Right, Schmight, Left, Schmeft

Sharon August 29th, 2007

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Richard Heinberg’s new book, _Peak Everything_ recently, and I found it to be typical Heinberg - engaging, wise, scrupulously balanced. It comes out this month, I believe, and it is well worth a read.

My personal favorite thing about it, however, was not the writing or the subject matter, but the subtitle, which (on my copy), included the phrase “Transitioning gracefully from the Age of Excess to the Era of Modesty.” I admit, I was struck by the sheer aptness of the phrase “era of modesty” to what we’re coming to. Now I gather that in the process of revision, the subtitle was changed to something else, but I keep thinking about the term he coined, both because it is great piece of phrasing, but also because it manages in three words to invoke a great transition in political and social thinking. It should be no surprise that Heinberg is ahead of the curve again, of course, but I am impressed by the way the very title invoked not just an era of more modest usage, but also social, sexual and cultural modesty, subjects that, if they are discussed at all, tend to be thought of as discussions to be had on the “right” rather than throughout the political spectrum. With that one word, “modesty” Heinberg manages to invoke a confluence of left and right. I admit, I’m impressed, and sorry the term doesn’t appear on the actual book (I wonder if Heinberg will let me steal it for mine ;-)).

Now the peak oil movement has been called the “liberal left behind” movement - the apocalypse of the left. Of course, it is no such thing, and never has been. Former Bush energy czar Matthew Simmons is no leftist radical, Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett never dated Abbie Hoffman and the US Army is not, as far as I know, handing out “Free Mumia” buttons with its rifles. And yet all are among the first to recognize the immanence of peak oil. While it is true we’ve got our share of aging hippies, we’re also flush with survivalists, Petroleum geologists, investment bankers and other bastions of the right and center. And this is all to the good - the end of cheap oil is not a political fact, it is a simple, practical reality. The same is true within the climate change movement - we are all moving rapidly to the recognition that no matter what your political position, the hard, scientific truths about sea level rise, aquifer depletion and drought really don’t care whether you prefer Bill O’Reilly, Thom Hartmann or Stephen Colbert.

But it is insufficient to say that these issues cross party lines, because what they actually do is destroy party and political lines, and the divisions we’ve carefully worked out to decide who is “left” and who is “right.” Now it is worth noting that these have always been artificial distinctions for most real people. I’ve been very kindly called “a voice of the left” and I take some pride in that designation - I value the history of leftism, including my own family’s history, going back to the early twentieth century union movement and through my parents. But “left” has never been more than a shorthand for my positions on some issues - and had we drawn the circles other ways, I might have spoken, at times for other constituencies, even, perhaps, for some segments of the much dreaded “other side.” All of which is simply proof, that, while it isn’t true that we’re all exactly the same under the skin, neither designation is sufficient to describe most people’s political and ethical thinking. Most of us are political hybrids.

Where, for example, did one put the leftist nun putting her life on the line for economic reform in Latin America - and equally passionate about ending abortion? Where does my passionately pro-drug legalization, harsher sentencing police officer neighbor go? How about the gun-toting, anti-tax radical environmentalist I know? The disabled neighborhood activist who opposes abortion and euthanasia because she sees it as the genocide of the disabled? My neighbor who believes that his sons have an absolute obligation to defend their country - and that their government has an absolute obligation to stop the war? My pro-public education, feminist, Orthodox friends who believe that modest women cover their hair - on the protest lines? My conservative, fundamentalist neighbors who believe that Jesus demands devout Christians hold no private property and resist corporate power? Where would you put me? Feminist, pro-social justice, anti-growth capitalist - and yes, pro-private property (in some senses), pro-modesty, pro-personal responsiblity farmgirl who used to help her father make bullets? The reality is that most people are more complicated than our current designations will describe.

The last decade or so has blurred things further. Which party again is the big government, tax and spend one? Which party is the party of genocide, the Dems who killed half a million children in Iraq with the embargo or the Republicans who killed half a million civilians in Iraq with the war? Now it is the left who is screaming in horror about the dangers of big government (and some of the right is screaming along with them). Where were the feminist voices of anger about sexual harrassment so evident during the Clarence Thomas hearings when the democratic president was in the hot seat? The conventional political lines are shifting.

And at the same time that this shift is happening, those of us who forsee the coming crisis have to make major internal political shifts as well. For example, in _The Upside of Down_, Tomas Homer-Dixon observes that to deal with all of the coming crises, we’d have enact,

“…a global society that I’ve come to call ‘Holland times ten,” with vastly more sophisticated, pervasive and expensive rules and regulatory institutions than anything the Dutch live with today. Do we really want such a future for ourselves and our children?”

Homer-Dixon, not exactly a right winger, recognizes the simple reality that a vastly more repressive beaurocracy might actually be worse than the collapse. He observes, following Joseph Tainter, that institutions created to deal with crisis invariably stick forever, leaving us laden with ever more oppressive layers of government. What is remarkable about Homer-Dixon’s book is that it, like Heinberg’s title, shakes off conventional left/right thinking and simply allows the data to lead him to a conclusion that is neither. I’m not sure I agree with Homer-Dixon, but I find him a particularly creative example of the ways in which these problems shake up our traditional assumptions.

The same could be said of Rod Dreher’s book, _Crunchy Cons_. Dreher too is motivated by the honest recognition that the current realities, including peak oil (which he describes) and the environmental crisis have changed things. He tries very hard to slip all the good stuff under the rubric of conservativism, for example, arguing that traditional social welfare programs that support families are conservative. I’m not convinced he succeeds, but he does one of the most remarkable analyses I’ve imagined, and his work has real power among conservatives who haven’t fitted into the exact mold around them. I know many of these people, and I believe that generally speaking, Dreher is one of the first people to seriously reconsider, in a popular and accessible way, how to reconfigure politics to deal with the future.

What is disappointing in Dreher, of course, is his longstanding allegience to the politics of balkanization. That is, instead of seeking a middle ground, he wants to shove environmentalist, agrarian conservatives into Republicanism. Personally, I think he’d be better off abandoning that territory and seeking a new one. The reality is that for most of the people who work in these issues, left and right stop becoming fully explicatory categories. Heinberg himself writes about the problem of doing so in _Powerdown_ where he discusses his preference for anarchism and minimal government, while arguing simultaneously that no societal powerdown can occur without a large, invasive government structure. And that it cannot succeed without that large structure eventually voluntarily handing out power to smaller, localized units of power. This represents a remarkably hybridized vision of government - personally, I don’t necessarily believe it to be right, but again Heinberg has allowed the realities of the system to override his personal political preferences and at least to imagine how we might enact the changes required.

Like Homer-Dixon’s rejection of large government structures and Dreher’s rejection of unfettered capitalism, Richard Heinberg’s call for modesty, at least to me, raises some fascinating questions. One of the most fascinating is why it is that the word “modesty” so powerfully invokes sexual modesty, almost overriding the notion of modest desires, expectations and practices outside the realm of sexuality. I admit, my personal theory about why we have abandoned all other senses of modesty along with traditional sexual modesty is this - modesty of all kinds is, to a large degree, about choosing not to be looked at. Both sexual modesty and economic modesty reject the external gaze of others, saying “don’t focus on me.” Historically speaking, many of the rules of sexual modesty have been applied to women, with the assumption that the burden of rejecting the gaze must lie upon women, because it is their sexuality that draws the eye. Feminism rightly rejected the idea that men should not be required to limit and control their own gazes and desires. But it also rejected the notion that there should be limits on the power of the gaze - popular feminism focused on the notion of the powerful female “I” at the center. But a world of people walking around trying to draw gazes and be powerful creates a superficial culture, intent on “self-expression” in a visual sense - the house, the clothing, the car, the membership. That there might be power in not being at the center of the gaze itself, that modesty might also carry power was overlooked.

This is because feminism’s rejection of the origins of modesty also happened to coincide with the largest capitalist expansion in history. Feminism was as successful as it was, precisely because it served the goals of capitalism (I’ve written about this in more detail before here: ) And growth capitalism is, far more than feminism, about the rejection of the notion of modesty. That is, if all of us are not constantly calling out “look at me” there is no market for designer clothing, fancy decorations to make our house an expression of our “self,” fancy cars to express our wealth.

In a culture that rejects modesty of all kinds, that demands the gaze rest upon us, that validates the notion that the “I” is at the center of the “eye” all the time, markets flourish. In a culture that values modesty of all sorts - that rejects the gaze, the notion that the self is at the center of everything, there is no place for endless growth. Thus, the notion that the culture of modesty was bad, because it derived from the sexual repression of women was wrong - what was bad was the notion that women were “drawing” male gazes, and thus had to regulate their bodies, rather than expecting men to regulate themselves. But the actual assumptions of both sexual modesty (as it applies to both men and women), and economic and cultural modesty is simpler. It is “My worth is not in what is visible. I am one among others, I am not the center of everything.” We threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is true that one can read “don’t make me the center of things” as “I am powerless” or as a form of silencing. But it is also true that modesty can represent that power of self-deferral, the placement of others before the self. Undoubtably, one can have too much of that. Equally indubitably, in western society, we don’t have too much of that sort of self-abnegation - far from it.

At the risk of alienating people on both the left and the right who read this blog, and ending up with absolutely no readers at all, I’m going to observe that none of the problems we are facing can be fixed from the right or the left, or even through discussion of things in those terms. And speaking to the left, to which I have a longer and deeper alliegence, there are things that we really ought to reconsider. Here are some of the places where I think leftists might want to look to the right to find, if not common ground, some useful tools.

1. I believe passionately in the importance of personal responsibility, and of fair accounting for one’s choices. I do not mean by this that one’s situation is wholly a product of one’s personal choices, and thus tough patooties if you were born poor. What I mean is that each of us needs to take greater responsibility for our present, societal circumstances than we do. I often hear people lamenting the power of corporations - as though that power does not derive from our dependency and willingness to give them cash. Walmart isn’t powerful because they are an evil corporation - they are powerful because they have great stinking wads of money and those wads came from you and me. Stop buying their crap and guess what - Walmart won’t be powerful. I also hear many voices call for public policy solutions, when what they really mean is that they want the government to take care of peak oil and climate change for them, without being personally inconvenienced. Again, this is a failure of personal responsiblity, because if we tell governments that what we want is solutions without personal sacrifice, we will get only inadequate solutions, that will fail us and the next generation.

I believe that everyone has a degree of personal responsibility, and that the level of responsibility is increased by every advantage given to you. Were you born into a family that loved you? Guess what - you got a present, or a gift from G-d, and you owe a little more than someone who was beaten daily or neglected. Did you get a decent education? There’s another level of responsibility - if you were either lucky enough to get a good education at good schools with teachers who cared about you, or you were born smart enough to be an autodidact and compensate for the inadequacies of what was given to you, bow down to diety or thank your lucky stars, and get your ass in gear because you owe a little more than those who didn’t. And so it goes.

Full scale, straight out, honest accounting of responsibility is important. That means that yes, people are responsible for what they do and do not do, the choices they make. And those who shape the choices other people can make, or don’t shoulder a greater degree of responsibility in privelege are also responsible.

One of my professors, when I was complaining about some terrible personal situation I was enduring, once pointed out to me that most of the great deeds of human history were performed by people who were having really bad days and extenuating personal situations. That’s not to say no one ever has an excuse for anything, but the more excuses we make for ourselves, the more we say “well, I deserve just a little extra because…” (and who doesn’t), the less likely we are to have any extra for the quiet people who have learned to expect nothing and who truly need our hand up.

Ultimately, we need to be held responsible for our choices. The Peter Parker system should apply here - with great power, should come great responsibility. The better off you are, the more you need to take full responsibility for your actions - to stop asking for tax breaks and accomodations. But this goes all the way down.

2. I sure as heck don’t expect the government to save me in a crisis. Ok, I’m going to tell the truth. I don’t understand why it is that people in Florida don’t have any bottled water or boards for their windows, and are standing in line for it the day before the hurricane. For cripes sake, you live in Florida! The same is true with people who are unprepared for blackouts during winter storms in up near me, or earth quakes in CA. I’ll grant you, one of the better uses for government is to get the helicopters up and make sure people don’t die of typhus after the disaster, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Look, we all watched the footage of Hurricane Katrina, and it confirmed what everyone on the right has been saying for generations - our present government isn’t going to save our asses in a crisis. Now there are good and useful reasons to want to try and get what government does better than anyone else done right by them, and I’m all for that. Agitate for change - yes. Because there are always going to be people who can’t protect themselves and situations we can’t prepare for.

But ultimately a certain degree of self-sufficiency is merely common sense. Now there are people who may not be able to afford extra food or blankets, or a way out of a dying city - and we need to help those people. But it would be really helpful if you aren’t one of those people, if you aren’t elderly or disabled or desperately poor, if you’d get your act together and be prepared to meet your own damned needs for most predictable situations, so that you won’t clog the system.

3. I don’t want to see power centralized any more than strictly necessary anymore. Ok, let’s be honest - this used to be the big old left/right debate - social welfare or not, big government or little government. It is no longer a right left issue. The current administration has a bigger government than the last one, with more debt and beaurocracy, and now the dems are calling for restraint. No one has a monopoly on this one.

And let’s be honest, whether you hate the Clintons or the Bushes (or both equally), every single one of us can see exactly why we want to decentralize power, and exactly why we should be getting rid of political dynasties and the system that locates private armies and our own right to justice in the hands of any one person.

In fact, both peak oil and climate change require, absolutely mandate a reduction of scale of government - just as conservatives have been calling for. Yes, we also need to expand some central projects - but the general movement has to be towards local sovreignty and local power and resources being kept in the communities.

4. We’re going to have to develop better family relationships and a strong focus on family units, and ASAP. I’m not talking about getting into people’s bedrooms here, I’m talking about getting people to take care of aging parents, disabled family members, to stop whining about “what about *myyyyyy needs* and to start thinking a bit more of other people. Those of us who had ordinarily fucked up families (as opposed to transcendently so) are going to have to start getting along again, and recognize that biological and chosen family are going to be much more important in our lives for a long, long time. And we’re going to start having to value and honor the work of caring for others - instead of acting like helping grandma to the bathroom or breastfeeding your kid is a pain in the ass to be shoved off on other people, we have to start realizing that this *is* the point - the reason we’re here. To be of use. To do good work. To care for others.

We’re also going to have to parent better, and stop telling our kids how special and perfect and wonderful they are, and tell them to get their asses out from in front of the tv and get to work helping out. Instead of telling Jimmy and Jenny that the best thing they can do is to get good SAT scores and go to Tae Kwon Do, tell them the truth - that you want them to grow up to be good and righteous people, who care about others, are hard workers, honorable and generous.

5. If you harbor any lingering prejudices about blue collar work with your hands, get over them now. It is not, in any sense of the word, more noble to be a tax lawyer than a plumber, and it doesn’t mean you are smarter. If you call the middle of the country “flyover states” cut it out now - you won’t be flying much of anywhere anyway, and they grow your dinner. They might get pissed off and stop growing it.

The reality is that most comparatively well off, well educated people have been doing things that aren’t very useful and are soon going to stop being done. Most of the people we have been told we are smarter then are actually doing good and useful work - feeding people dinner, keeping houses running, building things, making things, growing food. It is likely that we have been so firmly told we are smarter simply because it was a good way to avoid pointing out that we are, as my husband likes to put it, “the surplus population.”

And if you think all religous people are the same, and religion is the cause of all problems, and religious people are idiots - ok with me, but shut up about it. As we’re less and less able to control our future, more and more people are going to be praying in their foxholes, maybe even you. Get over it, and stop feeling superior.

And if you reject religion, don’t want to see it flourish, but aren’t working to provide community support, care for the sick and dying, festivals of celebration and release, and a way to think about why the world is so screwed up, expect to fail. Don’t blame it on religion - blame it on the fact that you aren’t very good and doing the things that religion does very well for many of us.

6. We’re going to have to start talking about sex differently, and say a hard word for many of us to swallow - “Don’t.” I’m not talking about today’s rather ineffective forms of abstinence education - I’m talking about the unpleasant reality that poverty means less health care, which means more STDs, less access to reliable birth control, more teenage pregnancy, more complications, more AIDS. I’m going to be blunt - unless we completely change our government’s attitudes on these subjects, we’re going to enter into a society where the ability to mitigate the dangers of sex are radically reduced - a society which for many resembles the pre-pill society.

Ignoring the moral issues, let’s be practical. Birth control is expensive - a really reliable set up requires a woman to have regular medical check ups and access to pricey medicines. Condoms are expensive to your average poor teenager. Heck, they are expensive for my budget. Abortion is really expensive. A truly reliable system for young people requires a form of birth control for the woman and a condom for the man - pricey, and hard to come by if you don’t live near a drugstore - which thousands of us don’t.

Now the ideal for some people might be to use government to make all these things available and free, and to place no restrictions on sexual practices, age at onset, etc… But the reality is that our present system is as much a product of cheap energy as everything else - if we don’t want to rely on a universal system to keep our actual kids from getting pregnant or diseases, we have no choice but to change the way we think about sexuality. If we want to ensure that AIDS in the US doesn’t come to mirror AIDS in Africa, we need to be very careful about what we teach our children about sex.

We have become a society in which personal restraint is unimaginable, and abstinence education will always fail as long as a small minority is struggling against a society that calls every form of sexual restraint repression. But we need to think and talk about this - even though most of us who grew up in the age of birth control aren’t exactly the poster-children for such restraint. But we can’t afford to have our kids get pregnant earlier and earlier, to have outbreaks of diseases we can’t afford to treat, to create an expanding underclass of children born to other children. So we’re going to have utter the words “no” “don’t” “wait.” And we need to talk about how we can get there - talk to the people who were there all along.

7. We need a new sense of personal freedom, one in which limits in the form of things like honor, self-discipline, modesty, courtesy, and public order are perceived not as acts of repression, but as structure in which culture can bloom. The notion that there are things we should not and ought not do is likely to be a painful one to those who spent their youth practicing iconclasm and smashing idols. The notion that we should follow our bliss, support our own self-esteem and do what feels best to us has to be replaced with the notion that we should regulate our desires, limit our choices and do what is best for the community.

Our culture has grown to reject hypocrisy as the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy in the popular (rather than the moral) sense, of course, is defined as doing things that you don’t believe in/expressing feeling you don’t have for the sake of the community. But, of course, communities run on just such self-restraint, and in tighter knit, more strongly bound communities, how you feel about things may not matter that much all the time. It may be that what you do, how you treat others, and how you regulate your own feelings and intentions is more important to your own survival and success than the following of one’s bliss.

In my religion, we believe that feeling follows form. Instead of the Christian (and popular secular) notion that what is in your heart will lead you, instead we believe that you do the right thing, and that practice in doing the right thing will lead you to be able to feel the right way doing it. That is, when your failing mother needs help, you care for her because it is the right thing to do, to honor your parents, and in doing so, you open up the possibility that you will do it purely from love. But unless you do the work itself, you have few opportunities to change your feelings and develop that sense of love. I personally believe that a shift from relying on how you feel to what you do is necessary to success on the community level.

Again, capitalism has enthusiastically supported the notion that we should follow our hearts all the time - just as it has rejected modesty of ambition, of lifestyle, of desire. Because if you believe that your feelings are authentic, immutable, and natural - that is, that you feel the way you do about X for some fundamental reason of self, then there is no reason to limit one’s desires. But if you believe that one’s desires are shaped by your actions, if you believe that, for example, you might come to feel love (I do not claim this is inevitable, by the way, merely possible. Nor do I claim that everyone should love their mothers - not all mothers are even possibly lovable), where there was none before, if you were to care for your mother, spend time with her, know her better by virtue of helping her, you open up the possibility that our instinctive feelings are not necessarily our most reliable guide.

There are more, but now that I’ve traumatized everyone on the left, eliminated all readership and gotten my book contract revoked ;-), I’ll stop for the moment.

Now does this mean I’ve gone right on everything? Nope. I still believe that sex is one of those things that is none of my business, I’m still pro choice, pro-reallocation of wealth and regulation of markets and rabidly environmentalist. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can disagree on these issues and agree on others. Perhaps we can put a few of them to the side, and get together some of the time, fight tomorrow and talk today. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can find a way to talk from less fixed positions than right, left and center. And I’m going to email Richard Heinberg and tell him how much I liked his original subtitle ;-).



58 Responses to “Right, Schmight, Left, Schmeft”

  1. Michael Gorsuchon 29 Aug 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Sharon - that was great stuff. I am fully behind the notion that traditional left/right labels cannot apply here. We hold on to them at our own peril.

    As I see it, much of what you’ve talked about is “progressivism” with a strong dose of personal responsibility. It’s inspiring, and please: keep on writing about it.

  2. BoysMomon 29 Aug 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Actually, that’s why I read here. I’d suspect that you have at least a couple other readers like me: Christian, anti-big-government, anti-feminist (I think they were used more than anything, look at how much money is made off of things once done by at-home mothers), nearly-libertarian-except-on-abortion, and consider Bush a socialist.
    I have to disagree with you that Christians believe that feeling love will motivate you to do the right thing. I’ll say that a lot do, but there are some of us that believe that love is not an emotion, it is the actions which make love.
    I’m not very good at explaining, but oh, I can give at least a well known example of love in action: Mother Theresa.
    Love isn’t the gushy Hollywood stuff, it’s the diaper changes and dishwashing and vomit cleaning-up and telling the neighbor about the car you saw for sale when you know it’s about what she needs, and all of that when you really don’t feel like it.
    I’m not very good at explaining, but I hope I made some sense.

  3. Panhandle Poeton 29 Aug 2007 at 3:44 pm

    I don’t think that our political philosophies agree, but I found your site to be interesting. You might be interested in my new blog called Common Sense Agriculture, Conservation and Energy. Drop by sometime and check it out.

  4. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 3:57 pm

    This might be the place to shove in my belated thought about what “the poor” can do about PO.

    Of course, there are lots and lots and lots of different poor people, but the ones I know best, right now, are trapped inner city Trenton, with crap jobs, if any, and little to no education… living in very poor conditons, or rough. They are the soup kitchen clients.

    With all the usual stuff about how little they are in terms of resources compared to the average masion dweller, I do see some waste.

    Bottled water. The tap water in Trenton is safe (or as safe as the tape water I drink). The soup kitchen give out bottle water like no bodies business.

    Plastic knives and forks — if you could take yours home and bring them back for a 2nd or third meal….

    Paper napkins. The guest are given a bar of soap and a wash cloth once a month. Why not use the last one as a napkin?

    Fast food. This is a tough one, but if you have a place to cook, there are so many place that give instruction in buying cheaper, good food and one pots meals — I can think of 5 off the top of my head in various parts of Trenton. For a lot of people it comes down to I like Mickey Dees better. Hey, it’s the same reason many other people don’t eat better.

    Not much, it’s true, but aren’t they are same sort of things many other people are doing or trying to do in the hopes it will make a difference.


  5. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Hi, boysmom,

    I don’t want to start a fight, and I think that feminims made many mistakes along the way, become more and more something good for a smallish group of women, but that said, I can’t believe that it’s impossible to allow women to vote, own property, have a right to their children, etc. is imcompatable with stay-at-home mothers (and working mothers) doing things in the home that other could be paid to.


  6. Stone Fence Farmon 29 Aug 2007 at 4:00 pm

    WOW. Great post. You’re writing what I’m thinking and seeing out in the e-world.

  7. Iosue Andreason 29 Aug 2007 at 5:09 pm

    This is really wonderful writing. I’m excited by the new possibilities. I’m a Catholic traditionalist who’s politically somewhere on the paleoconservative/paleolibertarian/paleoprogressive axis.

    Have you read Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists?

  8. Philon 29 Aug 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Modesty - now there’s a word I hadn’t thought of.

    The one I tend to use in this context is “humility”, the act of being humble, as opposed to the arrogance of the me me me ethos.

    Well done, Sharon, you’ve hit another bullseye.

  9. BoysMomon 29 Aug 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Hi MEA,
    We likely can agree to disagree, because I’m fairly sure we’ve both put a lot of thought and research into our positions.
    I expect that a lot of the social problems I lay at the feet of feminism you lay somewhere else.
    I don’t have a problem with the things you mentioned, and if the feminists had stopped there, I wouldn’t have a problem with them. It’s the parts of feminism that came afterwards: the women who say that I shouldn’t be allowed to choose to stay home with my children, those who encourage women to risk their health and single motherhood (which I’m sure we agree is generally a bad thing if only due to the increased likelyhood of poverty) on a condom and a pill in the name of sexual liberation, second wave feminism, if you will, that I am against.
    That’s where I come from. I’m certainly willing to discuss the subject if you like, so long as we keep things civil. Maybe elsewhere would be more appropriate, since it’s kind of off topic from Sharon’s post?

  10. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 7:50 pm

    I agree that “right” and “left” don’t work. “Progressive” isn’t much better because much of what you are arguing for is return to strategies that worked in the past, and giving up ambitious progressive projects. “Conservative” works literally, but the word is so laden with many meaning that its hard to get it to do anything. “Traditionalist” is closer but still not quite right.

    Can we find a vocabulary for what us Peakniks, climate change powerdown-gracefully types are advocating (instead of just what we oppose)? “Agrarian” isn’t bad, but leaves out the many city-dwellers who are trying. “Localist” works in some cases for food, and other political ideas. If only we could work “modest” into a label. “Modestist?” (too dysphonic), “Moderate?” (already taken) “Modesty Advocate?” - “Economic Modesty Advocate?”

    Labels help. They are always flawed and imperfect, but they serve an important role anyway. If the old labels fail, then new, better labels are needed, and others will coin apt labels against us, if we can’t coin apt labels for us first. Darn it, I’m still trying to think up a decent label with “modesty” in it (especially in the sense of modest ambitions, or modest expectations, rather than the anti-nudity sense. How much of the body ought to be exposed seems like a practical, local, seasonal matter, there ought to be a lot less skin visible in the winter around here, than in summer, and Milwaukee and Miami probably shouldn’t have the same standards.)

    -Brian M

  11. jewishfarmeron 29 Aug 2007 at 8:41 pm

    Hi Brian - I don’t actually care what people wear much, but I think there’s something to be said for the clothing-modesty issue. After all, folks sunburn even in Miami

    My personal take is that there’s something graceful about old-style modesty, for both men and women. Maybe this has something to do with me liking pre-code Hollywood movies better, but I think there’s something to be said for the options available in a much more restrained society. Gestures and a flash of collarbone become great moments of eroticism, and the private clothing removal becomes something of a turn-on. I think there’s something to be said for a culture that is less desensitized than our own, if only because it makes nudity more exciting.

    But that’s an aesthetic taste, and it can be taken too far, obviously - I’m not in favor of the burkha just so that we can make eyebrows sexy.

    As for the label - I haven’t thought of one either, but I do like it. And I like “humility” as well, which comes with some religious connotations that I think are interesting and potentially useful.


  12. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 9:21 pm



    Honestly, both “moderate” modesty, and “pudica” (anti-nudity) modesty are linked and have a role. The rise of anti-nudity modesty in Islam (hijab), for example is something I’ve studied a bit, and it goes in waves, and there is a lot of politics, gender politics, economic politics, Islamicism vs Islamic moderateness, etc. that go into it. Indeed, it is often Feminist muslims pushing for more modesty to try to decrease the women-as-sex-object problem. I think the Jewish and Christian world are beginning to go through some similar issues, and I suspect even secularists will get there eventually. Our friend Kim, is required by her brand of Christianity to wear ankle-length skirts at all times, and that is part of her overall moderate-homesteader-minimize-consumption persona.

    Its not just aesthetics, but part of a whole value system to say recent Hollywood, and especially the advertising industry have taken the sexualization of everything too far (and often very explicitly in the name of increased consumption). It’s not anti-sex to say I wish sexuality wasn’t so tightly linked to beer commercials!

    But again one problem the Islamic world has had is modesty movements that start out sane and balanced, getting taken in very odd directions once they get going, and often become totally disconnected from reasonable practical activities. (A good example is the Afghan Chadri, it started as a modesty attempt, became a way of showing off how much fabric you could afford, and how many women you could keep without them working and thus became a status symbol, then it became a way to make it difficult for women to work outside of the home by requiring them to wear a very restrictive clothing outside the home but not in it). Likewise interpretations of whether or not men are allowed to have bare knees in public sometimes start as modesty issues, but wind up being ways to discourage horse and camel riding in favor of car-riding. Modesty is a good goal, but it is easy for sane modesty programs to get hijacked for other political usage if people aren’t careful.

    Humility is also a good root notion here, but I think it will malfunction as a political label. Meekists might work, maybe.

    -Brian M.

  13. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 10:50 pm

    Hello there, Boysmom.

    I think part of our differences are just in what is meant by the word feminism. I have problem with women (or men) staying home with their children. In fact, I have no problem with new parents being given a gernous child allowance that would pay for decent day care or allow one parent to stay home. But I have no more use for a society that says all mother must stay home than I do for one that says all mother must work outside the home. And I believe the intent of the first women interested in female emancipation was just that–to give women choices.

    I feel the sexual revolution caused men, women, children, and society as a whole a certain amount of harm — esp. because of biology, women and children. However the intent of the early femenists was to hold men to a higher standard of sexual behavior.

    I think what it comes down to is that I’ve split off what I consider to be the good (early) parts of feminism, and because I can’t deny the benefits they gave me and other women, I’m not conforable condeming the movement as a whole. Sometimes I say, while we were debating how to pronounce Ms. we lost track of the goal and didn’t produce a better world for women and men.

    I think one area where we’d have to disagree is that of single parenting. I know many people feel that a family without two parents is unnatural and unhealty. I feel that a single parent family is healther and more natural (after all widowers and widows have raised children, not to mention maiden aunts, older siblings and grandfathers, with no worse results than husband and wife teams) and therefore had not qualms about adopting as a single parent. Now, for people to chose to parents when they don’t have sufficent resources (emotionally, materially, etc.) is a different question, but one that, IMO, applies as much to couples as to single people.

    As for love, I think we’d both agree that “Duty inspires us to do thing, Love inspires us to do them well.”

    Looking forward to your reply,



  14. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Good post Sharon. I would describe myself as politically liberal and socially conservative I guess. Labels are such a problem-they pigeonhole people but we are so much more than our labels. I think that it is unfortunate because it seems that many people assume that if they consider themselves conservative, then they must not be environmentalists, or can’t care about organic food for instance. That was one reason I found Crunchy Cons a good read- the notion of environmentally conscious, oganic granola coop shopping republicans “coming out of the closet” if you will…..

    So perhaps we can find a way to stop labeling ourselves so much- and labeling others as well. And look for commonality among others where we might not expect to find it….

  15. cityfarmeron 29 Aug 2007 at 11:10 pm

    I’m impressed by how many readers who don’t usually comment have taken the time to chime in on this one.

    Great Job!

  16. Anonymouson 29 Aug 2007 at 11:38 pm

    I left a clause out of my post –

    I think a single parent family is better than an institution for child, not matter how well run.



  17. Sashaon 30 Aug 2007 at 2:48 am

    Hi Sharon,

    Although I agree with much of your post, the problem I have is that you are directing it at liberals as though politically conservative people are the party of individual responsibility and self-restraint. If nine of the ten states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy and divorce were not so-called “red states”, you might be justified in directing these ideas at us “liberals” or “progessives” or whatever. But by virtually every measure of social stability, those bastions of liberal permissiveness, out perform the conservative “heartland”.

    I was raised in California and now live in Virginia, and I see no signs of any greater sense of personal responsibility here. Mostly the idea of it is used as a club over the heads of those who lack social standing.

  18. Bedouinaon 30 Aug 2007 at 5:00 am

    I found myself thinking about this post for quite some time after reading it. Love the era of modesty - this resonates.

    Humility also came to my mind as it did for others - in the sense of being humble, simple, and the opposite of self-absorbed.

    In fact this post made me 1) count my blessings in extended family and 2) go to my husband and tell him I want to support him in the tough thing he’s dealing with right now. I had been irritated with him because of certain behaviors as he reacts to the pressure he’s under; this post reminded me that my job is to be his friend and help him when he’s suffering.

    There is a great deal here - this is more like a couple of chapters in a book, Sharon. You go!

  19. Bedouinaon 30 Aug 2007 at 5:01 am

    Oh yeah and Sasha, hear hear on your point about red states and personal responsibility.

  20. Bedouinaon 30 Aug 2007 at 5:04 am

    Sharon wrote: we believe that you do the right thing, and that practice in doing the right thing will lead you to be able to feel the right way doing it. That is, when your failing mother needs help, you care for her because it is the right thing to do, to honor your parents, and in doing so, you open up the possibility that you will do it purely from love. But unless you do the work itself, you have few opportunities to change your feelings and develop that sense of love

    Some people have taught me the slogan “act as if.” This passage reminds me of that slogan…

  21. roelon 30 Aug 2007 at 6:20 am


    Thomas Homer-Simpson is but an empty mind filled with big words. He gets to keep his professorship while selling tons of books to equally blessed superior beings. Fingerfood for the too well paid.

    Utterly uninteresting. Move beyond the initial awe for the grand syllables, and there’s nothing there. Just status quo, good academic salary, but nothing that will help one poor sod one single inch.

    Want to talk government anyone, for real?

    Jay Hanson, who has 1000 times more to say than Homer Simpson, invites people to talk about just that. Jay doesn’t suffer fools lightly, but if you feel you’re up for it, there’s nothing at this level anywhere, it’s a unique chance, he’s never invited anyone before.

    Jay doesn’t really believe it can be done, just that if it isn’t it’s all over.


    Can American government survive “peak oil”?

    Jay Hanson, Killer Ape-Peak Oil group

    Starting on Sept 1, I will lead a moderated group discussion on the how American government really works, “essence” of politics, money and the economy. Posters must be familiar with “peak oil”, basic thermodynamics and evolution theory.

    • Is “the economy” really efficient?

    • What precisely IS money and what function does “the economy” actually serve in liberal democracies?

    • Recently there has been some talk of a “new economics”, but do we really need a new economics? Perhaps we need a “new politics” instead?

    What’s the difference?

    • Is World War Three inevitable?

    If you or you friends would like to participate, register at tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/killer_ape-peak_oil/

    Jay Hanson — http://www.warsocialism.com

  22. Anonymouson 30 Aug 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Just found a website which claims to sell modest clothing. It included a tee shirt tighter than anything I’d wear (or want my daugher to wear) proclaming “Modest is Hottest.”

    I think we have a mixed message here.

    Oh, there are a couple of books by a young women out there the bottom line of which is if you are modest, you’ll get the guy. She also actually says that immodest women are unfairly spoiling the chances of modest women getting married. Another mixed message.

    Perhaps modest isn’t the best word.

    MEA who can’t help thinking “how naked go the sometimes nude”

  23. Cinnumegon 30 Aug 2007 at 1:46 pm

    This echoes a lot of things I too have been thinking about, though I recognize the word “modesty” has a number of different colors to it. Ironically, one place where I have found unintentional modesty is the nudist camp–it’s so non-sexual to be naked in that context. (It really takes all kinds. Diversify, diversify, diversify… Now where did I read that?)

    Modesty, like humility is a word that people have a hard time with, but I really like the notion that it’s about choosing not to be seen. Yesterday, an animal oracle suggested I be like the opossum, and play dead when I need to. I also interpreted that to fade into the wordwork as much as possible. (I meant to type “woodwork”, but “wordwork” is a really cool typo, donchat’ink?)

    Your post also reminded me of something that I think may hide an offensive core, but it’s one of those “Internet tinfoil hat” things: That “feminism was a Rockefeller plot to destroy the family unit.” But the dovetailing of throwing off the woman-shackles with the expansion of capitalism would appear to fit that notion fist-in-velvet-glove as it were. Odd thought that, no? Creepazoidal, fershur Marge!

    As it impacts gay/lesbian rights, the modesty thing is going to really rub some people the wrong way. But the AIDS crisis has helped to focus at least some gay men and lesbians on the preciousness of sexuality and life. Modesty in the context of sacralizing sexuality and the beauty of the male and female forms is increasingly being recognized. Astrologically, people with 1960s birthdays have Uranus and Pluto in the “sign of modesty”–Virgo. Transformation and sudden awakening through modesty and service, through bringing the visions of heaven to earth.

    Sorry these thoughts are a bit disjointed, but I too am someone who sees that the left/right and radical/progressive/mushy-moderate/conservative/reactionary positions are not this or that, but this and that and that too and the other thing and… (so on…)

  24. WNC Observeron 30 Aug 2007 at 2:08 pm

    The term that comes to mind that best defines what you have described is “Communitarianism”.

  25. BoysMomon 30 Aug 2007 at 2:20 pm

    We absolutely agree that children are better off with family than in an institution (caveat that family are decent human beings), biological or not.
    Part of the feminist message these days that I got in college was that girls should run around and sleep with lots of guys. That this was perfectly natural and the way things ought to be. The part they left out was that birth control just doesn’t always work, and condoms don’t always prevent STDs. The problem with leaving that out is that an unintentional single parent is more likely to be poor, more likely to not finish school, to have a low-wage job without health insurance, to be working donkey hours to keep the lights on. In the event of the unexpected pregnancy, it is always the woman’s problem. It’s biology. I know the feminists wanted male responsibility, but I don’t see that they succeeded. The two-parent family has at least twice as much time (if both parents work) to spend on children, nutrition, health and so on, as the one parent does. The three-parent or three-adult family has even more. This isn’t to say that single parents can’t do a good job, just that they’ve got that much more to do by themselves.

  26. Anonymouson 30 Aug 2007 at 3:05 pm

    We agree on the family thing…and I don’t have much more to add on the feminist issue since it’s clear that understand my thoughts and have answered them quiet nicely. As you said, it’s a question of agreeing to disagree, basically on how we define femisim, which is a nice illustration of Sharon’s large point about labels. I’ve chosen to leave out some of the worse (and I hope unintentional effects) of a movement that was started with high hopes and good intentions, and, I think, did some good. You, perhap more honestly, don’t divorce the effects from the movement.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to reply to me. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  27. Sashaon 30 Aug 2007 at 3:13 pm

    The whole issue of sexuality and how best to raise children is one I struggle with. It’s no longer clear to me that the nuclear family makes the most sense. In a matriarchal family line, the fathers don’t necessarily have much to do with the raising of children, but the mother’s male family members are there to take on the paternal role.

    I don’t know how much value I see in sexual restraint for its own sake. Yet, it is very clear to me that those societies that place no value on sexual restraint are not, on the whole, societies that are thriving. There are whole levels of intimacy that are lost when sex becomes the norm. Holding hands means very little these days.

    I do see value in there being various degrees of intimacy. When everybody uses your first name, it no longer means anything when you invite someone to use it. Likewise, if the sex act is one that shared only with one’s spouse, then it becomes something truly special.

    I often call NOW the national organization of some women. Looking back on the women’s movement I think it had two unintended negative consequences: Instead of insisting that all work is worthy of fair compensation, it focused on giving women access to high paying jobs. Instead of demanding respect for those occupations and activities that are favored by women, it focused on “opening doors” but a consequence of that was to confirm the belief that “women’s work” (including the raising of children) was a lesser thing, unworthy of regard.

  28. Kiashuon 30 Aug 2007 at 3:25 pm

    cinnumeg comments about capitalism and the decline of the family unit, and their connection with women’s lib.

    I’d simply say that the fact that when given the choice women tend to marry later or not at all, and tend to be reluctant to have children, well… that does not say good things about us blokes. Maybe if we men made the homes nicer women would be happier about staying there. But of course I also think that a woman’s place is out of the kitchen.

  29. Michelleon 30 Aug 2007 at 4:59 pm

    On raising teen daughters: “Do as
    I say, and as I do.” , has worked
    for me. I lead by example. If I
    don’t want my kids to smoke,drink
    to excess, fool around etc, they
    don’t see their momma doing these

    On caring for parents: Hubby and I
    have 7. 6 live in the same town
    with us. Option #1: Put a trailer
    park in the front yard so I can
    check on them all. Option #2: Get
    a large binder with color coded
    sections for each parent, include
    allergies, medical history and current med list for each parent.
    Have a calender on hand at all times for doctor appoinments.


  30. jewishfarmeron 30 Aug 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Thank you all for the really wonderful and engaging comments - and heck, yes, feel free to argue about feminism on my blog ;-). I’m all for interesting discussions in the comments section.

    I am a feminist - I believe strongly in the message of feminism. And I also think that because I’m a feminist, I should be clearly critical of the places where feminism has failed. I think almost all of those places are the places where feminism and growth capitalism intersect - I tend to have much more in common with Marxist feminism (which is not to say I’m really a marxist, either - except in the Groucho sense ;-).

    Cinnumeg, actually, I was also thinking of the nudist relationship to modesty - which I think is modest - but I couldn’t think of a good way to work it into the discussion. I don’t think clothing is valuable for its own sake, but I do think that adherence to community standards is valuable, and the notion of a private life is valuable - that is, if something is not kept private, staked out as the territory only of sexuality, intimacy, domesticity, etc.. then I think we do lose. In a sense, I’m not all that attached to any specific choice, but I do think that many of the historical choices people have made had *reasons* - reasons that got lost in the mists of energy.

    Roel, I think the one useful insight in what I agree is a very pretentious and not very useful book is Homer-Dixon’s rather ambiguously expressed conclusion that it might be more useful to let the collapse happen than to stop it. Like you, I’m not that impressed with the book as a whole, but I am impressed, at least to a degree, with that single insight, however mediated by a lot of other nonsense. I’ll look into the Jay Hanson stuff - I’ve read a few of his articles and haven’t been very impressed, frankly, but it is a very limited exposure.

    BoysMom, I actually think that your expression of what love is is right on target. Looking back over my post, I’m sorry I gave the impression that I was saying that Christianity and Secular society all operate within the same “let your heart guide you” culture. What I should have said (and when I have a chance to revise I will correct) is that Christianity changes the Jewish model around, so that your heart, when turned to G-d, is trustworthy, and secular society has translated that to be “follow your heart, not the rules.” Thanks for the correction - I appreciate it. And I love your definition of love.

    Sasha, actually, I agree with you about personal responsibility in a sense - but I don’t think I was, at least in intention, using the term the way you are. Historically speaking, the term personal responsibility derives from conservative rhetoric about economic personal responsibility - sexual, yes, but the term generally refers to not taking welfare checks. I think it is stupid rhetoric, so phrased, but what I’m trying to do, perhaps unsuccessfully, is not so much direct my rhetoric at liberals but at a society as a whole that doesn’t have much truck with what I would describe as real personal responsiblity - there’s a tendency to seek government solutions as a substitute for personal responsibility on the one hand, or deny government solutions as a way of forcing it, and I think both ways of thinking are completely stupid ;-).

    My own observation is the same one Dreher makes - most conservatives, liberals and moderates are at heart, “religious” consumerists, with no taste for self-restraint of any kind. So when I talk about personal responsibility and self-restraint, I am talking about what I see as a stronly minority position among even the very conservative. Wendell Berry once said that it is impossible, in this society, to create a case for the notion of self-limitation in any sense and I think that’s true. What I think it is interesting about some species of conservativism is that it is as powerfully anti-modernist as Kunstler is, and equally powerfully trying to make a successful case for a culture of limitation. And failing, mostly. Does this make any sense at all?

    Well, this will definitely appear in the book, and be by far the better essay from the feedback I’ve recieved. Thank you all.


  31. jewishfarmeron 30 Aug 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Michelle, I’ve always loved your “enemies of the bride on one side, enemies of the groom on the other” idea. We’ve got 7 parents between us too, and they don’t all get along. Fortunately, I’ve got sisters, but DH is an only. It’ll be interesting. Hopefully all won’t need help at once.

    Well, if do as I say and as I do works well, I should be ok, as long as we don’t query too much into my more distant past. Mommy is way, way, way too tired to fool around, except with Daddy ;-).


  32. Jan Steinmanon 30 Aug 2007 at 5:28 pm

    You left out one: the importance of community.

    I think reliance on family units is a mistake. Humanity’s past is rooted in tribes; it has only been cheap energy and wanton reproduction that allowed that to devolve to “family” from “tribe”. (And further devolve to the primacy of the individual.)

    So I’d encourage you to think about changing your #4 item to “develop stronger community ties, and a strong focus on community units…” I know you, as a mother of four, see the family supreme, but if we are going to get through this without famine, pestilence and war reducing human numbers, we are going to necessarily have, on average, smaller families, which are less able to provide the support of the huge families of energy-rich days.

    Put more personally, my spouse and I are both childless. In your scenario, who are we going to mentor, who is going to care for us? Well, we’ve been “adopting” a number of 30-somethings into our culture and community, forming a tribe of like-minded folk. I strongly believe this is the only sensible path!

  33. Anonymouson 30 Aug 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Why can’t a family be unit within a tribe or larger community?


  34. jewishfarmeron 30 Aug 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Joe, but tribes, generally speaking, were families, no? That is, the traditional tribal model included lots and lots of familial ties, often going back a long, long time. Those intersections mattered a great deal.

    I’ve written quite a few times about community, and also about the reality that family should and
    does include chosen as well as biological relationships. And I certainly have written quite a lot about the fact that my family size is larger than is sustainable. I think if you look back at prior posts, you’ll see that I don’t think family is the uber-model because I have four kids, but because I think it is the uber-model, historically speaking. We can remodel that to a degree, but I don’t think we can fully seperate out community and family - nor do I think that family has to mean all traditionally related, purely biological, heterosexual family members (which would let out a whole lot of my family).

    But I don’t think that community and family can be seperated. For example, in many traditional societies, all older family members are called “aunt” or “grandfather” whether they are biologically related or not - that is, senior adults have to a degree the cultural status of family members, an ‘official’ familial relationship. Communities are generally speaking made up of families and familial relationships, along with other, non-biological relationships that often have the status of quasi-family. The family model underlies the structure of most communities. I simply can’t think of an older culture in which family isn’t far more tightly inscribed into community than anything I’m proposing, simply by the basic necessity that most people don’t travel very far.

    I think your strategy of expanding the definition of family (as you say “adopting” - it is very hard to get away from the language of family - and that’s no accident)is precisely the right one. You don’t live near me, do you ;-)? Where I disagree is at the level that this is somehow different than family creation.

    It is sort of funny - a close friend of my husband’s parents has been here a lot, and I recently mentioned to him that most of our close family friends are referred to as “uncle” or “aunt” by my children, and asked if he’d be comfortable being called “Uncle Milos” - he was absolutely horrified, and said he didn’t want to be “pigeonholed” or take on a family responsibility. This is someone who we didn’t exactly pick, but who came by virtue of his relationship with another family member, but who eats at our house all the time, etc… I admit, I was both shocked and kind of upset that anyone would take being welcomed into a family and honored as an honorary member as a burden and unpleasantness, but to each their own.

    I do agree with your larger point, and have written about this several times. If we’re to imagine a world with a stabilized population, we have to expand our families in many ways. For example, my husband is an only child with four parents - how will these only children support their parents? How will parents of disabled children know their kids will be cared for after they are gone if those children have no siblings. But I do think that this is best structured under the rubric of family, rather than the more generalized “community.”



  35. jewishfarmeron 30 Aug 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Oops, Jan, I’m sorry I called you “Joe.” I’m not real clear on where my brain is this afternoon.


  36. BoysMomon 30 Aug 2007 at 10:40 pm

    I quite enjoyed our dialogue too. Too bad you’re not a neighbor!

    Jan, I would like to know what your definition of tribe is. The definition I use comes from my inlaws, it’s roughly a family extended through second cousins on the male lineage. (Through second cousins, because of intermarriage, you really don’t have third cousins except through women who’ve married into other tribes as opposed to back into their own.) This also traditionally defined village where they come from.

  37. Benon 31 Aug 2007 at 4:31 am

    Wow, a lot of good ideas and a lot of good comments here.

    There’s something that’s troubling me in the discourse about modesty and restraint. I suppose it may simply be that I’m coming to those questions from the “left”.

    I’m very sympathetic to the idea that people should live in communities, and should measure themselves by how much they can give rather than by how much they can get. I’m troubled, though, by the idea that communities should tell people who they are supposed to be, and that if a person doesn’t want to be that, they are a Bad Person. (I feel this about pressure to be seen as much as about pressure not to be seen!) One of the really wonderful things about our society is the freedom to be different, and I feel that going back to old norms without modifying them to safeguard that freedom would be a mistake.

    Also, on the subject of sexual restraint, I think the main voices of restraint in our society have come from a particular corner in a way that has skewed the debate. Putting the word “don’t” next to the word “sex” conjures up the view that all forms of expressing oneself as a sexual being should be restricted to marriage (and don’t masturbate, either!). I feel that one of the reasons this view has gone out of favor is that it is mockingly false to the reality of people for whom there is more than a decade between physiological and economic maturity — put simply, that’s a long time to wait. Isn’t there a middle way, which teaches responsibility and self control in the context of understanding the consequences of one’s actions?

    I suppose, in both paragraphs, what I’m trying to say is, can we teach the next generation that choices have consequences, without going back to the world of “these are the rules, or else!”?

  38. Anon42on 31 Aug 2007 at 4:43 am

    Sharon, I could not help but respond, in three parts, no less.


    Politics is about power, the power to make decisions for an entire community or society. And politics is not limited to what governments do. One can find political activity in the kitchen, the classroom, the workplace, and the street.

    As you and your readers probably know, the Left-Right political metaphor stems from the early part of the French Revolution (of 1789), in which the “representatives” of the poorer sections of French society sat to the left of the king, and members of the wealthy classes sat to the right. In a way the metaphor still holds. At heart, the Left favor the rights and improvement of conditions for those who have been arbitrarily disadvantaged or oppressed. The Right, generally speaking, favors more power (which includes wealth) for ever-smaller numbers of its own. Please note that when I say “Left”, I am talking about socialists and anarchists. I am not talking about Democrats, who are centrists in the U.S. political context and center-right in a European context (which has a broader political spectrum represented in both its societies and its parliaments).

    The term “Left” represents the never-dying tendency toward liberty, egalitarianism, equity, inclusion, and negotiated freedom. Meanwhile “Right” represents hierarchy, elitism, concentration of power, exclusion, and arbitrary authority. (And that authority can sometimes be totalitarian, where even what people think is controlled by those with power, as was true in the USSR.) These two social poles will never go away, peak oil or no. Even though the issues of the day may shift, and strange bedfellows may find new partners, these general ideological orientations underly most public issues.

    Your post concerned me because I have before seen similar arguments about ignoring the “left-right divide”. For example, since at least the 1980’s, some political activists have tried to claim that the (usually grassroots) “Left” and “Right” need to united. But this is often a tactic by right-wing organizations and political cults (such as the LaRouchites) to expand their following and continue to pursue the same old self-aggrandizing agenda. (For more see: http://www.social-ecology.org/article.php?story=20031028141836435 )

    In the context of peak oil, I agree that geological facts do not care about any human’s personal political orientation. But in a time of massive social and economic dislocation, and especially an era of less material wealth, I’d rather that leftist ideas (broadly understood) had more currency than rightist ideas. If the pie is going to be smaller, the pieces should be more-equitably distributed and we shouldn’t have any scapegoating, thanks. Remember, the neo-nazi British Nationalist Party see an opportunity in peak oil, no doubt to subjugate, expel, and/or exterminate non-white people in Britain. I have heard exactly this kind of racist fantasization from their brethren on this side of the Atlantic. Try telling me there is no left or right when a white supremacist tries to burn your house down for the simple reason that you are Jewish, and your old Green neighbors are shooting back at them.

  39. Anon13on 31 Aug 2007 at 4:44 am


    Regarding feminism, don’t use it in the past tense. You may be referring to Second Wave Feminism in your section on the male gaze, but the past two generations of feminists have different ideas about how women “should” present themselves. And feminism has always been about equal legal rights and equal social respect between men and women. Don’t tell me that’s passe. And as for disregarding women who want “traditional” roles for themselves, I have heard that complaint about some of the feminists of forty years ago, but that’s not the feminism I grew up with. And as for the constant focus on women, feminists do care about men. I recommend the book _Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man_, by Susan Faludi. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiffed

    Feminism has made a better world for women (and for men). Two examples: the number of female college students in the U.S. now approximates their proportion of the population. And, it’s a lot more difficult for men to threaten women co-workers (especially “subordinates”) into sexual favors than it used to be. These are improvements.

    And as an aside: regarding the word “modesty”, I associate the phrase “not being a braggart” or “not being ostentatious” well before I associate the phrase “not having sex” (which seems to be what Wendy Shalit’s getting at). It isn’t about “not wanting to be looked at”; it’s about not being obnoxious. There’s a difference, one more like Phil’s suggestion of “humility”. But I avoid that word since some people have turned it into a synonym for “servility”.

    By the way, if I was a betting person, I’d bet that I dress more modestly than anyone else in this discussion. But that would be bragging. :-)

  40. Anon-13-42-Whateveron 31 Aug 2007 at 4:46 am


    As for your points, Sharon:

    1.) Corporations do live off of money given to them by large numbers of people. But they also benefit from public decisions that have given them legal personhood, promoted international trade in almost every sector, enticed them with tax breaks, and many other things. The consumerist/lifestyle approach is useful, but it won’t be enough to abolish them. Public decision-making is necessary to diminish and eventually break the model of intentionally-irresponsible economic organizations.. (And I, for one, have NEVER bought anything from Walmart and never will, and for exactly the reason you point out.)

    As for your complaint about “public policy solutions” … at the very least we need to repeal government policies that hamper our ability to change the energy status quo. From “right to dry” legislation to the repeal of oil industry subsidies, policy changes must be made from the local to the national level. That takes political organizing, not atomized personal “lifestyle choices” or family-level self-sufficiency. And changing policy is important so we can ease the transition, not waste our resources, and avoid prosecution or dispossession for violating outdated laws.

    2.) Sure, the Federal and state governments are of limited use in some crises. But this is not what “what everyone on the right has been saying for generations”. The neoliberals in power since Thatcher and Reagan have wanted to diminish government’s ability to check the power of national- and transnational-scale businesses, and their owners and managers. They wanted to reverse the New Deal, and they have largely succeeded.

    Your advice about self-reliance and disaster preparation is good. But don’t get stuck seeing a dichotomy between “the Government” and your own little lonesome. You don’t have to be lonesome! The perilous situations you describe in item 2 can also be met with MUTUAL AID. Regular people can organize themselves to deal with crises (or even to create improvements in their lives), preferably in advance of the storm (whatever kind of storm it may be). As you note with regard to responsibility, those with more can and thus should give more to the common pool, resources can be directed where the need is, and the organization can be self-governed democratically. Even John Michael Greer has written about these kinds of functions being served by fraternal orders a century ago.

    3.) “the big old left/right debate - social welfare or not, big government or little government” See my comments about mutual aid, which could include social welfare programs without government. Cut out the middle man! And remember the idea was explained by anarchists, who are about as left as you can get. http://www.infoshop.org/wiki/index.php/Mutual_aid

    4.) The Right’s rhetoric about “family” is really about male supremacy. Leftists recognize that there are all kinds of families in all kinds of forms, and there is no supportable reason for men to be domestic tyrants. I’m all for “a strong focus on family units” if those “units” are allowed to include a wide variety of arrangements, which I am glad to see that you would allow. For more about different conceptions of family, I highly recommend the essay “Red Family, Blue Family” at http://www.gurus.com/dougdeb/politics/209.html .

    5.) I generally agree with this first part. I just doubt that the owners of everything will feel that they are less important even if all they do is sit around with a piece of paper in their safe (especially as they buy up more as others lose out).

    As for the second part, I’ll complain a lot less about the true believers as soon as they stop trying to legislate their dogma onto the rest of us. Their beliefs are entirely voluntary, and must stay that way.

    6.) Regarding the sexual lives of young people, take a look at the Netherlands and other societies in northern Europe. Compared to U.S. kids, theirs tend to first have sex at _later_ ages, despite the more-open attitudes about sexuality in that part of the world.

    Even if today’s birth control techniques are lost (which I doubt; I mean, chemistry isn’t going away), that doesn’t mean that Victorian or Consumerist norms need be continued. In fact, I expect that as we valued our girls as something other than helpmeets/sexpots-in-training, they’d want to do other things with their lives besides service boys. And those who want to choose the “traditional” roles would not do so out of servility, but desire. Improved social equality between men and women reduces birthrates, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it reduces sexual activity among teenagers. Furthermore, if we redefined masculinity so as to drop the violence and sexual bragging, that would be another important improvement in sexual and emotional health for boys/young-men and girls/young-women. (For more about changing masculinity, see “Manly Men by Dave Niewert at: http://www.firedoglake.com/2007/08/19/manly-men/ )

    Also, if the current hypothesis about earlier biological adulthood is correct, a reduction in nutrition would probably return that age to historical “norms”. But this may be a mixed bag.

    7.) Not much to disagree with there, really, except that since humans are both individuals and (almost always) part of some kind of group, both roles and responsibilities must be met. It’s never easy, and there isn’t only one way to do it.

    Don’t worry. I’m not traumatized, but it is time for sleep. Good night.

  41. Anonymouson 31 Aug 2007 at 6:56 am

    Sharon, you should rename your blog “Dorothea’s Book” as you have nothing in common with Casaubon’s empty meanderings, and everything to do with Dorothea’s big-hearted inspiration.

    I almost always agree with everything you say, including today, but I don’t agree with your judgment on Homer-Dixon’s book, which I finished last night. Perhaps it didn’t have a great deal new to those of us who have been reading this stuff for quite a while now, but it was entertainingly told and exhaustively detailed - I’m still reading my way through the footnotes, which give access to both sides of most arguments. Best of all, it launched a huge attack on growth capitalism in a “mainstream” book. Not that it offered slick alternatives, because they’re really hard, but it presented plenty of room for discussion.

    It’s the first book I’ve read in over a year that I want to buy and give to other people to read.


  42. jewishfarmeron 31 Aug 2007 at 2:31 pm

    Anonymous, thanks for the extensive comments. Like you, generally speaking, I’d like to see the ideas of the left be more persuasive than the ideas of the right. But there are some exceptions - I think your florid praise of the left and condemnation of the right leaves some things out, including the real and practical losses of leftist philosophy for many people.

    I’ve written before about our failure to transmit our ideas and what we might do about it. But I think the the immediate leap to the BNP and the Larouchies is something of an example of why I think there’s a real problem with the rhetoric of the left as well - the left takes the right to be only its most extreme version and vice versa, and of course both end up as caricatures. If you wish to change your language, and say that left covers only the 2% of the American population who qualify as socialists and anarchists, and that the right is the ultra-hierarchical dominionists and right wingers, that’s fine. But frankly, since I’m into actual political change, I’m going to have to have something to do with the 96% of people who don’t fall into your definition of left or right. I’ll agree with you about your distinctions, but I don’t find them very useful, simply because they don’t include very many people, and both ends of the spectrum are unrepresentative.
    Generally speaking, and in many respects, I think that what you say about left and right are true, for the extremes. But I don’t think that we can do democracy and leave out the vast center. And those people are the ones I’m talking about.

    You seem to think that this is a matter of abolishing distinction entirely - of course it isn’t. It isn’t all about “Lena Horne and Sherriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek” - but the reality is that unless we wish to live our lives on the boundaries, praising our own moral purity, we’re going to have to get down and dirty with the real, democratic majority, whose left are neither socialists nor anarchists, but good natured people who generally want egalitarianism without to much trouble to themselves and the democratic majority who general want to conserve the past without too much trouble for themselves.

    As for your other critiques - you simply read me too absolutely, as though I’m calling for the abolishment of all difference. You do make a good point about the pressure to normalize - but is that really a logical consequence of one kind of society, but not another? That is, to the extent that the left (and by this I mean the imperfect, real left that includes more than the 2%) has been successful, or was successful at one point in advancing its goals, it has helped replaced the pressure to conform sexually with the pressure to conform economically. The alliegence of popular feminism (I agree with you that all feminisms are not the same, and make that distinction myself regularly here) to growth capitalism has meant that feminism’s success has, to some degree, been capitalism’s success, with horrifying results in social inequity and poverty. We absolutely cannot lay this all at the door of feminism, and yet, if you can’t hold feminism responsible at all, you can’t credit any of its accomplishments either - all ideologies are responsible for their negative and positive effects.

    I’m not convinced it is just second-wave feminism we’re talking about - I, like you, am a product of third wave or later feminism, but second wave feminism derives from a strain of first wave feminism that has, I think consider purview in third wave as well. The eugenicist origins of first wave feminism, which supported the reproduction of the “fit” tracked stealthily into the rhetoric of second wavefeminism that focused in on comparatively priveleged women’s right to access to high paying careers, and has translated into some of the sexual and cultural rhetoric of third wave feminism. The reality is that there are simply too many feminisms to absolve them all, or judge them all, except in what they have done. I agree, of course, that feminism is a powerful and valuable ideology, and its ability to make women (sort of) equal before the law and state matters (to the extent that we’ve succeeded). But I also agree that it is responsible for its failure and inadequacies. Thus, I criticize and praise as I feel fair - I think that, for example, the rhetoric that feminists of many stripes often use to suggest that working class and poorer women are experiencing false consciousness when they reject feminism is downright bigoted crap, for example. I think in many cases, feminism as it actually worked, created an economy where working class women are poorer and under more pressure than they were before. I don’t think their sense of loss comes from stupidity or failure to recognize that the vote and the right not to be raped in marriage were remarkable achievements, but they rightly want to know if we really had no choice but to cost them what we did economically in getting there. Those aren’t bad questions, and they are ones that I’ve noticed all waves of feminism respond to extremely defensively. There are legitimate reasons for that, but I don’t think we help our cause that way. My own taste tends to be towards Marxist feminism, but I don’t claim that that’s the “real” feminism - feminism, like everything else, is hybrid.

    As for the rest of your points, which I can’t do point by point, I would only say that this is a single post. I’ve been writing about community and how to build social supports without government for a long time. I do think that again, you go too far to demonizing the right when you say that the rhetoric of family is about male supremacy. Some of it probably is. But there are other reasons people on the right put their families, however construed, at the center of their thinking - often the same reason we on the left do - because they are doing the very best they can to find a way to support family structures in a commercialized society that doesn’t value them most.

    I guess I think, reading your response, that you have some legitimate points, but also that this is a good example of why we really need to change our rhetoric. Yes, the socialists have advocated mutual aid societies, as have the conservatives who argue for religious charities instead of government structures. Because the tendency to demonize the “other side,” to place all goodness on the left and all evil on the right is flawed for several reasons. The first is that “community building” doesn’t mean ghetto building. You build communities by respecting and getting along with other people, and valuing what they value, compromising with them, and not judging them harshly. I don’t think that works in a purely polarized vision of the world. The second is that honestly, I value democracy more highly than I do leftism, as deeply as I do value leftist values and thinking. And democracy means that we find a way to get along together, and find some ground that we can work together on. I don’t think we can afford such drastic polarization.

    My own personal observation has been that as a leftist, I have more in common with certain strains of conservatives than I do with the vast, consumerist, capitalist left. That those who want to fetter capitalism from a strong anti-modernist streak and those who want to fetter it from marxism (or in my case subsistencism - although I take much of my thinking from Marxism, I would call myself a subsistencist a la Maria Mies, etc…). It is these people who I suspect might actually be able to make some kind of change. I personally believe that the moderate and liberal capitalist “left” is probably less likely to make change than an alliance of those who resist unlimited capitalism.


  43. Anonymouson 31 Aug 2007 at 3:41 pm

    I wonder what makes you willing to forgo the mindless pleasures of this day and age in order to take your chosen (and more difficult) path? I feel the same way on several points, but chalk it up to being raised poor on a small farm in Ireland, so it’s been bred into me. Would you share your motivation, and what makes you care? I’m interested in why some of us are mindlessly turning a blind eye to tomorrow, and some of us are taking action and trying to alert others? As an educated women, you could be a volvo-driving, soccer mom - WHY not??
    Just wondering what makes us tick differently.
    Sandra in MD

  44. jewishfarmeron 31 Aug 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Sandra - Instinctively, I think it has to do with two things. The culture I grew up in and an extremely low tolerance for boredom.

    I grew up in a very odd family - no money, but a comparative lot of education. My paternal grandmother, despite having come from an economically “fallen” family was college educated (she’d had polio, wasn’t especially pretty and I suspect the assumption was that she’d better be able to support herself - which turned out to be true, not because she didn’t marry but because she married an abusive husband). My father was well educated, despite there not being any money. My mother, despite growing up dirt poor in a trailer park had gone to college and went on to get several additional degrees. But *everyone* in my family worked in some “caring” profession - and none of us had any money. My family was filled with nurses, advocates, social workers, therapists of various sorts, activists, etc…

    All with either lots of autodidactic or formal education, and none with two nickles to rub together. We always lived in working class neighborhoods, and hung out with others of our approximate economic class, and the only difference was that we had a ton of books in our house.

    So I never got the impression that education was *for* making money, or even remotely tied to it. It was valuable for its own sake, if you could afford that, and it was valuable because it enabled you to be of service to other people, but it wasn’t about making money at all. So it honestly never occurred to me to plan my life around a good job and a good income - good work, yes. A sense of being of service and of use to people, sure. But not money, which was too scarce a commodity to be the focus of a life ;-). In that, I’m very much indebted to my parents.

    The other reason is that I have a low tolerance for boredom. If you’ve been taught that being useful to other people matters a lot, and raised to have an inquiring mind, I think suburban soccer-momhood sounds indescribably dull. Perhaps I’m just stereotyping, but it doesn’t sound like there’d be much to do. I like to have something interesting and useful to do and don’t much like doing what everyone else is. So that helps.



  45. TICon 31 Aug 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Writers Gotcha;-)

    I admit, I was struck by the sheer aptness of the phrase “era of modesty” to what we’re coming to.

    Horrors, a dangling participle;-)

    My grandmother the English teacher would be aghast;-)

  46. An Immodest Proposalon 31 Aug 2007 at 5:18 pm

    At the risk of causing strife, I’d like to make some suggestions about methods to avoid conception without birth control.

    1. Sex is not only about penile-vaginal penetration!

    To the best of my understanding (perhaps those with kids can verify this for me) conception is the result of vaginal intercourse. If you don’t want to conceive, and you don’t have access to oral and barrier contraceptives, don’t have vaginal intercourse. That is NOT to say don’t have sex — c’mon people, it doesn’t take that much imagination to figure out half a dozen other methods for reaching orgasm with a partner, many of which are also incredibly low risk for STI transmission.

    2. Get over exclusive heterosexuality!

    If we could just encourage our pre-married young’uns to mess around with same age, same sex partners we’d have a lot less unintended pregnancies. The advantage of same sex partners in ensuring contraception is that there is no risk of, in the heat of the moment, being stupid and having vaginal intercourse without contraception.

  47. jewishfarmeron 31 Aug 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I actually think your advice about both kinds of sexual alternatives is well taken. The issue I see is this. Even adults have some issues with, shall we say, not giving in to temptation using such methods. In teenagers, my observation is that “technical virginity” techniques, all perfectly well known and commonly used when I was in high school tended to result in a fair number of ‘ooops’ moments.

    I’ve long thought that giving every 13 year old girl a vibrator for her birthday and explaining what it can do that a 13 year old boy can’t would cut way, way down on the STD and pregnancy rates
    ;-). But the thing is, bright young things discover that either/or is a false dichotomy pretty quickly, and often move on to “and.”

    That’s not to say this is wholly bad advice. For example, it is almost certainly true that the long historical tradition of having young women sleep together resulted in a fair amount of homosexual distraction until marital age. But I remember being a teenager very well, and having been a bi teen who in some ways was a comparative model of self restraint (that is, I was spotty and depressed and almost no one wanted to have sex with me ;-), and I’m really not convinced, if anyone had wanted to have sex with me, that the fact that I could do it with other girls would have in any way much constrained my desire to do it with boys ;-).

    But perhaps I’m a bad example.


  48. Katrien at Mamastorieson 01 Sep 2007 at 2:28 am

    This is a bit late and off the mark from most of the previous comments, but here goes.

    I live in the US and most of my family lives in Europe, at most at a half hour drive from each other. My grandmother passed away a month ago, very unexpectedly. It was actually my grandfather’s death that everyone was preparing for.

    Now he is utterly bereft and complains about feeling lonely in his big house, where he and my grandma raised five kids. He can make soup. He is in pain from his cancer.

    I have told him repeatedly that he should come live with us: we would love his input into our very nuclear family: his wisdom, his skill in the garden, his wonderful sotrytelling and gentle nature. All of us, especially our two-year-old, would benefit from his daily presence.

    He thanked us, but said his health and the fact that most of the family and all his friends are in Belgium prevent him from coming.

    I have asked my mom: why don’t YOU invite him to come live with you? They too live in a big house, just the two of them now. She said: “he would never go for that!” I said, “ok, invite him for just for a week”, and all she could say was “no-ooo!” as in: that is really a ridiculous suggestion. Case closed.

    In that society and generation, parents and children, as of a certain age, are and stay segregated. Even though my mom as a child lived with her parents and grandmother (and loved it), she can’t divorce herself from that culture. I am sure, if I suggested it to my cousins, they would be even more outraged at the idea.

    Probably my grandfather himself, if I lived around the corner form him and his reasons for not coming to Boston were cancelled out, would not accept.

    This is a tragedy. This is a man at the end of his 80s, who has perhaps half a year to a year to live. Because my family can’t emancipate itself from this culture of isolation - which they haven’t considered at all, but which they just take for granted - he will spend those last months of his life lonely and unhappy.

    Sharon, in your previous post about caring for the elderly and family members in need, you were cautious and diplomatic, even apologetic. In this post, not so. Good for you! We NEED to be outraged. We NEED to question this shortsightedness that makes us all live impoverished and lonely lives.

  49. Colin Wrighton 03 Sep 2007 at 5:50 am

    Sharon, I wish you would have broken this essay up into six parts so we could have had a profitable discussion, since it covers so much territory.

    Let me just try to argue in a paragraph that blurring political distinctions could lead to the most serious consequences in the difficult times ahead.

    For example, have a look at this interview with George Lakoff where he distinguishes between “progressivism as empathy” and “conservatism as authoritarianism”. It’s not the end-all of definitions. But it does represent (to an approximation) the kinds of social forces that will play out once resource depletion hits the mainstream.

    Please consider rethinking this essay before you put it in book form and open yourself up to serious academic critique. I know we are in a time of flux, intellectually as well as socially and new thinking will be needed. But to discard so casually hundreds of years of enlightenment thinking is surely something not to be taken lightly.

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