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Grid Not Goal – Part 1: Parenthood

February 3, 2012

human reproduction
[Image via: legalizecrime]

FRIENDS, YOUR MONTAG WOULD MAKE A SHITTY ANARCHIST. I lack virtue. Without virtue, anarchists are nothing but governors, warlords, and cops.

[I wanted to respond to an ages old comment from Justin, before the real world intervened. (His comment came in right around the time I lost my job.) I also meant to respond to Abonilox’s not-so-recent-recent-now post, and by way of chiming in on these, hoped to kind of save face with my friend Frederick on my anarchist leanings. Anarchism as “grid not goal.” This will take three or four posts to lay out and then, aside from possibly tuning-up a couple of old posts, we’ll see about winding The Stump down, and moving on to something new.]

What is virtue? I asked Justin a while back, in a pretty off-handed way, if being principled was a virtue, and he responded:

[Emphasis added.] I don’t think there is such a thing as being principled as a binary virtue. We all draw boundaries around what people should be treated with some list of rights, and what people can be disposed of in any way.

…[snip]…

Like right now, you think you are principled because you have a problem with Bin Laden being summarily executed. Those who don’t have a problem with that scenario presumably do have the same problems you have in others. The problems boil down to, it was morally wrong to do that to him (because that could one day be me.) For most people, being Osama Bin Laden, arch terrorist, master mind of 9/11, is so unthinkable, so alien, that he exists in a category of unPeople, that are not afforded consideration for what principles apply to the real people. [Justin

Have to admit I was rankled at that highlighted bit when I read it, and in a way still am. Though I am coming to terms with it here as I compose a post confessing my lack of virtue.

Well, following Badiou, who says ethical truths must be universal, and if I read him correctly, would characterize virtue as taking part in a truth-process, through militant fidelity to a universal principle. To be principled is virtue.

Take this notion of radical egalitarianism, which I daresay is a universal truth worth pledging fidelity to, (whatever that means living in the system that we do.) “No matter how powerful — regardless, even, of an individual’s utility to society — every person’s time is of equal value.”

The Abonilox asks, living in the system that we do:

…does it follow that we are obliged to remedy this inequality? That is, if you happen to have been rewarded (under this system) for the accident of being born a white male in the west, is there a moral obligation to diminish yourself in some way? [Abonilox]

To the first question, Badiou says “Yes!” As to the second, I’m guessing as a white male in the West, that the answer is “Probably.” Which is the curse of human consciousness! “Hey, I dreamed up a radical new paradigm for all human interaction. Are we now obligated to live by it?”

“Is it true?”

“I think it might be.”

“Then yes we are, goddamnit, if we are to call ourselves ethical beings.”

But here’s the problem: I bred. Ms. Montag and I have offspring to consider, and they are extremely compelling little fuckers when it comes to drawing Justin’s boundaries. Not that I would deny the people outside of this set {Montag's Loved Ones} consideration in my model based of radical egalitarianism, but despite that consideration, my closest peeps trump all. Blood is thicker that water, or whathaveyou. So, here we part ways with principled anarchist thought.

From Peter Marshall’s introduction to The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, a passage on Godwin’s early strict utilitarianism:

…the principle of impartiality, which arises from the fundamental equality of human beings and is the regulator of virtue, Godwin’s view of utility led him to some novel conclusions. While all human beings are entitled to equal consideration, it does not follow that they should be treated the same. When it comes to distributing justice I should put myself in the place of an impartial spectator and discriminate in favor of the most worthy, that is, those who have the greatest capacity to contribute to the general good. Thus in a fire, if I am faced with the inescapable choice of saving either a philosopher or a servant, I should choose the philosopher — even if I were the servant. If the servant had been my brother, my father, my sister, my mother or my benefactor, the case would be the same. ‘What magic’, Godwin asks, ‘is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?’

…sentiments like gratitude, friendship, domestic and private affections which might interfere with our duty as impartial spectators have no place in justice. It might be more practical for me to prefer my friends and relatives, but it does not make them more worthy of my attention. [Marshall, p.30]

And, where it’s my offspring in particular who compel this thoughtcrime, this break with virtue, we should note the parting of ways with the idea that all power structures should be challenged, as it relates to another fairly common Anarchist notion, expressed by Hakim Bey when he calls “the Family, those ‘misers of love’ who hold hostages for a banal future[.]” To hold true to Anarchist ideals, to refuse to exercise power over, to allow the full freedom the human spirit craves, to let young people run wild to be raised by their own unmitigated experience of the world and its inhabitants, sounds beautiful and poetic. But it simply does not coincide with my experience of parenthood, which has been one of an unconditional love I never knew was inside me to give, and feeling a calling to the project of child rearing.

Whatever extent these feelings are owed to my being a white male product of the West in the society that elevated the nuclear family to a fetish, there is something genuine there, beyond mere cultural indoctrination. There is magic in the pronoun “my,” when it comes to my progeny. (Let’s forget the implications of using the possessive form here. I don’t mean to say, “Here are my young people, they have to do whatever I tell them.” But rather, “Here are my relations, their wellbeing is of the utmost importance to me.”)

It is in the interest of keeping a roof over their head and their sense of security intact that I don’t strategically default on the mortgage, or evade taxes to protest the war machine, or start a grow operation in the basement, or don a ski mask and throw Molotov cocktails at the Bank of America, or whatever it is Jack Crow would like to see happening next. ;-) In short, despite my freed mind, they do the job the nuclear fetish is intended to do, they keep me occupied and docile in a way that doesn’t allow me to act on anarchist principle. The experience of fatherhood has rendered me fundamentally incapable of virtue.

[Unstructured notes and thoughts that didn’t make it into the post if you continue after this point.]

where my family and friends rank in my personal hierarchy of needs [http://stumplane.us/2011/03/17/alienation-and-busy-work/]

would violate Godwin’s utilitarianism and be incapable of a Badiou-ian fidelity to a universal ethic based on, say, the reduction of net human suffering, if, the first time i’m placed in a position where i have to choose between running in to one end of a burning building to save my 2 kids or running in to the other end to rescue 48 other young people, i choose the 4% good over the 96% good.

(at least i’m not a vast state, or economic system doing the same thing, but you start to see how favoritism, crony corruption and nepotism arise)

conflicted: if had to do it over again, i would consider not having kids

yet WOULD NOT WANT the opportunity to do it differently, what a nightmare scenario!

a paper i read once that i’m not capable of fully understanding on these (well similar) paradoxical convictions [http://www.unc.edu/~ujanel/The%20Puzzle%20of%20Regretted%20Parenthood.pdf]

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 9:26 AM

    This might be my favorite post of yours yet. If I could articulate my Sitz im Leben as well as you did here, this is probably what I’d write (minus the Badiou, damn French philosophers give me a headache, heh).

  2. February 3, 2012 10:29 AM

    i’ve read some badiou and misunderstood most of it, but couldnt the birth of your little ones counts as an event — a love event? an event that you then choose to stay faithful to? cuz there is no know universal Truth with badiou (i think) but rather truths and truth procedures.

    • February 3, 2012 12:37 PM

      Brian, i misunderstand a lot of Badiou as well, especially what he says about love as a truth process. i am chagrined as i read him again, prompted by your admonition. the terminology i used was off. the result of a truth process must be a universal truth, otherwise it is evil.

      That paragraph should prolly have read:

      Well, following Badiou, who says “truth-procedures” “are always universal,” and if I read him correctly, would characterize virtue as taking part in a truth-process, through militant fidelity to an event, and through this fidelity illustrating and propelling a truth forward in the situation. To be principled is virtue.

      though i’m certain you’re right, there has to be merit in honoring my affection for my kids, as a truth-event. how to reconcile this with participation in, say, a political truth-process, “radical egalitarianism,” without betrayal is the dilemma.

  3. February 3, 2012 10:57 AM

    Wait… so my preference for anarchism is due to my single-male-no-kids-ness? That’s so illogical! Mr Spock protests!

  4. February 3, 2012 12:41 PM

    Randal and Karl, i fear this post was terribly self-indulgent, but hey that’s blawgging. in any case, YMMV. as is apparent from your two comments. ;-)

  5. February 4, 2012 12:42 AM

    Oh God, I missed you Montag. I still have Badiou at my bedside, thanks to you, and no I don’t understand him.

    I too, have procreated, and do love my children in a most irrational way. My anarchism is a bit of fluff compared to my sense of absolute responsibility and devotion to my children. But, having said that, I recognize that the philosophical trifles that I struggle with, that pull me away from my family, are ultimately more important than my particular little life. Knowing that won’t change my own priorities (ordered as they are by, I’m not sure what, but it seems more important to me).

    Anyway, I was so delighted to see your post today. I have yet to entirely digest all that you have proffered, in your generosity, to us.

    • February 4, 2012 9:35 AM

      word. Badiou and Godwin may both give us an out, i’m looking into it.

  6. February 4, 2012 3:37 PM

    Thomas Merton once remarked “Humility is a virtue, not a neurosis.”

    What does that mean?

    It means that, in this case humility (or substitute your virtue of choice) is an attribute, not something that is arrived at by mental obsession or even practice [Merton lived in a cloister of monks who practiced humility constantly, yet humility was often a practice and rarely a virtue.]

    As wetness is an attribute of water -by virtue- of its structure, hardness an attribute of steel – by virtue – of its structure, so whatever positive attribute we’re talking about must exist -by virtue- of a basic structure. Thus you recognize that your aspiration of being impartial is trumped by your real genetic attributes, ie. to reproduce and to favor your particular genetic offspring. You protect and favor your young -by virtue- of your structure. It is, as we say, in our nature.

    We have adapted and adopted the word -virtue- to mean an ethically positive attribute. To be real, a virtue must be present in the subject as an attribute of its structure, and if this is the case, it will be naturally be displayed in obvious form, like the redness of a rose. It is not a neurosis, and especially not a neurotic behavior, no matter how laudible.

    • February 6, 2012 12:44 AM

      you recognize that your aspiration of being impartial is trumped by your real genetic attributes, ie. to reproduce and to favor your particular genetic offspring.

      yes, that’s the theme of the OP stated very eloquently. so you say what i recognize as a potential failing is actually a -virtue- just by using a different sense of the word. neat trick.

      but i still have a dilemma. it’s in my structure to have an idea about right and wrong, and a desire to do good. it’s also in my structure to be aware of the tensions between conflicting drives, desires and intuitions in the face of limitations brought on by circumstance. is the awareness and consideration of these things the emotional disorder (neurosis)? or does that diagnosis come only in acting against one’s nature?

      Merton may be right in speaking about humility specifically, but i call bullshit on the notion that people who are perfect by nature are ethically superior, while people who have to work at doing good are obsessed or emotionally disturbed in some way. shit, the latter may deserve extra credit for both intending to do good, and actually producing a good result.

  7. Jack Crow permalink
    February 12, 2012 8:58 AM

    Montag,

    thanks for this

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