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Sex and The Commons I: The Erosion of the Common Good

I taught college for most of four decades, and it just seems to me that these sentiments have become alien to citizens of a nation for whom identity politics has trumped any motivation for the common good. I have no doubt but that this is the result of many factors, including information overload, increasing levels of anxiety, social fragmentation, an endemic loneliness and separation reflected in our precipitously increasing tendency to live alone, and to our sadly disembodied world of electronic entertainment and communication. Yes, one of the symptoms of this is the sexual recession documented by Katie Julie in her article in the December 2018 issue of the Atlantic. What I want to explore is the sad likelihood that difficulties in learning how to negotiate intimate bodily relationships, and from them the personal autonomy necessary for stepping beyond oneself to an increasingly diverse social world, are precisely what is behind the erosion of the common good.

They say the Blues had a baby, and its name was Rock & Roll. But however universal the Blues, which Son House once famously defined as “you love someone and they don’t love you back,” they are rooted in racial experiences of oppression going all the way back to slavery, and to more than a hundred years of social and political strife. A one-time international student of mine, now a friend for over a decade, was trying to translate several Blues songs, mainly ones sung by women, for contemporary Spain. It wasn’t Alberta Hunter’s version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” or Etta James’ powerful paean to womanhood “W-O-M-A-N,” but Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” that produced the most difficulty for cross-cultural translation, rooted as it is in the history of civil rights in mid-twentieth century America. “Mississippi Goddam” became an anthem of the civil rights movement, which Simone sang at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King. Here’s a few stanzas:

Hound dogs on my trail

School children sitting in jail

Black cat cross my path

I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy o this land of mine

We all gonna get it done in due time

I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there

I even stopped believing in prayer

Just try to do your best

Stand up be counted with all the rest

For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

I recently watched All the Way, an HBO biographical drama powerfully evoking the era, with Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame) playing Lyndon Baines Johnson, succeeding Kennedy after his assassination, wheeled and dealed on both sides of the aisle to see that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 got passed. Having learned to hate Johnson during the escalation of the Vietnam war in the latter 60’s I had forgotten many of the positive aspects of his legacy. I was still a kid when my campus-minister father sat my brothers and I down on the living-room floor in Madison, Wisconsin, read from the Bible, and tried to explain why, despite the risks involved (two protestant ministers had just been beaten to death), there were larger issues at stake, a Common Good to which we all needed to contribute. I recently told a Lancaster, PA Story Slam about “Courage” that bore witness to my father’s decision to march with Martin Luther King in Selma (26 March 2019). If you want to read some moving historical fiction about the rather darker racism of the deep south in this era, read Gregg Iles‘ Natchez Burning trilogy. In getting the civil rights act passed in 1964, Johnson also splintered off the southern Democrats that had been part of the Democratic coalition against the party of Lincoln since Reconstruction. The consequence of this was a Republican executive from Nixon in 1968, to the dozen years of Reagan-Bush from 1980 until Clinton’s election in 1992, except for the squeaker of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter in 1976. Republicans since Clinton have lost the popular vote or had to be decided by the Supreme Court. One wonders how much eight years of a Hawaiian African American from Chicago had to do with ushering in the resurgence of racism and white supremacy, especially in the South, unleashed by the electoral college victory of Donald Trump. Mississippi Goddam again, including a belt running from Moscow Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017.

LBJ also used Kennedy’s martyrdom to sustain a huge diversion of resources to an adventure which is far more popular in hindsight. In 1966, NASA was funded to the tune of 4.4% of the federal budget, almost ten times what it is today. Interesting, however, is the fact that the technical developments that made the moon landing possible look quaint in hindsight, prior to the revolution in “space-age” materials, carbon fibers, advanced alloys and ceramics. The cutting-edge computer designed for the Apollo spacecraft had a mere two kilobytes of memory, where we are now on the edge of having hand-held 5G smartphones. The moon landing of 1969 was also covered by reporters pecking away on manual typewriters, lining up at pay phones to call in stories, the smart set among them using plastic calculating devices called slide-rules. There was no global communications network, no real-time messaging by Internet. The irony is that 50 years of advances in electronic communication has not so much united us, but splintered us into competing and well-defended information bubbles producing increasing levels of social fragmentation, and this of a planetary population which has grown, in the intervening 50 years, from three billion to eight billion. But it wasn’t landing on the Moon that was the real signifier of the Common Good, it was the image of the Earth from space, the fragile blue marble of our planet, beginning with the Earthrise photo from Apollo 8. Sadly, this is the greatest Common Good of all, our human fragility now in nigh-inevitable danger from climactic changes Hot enough for you? It reached 46C in France (just under 115 degrees Fahrenheit for you Americans).

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is that while a Common Good may make everyone’s life better for its existence, it requires the actions of most of the public to achieve it. If we all contribute to a Commons for grazing our sheep, we each must do our part to contribute land, keep it in a condition for profitable grazing, and not over-graze, as our greed is at a cost to everyone. The system can tolerate a certain number of non-contributors (cheaters), the problem being that, since there is a cost for each individual contributing, there is a temptation to cheat. But if there are too many cheaters, the common good cannot be sustained. There are any number of more modern examples than grazing a commons. National defense is a big one. Serving in the army, paying one’s taxes, are individual costs, but once it is in place, it benefits everyone. So too with energy conservation. The less oil and gas you use, the more and cheaper the rest is for everyone. Public education is another obvious one. Having an educated public is a benefit to everyone, including those without children of their own.

Two clear examples should make the point. Disease control through public immunization is a common good. To sustain herd immunization against something like polio, you only need 80-85% of the public to be immunized. The problem is that for highly infectious diseases like measles, that number runs from 90-95%. If you get enough people who, for reasons of negative beliefs about immunization (however false), for reasons of cost, time, and negotiating the health care system, or even for simple indolence, you can, and we recently have, been having more examples of cases of measles than we have for a generation. For diseases like chicken pox, for which we cannot immunize young children, it is only the herd immunity which protects them. For a long time, I abjured getting my yearly influenza vaccine, until it was explained to me that even if I am a healthy adult, I can still carry the virus and spread it to others, so getting the shot isn’t just about me, it is about a community good. The influenza epidemic of 1918 affected a large proportion of a world population (only 1.5 billion at the time). But even the 2014 outbreak produced 57,000 deaths. Being a “free rider” on herd immunization is only possible if there are enough people getting vaccinated to sustain herd immunity, and the more contagious the disease, the more important this is. If you don’t trust medical experts, science, or the rule of law, you are a free-rider on a good valuable to all, including yourself and your loved ones, and with too many others like you, the common good is eroded. The immunization example it is clear and uncontroversial, at least to those with modern public education. The alternative is a return to the dark ages.

The second example, and it is just one of disturbingly many, is about public health care. If we continue to use a for-profit model of insurance support, we make it more expensive for everybody. We are all paying much more than most of the countries in the rest of the civilized world, for whom universal health care is considered a basic public good. And it is not only a good for the sake of medical care, but for avoiding the loss of productivity otherwise suffered, and for the preventative advantages of not relying primarily on very expensive emergency room treatment that results from insufficient care. What I find most disturbing however, are failures to understand why, for example, the Affordable Care Act initially required all to participate. Legally enforcing such participation is simply a way to sustain a public good that can only be eroded without it. Why should a young person, maybe struggling to take their economic place in the adult world, likely, by virtue of youth, to be healthier to begin with, incur the cost for insurance, or a fine for not carrying it? Because without doing so, it will be far more difficult to sustain a common good that, when you do become ill, by virtue of the normal slings and arrows of life, including your own aging, there won’t be a common good on which you can rely when you need it most.

"Self-made" entrepreneurs, arguing that they should have a right to keep what they may have worked long and hard to obtain, too easily forget the plethora of common goods from which they may have benefited more than most: The public education obtained by their workers, the protection of police, their transportation on public roadways, their dependence on guarantees of the safety of foodstuffs and other products, as well as the institutional support for national defense, for disease control, and even for the safety net that may catch them when they fall.

Now, it is not my intent here to devolve into political arguments, about which there may be many good reasons to disagree, but it is about a serious worry that our public, and unfortunately even our private discourse, has become, for whatever reasons, less able to sustain the attention to wider public goals on which we may all agree. But in order to figure out what has brought us to this place, rather than just addressing the symptoms, we are going to need to think more deeply about the social and historical changes that have led us here. Certainly, there are those who would use dissension and difference to flame the fires of discord and disagreement, to their political or economic advantage. But much of our current difficulty may have been produced by a range of deeply rooted social changes produced by unintended consequences of technologies and practices that we may have embraced for what were initially quite hopeful expectations. What I will argue in this series of blogs is that some of the deepest and most troubling sources of these changes, represented in the replacement of discussion of common goods with the politics of identity, are rooted deeply in difficulties in the most personal emotional and intimate development of people whose youth and naivete have been unable to avoid succumbing.

The problem with identity politics is that it is unavoidably divisive. While diversity and inclusion are certainly one of the “goods” that our system of government can provide over the “tyranny of the masses,” separating us into different groups with different interests and goals of necessity distracts us from common ground, and common goods, which themselves may be threatened by the tribalism that group differences invariably produce. The social psychologist Henri Tajfel points out, in a tradition of research on “minimal groups,” that even when people, say a classroom full of students, are arbitrarily divided into competing groups they tend (a) to think themselves more different, (b) members of the out-group less varied, and (c) their actions or characteristics better or at least more important. Given the chance, members of competing groups prefer an outcome of $8 for themselves vs $1 for the out-group over a $12 vs $11 split that provides substantially better outcomes for everyone. And if this can happen with arbitrary divisions, then divisions with long histories, especially ones marked by differences in appearance, language, social practices, and even diet-related smells, are likely to be even worse. And like many other behaviors that might appear to be extinguished by long years of alternate governance or social attention, they may be disinhibited and reappear with a vengeance, as one might argue ethnic differences did in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the fall of the Iron Curtain, or frighteningly, ante-bellum differences in the American South with political rhetoric which, whether by design or ignorance, only inflames sesquicentennial animosities.

Happily, yes, there are examples of sustainable common goods. One of these produces a daily joy, is the pure aesthetic pleasure of a common lawn behind the townhouses in my development. Any one of us could put up a fence, but while neighbors across the commons have fenced in their spaces, we and our children and animals have a much more pleasant shared space, where children can gambol, throw a ball or Frisbee, dance through a sprinkler together, or share the magic of chasing fireflies. Neighbors know each other, chat together, and even share an occasional meal or holiday party, on each other’s decks. It makes just sitting on my deck of a placid afternoon one of the joys that makes me that much less likely to move, to a larger living space, for loss of my “magic deck,” as a colleague once called it.

I am also led to wonder, as I did in my previous blogs about contemporary college life, about the long- term effects of the “safety-ism” and rampant use of identity politics on college campuses. This point was brought home to me in a recent article in the September American Veteran about a winery, started by young military veterans, and there are several similar breweries in my area. Wines named “Howitzer” or “2015 No Man’s Land” get their vintners to remember what they miss from the marines:

"I miss the camaraderie the most. I met amazing people during my time, and it’s also inspiring to know that a bunch of “twenty-something year olds” can run the most effective fighting force in the world. One thing I immediately noticed when at college was the personality differences between civilian college-goers and veterans. There was a lack of that like-minded, fraternity respect that I had developed in the Marines."

But then, I guess you need to have been broken down first into being “pukes, all equally worthless in my Corps” rather than being continually told by parents and college administrators that you are all unique and special, and deserving of safety, protected from risk, or “triggers,” or even of the slightest offense. Obviously, one doesn’t build combat unity by making your recruits “comfortable.” To give my students credit, when an Iraqi vet spilled his guts about some atrocities he’d witnessed, making one poor coed go throw up in the hallway, another half-dozen thanked the vet, and me, for a class that actually “got real.”

How does one build the unity of a citizenry that shares a sense of common purpose, of shared values, of common goods to which we must each contribute even if their resources do not benefit us all equally. That we may each have equal opportunity does not and should not guarantee equal outcome, and those demanding equal shares may be hurting the very ones that need more than they can, currently, contribute. A tit-for-tat morality may only work in a wealthy economy in any case, witness Langdon Gilkey’s account in Shantung Compound of the sharing of resources in an internment camp for internationals in China during WWII. If there is a surplus, we’re all happy to share, like Americans who might ask unexpected afternoon guests to stay for dinner, knowing there will be plenty. But what happens when your body-sized sleeping space and 1000 calories-a-day rice allotment needs to be shared with new internees in an increasingly crowded camp. And a belief that outcomes are zero-sum (that any points you gain are lost by me) makes the integrative compromises of “non-zero” outcomes impossible (when I give you what costs me little and benefits you more, in exchange for what costs you little but which I desperately need).

Commitment strategies are a trading of futures possible only in human beings, where I trade a promise to support you, even at great cost to myself, at the time when you need it most and have the least to give, in exchange for my promise to do the same. Like the Mutual Assured Destruction that is its negative equivalent, I have to believe that you are irrational enough to do that, when push comes to shove, even when you have nothing to gain; and I have to convince you that the same is true of me. Marriage is the best example. Without the basic trust that most of us learn from our parents (our existence proof of people who will give and give to you, despite little gain, just because they love you, is, for most people, their parents), it becomes difficult if not impossible for you to either grant that level of trust or, by your actions, to demonstrate that you might also be worth it.

We’ll talk a lot in a later blog about the developmental prerequisites for shoring up the common good, Suffice it to say, for now, that explaining the dilemma of the common good, and the tragedy of the commons does seem to work. Doctors willing to explain to their patients that immunization is not just for their own good, but for the good of the community, a herd of which they and their children are also a part, do increase the percentages of people willing to be inoculated. I already admitted that it was my doctor’s argument about the common good that convinced me to start getting my flu shots regularly. But it was a student in a first-year course on Logic and Critical Thinking who really set me right. He gave me a smart-aleck “reverse commons dilemma” argument about my gun ownership. “In your little community of Mount Joy, about which you brag is safe enough for you to leave your doors unlocked, isn’t that level of safety a common good? Don’t you actually detract from that good, are a free rider, which you cheat by being a gun owner? Isn’t that especially true because you have children, and even more so that you are a depressive putting both yourself and others around you at risk?” He was right. What kind of professor would I be if I couldn’t admit it? I sold my guns within the week.

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