Monday, June 02, 2008

The Paskowitz Family and the unwritten moral law   posted by Razib @ 6/02/2008 10:58:00 PM

Reihan has a post up, The Paskwotiz Family, where he praises the new documentary Surfwise. I first heard about this family a few weeks ago on the radio show On Point; the director of the documentary and a few of the sons were interviewed at length. Reihan finishes:
I get the point. I sympathize! But note that there’s no getting out of the "iron cage." Mind you, I'm pro-modernity, pro-market. What troubles me (us?) about the Paskowitz story, which of course I invest with a lot of romance and affection, are the constraints on the kids - what was their context of choice, and how could they live full lives in a market society?

Reihan is alluding here to the fact that though Dr. Dorian Paskowitz has a medical degree from Stanford he doesn't send his children (seven of them) to schools in keeping with his counterculture orientation. A month ago I posted When the weirdos are white, in reference to the state of Texas' forcible intervention in the family lives of Fundamentalist Mormons. The intervention was clearly due to moral unease with the nature of the lives these Mormons led and the expectations that we Americans have in terms of our fellow citizens. As white Americans of no peculiar ethnic identity Fundamentalist Mormons were not shielded by the tendency of elite moderns to cut a bit of slack to the Other (the Amish are a more extreme case in their difference from society so more slack is given).

The reactions of the Fundamentalist Mormons and the Paskowitz family I think smoke out the contradiction at the heart of contemporary elite Western life: the simultaneous superposition of a disavowal of judgement & absolute values and an adherence to a set of standards which scaffold and guide one's life rather rigorously (e.g., the "best schools," the "fulfilling careers" and the "loving spouse"). Conservative Christians in the United States often see themselves as in contradiction to the values encapsulated by the dominant dispensation, and so I believe though they are often guilty of myopia they can easily elucidate the general outline of what they mean by the Good Life. In contrast, mainstream America, the pulse of which is defined by upper middle class professionals, the English gentry of our day, often adhere to a set of values implicitly and discernible only through the subtext of their words and actions.

Societies have norms. When individuals and groups violate those norms society sanctions them in some manner because of their revulsion at the violation of those norms. But many modern Americans have a tendency to mask the causal factor behind this revulsion, the transgression against particular taboos or beliefs & folkways held sacred, and talk as if in reality it was some more abstract and distant ultimate principle which motivated them. For example, the extraction from children from "dangerous" parents is to allow the children to "make up their own mind" and not be "brainwashed," because after all humans with free choice and will always make the "right" choices. So you simply turn it into a general issue of individual choice as opposed to a specific reaction to an infraction against the unwritten moral law. A more more explicit exploration and discussion of the values which "mainstream" Americans hold might be in order for our society I would think. But then, I value transparency....