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Stuck on Welfare

Rod Dreher interviewed JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. This much-touted memoir is described by its Amazon blurb as “a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class”.

Photo by Shawn Perez, depicting dummies of several characters from The Beverly Hillbillies. Context unknown.
Photo by Shawn Perez, depicting dummies of several characters from The Beverly Hillbillies. Context unknown.

Vance’s answers to Dreher’s questions prompted me to buy the book. Here are some choice quotes from their conversation:

“By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”

“[W]hen you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.”

Photo by Don O'Brien — a collapsing house "[s]een during a visit to a small town along the Ohio Rver."
Photo by Don O’Brien — “Seen during a visit to a small town along the Ohio R[i]ver.”

“The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. […] But there’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”

“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.”

I want Scott Alexander to review this book (after I’ve read it, that is). Also, isn’t Hillbilly Elegy an evocative title, regardless of anything else?

The Universe Is Unpleasant, Yes

“But nobody can deal with the full extent of the universe’s suckiness. Not when it happens to them personally. Not even when they witness it first hand. The only reason anyone can deal with it at all is because they never really think about it, they keep it off in their peripheral vision where it never really shows up clearly.”

From “Interlude י: The Broadcast”, part of Scott Alexander’s Unsong.

First Day Back & Anti-Natalism (Podcast Review)

First Day Back podcast by Montreal filmmaker Tally Abecassis
Check it out on iTunes.

Edited to add this disclaimer: I don’t think that people who have kids are bad or evil. It’s way more morally ambiguous than that, and I recognize that I have unorthodox views on this topic.

The inaugural season of the podcast First Day Back just finished. I loved it! The episodes were short and poignant; I made sure to listen right away whenever a new one auto-downloaded on my phone. (No other podcast has provoked the same devotion.) Driving to work in the morning, I listened. Brushing my teeth at night, I listened. I listened while walking my slow, old dog in the afternoon. First Day Back fit right into my life, and right into my heart. It sounds cheesy but it’s true (like many things that sound cheesy).

The creator and protagonist describes her project thus:

“a documentary podcast that follows filmmaker Tally Abecassis as she faces the challenges of picking up her career after an extended maternity leave. The narrative takes a real-life look at motherhood, gender roles, and work-life balance in a voice by turns serious, funny, and sometimes touching.”

Abecassis explains her topic accurately. Throughout the podcast she is candid and vulnerable, unafraid to reveal rejections or embarrassments. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

Portrait of Tally Abecassis by Claudine Sauvé via The Timbre.
Portrait of Tally Abecassis by Claudine Sauvé via The Timbre.

And yet… I don’t feel wholly positive about First Day Back.

I believe that having children is fundamentally violent. When you spawn new people, you risk that they will be born sick, blighted, or mentally ill. Not everything can be fixed — I know this from observing family members and coping with my own depression. I’m okay now — because I’m lucky. Because therapy and medication have worked for me. If I had different brain chemistry, or if my parents didn’t have money, I would be dead. Maybe homeless and/or addicted to a self-destructive substance.

Yes, it is human nature to want to bear offspring. Feeling the desire is okay. However, yielding to that urge is selfish. Wanting to be a parent at all, in any capacity, is selfish — it’s about serving yourself, not the child. It’s also human nature to punch people, but we strive to resolve disputes without fighting because we want to be better than our animal instincts.

“I think it’s really comfortable to lose yourself in motherhood, in a way, because it’s almost impossible to screw it up. I mean, even if you become an alcoholic, whatever, shitty mother. I mean, you’re still your kids’ mother, and they’re still going to love you, as fucked up as you are. […] It’s like, when you’re looking for validation, your kids are going to validate you.” — Tally Abecassis interviewed by Eric McQuade

I’m not an idiot — I don’t expect people to stop having kids just like I don’t expect war to die out. But I still think it’s bad, and I won’t participate. No, I don’t throw rocks at pregnant women or even try to convince people not to have babies. Why stage fruitless arguments? There’s no point in making people hate me without changing their minds. (And yet here I am, writing this…)

Infancy as defined by Shakespeare in As You Like It, via the Boston Public Library.
Infancy as defined by Shakespeare in As You Like It, via the Boston Public Library.

In answer to the obvious question, I plan to be a mother at some point. Because I can adopt! There are far too many children in the foster system, stranded without loving family homes. When I’m financially and emotionally ready, it will be a delight to provide a safe haven and usher a young person into adulthood. My motivation is just as selfish as a biological parent’s, but the odds are better than the child will benefit.

Listening to First Day Back made me like Abecassis so much. She seems very good-hearted. Her desires and inclinations line up well with mine — she’s a creative woman muddling through life, which I obviously relate to. The conflict is that I am fundamentally opposed to the choices Abecassis has made. I also think it’s ludicrous to expect to have it all — you can’t be a hands-on mom and have a full-fledged career. There is just not enough time in the day or energy in a body. Choices always involve trade-offs and it is profoundly arrogant to pretend that they don’t.

So. All of the above is my raw, mostly unfiltered, and probably crazy-sounding opinion. As I said in the beginning, I love First Day Back and I’m excited for the second season. I also feel very uncomfortable and angry about the portrayal of biological motherhood as a deserved and even virtuous condition.

What do you think? (I’m definitely apprehensive about the Facebook response to this. YAY.)

Follow-up from a reader: “I Remember The Circumstances That Led To Her Existence”.

Religion Without Responsibility

I’ve had this post drafted since Easter.

I’m not a believer, but I consider myself somewhat religious. I’m ethnically Christian—does that make sense? I would like attend church on Sundays. Unfortunately, most churches are predicated on blind, nonsensical belief, which I can’t accept. Also, a significant portion of them are boring.

the gorgeous ceiling of Notre Dame cathedral
Notre Dame is un-boring based on the decor alone. Photo by Paul Bica.

Since today is Easter, I went to church with my family. The singing parts were nice, but the sermon combined dullness with idiocy. The pastor insisted that to be ~righteous~ in the eyes of the Lord, all you have to do is believe in Jesus Christ. He claimed that “works”, meaning self-improvement and efforts to alleviate the suffering in the world, are not the basis of worthiness. It’s all about that faith, baby. Ugh.

semi-disturbing Jesus graffiti
Semi-disturbing Jesus graffiti. Photo by Leonski Oh Leonski.

On the one hand, I choose the principle that human beings are valuable regardless of their personal attributes, because I think that leads to a better society. Which means, yeah, works aren’t the crux of your moral status. On the other hand, it’s pretty lazy to claim, “Oh no, I don’t have to try to be a good person. I just believe and Jesus takes care of the rest.” To me, that seems like a cop-out of developing rigorous individual ethics.

On the third hand—I need a third hand for rhetorical purposes—devout Christians do want to be good people, according to whatever rubric they subscribe to. And then there’s the fourth possibility, which I’m not quite arrogant enough to dismiss: maybe I understand nothing!

Frank Underwood: "I pray to myself, for myself."
Frank Underwood: not preoccupied by any of this nonsense.

It’s Just Justice

Semantic musings ahead. Scroll onward at your own peril.

Lady Justice, naked in the wind
Illustration by pedrolinsz on Instagram.

Law & Order detectives always want to “get justice for the victim”. Opponents of police brutality also call for justice, by name. No one opposes justice, as far as I know. And yet… what is it, exactly? An eye for an eye? Moral concepts can be so slippery. I can’t get a handle on justice.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines the word as “the fact that something is reasonable and fair” or “treatment of people that is fair and morally right”. To make sense of these definitions, you have to define “reasonable”, “fair”, and “morally right”. Those words are difficult to pin down, to but I define them like this, respectively:

  • justifiable with logic; intuitively acceptable
  • sameness of treatment and condition
  • justifiable given a certain paradigm
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Illustration available for $10 on Etsy.

Truism: life ain’t fair. Therefore… justice is an infrequent occurrence? (Hence the first illustration, in which Lady Justice walks naked through the wind, brandishing her scales and sword.) Most often the way I hear justice used tallies with “retribution”, but isn’t justice supposed to be a more noble concept?

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