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.

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.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Words change their meaning over time and there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t try. The original meaning of prevent was simply to come (vene) before (pre) something,  a synonym for precede,  as in “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.” (Psalm 119:147). The word no longer has this meaning except in that it carried the idea of something preceding a potential event and stopping it. To use the archaic meaning today  could cause problems, what would the police make of the statement “I prevented the burglar entering the house” ? I doubt it would help communication. Words change their meanings and we adapt and use them appropriately.

However, it is important to know that these changes are taking place as sometimes they also signify a significant change in society as well as vocabulary. I though of this while watching television adverts for potato products. Adverts about families are very keen to stress that “families come in all shapes and sizes” and that the old idea of mother-father-children is archaic and redundant. I wondered if this was true. It is true that dogs come in all shapes and sizes (from chiwawas to great danes) as do cats and other types of animal.  But what is it that makes a dog a dog and and  a cat a cat ? Are they all just animals and it is unimportant ? Will Timmy, with his heart set on a puppy for Christmas, be over the moon with his Iguana – animals come in all shapes and sizes ?

What is it in a family, whatever form it takes, that makes it a family ? Why are a group of workmates not a family ? Why is my estranged brother still family even  though I don’t see him ? Why is my best friend, who I see daily and has supported me through thick and thin, not my family ? I think there are two factors.

Firstly there is the biological relationship.  We are genetically linked to our family. My brother and cousins share a genetic closeness with me that others do not. The same applies to family trees in animals. Two dogs, no matter how different, are more alike that a dog and a cat no matter how superficially similar. This relationship by blood is very important. I watch on the farm as animals maintain their family groups for life despite the hurdles that are put in their way. Humans are no different, and the maternal and paternal bonds are the most obvious sign of this blood relationship. The feelings of parents for children are very special and lead to very special behaviours which nurture and protect children as they grow. It is one of the core values of the family both to the individual child and to our society. This blood relationship is half of the answer, but only half.

Parents are not blood related, this would be a very bad idea. Their linkage is purely personal and social. It is a choice commonly described as based on ‘love’. But what makes this bond any different to any other ? I think there are clues in two common sayings. Firstly we believe “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” and secondly we often hear crime syndicates, such as the mafia, described as the family because “nobody leaves the family”. I think the second bond that makes families different is that the bonds are binding and life-long. Once you enter into this relationship it is difficult, or impossible, to leave. I have my suspicions that this enduring closeness, this living together through good times and bad, is actually what creates love. Attraction brings people together, love develops when we travel through life with a companion, when we share our life with another person.

This combination of blood relationships and life-long commitments have been a boon to humans, and other animals, in creating stable social structures in which to grow offspring. It is true that today we feel we have evolved beyond the need for these traditional structures  but the evidence would not tend to support this belief. Our statements that families ‘come in all shapes and sizes’ is more a statement of hope that the way we live now is as effective as the old family based on consanguinity and permanent relationships. Time will tell.

Family now has a new meaning as a ‘collection of people who elect, for the time being, to live together in some arrangement’. We should be aware of this when we use the term today, as we can no longer make the presumptions we formerly did. Family no longer means we can presume constancy, the presence of parental love, the likelihood of altruistic behaviour, and so on. It is a word so diminished of meaning as to have little value (though it does help sell chips on television adverts), it might mean mum, dad and the kids or it might mean two dads and no kids or a kid with two mums and one dad. It starts to be able to include a dog, or a cat, a budgie or an iguana. Not only is it not helpful it might also impair communication as people think it still has its archaic meaning. They may make unwarranted assumptions based on their past associations of the word ‘family’.

Let’s leave family to its new meaning and try and find a new term for the families animals, and increasingly fewer humans, live within. A word to describe a unit formed for the duration of the life of the members, usually in order to  bear and nurture children. Perhaps another archaic word could be brought out of retirement and pressed into service, what about either of ‘kith and kin’ ?

 

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

As the relentless march of time carries me ever onwards towards my demise I find, perhaps as a useful reminder, that I spend increasing times at funerals. It seems that each month I am on a pew listening to the service, recalling the life of a friend or acquaintance. Each time I am aware at how increasingly close to my age they were when they passed. I listen to the services and to the stories of the lives of my friends and find it very comforting that everyone gathers together to remember the departed and to show respect for their life.

This respect is real. It doesn’t depend on the person having done anything spectacular or unusual it is simply respect for a life well lived : a parent to brought up children, a spouse who supported their partner, a neighbour who played a part in the community. It is respect earned by living a good, normal life. However, it is not shallow respect or deference, this is respect that was earnt as it came by the passing of time. It came by being a good person day in and day out for years. It follows from raising children to their maturity. It is respect when a spouse helps through the thin times as well as the good. It is respect that is often earned in those times at the end of our lives when illness and infirmity make our lives harder. A partner who sees beyond these elderly problems and gives support and love despite them certainly deserves anyone’s respect.

We often talk of love in our teenage and early adult years when we are setting out on the road of our lives. The songs we hear are about our love being as deep as the oceans or as wide as the mountains. We will face and conquer all for the person that has conquered our heart. But how little we know. In many developed countries the average length of a marriage, until separation or divorce, is a little over 10 years. The romantic songs of our youth often profess undying love but for many a decade is the length of eternity.

At these funerals I hear the tales of marriages which have lasted decades. Stories of couples who, split by death, lived longer together than they ever did apart. Stories of children bereft of parents who have always been part of their lives. It is clear when you listen to these tales of normal life that there were good times and dark times, but the latter were faced down and defeated. It is clear that, it is the sharing of these difficulties that is important in the person’s love, probably more so than the simple sharing of enjoyment. During these years families and couples grow into each other and grow deeper in love. Like watching a vine growing over the years round a tree, in time the vine supports the weak and broken branches; were the vine not there neither would be the tree. Pleasures are important, and obviously enjoyable, but it is the facing difficulties together that tempers love and makes it stronger. The more problems you solve together the deeper is your attachment and affection.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A love that cannot overcome difficulties is a weaker thing, these elderly couples demonstrate that their love was so strong that, ultimately, only death could break them apart and, even then, could not break their love. These eulogies of the bereft are the love songs of the elderly and they remind us that love can last for ever. They sing not of the possibilities of love but of the proof of enduring love over time. They also remind us that working to stay together can strengthen and deepen love. We should be wary of viewing love through the eyes of the young and foolish, looking only for pleasure and joy. No-one’s life can be unalloyed joy we will all need to face difficulties, dangers and disappointments. If we have a family these dangers will be multiplied (although so will the joys). Finding someone who cares about you enough to stand by you throughout is a remarkable feat and should demand that you are steadfast in return. If both of you can do this, you will have found something the young can only sing about.

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,

the last of life, for which the first was made.

 

Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;

Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”


Robert Browning

Boys will probably be boys.

Boys will probably be boys.

I am obliged to go against the current cozy consensus, to say something different to the accepted viewpoint and, in the process, lay myself open for criticism. I am going to say something that is shocking, probably heretical, and in the current climate may lead to my being ostracized. I am going to say that there are differences between women and men, between boys and girls, which are not socially created but relate to our biology. There are innate differences in a some of our behaviours, our drives and our instincts which arose after millennia of evolution as a species. There, I have said it, let the heavens open. This is simply a fact, although unusually for one of my opinions, a fact with which most of science agrees.

Why have I found myself spouting heresies today ? Well, it all has to do with a racing car driver. I can confess that I actually felt rather sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. Why do I feel sorry for the handsome, wealthy, skilled and famous car racing star ? I felt sorry for him as he was forced to make an apology for a piece of playfulness with his nephew which revealed he did not toe the party line. In a piece of family banter, in a jovial mock-angry voice he said that “boys don’t wear princess dresses” while teasing his nephew, who seemed to be enjoying the attention from his famous uncle. Cue synthetic shock and horror from the social media watchmen who called out his “horrific” “transphobia“. After a short period of sustained attack, Lewis Hamilton came back with the required abject grovelling apology. However, it seems that this may not have been an adequate Mea Culpa as he is now being criticised  for inadequate sincerity in his shame. The intolerance of the social media clerisy is quite remarkable, they will not tolerate any views which deviate from the current accepted norms, no alternative views will be brooked.

Now I think Lewis Hamilton was wrong, of the things which might be social constructs I am pretty certain that styles of clothing is amongst them. In different cultures, and across different times, that which is suitable for girls and boys to wear has varied; style sense is not inherited (Although I can’t think of a culture promoting princess apparel to its boys). But it does not matter that he is wrong. He expressed his opinion and he has hurt no-one. He should be free to do this without the fear of mock outrage. Further, it is the family’s role to rear children and to instil values and attitudes in them – nobody else has that right. I disagree with many religions but believe that religious parents  have the right to instruct their children as they wish. I disagree with my conservative voting neighbours but do not feel that I have any right to stop them passing their opinions onto their children. Indeed, as long as they are not harming their children, I want families to instruct their offspring as it is them who teach the young how to be good, how to be moral, how to be a good man or a good woman. Sometimes their views on morality and goodness will not concur with mine, but these differences are the grit in the oyster of our culture which generates discussion and change. Tolerating these differences is one of the hallmarks of a civilised and open society. Watching people publicly shamed for unfashionable opinions is reminiscent of the stocks or the show trials and should cause free thinking people to be concerned.

The rights of the individual are closely allied to the family unit. The family unit allows us to act and exist outside of the state and the state has, for a long time, had an ambivalent view of the family : positive in that it cares for the young and the sick, negative as it may instil ideas of which it disapproves. It is still largely within the family that we develop our moral compass although the state’s roles in education and healthcare have reduced this somewhat. Capitalism sees less need for the nuclear or extended family, from the market’s viewpoint the more people producing and the more people consuming the better. Traditional families are perhaps inefficient in market terms in the developed west, the family model works best as a unit of production rather than as a unit of consumption. Socialist thinking has been more generally hostile to the family, it recognised that the family is a place of education and instruction which is not under state control and therefore potentially problematic. In 1920 Alexandra Kollontai wrote the set text on family organisation under communism. She wrote :-

The old family, narrow and petty, where the parents quarrel and are only interested in their own offspring, is not capable of educating the “new person”. The playgrounds, gardens, homes and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators will, on the other hand, offer an environment in which the child can grow up a conscious communist who recognises the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.

 and promised that :-
She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Unfortunately it seems that this attack on the family where different opinions might flower continues. If we allow this censorious and intolerant development our future abilities to recognise and defeat authoritarianism will be sorely damaged.  Policing the family has always been a priority for authoritarian regimes, recall the importance given to the Hitlerjugend and the Komsomol in Germany and the Soviet Union, and remember that these were very early developments of fascist societies. A society which will not allow dodgy joke between family members is treading a dangerous path.