“Why are people in this picture smiling and relaxed?" write the authors. "They are at peace with themselves and with everyone else in the world. That would make anyone a happy person. We must learn to be at peace with ourselves before we can help bring peace to the world.” We see businesses with names like “Soy Foods,” “Planetary Holistic News,” “Holistic Health Clinic,” “Curative Herb Garden,” and “Peace Academy.”
“In a world at peace," they write, "schools will be different from the way they are today. Money no longer needed for national defense and weapons will be used to buy wonderful equipment for schools…In a peaceful world, schools will become lifelong education centers for the whole community. Schools will be places of great excitement and adventure.”
Promises, promises! Can you hear the creepy, passive-aggressive, be-happy-or-else, wheat-germ grooviness behind these lines? I can. I have experience with this sort of thing.
“In a world filled with conflict and fights over money and property, many problems are caused," concludes "Peace Trek." "Many people think that all these problems can only be solved by raising children differently, and with much more love and attention.”
It's pretty to think so, isn't it? This morning I re-read a 1985 essay, "Looking for Mr. Good Dad," by Ellen Willis, one of my favorite cultural critics:
Why do men and women have such an unequal relation to parenthood? Is it biology - we bear children, they don't? Actually, this difference becomes inequality only in the context of a specific social system for rearing children - the family, or, to be more precise, familialism (since I'm talking about a system that affects us all, whether we're in actual families or not). A familialist society assigns legal responsibility for children to the biological parents; the society as a whole has only minimal obligations to its children...This system puts women at an inherent disadvantage: Since it's obvious who a child's mother is, her parental responsibility is automatic; the father's is not. And so the burden has always been on women to get men to do right by them.
[Nearly everyone] takes familialism for granted... After all, the family is so ancient, so apparently universal, that it seems as natural and fixed as sexual difference itself. Yet a mere 15 years ago [mid-1960's] it didn't seem that way at all. Feminists and other cultural radicals were pointing out that the family is a social arrangement, invented by human beings, subject to criticism and change. All sorts of radical ideas got a serious hearing: that children should be considered members of the community, rather than wards of their parents; that they are properly a collective responsibility; that every child ought to have a socially guaranteed right to be supported and genuinely cared for. Some of us envisioned a society organized around communal households, in which adults as a matter of course were committed to sharing in child rearing, whether or not they had biological children. With the conservative onslaught, debate on these ideas has been choked off...
Indeed. The conservative chokehold on family values had only just gotten started in 1985, mid-way through Reagan's regime; it's strange to think that people like Ellen Willis - whose own child was a year old at the time of the essay - or the creators of "Peace Trek" could still call to the page, even in past-tense, elegiac tones, visions of a future so fundamentally different from, and better than, the present.
Now we live in the future - the first decade of the 21st Century - in a world as exploitative, anxious, and wartorn as anything in dystopian science fiction. No one is "smiling and relaxed," unless they're on a psychotherapeutic drug. Few in post 9-11 America talk about utopia, except in the most derisive tones. The "family" - as an idea and as a unit in which most of us live - is a battleground, and yet we all find ourselves in the same trench facing an enemy who looks exactly like we do.
Even conservatives who relentlessly attack the latte-sipping urban liberal are really at war with their own ambition and the circumstances of their lives - the "liberal" is just a symbol and a scapegoat for the economic forces that undermine their yearning for stable home and hearth. In fact, no one of any consequence is ever willing to rhetorically "attack" the family.
Certainly not anyone who calls herself liberal, progressive, or left. Today even progressive visions of the family are fundamentally familial. Most of us in America make our experiments within the ambit of the nuclear family and capitalistic work, even as the nuclear family disintegrates and the demands of work tear children from parents and grandparents - covert, de facto attacks by employers are part of the landscape of our lives. If we really are in a war, it's a shadow war: it's us against someone else's profits. Perhaps because the family really is being undermined on every side, many of us are horrified by the prospect of quitting the safe familial realm and making the family an arena of utopian aspiration and experimentation – it sounds monstrous.
And the results of the radical ideas Willis delineates have been, when implemented in the real world, mixed. Take the Kibbitz movement. Early Jewish settlers in Palestine made children a communal responsibility. Babies slept outside the home, side by side in dormitories. "This experiment failed the test of reality," writes Israeli sleep researcher Avi Sadeh. "In a study that took advantage of the survival of communal sleeping on one kibbutz that still kept this tradition, scientists… compared the sleep of babies and young children in their parents’ homes to that of children who slept in communal children’s houses or in day-care centers. It was found that children who slept in their parents’ houses tended to have longer continuous periods of sleep than those in communal sleeping situations on the kibbutz…Researchers found that the kibbutz children’s sleep improved greatly after moving to family sleeping arrangement.”
Children are born of our bodies; it's not so easy and probably not so desirable to sever family from biology. Score one for familialism!
Maybe utopia and families don't mix. But when you think about it, all ideas of the family are ultimately utopian. No family utopia is at present more perfectionist, totalitarian, and widespread than the White American Christian ideal (which has counterparts in Black, Latino, and various Asian communities that differ in politically interesting ways).
Even non-fanatics hold in our minds an ideal of the perfect family; we all work to realize that ideal in daily life; all of us fail and suffer disappointment in not reaching that ideal. We try to forge a good life for our kids, inside and outside of standard gender roles: dad stays home; mom stays home; mom and dad split it all down the middle of a pie chart they post on the refrigerator; kids have two dads or two moms; we move to be closer to relatives; we tinker with disciplinary regimes, trying to balance our child’s need to develop as a creative person against the need to set limits.
And more explicitly utopian experiments still persist: in a recent New York Magazine article, Annalee Newitz profiles a 100-person commune on Staten Island, which sounds like "Peace Trek" in action. “Our cars are a perfect example of socialism,” says a founder. “Nobody owns them, so we treat them like shit.” If children are defined as a "collective responsibility," will they be treated like cars on a commune? Thanks, but that suburban townhouse is starting to sound pretty good.
And so we, from religious right to secular left, find ourselves trapped between the family life we've imagined and the quotidian, globalized reality of life in "the future." Last night Liz of Badgermama described her efforts, which have been so far frustrated, to launch a co-living community with other families. During the past year, Shelly and I have twice tried to set up more communal living situations with other families - we're not talking radical free-love vegan communes here, but just a mutually supportive, cooperative environment for our kids. Both efforts fell to pieces - or perhaps I should say are on hold for the moment - for many different reasons.
But when I think about it, all the reasons share an underlying unity having to do with the mobility and velocity of our society. Like our toddlers, we can't seem to sit still. There's always something better somewhere else, in a place we never seem to reach.
"Right now we can't waste time imagining or promoting alternatives to capitalism," a then-unknown Tom Frank once told me. "At this historical moment that's just soft-headed." At the time I disagreed. I was twenty-five years old.
Years later I interviewed the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. "There's got to be a utopian strand, there's gotta be positive stories," he told me. "You can criticize over and over again, but it also helps to have some vision of what should happen... All ways of trying to imagine some post-capitalist world are useful, even though - or precisely because - they are wish fulfillment and escapist in some senses. It means there are wishes still in existence for a better and more just world, and it means people want to escape, like prisoners, the current reality. All to the good!"
At the time I agreed with Robinson, yet today - in my mid-thirties - I tilt more towards Frank's position. Never has my daily life been brighter; never has my imagination been darker. The contrast is intolerable and I would like nothing more than for inside and outside to find some kind of harmony. Perhaps Frank and Robinson are both right. In such a case, I think Robinson's is the more courageous default position. If only I could find his courage.