Familial Anxiety

Perhaps Mary Douglas’ Catholic faith gave her great perception in her examination of the so-called “Bog Irish,” who emigrated from Ireland to London to find work in the mid-20th century.

This group of Irish Catholics found themselves in a country that had long persecuted them on some level, and who had slim tolerance for their faith. What bound them together was their observance from abstinence from meat on Fridays. Perhaps they did not always pray or love their neighbor as they should, but they faithfully avoided eating meat on Fridays. Whatever one feels about such practice, it had the effect of binding themselves together as a “peculiar people” in the midst of exile.

Of course, the injunction against eating meat went beyond mere cultural significance, as each Friday fast could link us in some small physical way to Christ’s death. In the late 1960’s modernist Catholic bishops made the decision to eliminate the obligatory Friday abstinence. Some of them seemed to worry about their parishioners seeming “weird” to the surrounding culture. In general, they expected that the faithful could take their zeal for Friday abstinence from meat and apply it instead to other more “meaningful” good works, such as prayer and serving their fellow man.

But the opposite happened. For Douglas, anyone versed in the actual history of human experience should have known this. The removal of the binding ritual did not create more good works, but less belief, and most likely, fewer good works. The “good works” asked for by the bishops, of course, should be done by any Christian, but “we live by symbols,” as Douglas states, and the removal of the ritual removed the ground that their faith rested on. No identity=no faith. Douglas writes,

The Catholic hierarchy today [1968] are under pressure to underestimate the expressive function of ritual. [They exhort] Catholics to invent individual acts of almsgiving as a more meaningful celebration of Friday. But why Friday? Why not be good and generous all the time? As soon as the symbolic action is denied value in its own right, the floodgates to confusion are opened.

[As] there is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system.. . . there is a dreary conclusion for those who turn to good works to solve problems about their own identity. They are liable to be frustrated on every count. First, it would seem that they must give their good causes over to bureaucratic energies of industrial organization, or they will have no effect. Second, . . . they will never be able to arrange their personal relations so that a structure of non-verbal symbols can emerge. For only a ritual structure makes possible a wordless channel of communication that is not entirely incoherent.

Douglas, p. 38, pp. 50-51

She then points out that the Maccabean martyrs (cf. 1 & 2 Maccabees) equated not eating pork with the entirety of obedience to God’s law. Their abstinence from pork formed an integral part of a whole way of existing.

Mary Douglas’ title, Natural Symbols, Explorations in Cosmology may be daunting to many, as it was to me. But she writes in a manner to match her clear, concise perception I thought her work superior to Ruth Benedict’s. Benedict could describe entwined patters of culture well, but she seemed to not quite grasp the meaning of these patterns. Perhaps Douglas built on her work, for she not only sees the patters, she perceives their meaning–perhaps her Irish Catholic background helped her with this.

As an entry point into this shift, Douglas first looks at how families function. She offers two basic modes, what she calls “Positional” and “Personal.”

Positional families

  • Value truth, piety, and duty
  • The cardinal sins relate to failures to live into the expectations of the group, or to maintain the appropriate ritual behaviors. Discipline takes the form of, “You should know that members of our group do not act that way.”
  • Have a wide network/structure over the individual, to which the individual has reference to

Personal families

  • Value sincerity, authenticity, individuality
  • The main sins relate to failures to “be all that you can be,” and discipline takes the form of “How could you do this to me?” or, “How could you do this to yourself?”
  • Celebrate the individual triumphing over the structure

For most of human history, we have had some kind of positional family structure, but now most everyone in the western world has grown up in at least a mostly “Personal” family. The consequences of this shift have profound implications for us, and involve, among other things, a movement from the concrete to the abstract.

Douglas points to the Reformation as the origin of this shift with some merit, but I will take a flyer and point to the Renaissance as when this began. We can see this in the art of the Renaissance and the medieval era which preceded it.

Many might assume that medieval religious art was ‘obscurantist.’ Certainly they used symbols in their art, but it communicated a concrete message. St. Anthony the Great, for example, had great stature but the depictions of him tell us that, “you can be like him, he is one of us.” So too the statues astride their cathedrals. Whatever “legends” may have been told about such saints, they lived real lives as you and I did.

But, to take perhaps the most famous example, who can be Michelangelo’s “David?”

Of course, no one can be such a man, and thus David becomes not a saint or even a man, but an ideal in the ether. The Renaissance also revived an interest in mythology. I agree that myths are not simply lies, and that they can have value in leading one to truth. But one must careful with such stories. The pagan could believe that Marsyas was literally flayed by Apollo, but not the man of the Renaissance. So any depiction of such an event ca. 1500 would inevitably be transmuted into an ideal. And indeed, the beloved Sister Wendy, in fact, explained Titian’s masterpiece as showing something akin to the intense “challenge of the artist,” whatever that might mean.

Alas, one of my great heroes, A.J. Toynbee wrote that such “etherialization” of concrete principles was a prime factor in the growth of civilizations, but Douglas argues that what this usually leads to is cultural confusion.* This movement toward abstraction continued in the west as the Reformation over time removed the liturgies, images, and sacramentalism from their worship. This put everything inside one’s head or heart, and again, put things in abstract categories–such as the unknowable “elect” for the Calvinists.

The different ways of conceiving reality always take on particular manifestations in our bodies, the main way we express meaning and our cosmological belief. A moment’s thought about this shows its truth. When Douglas wrote this book (1970), of course, it was even more obvious. The 1960’s started tight and neat but ended with long hair, open collars, psychedelic prints, and so on. We know the “Law and Order” look–what policeman has long hair and a scruffy beard (unless going undercover to mix with the more dangerous types)?** So too, no non-denominational pastor could ever think of wearing anything but jeans, and perhaps a polo shirt.

Thus, what happened in the 1960’s was a real revolution, and not just kids blowing off steam. Douglas cringes at contemporary commentators who called the destruction wrought by various riots and protests in the 60’s as “mindless.” College campuses exist as liturgical institutions, a manifestation of a particular order and authority structure. Today we see many of the same things as in the 60’s, such as more casual dress and campus protests. It would not surprise Douglas to see such behaviors coupled with a loosening of other body oriented morality, especially the highly charged area of sexual morality. Perhaps some of the intended meaning of such acts may not be conscious, but they are far from “mindless,” as they point towards a very definite goal.

Most educators have noted a rise in the anxiety of their students. Different theories exist for this phenomena. Some explain it with the rise of social media and their attendant lack of real personal connections. Others point out that the 9/11 generation has come of age in the age of terrorism, where threats can come from anywhere anytime.

No one I know of has pointed out that the rise of anxiety may come from the continual loosening of our societal structures, both in worship, family, dress, and so on. But Douglas hints at this quite strongly. True, the “Personal Family” structure brings many benefits. She mentions that this path often develops strong verbal skills and meshes nicely with the need to do well in social environments like school, which dominates the lives of children. Besides, even if we wanted to orient ourselves in a more “Positional” way many of us have no tradition, social class, or family history to build upon.

Teens today not only have jobs and careers to choose, but whole selves to construct, a heavy burden to carry.^^ Add to this that the reasons for doing or not doing a thing could be endless. Douglas writes,

Above all, the [“Personal Family”] child’s behavior is controlled by being made sensitive to the feelings of others, and by inspecting his own feelings. Why can’t I do it? Because father’s feeling worried; because I have a headache. How would you like it if you were a fly? Or a dog?^ In this way the child is freed from a system of rigid positions but made a prisoner of a system of feelings and abstract principles. (emphasis mine).

Douglas, pp. 26-27

We have had many good anthropologists, but I am not aware of any who wrote with such clarity as Mary Douglas.

Dave

*I acknowledge that energy can be released in the early stages of breaking with concrete societal forms, and perhaps this is what Toynbee saw and admired. I liken it, however, to taking a fussy toddler bundled in bulky clothes. You take them out of the crib, remove the onesie, and they are so happy, arms and legs unfettered! They whirl around like spinning tops for five minutes. But then, the look of, “What do I do now?” strikes them, and of course, the pajamas will have to come back on sooner or later.

I should say that Douglas may disagree with me, as she thinks that loose “etherialization” (to use Toynbee’s phrase) can continue indefinitely if it is paired with loose social structures.

**Douglas asserts the universality of the patterns she describes, but how to explain the long beards of Orthodox monks, priests, etc? The Orthodox are likely the most liturgically formal of all Christian denominations, yet have the most unkempt facial hair. Perhaps we could see the connection in a kind of manly disdain such priests/monks have for the world. But again, there may be limits to this, as for Old Testament Jews–another structured and highly liturgical society–long beards for men were normal and could not be seen as a form of distancing oneself from society.

But . . . this pattern certainly played out in Greece and Rome, two similar civilizations. The Greeks loved the sea, and thus valued beards and more fluid and flowing hair. Their society was more fluid as well. The Romans valued farming, and with it, law and order. With that comes shorter hair and clean shaves. Not until the empire was past its prime did we see the Romans going native, sporting beards and longer hair.

The pattern hold also for the Egyptians (clean-shaven, less ornamentation in dress, more order focused) and the Babylonians (more fluid as a society, more fluid in their dress).

^We might add today, “Do you feel like a boy? Or a girl?” The Personal Family’s predilection for rebelling against all forms of imposed identity have stretched out to rebelling against Nature itself.

^^It is no coincidence that we invented technologies to help us in this very endeavor, and that these technologies would further advance abstraction. In addition–we usually view the creation of public schools as a response to industrialization. Douglas might want us to view the creation of the public school system as a response to the dominance of the Personal Family model. If we have a self to construct apart from the family/neighborhood, we will need a tangible place to do so.

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A National Man of Mystery

Anyone who knows anything about the first half of the 20th century knows that the concept of “nation” has a lot to answer for. We have such familiarity with it that we need not rehash the sins of “nationality” here. Slightly less obvious might be the impact, or pendulum swing we experienced in the second half of the 20th century towards the individual related to the state, or the community. This manifested itself in a variety of ways:

  • The proliferation of international bodies like the EU, G-8, World Bank, IMF, etc.
  • Expansion of global markets, facilitated by the internet and the removal of boundaries on communication and information
  • Significant expansion of media technologies that allow us to radically personalize our world everywhere we go, like Facebook, iTunes, Netflix, etc.
  • Removal of barriers to self-expression, encapsulated in the hey-day of free speech in the 1960’s, and now, with the end of traditional beliefs and social norms about gender and sexuality.*

But, if the pendulum swung too far in one direction from 1900-1960, many think that it has gone too far in the other direction (i.e., Bowling Alone, Why Liberalism Failed, etc.). Some form of such swings might be inevitable from a historical perspective, and might even be healthy when mild, as it might prevent stagnation. But dramatic swings destabilize societies and make it harder to get our bearings. At such times, terrible mistakes can occur.

Over the past 5-10 years we have witnessed the reemergence of national populism. In America, the phenomena manifested itself with Trump’s election, but almost every democracy in the western world has dealt with this, both in old and established democracies (Brexit, Marie le Pen), and relatively new ones (Poland, Hungary, etc.). Some see in national populism the dreaded extreme pendulum swing, but authors Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin disagree. In their book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, they seek not to praise or bury the phenomena, but to understand its reasons for being and the nuances of the movement. Some critics of the book see it as a sympathetic defense of right-leaning populism, a Marc Antony style bait and switch. Instead, I view the book as a careful delineation of the nuances of the movement. Above all, we must resist the urge to cast the label “Fascist,” to all or even most manifestations of national populism. Yes, the authors believe that certain populist leaders have dangerous leanings, but others simply seek to stand against real/perceived excesses of progressive ideology. We must exercise caution in our examination.

The authors first remind readers that populist movements have always existed within democratic governments. Greece had so much direct participation that it scared off our own founders. Rome’s Republic often existed in uneasy tension with more populist strains. More recently, America has seen populist presidents like Andrew Jackson, and to some extent, Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to various populist governors like Huey Long. Some may dislike all of these leaders on balance, but even if one did, democracy survived, and the country stayed far away from “fascism” or even overt nationalism. Of course, we could arguethat, given the horrors of how national populism operated in Germany from 1933-45, we should avoid even minute drops of it.

Eatwell and Goodwin think that this both unfair and unrealistic. They distinguish between fascism and populism in a variety of ways. Fascist regimes have a strong racial ideology, they often wish to expand territorially, and they often have apocalyptic goals. But even if the similarities were more acute, we simply cannot avoid populism if we wish to remain democratic–we cannot ignore the “voice of the people” in a democracy.

I have sympathy for Eatwell and Goodwin’s presentation of their ideas, though I have written before that I think that democratic societies need “elites.” The question comes to, “What kind of elites?” It seems too easy to say that we need elites with connections to the “common man,” “on the ground,” but so it goes. The “elite” culture of Periclean Athens was a very public culture, accessible to the people (recall the free theater performances of plays). Their leaders often competed with one another as to who served in office, who led armies, and so on. Roman elites were likewise quite civically minded, and for much of the Republic’s history patricians did not greatly exceed the wealth of the plebs–and when this gap widened tremendously after the 3rd Punic War so began the breakdown of the Republic (one factor among many, to be sure). Medieval elites lived in castles, but defended the realm, and were obliged to host a variety of festivals and parties for their tenants. They socially mixed frequently with peasants. Our own founding fathers took great risks and served in the army. Some of them had farms or worked as ordinary town lawyers, again, with strong connections to the “common man.”

Perhaps the chicken of the Republican right in the 1990’s, starting perhaps with Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, pushed the left farther from the center. Or perhaps the egg of the radical progressive ideologies about immigration, abortion, sexuality, etc. have made it hard to maintain something of a traditional conservatism. Or possibly grander historical forces play upon us, or maybe still, we are now experiencing something cyclical akin to the changing of seasons. Whatever the cause, we now have elites at universities, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, and in certain segments of the media (a short list that I know does not apply equally everyehere) that drive the agenda of much of the left throughout the democratic world, and I think this is the main cause for the rise of populism.

For example . . .

  • We “know” that “Empire” is a bad word
  • “Nation” is increasingly becoming a bad word in certain circles
  • In the U.S. at least, we don’t want to give much autonomy to states or local communities to decide things, to have any variance on issues that divide us like abortion, gender, sexuality, immigration, etc.

So, all that certain segments of the political spectrum will leave us with is a stateless individualism with no unifying theme, culture, or nod to tradition. Very few can live in such a way or have ever lived in such a way. Older, more personal and familial conceptions of political realities, such as the “realms” of medieval kings, will not return any time soon.

So it appears that, unless we want civil wars across the western world**, we are stuck with the political entity of nations.

I concede, with Benedict Anderson, that there is something mysterious and imaginary about nations, but they undeniably exist, and people want some sense of identity within them. For that to happen, they need to take their bearings and locate themselves within the culture. The ancients often equated the formless and boundless ocean with chaos–moderns with freedom, and this might hint at the differences in how we interpret the meaning of our communities then and now. Nations may have less of a concrete reality than a particular individual, but for people to be truly human we need connections with others. These connections can only come with the presence of trust and familiarity. Dramatic change in law, demographics, and ideology make this hard to come by.

One reviewer rightly pointed out that whereas Eatwell and Goodwin take pains to point out the complexity and nuances of populist movements, populist movements themselves reject complexity–the problems we face have self-evident solutions. Maybe so, but I think that, as academic “elites,” Eatwell and Goodwin do one good turn towards rectifying the gap between elites and the common man. They have at least written a serious book about the “average Joe.”

For those who fear this movement on the right and the left, I would suggest them giving us something for us to feel tangible pride in as a nation. The right too often resorts to our expanded freedom to consume, but this comes from the nameless, faceless market–a stark contrast to what “going to market” meant in bygone eras. Many on the left constantly undermine our cultural inheritance and see the past and present as nothing but evil. They would offer instead foolish fantasies of a future that will always reside outside of our grasp. Neither approach will help us build a reasonable national identity and pride, and so neither approach will prevent the global rise of national populism.

Dave

*Free speech today is under attack on campus’ especially, which is ironic considering the modern free speech movement had its birth at the university. Perhaps this means that free speech is at its most vibrant when a) People wish to challenge the existing order, and b) The existing order is at least partially out of alignment with the rest of the culture, and thus ripe for a “fall” of sorts. Free speech in those contexts might just look like “saying what everyone is thinking (or at least the “right” “everyone”). Today there are plenty of people who fit into the first category, but perhaps the prevailing orthodoxy is not yet ready to fall, backed as it is not just by cultural elites but also most businesses. In the 60’s, the main forms of national culture sided with those challenging the existing moral and political order.

Also, free speech can never be an absolute value even in the context of academic freedom. For example, one might imagine a hypothetical Professor Smith, who advocates with extended argument an absurd defense of Jim Crow laws. Whether public or private, no college should allow his continued employment. The problems today are that 1) Such standards are very unevenly applied, with very slippery standards used to decide what is racist and what is not, and 2) Standards get formed very quickly that alienate, at minimum, very large numbers of people with different opinions that until quite recently were quite acceptable–one recalls President Obama’s support for traditional marriage in 2008, and 3) One can get “mobbed” for things far less than careful, systematically expressed thoughts.

**I dread the possibility, but could the U.S. separate into “Red” and “Blue” nations peacefully? One thinks of the famous dictum from the Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which states, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” Maybe, possibly, we should not view the political union of the states as an absolutely fixed good. New York and Texas could easily go their separate ways, but what about the swing states, like Ohio and Florida? Like Kansas in 1854, one can imagine a frightful spectacle of their destiny decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other.

The lack of geographic contiguity would make the prospect difficult even with no violence, and so we would have the problem of 4-5 separate nations, new constitutions, etc. While nodding to the hypothetical possibly, we should do all we can to avoid it.