Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Thoughts on Family Values

Because families are a reflection in microcosm of the social structure at large, its politics and philosophies are always subject to a state of flux. As society changes and experiences shifts on any number of levels and aspects, so too does the family as they absorb that influence and adapt accordingly. Therefore, when it comes to defining "family values" it is important to develop a pragmatic understanding and approach. Attempting to define what constitutes an "ideal" set of values for all family models is a mistake, for it fails to take into account the ever-changing nature of the social structure the family is an integral part of. Therefore, I believe family values should be receptive to change and able to adapt in a manner that best serves the well-being of society. The particular kind of receptiveness and adaptiveness depends entirely on the situations that emerge in the course of cultural evolution. Family values should reflect a commitment, but not of a dogmatic type that accepts an unchanging template and attempts to superimpose this template on cultural and social conditions to which it does not apply and only becomes a detriment to progress. Rather, family values should reflect a commitment to adapt constructively to changing social conditions. I echo the viewpoint expressed by Vera St. Erlich in her book Family in Transition, who writes "At any moment, there are various different courses of action possible, and people make decisions. Which course they will choose is dependent on subjective considerations, that is on inclinations and predispositions which evolved in earlier periods" (Erlich 394).

Furthermore, family values should be manifested in practical ways; values should not be composed merely of ephemeral rhetoric but rather should be allowing of application. People should maintain a healthy skepticism toward any attempt by popular culture to define a social demographic or institution symbolically rather than realistically or practically. Post-war capitalism fostered just such cultic symbolism in the development of the breadwinner/homemaker paradigm of the 1950s. In his discussion of the family of the 1950s, sociologist Robert Heiner rightly calls into question the popular conception of this period as being "traditional" or ideal for modern society. He writes, "The family of the 1950s - both on and off television - however, was far from traditional. It was, in fact, most unusual and, historically, almost freakish. Men returned home from the war, and a great many of the women who had been in the workforce during the war left their jobs (either willingly or not so willingly). New families were being formed at an astonishing rate, and the baby boom was under way" (Heiner, 76). The 1950s represented a sudden and pronounced shift from previous trends that were characterized by declining birth rates, increasing divorce rates, and marriage at later ages. The popular tendency on the part of many people today to implicitly assume that the 1950s family structure was representative of family life throughout the first half of the century is testament to the power of social and cultural constructions. One could argue that the sudden rise in post-war birth rates explains this current popular assumption that the 1950s was a "Golden Age" of the family, the culmination of time-tested idealized principles. After all, the "baby boomer" generation, by definition, represents a significant number of people who were socialized by the anomalous culture of the 1950s. This leads me to a consideration of functionalism. Functionalism seeks to understand society's institutions at the level of the contribution by each in enabling the smooth running of society as a whole. In light of this perspective, it is clear that the family model that emerged in the 1950s was not functional to any significant degree, since it did not survive longer than a decade and the advantages the model offered were few and short-lived.

The evangelical right-wing movement today is egregiously attempting to re-define society in dogmatic terms that blocks all form of progress and acknowledgment of shifts in social structures that necessitate adaptation. Vera St. Erlich writes what I recognize to be a critical constructionist viewpoint: "Values can be more easily recognized by looking at the reactions of people than listening to their words and slogans. If some economically backward people or groups complain about the misery of their life, that does not necessarily mean that a higher standard of living is their most cherished value. If they do not care to repair their poor homes, nor to become literate, show indolence toward hygiene and medicine and little enthusiasm to irrigation and tractors, it is evident that a high standard of living is not their most important goal. That does not mean that they do not share the common human values of a better life. But it shows that they don't want these achievements at any price" (Erlich 394, emphasis mine).

With that in mind, there are two specific shifts in the social structure and its policies that I think would help U.S. families to better live out a set of family values that is receptive to progress and a changing consciousness:

1) The United States should follow the relatively recent example of Canada and open its doors to gay marriage, accepting it as a legitimate union and a legitimate foundation upon which a family can be based. Acceptance of gay marriage represents veritable progress beyond petty discrimination based upon genitalia alone. It is also conducive to encouraging healthy, family-oriented activity rather than, for example, prostitution or unhappy and unfulfilling heterosexual marriages that result from society looking down on a person's sexual orientation and forbidding that person to marry someone of the same sex. Thus, the acceptance of gay marriage in the U.S. at large could potentially precipitate a decrease in divorce rates as individuals pursue relationships that are truly in line with their personal orientation. Consequently, children benefit not only from the increasingly rare luxury of being raised by two adults, but also by being instilled with progressive values that educate and discourage the socially detrimental homophobia that many children, from elementary grades even to high school, are often heard to express. Clifford Krauss, writing for the New York Times about Canada's dramatic social shift towards being identified as a tolerant society, attributes this progressive transformation to the fact that Canada has become a very multicultural society within the last generation, as well as to the fact that Canada enjoys a more evenly distributed government. He writes, "Increasingly, Canada has been on a social policy course pursued by many Western European and Scandinavian countries, gradually moving more out of step with the United States over the last few decades" (Krauss 68).

It is my contention that family life is greatly enhanced and benefited by the kind of cultural diversity that Canada exhibits, and this includes tolerance of same-sex marriage and may even be an issue that warrants high priority in light of its civil rights nature. The U.S. would do well to overcome its narrow-minded nationalism and follow the example of our more culturally evolved and revolutionary neighbor. To put it another way, family values should not be concerned with matters of mere reproductive ability, but with matters of more profound cultural and social import that take into consideration long-term issues, such as overpopulation, that will have an impact on future generations of families.

2) U.S. policy leaves much to be desired and improved concerning its attitude toward childcare and family leave. In the United States, child care is by and large a peripheral priority for the government, as parents are expected to bear the financial responsibility for expensive programs that are not even meeting standardized criteria for quality and adequacy. In a country where influential politicians and corporate pundits often engage in rhetoric that refers to children as "our nation's future" and "our most precious resource," it is striking to see just how much of this rhetoric is simply lip service to better enhance the success of a political platform. It is an illustrative example of Erlich's distinction between words/slogans and actions; between what people say they care deeply about and what their actions actually reveal. Applying this concept to U.S. child care and family leave policies, a comparative analysis with the policies of other countries reveals unambiguously where America's priorities lie. Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel, in an article from the journal Contexts that details the results of just such a comparative analysis, write, "Any child care program or funding system has social and political assumptions with far-reaching consequences . . . these emphases entails different national assumptions, if only implicit, about children and parents, education, teachers, peers and societies as a whole" (Clawson and Gerstel, 28-29).

Family life and the values intimately associated with it would be vastly improved and enhanced if U.S. policy engaged child care and family leave reform in a manner that does not target the poor. The current U.S. policy emphasis on subsidies for poor families and their children is inadequate to resolve issues of inequality and accessibility to quality child development. As Clawson and Gerstel point out, "Subsidy systems favor the poor, but subsidies (unlike tax breaks) depend on the level of appropriations. Congress does not appropriate enough money and, therefore, most of the children who qualify for subsidies do not receive them" (Clawson and Gerstel, 30). Besides this practical problem, there are other potentialities to consider. For example, through the government's singling-out of the poor for appropriations that rarely come to fruition, the self-fulfilling prophecy has the potential to become a significant factor, and one that ends up maintaining the status quo rather than creating a viable and practical solution to inequality. Other countries such as France and Denmark, while both different in their emphases on the importance of early education, are both representative of a better alternative than the United State's capitalistic policies. Essentially, families in the U.S. would be much better off financially and socially if the government established a combination of publicly-funded child-care for children that incorporated a preparatory educational program (as in France) and paid family leave for working parents with infants and younger children (as in Sweden).

References

Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel. "Caring for Our Young: Child Care in Europe and the United States," Contexts (Fall/Winter 2002).

Erlich, Vera St. Family in Transition: A Study of 300 Yugoslav Villages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Krauss, Clifford. "Social Shift Opens Door to Gay Marriage Plan," New York Times (April 13, 2003).

The Roots of Family Problems in America

The politics of family structure and the historical trends that illuminate its current popular constructions is a field of study of particular import to sociology. The family is in many ways a microcosm of societal structures at large, a model that features a basic formulation behind all the varieties and undulations to be discerned within its manifestations. Thus, by understanding family structures and politics, one can arrive at an understanding of society and culture overall. This is because culture exerts a certain influence that family models tend to emulate on a much smaller, more diluted scale that allows for concise analysis. Although inferences to the larger, more complex nature of society from concise family structures may not represent factual or practical views of society, it does reflect perceptions and popular constructions of that social universe. These perceptions and constructions are wide-ranging and very diverse, but out of this diversity certain identifiable trends emerge over time, trends that have accelerated in the past century.

When attempting to understand the social problems associated with U.S. family life, sociologists have pointed to several key roots of these problems. There is much debate among sociologists who identify deleterious factors that have influenced American families, and these debates are often specialized depending on what aspect of social problems is being discussed. There are of course many historical factors that have contributed to the current condition of the family, and they all apply to general considerations of key roots. Among the most pronounced and significant of these influencing factors was the marked shift in gender demographics in the workplace in the 1970s. The effects of deindustrialization accounted in large part for this shift in demographics. Sociologist Robert Heiner writes, "The demand for high-paying blue-collar workers, in automobile and steel manufacturing, for example, began to shrivel; and the demand for low-paying 'pink-collar' workers, sales clerks and secretaries, for example, began to expand. With several economic recessions in the 1970s, men faced unemployment and stagnating wages. Women moved into those pink-collar jobs and into other jobs as well; and though their wages were lower, they were able to offset the declining financial situation of their families" (Heiner, 80). According to the documentary The Motherhood Manifesto, "In 1960, 70% of our families had a breadwinner who went to work everyday and a homemaker who went home and took care of the children or an elderly parent or a sick relative. That has completely changed; it's reversed."

Contrary to the popular conceptions disseminated by various corporate media relations, the gender disparity associated with "pink-collar" jobs (most notably sales clerks and secretaries, among other like vocations) does not have its roots in women's liberation and a victory for feminism on an economic level. Rather, as more and more men lost their jobs as manufacturing dwindled in the face of deindustrialization and the introduction of an increasingly high-tech workplace, many women found themselves with no other alternative but to enter the workforce. Furthermore, the prevalent breadwinner/homemaker culture of the 1950s had instilled in many women the "cult of domesticity." Economist and feminist Julie A. Matthaei writes, "Since a homemaker would enter the labor force only if her husband's income was insufficient to provide for family needs, her labor-force presence signaled his inability as head of household. Only if he earned sufficient income to provide for the family's basic commodity needs could she specialize in domestic homemaking, allowing the couple to live out clearly polarized masculine and feminine lives" (Matthaei, 121). This polarization of gender roles and cultic attitude toward female domesticity had an effect on women even as she entered the workforce in terms of what she settled for in the way of salary. On this note, Heiner remarks, "In that women demanded less in terms of salary, . . . many company owners and managers came to prefer hiring women because they were 'better adapted, cheaper, more reliable and more easily controlled' than men." (Heiner 80). The disparity in income between gender was a direct result of women being socialized to assume their role in society was homemaker (a role that men used to reinforce their social reputation of independent masculinity) and this socialization caused women to be content with a salary that did not represent the amount of work she actually performed. This in turn led to the development of "sex-typed" jobs, abstract designations that produced the gender disparity between manufacturing jobs and "pink-collar jobs" mentioned above. In her seminal American Quarterly article "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60," Barbara Welter wrote, "Somehow through this mixture of challenge and acceptance, of change and continuity, the True Woman evolved into the New Woman - a transformation as startling in its way as the abolition of slavery or the coming of the machine age. And yet the stereotype, the "mystique" if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity" (Welter, 174).

This came to represent a problematic development for family life in a number of ways. The "cult of domesticity" and the resultant development of sex-typed jobs that Matthai writes extensively about in her book An Economic History of Women in America helped the symbolism of women as homemakers to survive even as more and more women entered the workforce. According to Heiner's research, "[M]ost women working outside of the home basically have two jobs because they also do most of the housework. This undoubtedly causes stress and resentment and decreases marital satisfaction among many women. Another part of the correlation between dual-earner families and divorce is explained by the fact that a woman earning an income has greater independence and is better able to exit a failed marriage and live on her own" (Heiner, 81). Thus, the dual-earner family model represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the presence of women in the workforce afford them the opportunity to leave a failed marriage and thus become independent and liberated from an out-dated model of domesticity. On the other hand, the potential for divorce has a deleterious effect primarily on families with children, not to mention the fact that most couples depend on a dual-income to maintain their financial security. The aforementioned documentary The Motherhood Manifesto brings to the forefront of the discussion how the marginalization of working mothers and the divorce rates that are sometimes associated with it has a negative impact on childcare and is correlated with the extremely high rates of child poverty. According to the film, single moms earn 34-44% less than their male counterparts. "We're the wealthiest nation on earth and we refuse to take care of our children and their families."

References
Heiner, Robert. Social Problems: An Introduction to Critical Constructionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Matthaei, Julie A. An Economic History of Women in America. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

The Motherhood Manifesto. Dir. Laura Pacheco. Perf. Mary Steenburgen. Bullfrog Films, 2006.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-60." American Quarterly, 18 (1966).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Billy Joel vs. Bruce Springsteen

Chuck Klosterman's book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs includes a chapter that consists of a detailed assessment of the artistic legacy of Billy Joel. His attempts at psycho-analysis of the man behind the music is less about critiquing the music itself than it is about using the legacy of Billy Joel to illustrate a point. In his witty deconstruction of Billy Joel, Klosterman brings to the forefront of the reader's mind two defining characteristic of the world of rock music. The first is the tension that lies between the perception of the artist and the artist's product. According to Klosterman, there exists an abstract relationship between these two manifestations that often has the potential to unfairly obfuscate the aesthetic merits (or lack thereof) of the music itself. The second defining characteristic has to do with the tendency on the part of the listening audience to arrive at foregone conclusions about the artist based on the iconography or projected image prior to actually developing an informed conclusion about the music itself. In other words, there seems to exist an unspoken consensus among consumers of rock culture that the idea of what the music is supposed to offer is more important the aesthetic value of the musical/poetic component itself.

This chapter provoked my thoughts. I quite agree with Klosterman's take on this particular aspect of pop culture. This is why I find it illustrative to compare, for example, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. As far as songwriting is concerned, Billy Joel possesses far greater poetical prowess than Bruce Springsteen (which, Klosterman would undoubtedly point out, is not saying much at all). Yet Bruce Springsteen is much more highly esteemed and held in reverence in popular culture than is Billy Joel. The reason for this lies in what the music-listening public perceives to be Springsteen's image and ideology, irrespective of quality. On the other hand, Billy Joel is unpretentious to such a great extent that his music and lyrics stand on their own. The underlying messages expressed in his music do not require an iconography or an image accompanying them in order to be sensed, understood, and taken to heart. Furthermore, Billy Joel's music is unpretentious in another, more significant sense. His lyrics read like a self-reflection, an internal memoir not unlike a series of distilled journal entries set to melodic rock music. This allows the listener to empathize and relate to Billy Joel's musings on a truly personal level. Bruce Springsteen's lyrics may be as juvenile as "Born To Run" (Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims / And strap your hands across my engines) or as cliche-riddled as "Working on a Dream" (Out here the nights are long, the days are lonely / I think of you and I'm working on a dream). But because Springsteen has inexplicably become the icon of the downtrodden who rise above circumstance and is popularly recognized as the common man's symbolic messiah, it is this image and this ideology that takes precedence over quality.

What this means is that, despite the fact that Bruce Springsteen presents himself as the voice of the common man, he nevertheless represents an unattainable symbol, an example that nobody can practically live up to. The subjective nature of artistic taste being what it is, I cannot speak for anybody else. But when I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I cannot connect or relate to the music or lyrics in any way whatsoever. The philosophy of Bruce Springsteen is an aloof philosophy. He has become little more than a mythology that has utterly overshadowed his humanity or artistic skill. This is not unlike the popular mythology known as the "American Dream" and indeed, Springsteen is viewed in the eyes of popular culture as the incarnation of this idea. It is almost as if Bruce Springsteen is to the American Dream what Jesus is to Christianity's God. What's worse, his iconography is paradoxically a glorification of humility. He projects himself as perfect in his imperfection, and this projection comes off as painfully feigned and pretentious. This is why, in my opinion at least, Bruce Springsteen appeals primarily to pseudo-intellectuals. For example, if Bruce Springsteen is to music what John Steinbeck is to literature, that would make Billy Joel the Ernest Hemingway of music. To understand my point, compare any Steinbeck novel with any Hemingway novel. If that is too time-consuming, compare Springsteen's 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad with Billy Joel's 1989 album Storm Front.

In stark and refreshing contrast, Billy Joel represents no more than what he offers: his personal introspection and reflections. Billy Joel possesses no superimposed iconography that overwhelms his humanity and poetry. Billy Joel writes and sings with the confidence of one who is not concerned with popularity, not preoccupied with catering to any given audience. Popularity and commercial success hold no appeal for Joel, and in fact he look upon such things with disdain. For demonstrable evidence of this, one need look no further than his self-deprecating song "The Entertainer." Another great example is his 1980 album Glass Houses, which is about somebody who feels trapped and artistically-suppressed by his own success. His art operates according to a what-you-see-is-what-you-get, take-it-or-leave-it philosophy. When I listen to Billy Joel, I connect so strongly that I almost invariably see myself in his music. I do not see any trace of a distracting platonic icon or an identifiable mystique that I am expected to strive to relate to. I do not even see Billy Joel half the time. Listening to Billy Joel is like looking in a mirror, or like reading an anonymous journal and wondering if you had written it. The themes he wrestles with and the experiences he shares are that comprehensive and universal. This is why, in my experience, having a Billy Joel song stuck in my head often feels no different than hearing voices of my conscience in my head.

This is not to say that iconography and image is a detriment in and of itself, and I am not advocating iconoclasm in any way, shape or form. Indeed, art is by definition an exercise in abstraction. Iconography and symbolism is central to any art form, and music is certainly no exception. The Beatles, for example, is one of the greatest rock bands in history (perhaps even the most important) and their importance is largely due to their mystique. They captured the spirit of the 1960s in a profound way, and this "60s spirit" is indisputably an abstraction. Whenever I listen to any Beatles album, I feel transported to their world, and when this world is once experienced, leaving it is not very much anticipated. This is why I discover something new and insightful every time I listen to Rubber Soul, Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper, no matter how many times I listen to it. And this is exactly the point I am trying to make. The Beatles were not a great quality band because of a pre-supposed or otherwise assumed mystique, rather their mystique was born out of the artistic quality they already possessed. The reason I am fascinated and compelled by Billy Joel is not first and foremost his lack of a larger symbolic construct representing him, but the fact that he is a rarity who became famous in spite of himself, not to mention his ability to operate without a definable image. His evolution as an artist is proof that he is truly talented, even if few people recognize this. The reason I cannot appreciate Bruce Springsteen's music is not because he represents an idea, but rather because the idea he does represent is presupposed, one-dimensional, and unattainable. This is why I find myself amused whenever I hear people talk about how terrible Billy Joel's song "We Didn't Start the Fire" is. I have no doubt if Springsteen wrote that song, it would be praised and celebrated by the very people who now bash it, merely because it would have Bruce Springsteen's name attached to it.

This is why I do not like the connotation of the word "fan" one bit. "Fan" is of course simply shorthand for "fanatic" but for some odd reason it has still earned euphemism status whose negative connotation has all but faded into the periphery. A "fan" is literally someone who follows the object of his or her adoration (or, to be more accurate, obsession) with blind allegiance. This results in the fan readily accepting whatever the object of their obsession produces as "great" talent, art or writing, with no consideration for quality or actual content. Because any given "fanaticism" is primarily about the ideological platform of the artist rather than said artist's actual "art", this fan mindset discourages the artist from growing or evolving for fear of losing his or her dewey-eyed audience. This is why I always strive to critically assess any album I listen to, any film I see, or any book I read based on context and actual content regardless of who it is that created the work. For example, I consider Pink Floyd to be one of the most profound and most important bands in rock history, and yet this doesn't alter the fact that I think A Momentary Lapse of Reason is one of the worst albums ever made (now that I think about it, the title of that album quite accurately describes the album in one sentence). On the other hand, I consider the Rolling Stones overall to be a terrible and untalented band. This doesn't alter the fact that I think "Paint It Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil" are brilliant and profoundly meaningful songs. These are not contradictions on my part, nor am I guilty of an aesthetic cognitive dissonance. I am simply a critical thinker who does not judge the quality of any given band solely on the basis of the name attached to the product in question.

This is why the music of Bruce Springsteen's foregone ideological conclusion, one-dimensionality, and deceptive "common man" facade is perfectly conducive to the mindset and lifestyle of a "fan." Billy Joel's work is different. Claiming to be a "fan" of Billy Joel does not really say anything definite about who you are, any more than saying you are a "fan" of introspection and self-examination. At this point, anyone who is cynical enough to accuse me of being obsessed with Billy Joel most likely has not read this essay in its entirety. I am no more obsessed with Billy Joel than I am about myself. And if I am obsessed with myself, then so is anybody who has ever taken the time to examine their self through introspection or who has taken time to reflect deeply about the world and their place in it.

The Inequality of Educational Attainment

In 1988, an ABC News special titled Burning Questions: America's Kids - Why They Flunk began with the following interview conducted with various middle-class high school students:

Interviewer: Do you know who's running for president?
First Student: Who, run? Ooh. I don't watch the news.
Interviewer: Do you know when the Vietnam War was?
Second Student: Don't even ask me that. I don't know.
Interviewer : Which side won the Civil War?
Third Student: I have no idea.
Interviewer: Do you know when the American Civil War was?
Fourth Student: 1970.

The social phenomena referred to by students of symbolic interactionism as the "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" is a very revealing phenomenon. In the comprehensive textbook Understanding Social Problems, Linda A. Mooney has written a very informative chapter on the social problems of education inequality. The concept is introduced as a primarily microlevel issue, as opposed to a macrolevel issue: "The self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when people act in a manner consistent with the expectations of others" (Mooney, 263). This is a microlevel issue because here we witness social constructions of shared meanings occurring at the level of the individual or small group. The classic 1968 study by Rosenthal and Jacobson which Mooney makes mention of (263) demonstrates quite convincingly that each individual member of a society gradually becomes what he or she thinks other people perceive them to be, regardless of whether that perception was originally an accurate assessment of character.

This observation holds crucial implications when viewed in the context of the inequality of educational attainment that a concerned citizenry has been working to bring to the public's attention for the past several decades. Precisely because the nature of society is such that it wields such powerful placebo-like influence on the collective unconscious, the fact that education is an important institution simply cannot be overstated or overemphasized. A renewed focus on combining bilingual education with decreased dependence on local taxes (for which we need a more centralized government) are viable solutions that can alleviate the problems of inequality plaguing the educational system. Among the many positive side effects of devoting more energy to maintaining bilingual education, I discern within its goals a potential for generating a greater distribution of racial composition in schools, resulting in less racially-concentrated schools and engendering greater cultural diversity. This increased cultural diversity, in turn, has the potential to become a quality learning experience among students.

In addition, and in connection to the problems of racially-concentrated composition, it is my opinion that all school districts should subscribe to a system of accountability both to the government and to the public. The need for such accountability is evident in James S. Coleman's 1966 study entitled "Equality of Educational Opportunity." Mooney reports that despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional, "[Coleman's] study of 570,000 students and 60,000 teachers in 4,000 schools found that almost 80% of all schools attended by whites contained 10% or less blacks and that whites outperformed minorities (excluding Asian Americans) on academic tests" (Mooney 269). This is why accountability is crucial and a personal effort on the part of all in society to conscientiously break our habit of defaulting to unconscious stratifying assumptions of what others are capable of is much needed.

Reference
Mooney, Linda A. Understanding Social Problems. Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.