First & Last Defense

Mitch observes in a comment that his first responsibility was to his wife and children. Implicit in most of our assumptions is that rings begin with our nuclear family (if we don’t get that right, how can we be expected to get our larger responsibilities right). For those of us earthy types with whom this resonates, Rousseau’s theories don’t have a chance. We figure, well, hell, look what he did with his children – someone blessed with his extraordinary myopia/selfishness in such personal terms can not be taken seriously.

This is what we keep coming back to on this blog: as nature (or the barbarians) break in a series of defense walls, the last one is the first – the protection with which we surround our family.

But there is yet another level – the internalization of values so that our acts are not driven by the external but rather are internal, our virtue ntrinsic. Our society nurtures this in us even as it disciplines us from without.

Civilization has spent thousands of years leading us to defend the poor and vulnerable. We believe that is what a man does. If we see it only in terms of the external, when that external fails, we are left with the Superdome. There we saw how much we depend on that personalization and internalization of virtue. We count on that semi staying between the lines, the institutions to which we entrust our money not stealing, our armed forces not staging a coup. Of course, the reasons we live our lives with such expectations is not because they haven’t the power but because they do not want to do so. It would be wrong.

While “learned dependence” may have led to some of the saddest and most dysfunctional behaviors of the last decades, another pernicious argument has been that western culture was designed to subjugate the weak and vulnerable. So, it was argued, such institutions as the church and the family, the armed forces and capitalism were all designed solely to enhance men’s (white men’s) power. Perhaps some of you remember a few decades ago when the assumption that the patriarchal family led to the molestation of daughters was current. (Jane Smiley’s 1000 Acres, which I sent cheerfully to my family because here was a modern author that actually described plains farming, was an example. As I finished the book, I felt embarrassed by my own superficiality.)

Of course, such a theory found blurring the definition of family useful. But when statistics were later sorted through, the fact (that any evolutionary biologist would predict) was clear: molestation was seldom by biological fathers but rather by step-fathers & mother’s boyfriends. Our institutions were built on an instinctive understanding of what works best to continue our civilization. Not surprisingly, such ad hoc families do not provide the stability or even safety that a traditional family does. Children’s safety is put at risk when institutions, built with so much difficulty over such a long period, are razed.

When I taught at a minimum security prison my students tended to see discipline pretty much as exerted on them, as external.* I pointed out the concentric circles moving toward constricting our behavior – the law, peer pressure, our conscious consciences. Their feelings about child abuse, however, were deep. Do we want, I asked them, to know that our neighbor is constrained from molesting our child merely by the law (the stronger neighbor could certainly frighten our child into submission)? Or peer pressure (again, this might not be so easily known by those who disapproved or the conduct might be spun in some way, since our neighbor is also more sophisticated and verbal than our child)? Wouldn’t we most like our neighbor to be constrained by the fact that he finds hurting children in any way abominable, something he would never do. Of course, even people whom society had found it necessary to imprison understood which situation they would choose. Internal constraints are described by the Puritans as “freeing” us – and in important ways they do.

The more our controls are internalized, the fewer laws; broader, harsher, and less merciful ones are derived from a stronger and more pervasive need. The more intrusive laws are then the less our apparent need for internalization–and more, perhaps, our real one. With a strong and intrusive state, laws become crutches – if it is legal, it is moral. But, of course, the bigger the system the more easily it is manipulated by the powerful and the more draconian the price paid by the weak.

Our founders understood constraints need to be yet bigger and harsher the more power we give one person – how much more so when we give the state a pervasive power. Indeed, it is in such leaders and in such states that internalization of even the strongest is likely to break down: Power tends to corrupt we repeat often. As Bill Clinton observed, he did it because he could. (And we should be thankful that, generally, what he did was more tawdry than evil.) Our leaders, too, need internalized constraints.

When we watch the heroism in Hotel Rwanda, we realize it is Paul Rusesabagina, first protecting his family then protecting larger and larger circles of people, whose firm sense comes from an internalization of values we find admirable. Riots and mobs are a rule by the passions of peers – our individual constraints have disappeared.

Durbin and Kennedy seem to forget what Roberts doesn’t – that the little guy is vulnerable if the rule of law is made partisan, is made ideological, is made class or gender specific. (As white guy senators they should know. That they don’t reflects little self-consciousness.) The very senators who with bombastic pride insist they are “caring” for the “little guy” miss the point. The rule of law helps the little guy by not helping the little guy – by enforcing a set of standards that will be applied to all in a fair way. These senators don’t, I suspect, care about the little guy nearly as much as they care about the little guy’s vote. Our courts are another of our great institutions, erected not to harm the vulnerable but to offer an accountable, reliable, predictable, transparent system through which both little guy and big guy can move; they move at the same pace, to the same rules. The vulnerable are protected by that transparency and those rules. It is not a surprise, then, that the justices whom Durbin and Kennedy admire are the ones who voted for Kelo and those whom Bush admires are those who voted against. And we have our suspicions about who favors the “little guy”: which is vulnerable – the developer or the owner of the plot forced to sell?

This thinking was prompted by watching a few moments of the posturings of Durbin but especially of Ted Kennedy. The latter kept emphasizing the need for laws to protect women. That someone with the proclivities of Kennedy himself would be for abortion is not surprising to anyone who has lived very long and observed and been buffeted by relationships. That his deepest motivation is a desire to protect a woman strains credulity. His definition of “mainstream” also challenges belief when we find his own sisters active in the pro-life movement. He argues Roberts has not shown sufficient understanding of women’s needs. These must be, Kennedy argued, sustained and protected by laws that favor women. In other words, to Kennedy, our courts and our policing are the primary definers and defenders of women’s freedom and dignity. Although we could long debate specifics, that the law should promote equality and respect, in a general sense, is unarguable.

Nonetheless, the eloquence with which Roberts defends the process of law – its neutrality, its purity of focus – was lost on Kennedy and Durbin. Kennedy, like my students before we talked about it and perhaps always in his mind, argues for external controls. We will make people, he implies, accept women’s rights. But the disconnect with his own (and his family’s) actions is so complete, we are left wondering if he only sees self-discipline in terms of such external controls. Clearly, in incident after incident, his family has represented the most vulgar of attitudes toward women; we have seen the effect of Kennedy money and Kennedy power when arrayed against a woman. We can not look at him and shake the suspicion that his approach doesn’t, not really, work. This ad hominem argument lingers in the back of our minds–but is it ad hominem or is his ethos so shattered this just isn’t an argument he should make.

He believes he is championing the rights of women (and I do believe most men who are pro-choice are virtuous and respect women, that abortion is complex and often the best (if generally the least bad) choice. In Kennedy’s case, he is right in a political sense: he is championing external controls that clear the playing field for women. And our court system should provide justice. But I would most like a society where that court system is the last resort. Conventions are not always good, they need to be challenged. Traditions can be constraining as well as protective. We know that. Still and all, I want my children to be protected from both their own and others’ weaknesses: to be protected not by a fear of law but by a widely held sense within them and throughout their society of virtue, one that our institutions (schools, government, religion, family) nurture so that that their (and others’) conscious conscience is instinctive, where respectful choices are guided by intrinsic instincts.

* Yes, I am recycling ideas from another post. It seemed to me to fit, but will try for more originality in the future.

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