Chipping away at the family.

Chipping away at the family.

Families come in all shapes and sizes” , a common saying and one which is largely true. However, as I watch adverts in the run up to Christmas (such as the one for frozen chips below) I realize that there is a problem; we are so keen to promote one thing that we lose sight of something else. Our recognition of what constitutes a family is being eroded and chipped away.

These adverts obviously celebrate the diversity which exists in our culture and we are happy to see such differences welcomed and minority groups presented in a positive light. However, the idea that “differences” are what make a family is clearly wrong. Family, if it means anything, means similarity and relationship. Families, as we are all aware, are not something we choose but a non-optional group into which we are born. We choose our friends, our colleagues, our partners but not our family.

Left and right political thought has been chipping away at the idea of the family for some time. The family is an awkward social unit for both sides of the debate.

On the right, the desire to maximise economic growth sees the family as an inefficient unit – much better to have two adults working than only one and the other staying in the family to rear and nurture children. Even better, if this childrearing and nurturing itself can become an industry and profit gleaned from the labour of others by providing childcare and rearing services. The right matches the approach of economic freedom (we are all free to make money as best we are able) with individual freedom (our relationships are only valuable in as far as they make us happy). Ideas that duty and responsibility could be superior to profit or happiness are an anathema to those of a neo-liberal or libertarian inclination. The right undermines the family by promoting greater material wealth and promising greater individual choice.

On the left, the family is seen as a reactionary unit and a bulwark against the influence of the state. Families protect and support themselves, a task increasingly seen as a job for the welfare state. Even worse families educate and instruct their children; in the state’s eyes this tends to be seen as indoctrination, and that is better done by them. The left’s understandable desire to tackle such problems as gender inequality or religious intolerance lead it to see the family as largely in negative terms; something from which we need to escape!

These views ignore that facts that for most of us the family has been our greatest support and protection. During our evolution the family group has allowed us to avoid the limitations of our weak and limited bodies and provide a structure which keeps our infants and children safe and provided for at their most vulnerable time. Families also unshackled us from our genes; by being able to teach our children and pass on the wisdom that adults had gathered we were no limited to a knowledge set that was hard-wired in at birth.

This doesn’t mean that we have to look at families askance if they don’t have the traditional make-up of mum, dad and kids; but it does suggest that we should promote the basic idea of the family. That is, of a group comprising parents and children bound together in a permanent, mutually loving bond. This unit is formed by the decision to have and rear children and to take care of each other. It is not formed simply by desires; you may love who you will, but simply loving someone does not make them family – family is a much deeper commitment. Fortunately our nature helps us here, we have literally evolved so that we have innate love for our children and family we don’t have to work that hard at it – usually.

Permanence is key here, the contract is such that it takes major steps (and usually death) to leave the unit. To all intents and purposes, once you are a member of a family, that is it, for good. No matter how much you may wish it you can never stop being a son or a brother or a mother. These roles are non-optional. Even though we may stop being husband or wife we do not stop being mum or dad. It is because marriage is the traditional first step in family formation that it is an interpersonal contract very different to all the others we may make. Now that we have decoupled sex and reproduction we need to give more thought to this area. There is still a need for a special contract, essentially permanent, which we need when we intend to create a family but do not require when we simply seek mutual pleasure and happiness with another person.

With our current progression we may manage to replace the family with material abundance and a benevolent welfare state. We may hope in doing so we also find greater happiness as we have greater individual freedom and more choice. However, it is not how much choice we have that matters most but whether we are able to make good choices. For ourselves, for our race and for our planet it is probable that our best choice would be to eschew the desire for more and better, and aim to find our pleasure in small groups, adequacy and fairness, mutual respect and toleration or, put more simply, in family life.

In times of crisis, our instincts are to try and return to our families. In essence this is what families are. They are the place we feel safe, where we are tolerated whatever our differences, and where we can be forgiven whatever has befallen us. They are the place we will be cared for regardless of our wealth or ability. They are our refuge when the whole world seems to be rising up against us. A family is not simply eating chips together, nor is it a place where we eat together with a familiar group, that is a usually termed a canteen. We may manage to replace the family, but if we do, we should prepare to spend our emotional lives in works or community canteens eating chips. We may be adequately fed but this may be much less satisfying than we hoped for.

The worst job in the world.

The worst job in the world.

Things came to a head this morning; early this morning at about 4 a.m. in the small hours. Since the end of last week I have been having problems with toothache. At first it was an episodic pang when I bit down on something, followed by a dull ache which last up to an hour or so. On Friday I tried to see my dentist before the weekend started but discovered that he was not at work due to ill-health on his own part. I took the receptionist’s advice on how to contact the emergency NHS dental services, should I need to, and got ready to cope over the weekend.

Friday night was bearable. I slept fitfully and the pain only required me to rise once to take painkillers. Through Saturday there were few gaps in the pain other than those obtained by generous doses of paracetamol and ibuprofen. These two in combination seemed to work for about 4 hours and although this was adequate through the day it meant I was not prepared for the night.

Saturday night/ Sunday morning was dreadful. I woke in the early hours and took my meds (a dose over the maximum for paracetamol) to discover now that they only afforded 3 hours relief at maximum. The hour after they have stopped working when you have to wait to take the next dose is one of the longest hours I have known. Time passes even more slowly in the dark of night with no distractions. By 6 a.m. I was on the phone to the emergency NHS line and discovered where the three emergency clinics were in my area. I was told they opened at 9a.m. but to get there as early as possible as treatment was on a first come first served basis and there was a limit to the number of slots available.

Now the three clinics were hardly convenient, this is one of the penalties of rural life, and all required a 1 1/2 to 2 hour drive to reach. We chose the nearest and after a quick milking of the goats we were off (The goats were quite surprised to be milked in the dark but took this in their stride. The roads were empty on an early Sunday morning and we made good time. We arrived at 8:15, well in time for a clinic opening at 9a.m., or so we thought. As we left the car, a lady walked up to the car parked next ours. “There’s no chance of an appointment” she said “I’m just back from the other clinics and they are all fully booked too“. Ever optimistic we went into the clinic anyway.

In the waiting area were at least 20 people all clutching their head or face, some showing signs of having been crying and other with facial swellings suggesting dental abscesses. Then we realised we had seen a similar number of people outside. Car were parked and couples inside sat with their heads in their hands either through pain or despair.

This is where I met the lady with the worst job in the world. The receptionist behind the desk listened politely and kindly to my tale of toothache and early morning long-distance drives to get help and then, very nicely, told me that there was nothing she could do. 20 patients had arrived earlier than me and that was their limit, perhaps I’d like to try again tomorrow ? As she told me this, she took two phone calls during which she informed the caller that they were too late (08:30 for a clinic that started at 09:00) and there was no point in coming in. As we were finishing up an elderly lady, with a swollen cheek, and in clear pain arrived at the desk and started to go through her story. I didn’t want to watch but as we left I heard the words “sorry” and “too late” and I could guess the rest. Walking back to the car we saw two more cars arrive the occupants looking optimistic when they saw the sign for ‘Dental Clinic’ and realised the lights were on (as it was till dark). I could not dash their hopes and left them to walk down to reception.

I can not imagine a worse job that that receptionist’s. She had to sit and meet people suffering pain, and seeking aid, and let them know there was nothing for them. She had no sops she could offer and no excuses. The service just isn’t there. She was excellent at her job. She was kindly and I fear anyone less skilled, or perhaps curt, would have run the risk of provoking violence form their distressed clientele. The idea of starting a shift knowing that the morning will comprise of telling people in pain that they must go away, as there is no help available for them, would fill me with dread. It needs somebody kind and compassionate to do this job but I fear the job will harden the heart of the worker and make them unsuitable for the post. Hopefully the lady today will be moved to another post where her excellent people skills will be able to be used in an more positive manner and she might get some of the feedback she deserves.

Anyway the hunt for a dentist restarts tomorrow and tonight I have a cunning plan which involves quite a bit of whisky – wish me luck !

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.