Saturday, January 31, 2015

There's nothing more American than not vaccinating your children

We treat the anti-vaccine crowd as if they were an aberration. But they aren't outliers. They are the natural endpoint of two very strong and very American tendencies: distrust of all authorities and hierarchies; and, the belief that we are each responsible for ourselves.
There is a facet of the American ideal that sees each person as a sovereign individual, not just in charge of herself, but as intelligent, as well-informed, as wise, as good as the next person. Hobbes saw this in our English forebears, when he noted that every person is satisfied with the intelligence he has, since he is certain that he is as intelligent as everyone else. You see it in the almost universal negative reaction to being told that someone is smarter; rare is the American who will accept that this might be the case. 
Perhaps this characteristic isn't peculiar to Americans, but there is something special in the way that this distrust of authority leads to skepticism of science and the positing of individual authority here. We have no need of authorities. Each of us—every politician so quick to say he is "not a scientist," for example—is as much an expert as those with years of training, with decades of research. Climate scientists point to anthropogenic climate change and mean global warming. So what? It's snowing. And, I don't see that it's warming. So, my feelings and experience trump the data and the research. Biologists are unable to find any evidence of danger in eating GMOs—leave aside other concerns people might have. It doesn't matter. I just know there has to be something wrong with eating these  Frankenfoods. There has to be. There's no evidence whatsoever that there's any link between vaccination and autism. The only paper to support such a link has been thoroughly discredited. Its author has lost his medical license. But, though I lack any scientific training, though I cannot identify any plausible causal link, though I have no idea at all about the purported causal mechanism or the etiology of autism, I am certain that there is. And, the ample evidence that I put my own child at risk of serious illness or death—my mom told me a harrowing story of watching a child die of pertussis forty years ago—can never trump my maternal or paternal gut instinct that there just must be some connection. 
Who are the experts to claim authority over my own "knowledge" and experience? I am an American.
But, you say, not vaccinating my children also puts others' children at great risk? Well, I'm not responsible for them. They are their parents' responsibility, just as my children are mine. We are a country of individuals and families.
You don't have to be a fan of Ayn Rand or to talk about "makers" and "takers" to have imbued the idea that, in America, everyone is responsible for herself and those closest to her, but no one else. After all, the American God helps those who help themselves. You see this is debates about healthcare. You see it in discussions of the safety net and proposals that put having a life-plan before being fed. You see it in the inane way people describe themselves as have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. You see it in parents withdrawing their children from the public schools to charters and private schools, ignoring the effects on the children who are left behind. 
And, you see it in the women I watched on the news the other night trying to explain her decision not to vaccinate her children. Well, she actually refused to explain this decision, since she doesn't even owe others an explanation. Other people, she explained, are invested in their decisions and opinions, and she has her own. But, she needs to make decisions for her children. Risks to others, other children, played no part in her discussion. They don't really exist as any part of her moral calculation.
But that's not an aberration. That is quintessentially American. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

So happy, but so many shotguns

One almost constant refrain my students and I heard in Guatemala—from Guatemalans, from Americans, from workers in NGOs—was that Guatemalans are extremely happy. In spite of their sometimes crushing poverty, they are happy. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the happiest-nation-on-earth discourse about Bhutan. I'm not going to deny that I saw a lot of very happy people. I've already written about happiness and poverty and lessons we should and shouldn't take from such experiences here
I only want to add one small set of observations. For a country so universally-described as happy, armed guards are ubiquitous. Every morning as I would walk back from the gym to my classroom, legions of men—really boys—would fan out to their jobs as guards in businesses of every kind, from banks and jewelry stores to restaurants. Each of them is armed at least with a short-barreled shotgun. Many are also armed with sidearms. And, they accompany managers visiting stores, deliveries of canned goods to restaurants and cafés, they even guard ice cream salons in Guatemala City. 
Restaurants post signs warning that you are not allowed to smoke or bring in pets or come in armed. The assumption seems to be that many customers would otherwise be packing.
In addition to the guards and concerns about armed diners, broken-glass or razor wire or electrified fencing tops most walls and the boundaries between roofs, not only in the commercial but also in residential districts. 
What is there to be so afraid of in such a happy country? Surely, such a happy people are unlikely to engage in violent crime to change their status. Or could it be that the discourse of happiness serves the purposes of a radically unequal—and heavily influenced by those good old Chicago economists—society? They are so happy, why worry about how poor they are? We can keep them at bay with weapons.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What's the opposite of cosmopolitan?

I'm painfully aware of my foreignness in Guatemala. I mean the pain of self-consciousness and social anxiety. It's hard not to see that I'm out of place. I'm the wrong shape, and odd size, a mix of white and burn, with a noticeably non-Guatemalan beard. (I'm not sure whether the man who told me I have a nice beard, a very nice beard, at the gym was complimenting me, in awe, or taking the piss; I suspect it was the last.) I'm dressed in American clothes. I speak passable Spanish but with the wrong accent; my accent is porteño, but no one is mistaking me for an Argentine. It is barely possible that I'm not being stared at all the time, but there are more than a few side glances. And, when I greet people in the street, they are surprised. I'm not sure what they are surprised by, but something.
If I reflect though—as I did last night when I returned from not having dinner, having forgotten the book that would have been my companion—I realize I don't feel considerably more out of place here that I do at home. In the United States, my surroundings are more familiar. And, of course, I speak my native tongue. As my students remind me, I do that with an accent that most find strange. In the United States, I obviously know how to navigate, but I'm never comfortable doing so. There, too, I feel out of place, never quite right.
My philosophical commitments tell me I should be a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the cosmos. But, I can't manage feeling that. Nor do I feel the right connections to be a nationalist or a regionalist. I mean, I am an American and a Hoosier, but I'm no more comfortable around my own kind—are they my own kind—than I am among strangers.
But what do you call someone who feels himself to have no citizenship whatsoever?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

But, what do you want to do with your life?

This week a student asked me what I planned to do with my life. That’s a question that makes a lot of sense to ask your peers and yourself when you're nineteen. But being asked when you're forty-one can be jarring. When you ask it of yourself, it’s likely to push you down the path towards mid-life crisis.
Roughly, my answer was that this—teaching—was what I was doing with my life, that it was going to be what I was doing with my life as long as I can find people willing to pay me to do it. My impact on the world comes through whatever effect I have on students. I suspect my answer wasn't satisfying. The spark in his eyes when he asked was dimmed a click or two.
It was an unsatisfying answer for good reason. At nineteen, you are looking for something you are going to do in the world that will have world-historical impact. In youth, you want to change the world; your heroes are those who lead movements and revolutions, who organize their communities, who found religions, who bring down governments and empires, who build them. You have a hard time imagining life-goals that aren't transformative. There seems something a little sad about a life that isn't directed toward such a goal.
At some point for many people, if not for all, there’s a recognition that they aren't going to change everything the world has ever thought, that they aren't going to find the lever that moves the world, that they aren't going to be great figures remembered through all of history. (How long will I be remembered? Not much more than a decade or two.) Many of us come to believe that the hunger for immortality Socrates claimed to be present in all of us will have to be sated not with great deeds but through children or—for those of us who lack even those—through the small effects we can have on others than just might ramify even if our names are destined to be blotted out of both history and memory. 
To think this at nineteen would be almost tragically sad—it is a wisdom best left unshared until the time is (past) ripe—but in middle age (unless this is the prime), it is only sometimes sad. for instance when you reflect on what you might have wanted at nineteen. At other times, it is reassuring. That I am not Napoleon or Gandhi or King or Romero or Mann or Musil or Borges or Aristotle or Kant or Wittgenstein or … is not such a bad thing. I am having an effect; it’s small. But that is usually the way and better than no effect at all. 

It might just be enough to have tried to be a good man and gotten sort of close, once in a while. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

What lessons poverty?

San Miguel Escobar
I'm in my second of three weeks traveling with and teaching a group of undergraduates from the University. We've taken a number of trips and done some service work. Unsurprisingly, we've seen a lot of poverty here. And, though what we have seen does not approach the poorest of the poor, we have seen and talked to and spent time with people whose lives are vastly different to our own.
We see poverty in the street, in the central park of the city, on the porches of the churches—especially, La Merced. We saw it in Guatemala City, in San Juan del Obispo, in San Miguel Escobar, at Pacaya volcano, on the "chicken bus."
And, one of the striking things is that there is so much happiness in the midst of such poverty. It's not hard to seem or be happier than I do or am, but there is little question that so many—obviously not all—people who have so much less than I do, or than any of us do, are so much happier than the average person you are likely to see on the street at home. 
Of course, it is possible that they only seem to be happier; we can never really know another's internal states. Or, they might just be acting; they could be putting on a show for the American tourists. Either of these is a possibility, but I doubt that either is the case. A principle of charity demands that I take people to be showing their real states. 
Assuming that people are nearly as happy as they seem, there are at least two lessons the mildly reflective tourist can draw. One is conducive to a more virtuous life, the other a vicious one. 
First, something good: Our material possessions don't guarantee happiness. It is possible to have much more and not to have captured happiness. This calls for a reflection on our own values. What am I pursuing? Why do I need a bigger house? A newer car? Another watch or pen? The latest phone? Here are people with none of those things and they are happy. Have I merely been convinced by capitalism, or by the comparison and competition Rousseau identifies as endemic to our property-based social contract, that I need these things or that in gaining them I will gain or get closer to happiness? This lesson, this reflection, can help me refocus and perhaps get closer to happiness, to flourishing, to eudaimonia.
Something bad, and just as common: If people can be happy in such circumstances, things should be left as they are. What we see is a golden age, a window onto a simpler time and simpler lifestyle. And, it's good enough for them. (Though, this is always colored with a touch of Voltaire's Brahmin: it might make them happy, but it could no longer satisfy me; I've gone too far in another direction.) If these people can be be happy as they take their laundry to the local fountain as their children play in the dirt; if they can be happy with minimal or no plumbing; if they can be happy with homes roofed in tin held down by rocks in the corners; if they can be happy when their mules are stabled and chickens and ducks penned next to the porch on which they eat their meager meals; if they can be happy though they are broken and bent by lives spent working a little bit of land to produce coffee and get a little bit of the profit the vast majority of which goes to a large corporation, well, who am I to worry about this? In fact, in their golden, more perfect state, I ought almost to envy them. (This is the romanticism of the rural and the lumberjack and the primitive that permeates so much of our late capitalist society; witness the hipster and the pickup truck and the Presidential aspirants in cowboy boots.)
It might seem this second lesson I have drawn is one that no one could possibly draw. But I think it is as common to see poverty as picturesque as it is to see it as so abject that nothing can be done about it. Both are recipes for doing nothing, for not really caring, and—though the directions are different—for dehumanizing.
There's got to be a way to take the first lesson and still think that we have an obligation to make the lives of others better in material ways that they themselves wish for.