... or he'll make a new game from the same pieces. Either is fine with me. 
I admit that what they say about discipline is true: parents in the "old days" (say, 1850-1950 -- I can't speak for earlier, because I'm not an expert) did beat their children. But they weren't shadowing their toddlers around the house, smacking them a dozen times a day. No, the stories I hear are about older kids who are pretty independent and know the rules. Laura Ingalls' grandpa, for instance, gets whipped for going sledding on the Sabbath. Not for leaving the house, grabbing a sled, and sledding without telling anyone -- they did that all the time. Just for doing it on the Sabbath. Laura herself is free to wander wherever she wants around Plum Creek -- except by the creek itself, because she could drown. Her parents don't watch her, because they trust her. (I believe she is six or seven.) When she disobeys and goes in the creek, she gets the ultimate punishment: she has to stay in sight of home.

Gee, if that's punishment, most kids under 16 are getting punished every day!

And the idea of drilling your kids for future success was absolutely unheard of before the modern age. I can't really account for it, though I'm sure there are a lot of reasons -- fear of children not being able to get a job when they grow up if they aren't smarter than all the other kids, advertising, having fewer kids to focus on, guilt from various causes, etc. In any event, it's now not too unusual to have parents doing "Your Baby Can Read" or "Baby Einstein" with their children in the hopes of making them smarter. I once slogged through hundreds of comments about the former program, most of them from moms who used it. They swore up and down that not only could their babies read, they were smarter than any other baby ever -- read sooner, counted sooner, read bigger books, etc.

I wasn't raised like this, so I was shocked when I started my first job. I was a nanny, but I was supposed to do some tutoring too. The children were four-year-old twins. "I want you to do pre-literacy work with them," the mom said, "because they'll be starting kindergarten in a year and I don't want them to start out behind the other kids." Now I learned to read at four, because I happened to want to. But even so, my eyes kind of bugged out. Flash cards? At four? What the heck does your class rank matter in kindergarten?

Back to me, and my libertarian parenting style. I've always tried to meet Marko's needs, as he expresses them. When he was tiny, I mostly left him on a blanket on the floor as long as he was happy -- which he would be for an hour at a time, as long as I looked at him often. When he made a peep, I'd pick him up and feed him. (Yes, up to about three months old he was a ridiculously easy baby. The next baby, easy or not, is getting more sling time, because I'm on the go more now.) Now it's about the same, except he does more and wants more. He plays by himself, glances up at me or talks to me to check in with me, and periodically comes over for lap time, a drink, a snack, whatever. When he's not feeling so independent, he likes to be read to. I usually do say yes, but at the same time, I try to encourage him to play instead if he's willing.

He does require kind of a lot of attention on most days. He gets bored with his toys, or he makes a mess, or whatever. But if the weather is good, we go outside, and seriously, he wants for nothing. Today he played in the dirt for a solid hour without needing me for anything. I roamed around the yard, picking up sticks and raking, and he just stayed there, squatting in the dirt, running it through his fingers and pushing it into piles.

I got to thinking that a child is like a plant. I can't grow potted plants to save my life. They need so much attention indoors! They need to be watered all the time, they never get enough sun, and even if you do everything right they get sometimes get wilty. But the plants outside are no trouble at all. Marko's the same. Take him outdoors and let him go, with or without the dog, and he'll run around all day with no complaints.

My goal, I guess, is to give him as much of that as I can. Freedom to explore, room to play, and as little interference as possible. Yes, that does mean sometimes he's doing that exploration stark naked. (Outdoors, I do require him to wear a shirt, and pants and shoes too if it's under 60 or so. Please do not report me to CPS.) Sometimes he doesn't want to come in and eat, so I let him wander around with pieces of cheese or roast beef. Sometimes a bit of dirt ends up in his mouth. He's happy, and I'm happy.

The one thing he does enjoy doing with me is work. He will happily sit on the counter and work the faucet while I do dishes, or help me sponge down the cabinets, or clean up spills on the floor with a rag. He loves to fetch things for me, or put things where I ask him to put them. This is one area where what I believe is the "right thing" isn't the easy thing. It's usually easier to do the work myself. But his instincts demand to learn to do what the adults are doing, and I have to respond to this if I want him to learn to be an adult. So I try to do at least some chores with him every day. If ever he isn't interested, I don't push it, but he's almost always interested.

I hope school will be like this. School is the biggest enemy to libertarian parenting I know of. One day the child is playing in the dirt naked -- the next day he's shoved into "appropriate attire" and forced to sit still all day while information in which he is not interested gets shoveled into his head. It would be impossible to let everyone in a classroom have free choice about anything. (Though even as a teacher, I tried not to micromanage. Once a parent asked me, "My son always tries to do his homework while he's sprawling all over the floor instead of sitting up in a chair. What should I do?" I just couldn't fathom why this was a problem. Wasn't he doing his homework? So, despite the wishes of some of the parents, I did not try to stop their children from fidgeting in my class. It wouldn't have worked anyway.)

But if school is more like, "Hey, you were interested in that one plant, let's go find a book about it," or, "Here is your patch of dirt, what would you like to plant here?" or "I have paper and markers, do you want to write and illustrate a story?" ... well, that I could get behind. I am prepared to do what I'm doing now -- negotiate on all the negotiables. Can we have school outside? Yes! Can we have a day off when we're tired? Sure! Can we go to the fabric store and figure out prices per yard, and call that math? Why the heck not!

But then there's that one, undying, constant objection: how will the children learn they're not in charge unless you're always bossing them around? How will they learn self-discipline if they aren't doing any schoolwork that doesn't interest them? In short, am I setting them up for a lifetime of disappointment because the rest of the world isn't as accommodating as I am?

The short answer: I don't know for sure. I am pretty sure my son knows I'm the boss because I force him into his pajamas at night, force him out of them in the morning to get at his wet diaper, buckle him into his carseat ... and because there is no story-reading, no snacktime, no lap-sitting, no library trips, unless I say so, and I don't always say yes. He already deals with disappointment and frustrated desires at least a half-dozen times a day. Sometimes there are tears. He's learning that he does not control the world.
Meanwhile, I think he learns self-discipline better if I'm not always doing the job for him. I don't force him or threaten him very much; however, he has to sacrifice what he wants sometimes to reach a higher goal. Yesterday, he wanted to go outside. I told him, "Yes, but you will have to put clothes on." "No!" I collected the clothes and sat back down. Periodically, he would come up to me and say, "Outside?" "If you let me put your clothes on." "No!" He'd run away and go play with something else. About the fifth time, half an hour later, he walked up to me and said, "Ready for clothes." And he quietly let me put them on before charging outside. There were no tears. There was no force. He just realized that to get what he wanted, he had to put up with something he didn't want. I let him come to that decision on his own, because I had nowhere to be, and I had the time to let him work through it.

It's moments like that where I really feel this whole thing is going to be a success. Sometimes, the common good comes first, and he has to get wrestled into church clothes whether he wants to go or not. But when I am working on "training" him, when I have time to do what is actually best for him, giving him freedom seems to be working okay.

Am I totally off my nut here? I am beginning to feel like I sound a little ... out there. I'd love to hear if anyone agrees with me.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Providing ain't the half of it

Ask a lot of people what fathers do, and they answer "protecting and providing."  It's short, alliterative, and an easy answer.

But I really don't think that's the half of what a good dad does.  A fatherless child may be protected by the police and provided for by welfare, but that doesn't keep him from still wanting and needing a dad.

What does a dad do?

Well, let me think of things that my dad did for me.

He kept up, over the whole of my childhood, a steady stream of humor, wisdom, and Princess Bride quotes.

He sat on the couch to read, and I would sit beside him, crossing my legs exactly like Daddy had his.  There's a picture of me doing this with my book upside-down.  It wasn't about the book.  It was about being close to Daddy.

There were the Vulcan high-fives, the tickle-fights, the staring contests that could last all of dinner without either of us looking away.

There the wise sayings that will stay with me my whole life -- "You can always cook it more, but you can't cook it less," "The government governs best that governs least," "A government that can give everything to you can take everything from you," "Do or do not, there is no try."

It was my dad who encouraged me to go to community college my senior year of high school, who talked me through my first career decision, who helped me with my math homework when my mom could barely stand to look at the textbook anymore.

My dad was the one who had me read one news article every day and tell him over dinner what I'd found out.  He describes historical events so well we joke he actually was around to see them.

My dad is responsible for my musical tastes -- Moody Blues, Rush, Kansas, Alan Parsons Project -- and my love of science fiction from Star Trek to Babylon 5 to Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.

It's not that I'm ungrateful about the sacrifices he made to bring home a steady paycheck that kept our family going.  But it's the day-in, day-out relationship he had with us that makes more of a difference to me.

John is the same.  Sure, he has a job.  But that isn't the half of what he does.

For the better part of Marko's life, John's been the one to rock him to sleep at night.  When Marko gets hurt, it's Daddy he runs to for a hug.

When I go out with just the kids, Marko clings close to me, nervous, a lot of the time.  If Daddy's there, he feels more secure and confident, and doesn't mind waving at strangers.

John is the one who taught Marko that disgusting things are hilarious (oh dear) and that wearing crazy things on your head is fun.  He pushes Marko to be okay with some of his fears -- like seeing him without glasses on or calling Gilbert "Ultradog."  (I cannot explain why Marko is afraid of these things, but there it is.)

John plays with the boys, swings them around, tickles them, and laughs with them.  He makes them lunch and he comforts them when they're crying.  He tries to make my life easier so that I have an easier time being there for them when he's not.

I'm grateful to John for bringing home the bacon, but there is no way I would ever reduce his value to a paycheck.  He's not a dad eight hours a day, he's a dad twenty-four hours a day.  The boys need him like they need me.  His presence is not optional; it's essential.  He's a real father.

Thank you to both my husband and my father for being the kind of wonderful dad your children need.

Friday, June 14, 2013

7 birthday takes

Yeah, my birthday was last Friday.  I wanted to post about it on the day of, but the day of was way too stressful.


Michael's birthday present to me was being awake from 2:30-4:00 a.m.  And there I was thinking he'd grown out of the "randomly awake for an hour or more in the middle of the night" thing.  He crawls all over me, jumps on me, climbs around in his crib, tries to get down and roam the house, tries to wake up Daddy ... and I just pretend I'm asleep and/or pin him next to me with my arm in the hopes he will drift off.  Ugh.


Marko's gift to me was figuring out how to open John's filing box while I was g-chatting with a friend. I turned around and saw the floor completely strewn with papers ... papers I didn't know how to refile.  Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that because Marko is three and has a general knowledge of what he is and isn't allowed to do, I can take my eyes off him.

Don't blink!


John's gift to me will make this a much better blog.  He replaced my broken camera!  With an actual working one!

So you get pictures like this now:


My mom sent me a box full of different things.  Here is the craziest gift:

Yes, those are Gangnam Style socks.  Don't know what the Korean characters say.


The day after my birthday we planned to go to sheep farm to get some wool. But the farmers weren't available to show us around that day, so we'll have to try some other day.  So then we were going to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, but I couldn't get a sitter.  I spent a short time feeling sorry for myself that I wasn't going to do anything fun for my birthday .... when I noticed the sun had come out and decided we should go down to the river!  I got to go swimming for the first time all year.  I wanted to swim across -- the Shenandoah is not wide here and I've never crossed it before -- but because of the recent rain, it was deeper, wider, and faster than usual, so I opted not to.  I had fun all the same.  So did the kids.  Michael braved the water and let me swish him around.  Marko was emphatically not interested.  He just waded.


Twenty-seven is not a particularly interesting age.  But I have had a really good year.  Somehow I feel like an actual adult this year, more than last year.  Probably because I've formulated a lot more opinions and been willing to stand up for them.  In the past, my habit is to latch onto other people's opinions and tentatively believe them, but without being sure enough to actually claim them in public.

And hey, flying cross-country with two kids is no mean feat either.  Neither is writing a book.


I was feeling like thirty was right around the corner.  Then it occurred to me that when I turn thirty, Marko will be six and Michael will be four.

Nope.  Nowhere close to thirty.

What would I like to happen before I'm twenty-eight?

Hm.  It would be nice if I finished the two nonfiction books I'm working on.  But I am not really buckling down to those yet.  Hopefully by the end of the year, though.  That's not a bad goal.

See more quick takes at Conversion Diary.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Struggling with doubt

Last Sunday, I sat in the pew listening to the choir chant the psalm.  I thought: what if all this is just a bunch of meaningless mummery?  What if the world really did spring into being completely at random?  What if what I call my conscience is just an evolutionarily beneficial instinct toward altruism?  What if my desire to come here and sit in this church is just a fear of death and the inevitable extinction of my consciousness that I am not brave enough to face head-on?

Doubt.  It terrifies me, and not for the reasons you might think.  A world without God would be scary, but a world with God is also scary.  God or no God, I could die tomorrow, or lose all the things in life that are important to me.  God or no God, I will die in next century, guaranteed.  And God or no God, I would still keep the same moral code because I see it to be beneficial.

I just ... in the final calculation, I guess I have more of a relationship with God than I think.  Because even when I'm not sure he exists, I can't bear the thought of losing his friendship.  I guess that's what it's about for me.

But as I sat there, struggling with doubt, we got to the Gospel.  It went like this:

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”  And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.  (Luke 7:11-17)

That blew my mind.  I've heard it a million times before, but think about it.  This Jewish guy, this preacher with no credentials, brought dead people back to life in front of a considerable crowd!  There were witnesses, lots of witnesses, to the fact that he did things no one had ever done before, and no one has been able to do since.  Not just once, but several times -- also Jairus' daughter, and Lazarus, who had been in the tomb for four days.  Jesus wasn't even on the scene when he died, and lots of other people were.  I imagine how I would have felt, having come to mourn with Martha and Mary and instead being faced with Lazarus, staggering out of the tomb, still wrapped in the grave clothes.

We could think even this was a fraud or an amazing coincidence.  But Jesus did us one better.  He raised himself from the dead, something even more incredible.  Lest we think he wasn't really dead, we are told that he was stabbed straight through the heart with a lance.  Then three days later his body went missing and he started showing up alive all over the place.  There were hundreds of witnesses.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  (1 Corinthians 15:1-7)

This isn't just a bunch of hearsay -- Christianity was a full-blown religion getting preached all over the Mediterranean while witnesses were still alive who had seen Christ raised from the dead.  None of Jesus' contemporaries had the slightest explanation for this, except to say that all of those witnesses were lying.

But what if they were lying?  I know a bit about cults.  People lie about a lot of things.  However, when they lie, it's for their own benefit.  True believers can be expected to make extreme sacrifices for their beliefs, but the ringleaders -- the ones who know it's a lie -- don't make sacrifices.  They use the lie to control others, but they make sure to arrange it so that they can lead a comfortable life with plenty of adulation.  It would have been simple enough for the apostles to concede that it was okay to burn a pinch of incense to some idol, and that way they could have kept their cult and their lives.  Instead, eleven out of twelve of the apostles died -- horribly -- rather than make the slightest compromise.  If it was a lie, it was a very stupid lie.

And Jesus was no ordinary prophet either.  The most cursory reading of the Gospels shows that he was making absurd claims about having existed before Moses, that he and God were one, that he would come on the clouds of heaven to judge everyone.  The people who say he was just a good teacher who preached about being nice to people clearly haven't read the story.  Either he was the Son of God, or the biggest fraud who ever lived.  No middle road here.  And given the evidence, it seems reasonable to say that maybe he really was the son of God.

So if I can't independently come to a knowledge of the existence and goodness of God all on my own, that's okay.  God knew I would have trouble with this, and sent his son into the world so that I wouldn't have to wonder.

And as for being a Catholic as opposed to any other type of Christian, that's not a problem for me really.  I don't find Protestantism tempting, because it relies on being able to interpret Scripture for oneself, and I've read the Bible enough to know that's not as easy as it sounds.  The Bible's human writers were a wide variety of people with a lot of baggage, and some of the stories puzzle me that they got into the Bible at all.  The huge divergence in interpretation among different Protestant churches is such as to make one doubt it is at all possible to derive a complete religion out of a book.  My solution is to look at what the contemporaries and immediate successors of the writers thought of it.  And when I look at things the Church Fathers said -- like Ignatius of Antioch, immediate disciple of John the apostle, or Clement of Rome, whom John obeyed even though he was an apostle and Clement was "only" bishop of Rome -- it all sounds very familiar to me.  Doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, the Eucharist, the primacy of Rome, the apostolic succession, all are attested within the first couple of centuries after Christ.  That's kind of mindblowing when you think about it, considering that the Church is 2000 years old.  Nothing else around today has existed in a remotely similar form, founded on the same ideas, for 2000 years.

It all makes me feel a lot better.  Does it do away with all my doubt?  Oddly, no.  But it makes me feel that my belief is not unreasonable -- that despite the mockery and derision I read on the internet, religious people are not all a bunch of wingnuts.  We're believing a credible story that affects our lives.

So, while I am not sure it's all true -- I am hardly sure that I exist -- I'm sure enough to keep at it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The end of privacy

So, this past month has been a big one for government scandals.

There's Benghazi, of course -- that one's ongoing.

There is the one where the IRS targeted tea party groups for audits.  (Jon Stewart is hilarious about it.)

There's the AP phone records scandal.

Then we found out the government has access to all of Verizon's phone records -- who called whom and when -- and is tracking all this information.

And now there's PRISM.  Facebook, Google, all the big internet companies are sharing your data with the US government.

We're not supposed to worry, because they pinky-swear they won't actually look at your data unless you are either a terrorist or a foreigner.  (As per usual, the US government does not consider non-citizens to possess rights.)  But considering that none of the above was done with our knowledge and consent, what makes us assume that what we know is all there is?  If the documents hadn't been leaked, they would still be pretending they weren't accessing our data.  Now they are pretending they won't use it.  The moment they want to badly enough, I think we can safely say they will, if they haven't yet.

I am not personally concerned about this.  I mean, I am used to making a lot of my life fairly public anyway.  Though I do not at all want anyone rifling through my email account, I don't foresee anything more than embarrassment and discomfort if someone did.

But that isn't the point, as far as I can see.  The point is that the government, which supposedly works for us, considers it acceptable to decide for us how much privacy we're allowed to have.  And it also doesn't think it's necessary even to inform us of how much privacy we're allowed to have.  All these surveillance programs are so top-secret that people risk their entire livelihoods every time in order for us to find out they even exist.

I don't have anything (much) to hide.  But what if the government were doing something unjust or illegal?  Say, targeting tea party groups for tax audits, or any other of dozens of scandals we've heard of.  And say you knew about it.  Up to now, it's been fairly simple to call up a journalist, to upload the file onto the internet, and leave few to no tracks.  The more surveillance there is, the more dangerous it is to blow the whistle on corruption.  The more likely you'll be caught and thrown in jail, held without trial, treated to "enhanced interrogation," or just targeted with a drone strike.

Alarmist?  After all, you're not a terrorist, are you?

Think of it this way.  No matter what you believe, there is someone, somewhere, who thinks your beliefs are dangerous.  Believe in same-sex marriage?  You're destroying the fabric of society.  Believe in owning a gun?  You just don't care if children die.

And our government could easily go either way.  It could criminalize gun ownership.  It could criminalize same-sex relationships.  It could decide that you, personally, are an unfit parent because of your parenting choices or your background or your political opinions.  You don't know who's going to be in power in 2016 or 2020, or what laws they will put in place.  But there is always the possibility that they will criminalize something that you believe is morally right.

Up to now, you could keep your private life secret.  Now, it's anyone's guess what's private and what's not.  Did you know it is technically possible to turn your phone's microphone or your computer's webcam on without your knowledge and record what you are saying and doing right now?  If the government were doing this regularly, would it tell you?

I don't mean to scare you.  Okay, maybe I do a little bit mean to scare you.  I think it's important that we meet these actions with indignation, even if after awhile it feels like old news.  We need to fight these things in the political realm so that we never have to try to overthrow a government as powerful as ours has become.

Because this nation was supposed to be a government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people.  This is not a bunch of kids getting mad that their parents read their journals.  We are adults and we have not consented to this level of surveillance. 

Obama has famously said, "You can't have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going have to make some choices as a society."  And he's right.  But we, as a society, have not agreed to the balance we have.  What is the right balance?  50% security, 50% privacy?  100% security, 0% privacy?  What do we have now -- 40% security, 10% privacy, and 50% inconvenience?  Who gets to make the decision about how much privacy we have to give up to be safe?  After all, even if we give up 100% of our privacy, we still won't be 100% safe.  Nothing can do that.  Already the odds of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack are extremely slim -- you are more likely to be struck by lightning.
Now we are faced, not with a decision whether to give up our privacy, but the revelation that our privacy has been gone for years.  We have been operating under an expectation of privacy, only to find that we have been monitored this entire time.  Even if you now start taking more care, it's already too late -- whatever the government has cared to know about you, it has saved on its own servers where you can't get to it.

You know how different countries have been able to throw off oppressive regimes by organizing on Facebook and Twitter?  The only reason they were able to do that is that the United States government chose to let them.  If you want to organize anything now -- at home or abroad -- you pretty much have to send it by personal courier, because there is no other means of communication that might not be monitored.  And if you want to tell your mom, in another state, that you are concerned with how much pot your younger brother is smoking ... maybe you'd better just wait till you see her.  If you work for a government contractor that's doing something unethical, or you know of atrocities committed by the military, and you'd like to blow the whistle ... I guess you are just going to have to go undercover in a foreign country and never see your family again.

Them's the breaks, now.  If you don't like it, maybe it's time to make a fuss about it.

Here are a few of my favorite articles I've read on the topic lately:

Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have Nothing to Hide
"Exclusion occurs when people are prevented from having knowledge about how information about them is being used, and when they are barred from accessing and correcting errors in that data... It is a structural problem, involving the way people are treated by government institutions and creating a power imbalance between people and the government. To what extent should government officials have such a significant power over citizens?"

What We Don't Know About Spying on Citizens: Scarier Than What We Do Know
"Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal -- or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law -- but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we're living in a police state."

All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama
"This isn't a argument about how tyranny is inevitable. It is an attempt to grab America by the shoulders, give it a good shake, and say: Yes, it could happen here, with enough historical amnesia, carelessness, and bad luck. We're not special. Our voters won't always pick good men and women to represent us. Some good women will be corrupted by power, and some bad men will slip through. Other democracies have degraded into quasi-authoritarian states; they didn't expect that to happen until it was too late to stop. We have safeguards to prevent us from following in their footstep. Stop casting them off because you fear al-Qaeda. Stop tempting fate."

What do you think?  Am I just a tinfoil-hat-wearer for caring about this?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Modesty and chocolate cake

I am tired of hearing about modesty.  I'm also tired of debating about modesty.  Honestly, I'm sick to death of modesty.

So the obvious solution is to blog about it, right?

I just felt that it would save me some time if I wrote down, once and for all, what my opinion IS about modesty, so that I don't have to repeat over and over again that no, I don't think we should run around naked, and no, I don't think a burqa would be a good idea.

Modesty is such a loaded topic, and there are extremes of opinion on all sides.  My position is informed by my Catholic faith, but at the same time it appears to be a minority position among Catholics that I know.

What is modesty?  A modest house is one that is pretty small and not fancy.  A modest man is one who doesn't brag.  A modest woman, for whatever reason, is usually defined as a woman who wears plenty of clothing.  And that's what I'm talking about in this post.  Modesty in clothing, which is disproportionately applied to women's clothing.

Here's the argument I am constantly confronted with, which I can't abide:

"Men are very visual creatures.  When they see women who are showing (X body part), they are tempted to lust and objectify her.  And when you walk around wearing (Y outfit), it's like you were following them with a big chocolate cake.  If someone followed you around with a big chocolate cake, sure, you could avoid eating it, but odds are you would give in and eat the cake.  So to be kind to your brothers in Christ, you should wear (Z outfit) instead."

This brings my brain to a screeching halt, and then it goes skittering off the tracks and my head explodes.  Metaphorically.  I get very angry when I see this, because the translation is this:

"Men are such animals they will mentally undress you if they see even a smidge of skin.  Sure, they are adults and can avoid raping you, but odds are, they're going to rape you.  Rather than have them control themselves, you should go a million miles out of your way to avoid ever tempting them with that delicious chocolate cake you call 'your' body."

Yeah, I know that's not what was said.  But it sure sounds like that to me.

I have an issue with pretty much every single premise of this.  First, "men are visual."  Statistically, this is true.  More men are aroused by visual stimuli than women.  But some men aren't very "visual" at all.  And some women are extremely visual.  There is such a thing as porn produced for women.  And then there are all the shirtless Ryan Gosling photos that clutter up my Facebook feed.  We don't call it inappropriate, because when women are visual, it couldn't possibly be objectifying or sexual.

Second, that is our responsibility to keep men from sinning.  We never have the responsibility to stop someone else from sinning.  We have the responsibility not to willfully tempt them to sin.  That's not at all the same thing.  Here's what the Catechism says:

"2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense."

In short: scandal is something deliberate.  Offering an alcoholic a drink and telling him he'll never be cool if he doesn't drink it is a sin.  Drinking at a party where there's an alcoholic there, just because you would like a drink, is not a sin.

Now you can go the extra mile out of charity.  Our family reunions always used to be dry because we did have an alcoholic family member and did not want to tempt him.  But it is the extra mile when we do this.  Nice, not required.

To translate this back to modesty, deliberately hiking up your skirt to catch a man's attention (whether to get him to sleep with you or to get him to do some favor for you) is wrong.  But happening to bend over to pick something up, and having your shirt hike up in back, cannot possibly be a sin because you didn't do it on purpose.

Of course someone could respond, "But couldn't you just not bend over?"

Well, yes.  You could.  But if you want to make this a requirement for everyone, then you have to ask the question, "How far out of your way can men expect women to go in order to make their life of virtue easier?"

How difficult is it for a man to look the other way?  To hear the way some people talk, it's practically impossible, but I'll give men more respect than that.  It's an effort, but not Herculean.  They can do it.

And how difficult is it for women to be modest?  It depends, I guess, on how modest you want me to be.  But basically, if you tell me to "just be modest,"  what you are asking is this: "Conform to a completely arbitrary and shifting standard, which everyone you ask will define differently.  Conform to it every moment of your life, not only when you get dressed in the morning, but whenever you move around.  At all times, think of what men may be tempted to think about you.  When you are a teenager and struggling to accept your changing body, make sure you think of it as an evil thing or at least as a chocolate cake, something that exists to be looked at and must be concealed at all costs or it will send people to hell.  Accept being embarrassed and shamed by authority figures who tell you to stop wearing or doing what you are, on the grounds that someone has been or could be aroused by it.  Accept that your body is, at all times, being objectified by men.  Parts of your body that you've always thought of as completely functional, like legs or shoulders, you must now consider to be sexual because men think of them as sexual.  Acknowledge that your body does not belong to you, but to everyone who sees it, because everyone now has the right to comment on it and make decisions about it."

Too much?  All I can say is, this is the impression I get from all the modesty stuff I read.  At first it doesn't seem so bad, but then there are those who always have to urge you to go further. If you don't believe me, try reading Dressing With Dignity.  According to that book, only elbow-length sleeves and ankle-length dresses are acceptable.

But there are explanations for modesty that don't have to do with protecting men from being lustful.  John Paul II, for instance, talked a lot about objectification.  People are not to be treated like objects.  That means using another person for personal gratification, or separating out their body from their soul and focusing only on their body.

This resonates with me, because I know exactly what objectification feels like.  I am incredibly sensitive to it, in fact.  The moment that someone looks at my body instead of my face, I feel ... used.  Abused, almost.  It's the same way with touching.  If you are close to me emotionally, if you are part of my family or a close friend, I love to be touched.  Hugs, shoulder pats, snuggles.  But I stiffen up like a board when strangers presume on that.  It's my body and I feel I should have some say in who touches or looks at it.  Because of this, I am very modest.  I chose before marriage never to undress in front of anyone at all, doctors included.  I gave birth in nightgowns and I refused vaginal exams because I hate to be treated like a piece of meat.  And what I choose to wear is usually pretty frumpy, because the thought of someone lusting after me is utterly horrifying.

But on the other hand, what can I do?  I have to go out in public sometimes, and people are going to look at me.  I can't control what part of me they focus on, and I can't help it if they imagine more than I'm showing.  And when I read things like this rather creepy survey of young men about women's clothes and behavior, I want to never leave the house again.  These young men mostly are rather reasonable, but there's always the five or ten percent who believe it's immodest if a girl wears overalls, or lies down on a couch, or stretches, or wears earrings.  They admit to imagining her clothes coming off.  They explain that it doesn't matter if the woman is their sister or mother, they're going to lust after her anyway.

Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick.  I would wear a full robe and veil, but apparently even that doesn't help.  Men are going to treat me as an object no matter what I do.

What makes me, personally, comfortable is to look as androgynous as possible.  I guess I'm hoping that men won't notice I'm female and perhaps will just treat me as a person.  I know it doesn't always work -- even on the internet there are men who discount what I say because I am female.  But in my day-to-day life, it's easier for me to deal with my social anxiety in jeans and a t-shirt.

But can I make this a rule for anyone else?  Definitely not.  In fact, not everyone can look like a man from the neck down the way I can.  And of course someone is going to demand I wear a skirt instead so I can be pretty enough to look at, like this creep: "Do this for us, the minority of chaste men who merit the gift of enjoying your beauty in such a way as to be grateful to your creator without temptation. Make it so it is good for men to look upon you, rather than requiring us to look away (which is a tragedy)."

Newsflash: My body exists for me.  It is me.  It does not exist for anyone else to look at.  It does not exist for my husband to look at.  When my husband and family members look at me or touch me, they are doing so as part of a relationship with the whole of me.  My body is the way I interact with the world.  It's not a museum piece or a chocolate cake or anything else besides a person.

If I could make a rule for everyone else, which I am loth to do, it would be this: Wear what everyone else is wearing.  Don't be the person in the room showing the most skin, because that will draw a lot of attention, and quite possibly not a kind you like.  But if you are wearing roughly what other people wear, no one is likely to pay a whole lot of attention.  Your average man in the world today has seen so many naked women, in real life and online and in movies, that he will not be that impressed with your short skirt.  Your average homeschooled boy of fifteen will be shocked and scandalized that you exist at all.  There's no helping it, so just try to be appropriate for the environment you're in.

Don't believe me?  Here's Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II:

Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

The post where I found this quote is also very much worth reading.

But really, what attracts men is hardly the standard.  First, being attracted to someone is not a sin, which is something I wish more young, religious guys knew.  Staring at them, objectifying them, deliberately imagining them naked ... those are all sinful.  And these are all free-will decisions which men can avoid.  But to be attracted, interested, even aroused, are things that happen subconsciously without your consent.  They aren't sins.

And second, what you wear is about you, not about anyone else.  When you drive a nice car, do people put you down for tempting others to envy it or steal it?  When you bake cookies and post the pictures on Facebook, do people ask you to remove them because you are making it hard for them to keep up with their diets?  When you are annoying, do people ask you to stop because you are inciting them to wrath?  (Well, maybe.)  But overall, this is the only situation where we are considered to be morally obliged to consider the possibility that someone may sin before we act.  In every other situation, the standard is not to deliberately tempt them to sin.

This is how I see it: it's wrong to objectify people, to use their bodies as objects while ignoring their personhood.  It's wrong to do it to someone else, no matter what they are wearing.  And it's also wrong to do it to yourself. 

Hiking up your skirt in the hopes of getting someone to give you a ride (do people do this anymore? I sure hope not), flashing the bouncer to get into the club, wearing a low-cut top while teaching middle-school boys in the hopes of dazing them into behaving --- all of these are separating your body from your personhood and using it as a tool to manipulate other people.  You're recognizing your body as a something that has power over the opposite sex, but you're taking unfair advantage of that power.  I think that's wrong.

But wearing what most people normally wear, because you like to be pretty?  I just don't think that's wrong.  Of course you have to consider the circumstances.  You might wear less at a secular event, where everyone is in short dresses, than you do at a dance for homeschoolers.  Hopefully you are aware that sheltered kids are easy to shock, and you wouldn't want to do that because you're a nice person.  On the other hand, if someone is scandalized by the most common styles of bathing suits, you can't protect them just by never swimming, because other people are still going to be wearing bathing suits at the beach.  In this case, maybe the one who struggles with lust should avoid beaches.  Better to cast out your right eye than to sin, right?  And no one has the right to demand that other people make their struggles with sin easy for them.

But overall, I'll reiterate what I've said before: keep your eyes on your own work. If it's not your body, you don't get to say what it gets to wear.

Here are things I never want to see or hear again -- false arguments about modesty that are harmful to all of us:

*"Men are more visual, so it doesn't matter what men wear, only what women wear."  FALSE.  Anyone has the potential to objectify someone else (and I would argue passing around shirtless pictures of actors is just that).  And anyway, isn't it unfair to expect women to bear the entire burden of men's struggles with chastity?  Look, if you are a man and think it's a woman's job to dress with a mind to your disordered passions, meet us halfway.  Wear shirts.  Always.  We always have to, and at least it would show that you are sincere and not just trying to control women.  (This parody is meant for laughs, but it has a real point.)

*Any comparison of women to cookies or cakes or any other object.  Objectification isn't just done when we lust after people.  It's whenever we treat people like they aren't people.  Women have been objectified since the dawn of time.  It's time to stop doing it.

*Telling teenage girls that all men are helpless lumps of lust and desire.  For one thing, that's disrespectful of men, who often have worked hard to raise themselves above this level.  And on the other, it makes girls afraid of men and positive that everyone is staring at them.  It is impossible to describe the level of self-consciousness that teenage girls have.  Don't make it worse.  If you have to tell your daughter, "Don't wear that, because I said so," I still think that's better than the "men are ravening lions" thing.

*Modesty talks that consist of describing which body parts men are fantasizing about, discussed in mixed company or on the internet.  Not only could it be an occasion of sin for the boys, but how do you think the girls feel, having our bodies publicly dissected like that?  That's objectification too.

*Double standards for girls with certain body types.

*Guilt about men going to hell and how it will all be YOUR fault; guilt about how Our Lady always wore robes and do you think you're better than her?  Surely we can persuade with better than guilt.

Lately there's been a bit of pushback against the modesty ideal, and I think it's refreshing, though it's sad to read some of the stories of women who have been hurt by an incorrect view of modesty.  One good article is Elizabeth Esther's post here.  Then there's this series: The Story of Me and Modesty, Modesty as she is taught, and Modesty: My Solution.

What is your standard?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The real problem is materialism

It's pretty universally agreed that our world is in bad shape nowadays.  People of a more liberal persuasion blame capitalism.  If only as many resources were spent on raising children or protecting the environment as on advertising, they claim, the world would be a better place.

Conservatives blame feminism.  With all those women going to work instead of saying home with their kids, we shouldn't be surprised that society is falling apart in many ways, poverty is growing, and crime is rampant.

But maybe they're both wrong.  I mean, I am a feminist capitalist, and yet I think we could do better than we're doing, by a long shot.

The trouble, it seems to me, is more a question of priorities than of ideologies.  I can agree that the free market is the best way to serve our needs -- but that doesn't mean I am free to practice business in an unethical way.  I can agree that women should have equal opportunities at work, without saying that kids don't need to be taken care of.

Let's talk about capitalism first.  In our current free market, it is possible for business owners to practice their trades in ethical ways.  The trouble is that people don't think they have to do it.  If I have to hear the words "private vice is public virtue" one more time, I think I'll scream.  Vice is vice, virtue is virtue.

Okay, an example.  Say it is cheap to run a sweatshop in hazardous conditions, and more expensive to pay employees a just wage and give them a safe working environment.  Capitalism says the business owner should pick the cheaper option, right?

Wrong.  Capitalism says the business owner can choose what he wants to do.  And an ethical person would choose the ethical option.

Ah, but what if he wants to make money more than he wants to do the right thing?  Well, then the customers can pressure him.  They can refuse to buy the sweatshop clothes.  In this way they can make it much more expensive to use a sweatshop, because of the lost business.

But in order to make capitalism work, you have to be vigilant.  You have to take responsibility yourself.  And you cannot -- you must not -- say, "Well, that's the way the market works, I have nothing to do with it."  The market is not a person; it has no morals.  But you are a person, and you do have morals.

Business people do the wrong thing all the time, sadly.  They say things like, "This isn't a very good product, but I sell it because there's demand for it.  Not my fault if it breaks after a month."  Or, "I know I'm overcharging, but everyone else does it too."  Or, "Sure, there's no way they can live on this wage.  But if they agree to it, it must be good enough."  That is no way for a decent person to talk.  Read the social encyclicals, what they say about the unbridled market that sees people as mere numbers.

The fact is that as humans and as moral actors, material considerations shouldn't be the only things on our minds.  John was criticizing Chik-Fil-A years ago as uncapitalist.  He said that they aren't just selling a product, they are selling a feeling of self-righteouness.  Well, of course they are.  So is Starbucks, when they sell fair-trade coffee.  Why shouldn't we buy a product that serves our moral values as well as our material ones?

When capitalism is working, that's what happens.  We have the economic freedom to choose an ethical product or an unethical one; our job is to pick the ethical one.  When we don't do this, capitalism will result in injustice.

Meanwhile, feminism isn't the problem either.  It isn't primarily about mothers going to work while the kids are raised by the television.  Feminism is about giving women choices.  And the right choices are going to be ones that serve not only our own needs, but those of our families as well.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the only thing that is going to make things fair for women, allowing them to gt paid equally, use their talents equally, and get promoted equally .... is for men to step up and make their kids a priority too.  Women are penalized because they tend to be more family-oriented and put their kids before their careers.  But what if everyone put kids before careers?  What if it was expected that people didn't stay late at work because the kids need to be picked up at daycare ... and leaving at five was considered a responsible, appropriate thing to do?  What if pretty much everyone made an effort to take a career break when their kids were small?

Well, it would stop pitting women's needs against children's needs, for one thing.  Here is a great article about men doing just that: Men get serious about work-life balance.

The problem is not capitalism, and it's not feminism.  It's materialism.  When we put money or worldly respect over the needs of others, especially our families -- it does not matter what your economic system or ideology is.  Your system will be unjust, and it will fail.  We don't need a different ideology.  We need to put our priorities in the right place.  In short, we need to practice virtue.
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