Thursday, May 11, 2006

Utopia vs. Families

Last week Liko and I were visiting with our new friends Karen and Argus. Leaning in the playroom corner we found "Peace Trek: Family Coloring Book," published in 1986.

“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.


Anonymous said...


i'm wondering if the loose communal family arrangements urban folks like yourself attempt tend to fail because you try to create these arrangements with other parents. (if this isn't the case, just ignore my comment below) "traditional" families have always been related by blood (sometimes distantly, but within clearly defined "clan" associations), not interest or common experience.

the extended family is a conglomeration of related people, some of whom are elderly, some middle-aged, some young adults, some teenagers, and some children. some are married and have small kids. some are single and have no kids. some have grown-up kids. some will marry and have kids in the future, but not yet. all contribute to the child and elder care economy of the family in their various ways.

i presume, from the way my extended family behaves during reunions, that special compensations are given to the parents of young children. the little kids get passed around, everyone takes a turn keeping an eye on them, some take longer turns than others. etc. etc.

my point is, as a childless woman who may never have children, but who loves children, i would love to be involved in an alternative extended family among my friends and family. i'm sure there are a lot of other childless singles and couples, either permanently childless, pre-child, or post-child, who would also love to be involved -- all provided that they not become primary caretakers, but rather share the responsibilities (and pleasures) of having children in your life with a large group of others.

i'm wondering if sharing childcare with other young parents/families, all of whom are just as hassled and stressed as you is really practicable, or even desirable. maybe a better idea would be to try to put together "households" of friends and neighbors of all ages and statuses (regarding partnership and having children.)

if i had very close friends with young children (unfortunately, i don't yet, although that will be changing soon) who were interested in involving me as an "aunt", i'd take that family into consideration in deciding where i chose to live, my schedule (including social life), and even, to a certain extent, in choosing employment.

however, i suspect that nuclear parents are also hesitant to share the privileges of raising children with others, including transmitting values, and making decisions. the influence of extended family conflict (and consensus building) has also waned almost to nil in the past 50 years.

Anonymous said...

Utopia, what a concept and what a lie. When I was young (back in the day)the concept of utopia seemed comforting, even obtainable, if only people and society would change. As I have grown older I have come to think that the concept is as evil and totalitarian as the worst of dictatorships. If you believe in diversity, in individual expression, in privacy in making your own way and life then the concept of utopia is absurd. Question is who gets to decide what utopia is, one person's heaven is anothers hell. I am not a real deep thinker, like most of us my days are spent surviving and finding some degree of joy and happiness. But, I think, that I am the one who decides (I am the decider) what will make me happy and chart my life accordingly.
Now this is not to say that someting better isn't possible. Getting rid of Bush, most lawyers and pit bulls would be a good start. Its not to say we should not work toward something better, but we are a pretty diverse group of individuals and cultures and to find a universal something that represents an ideal for all would be quite an achievement worthy of at least a Nobel Prize, but then some do not like prizes.
The question remains: Who decides for me. Dad

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Claire: You raise an interesting point. I think those of us with young kids just assume that nobody in their right mind would want to shack up with us; I also think that stability is important in such arrangements, and the reflexive assumption is that single people will be less committed to the household. Your last paragraph also makes a couple of crucial points about why such arrangements are difficult -- not impossible, just difficult.

But: huh. I'm going to think about what you say. Maybe we do need to open ourselves up to people who don't have kids of their own. You can babysit Liko anytime, BTW.

Dad (yes, folks, that's my Dad, or somebody pretending to be him): I don't personally think utopia is a lie or a truth -- it's just a tool, like a hammer. I can use it to build a house or bash somebody's brains in.

As I wrote elsewhere (in response to comments on my article "The Ten Stupidest Utopias"): "I've found that many people think I'm deriding the very idea of utopia. I'm not. Utopian aspiration and experiments can be noble, interesting, productive. Many fail, some are misguided, and some mutate into monsters (some utopian efforts become so woven into daily life or our collective imagination -- e.g., the beloved community of the Civil Rights movement -- that we no longer remember that they were once derided as utopian), but that doesn't mean that they were stupid from the get-go. In this context, to me, 'stupid' means utopia as justification for fear, irresponsibility, personal power, etc. Stupid utopians imagine a better world -- often focused narrowly on personal consumption, convenience, and pleasure -- for themselves at the expense of others."

Is it obnoxious to quote yourself? Just trying to save time.

I'll add that there are plenty of historical examples of places where people voluntarily got together to create a better world for themselves, and largely succeeded. It's just as much a lie to assume that the present will continue indefinitely -- because it never does. I don't doubt for a moment that my decisions help shape the future and the lives of people I'll never meet, and I try to be conscious of that. I'm not a cynic. I'm just...struggling to figure out how to fix the real problems created by having a child, which, for all my self-doubt, I DO NOT believe are all the product of my personal shortcomings. They're social problems and I want to find social solutions, even if I'll never be able to enjoy those solutions. Maybe Liko will, someday.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in an extended family. Parents, cousins, auntes, uncles, gradaparents etc. I remember loving it, didn't like everyone, of course, but it provided a ready made network of support, people you could count on to be there, not just for me but for my parents.
When I grew up we moved. We moved for jobs, we moved to keep peace, we moved because we had to for a lot of reasons. No extended family and because we moved often no real long term friends. Our little family grew up in relative isolation and that is what our family missed and what a lot of modern families are missing. Would our family have been beter off living in an extended unit? I always thought no. I think it would have led to even more conflict. Have some pretty bad memories of visits to the homeland. But that decision, to live apart, cost dearly. You did not know your grandparents, cousins etc. You did not know the comfort of having others around you to escape, to comfort, to create alternatives.
Nana is gone now. I sat by her deathbed watching her slowly slip away. The last link to those days that has any meaning. Thirtyfive years of living elsewhere has cost me and you any real connection to those who remain. The last six months Nana, at last, lived nearby. I could visit often and did. Sometimes it was to pick her up off the floor, take her shopping or to the Dortors. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to do those things. To support her, to help her live her life as she wanted, but mostly I am glad that I was there at the moment of her death. To hold her hand and stroke her brow and to kiss her goodby. She was not alone and neither was I. It was a sweet moment.
You and your family are now experiencing more isolation. Friends are not enough, as you said, consistency is important but it is what is left. Claire said some pretty good things about raising children in a world where so many familes live in isolation. Your earlier blog about the young mother so stressed she committed terrible acts. speaks well to our modern problem.
Now I am living in a new extended family. Father-in-law lives with us, step daughters live a few minutes away, brother and sisters come to visit, its not my real family. As one step daughter told her son who was questioning my place in the family. "he's not my real daddy he's my fake daddy" Interesting way of putting it but the lack of realness dose not reduce my love for her children. I have three grandchildren, Liko, Dylan and Kalie.
After being with my Mother in her last days, being there while she died and experiencing, once again, an extended family unit, as flawed as they always are, it's better now.
Now I want what is left of our fragmented little family to be as close as possible given so many miles and emotions between us. I want to know Liko, be a part of his life, even if it's just a little. Dad

Anonymous said...

Jeremy-feel free to edit as needed-as it is a bit off point from the other comments.

I’m the Karen in line one. Besides sending the blog to a few friends who I knew would appreciate it, my first response was, “but I told Jeremy that wasn’t my coloring book.”

Which morphed into the more subtle, “I have to think of a response without having it sound like I am trying to say, ‘but that wasn't mine’ which is of course what I am trying to say.”

To finally and most meaningfully, “I own the coloring book.” Own in the way Argus owns the playground after he has successfully navigated the tire swing.

So a little history. Jeremy found the said item hidden behind a big basket of toys, an oversized Richard Scarry book and a picture book of cloud nebulas. It was buried sort of like it was porn. Buried because there are things I find particularly annoying about the Peace Trek coloring book, things which more or less echo Jeremy’s sentiments.

The book was brought into our home by Mark. Mark is Argus’ father and the man that I love. Mark is an engineer/scientist who listens to Deepak Chopra and doesn’t find him kooky. Mark takes things at face value and does not devolve into worst case scenario. Mark thinks not only that the world can be good but that essentially it is good.

When Jeremy looked at the coloring book, I both avowed and disavowed it in the same breadth-saying I was too cynical for that kind of thing, but admitting, no gushing, how cute it was when Mark read it to Argus. So yes, the Peace Trek coloring book is mine. It is part of this crazy happy complex thing we call our family.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Wow. I'm a little bit shocked at how rich this dialogue is becoming, how we're raising so many interrelated issues.

Not much time to comment now. I'm amused by Karen's back-and-forth about whether or not to "own" "Peace Trek," which parallels my own ambivalence. Later this weekend I'm going to post a new entry on the image of Karen's husband Mark sharing with his son the utopian vision in "Peace Trek" -- which is, I think, a beautiful thing. It gets to the unstated question behind my post: what positive vision of the future can we impart to our own kids, through both words and actions?

Because I think you have to do that, even if we as adults are too corrupted by our experience to believe fully in that vision. It's a balancing act: we work to realize a vision of a good life and good society even as we try to train our kids to always question that vision, to modify and improve upon it as life and history goes on.

More later.

christy said...

FYI: My response to this post was originally to its appearance on the Other Magazine website, and my concerns and my experience have little to do with practical parenting in our times, so I beg your indulgence: please take this for what it may be worth "big picture-wise." CR

Great post! You have nailed a dilemma many have been
experiencing as the dreamed of alternatives to capitalism and its apocalyptic horrors recede from
view. But here's the thing: I don't believe most of us (Tom Frank may be an exception...) CAN stop dreaming, or imagining alternatives, I believe we are collectively doomed, if you will, to "imagine heaven and create hell" over and over, until, well, until something else happens to us. Which "we" will have a part in making happen, but perhaps more
determinative external conditions will have an even bigger part. And meanwhile, Tom, et al: if dreams are lambasted as reactionary, then only reactionaries will have dreams. Those who have abandoned their dreams will try to discourage yours. And various
other bumper-sticker-ready ideas.

But seriously, how about taking the evolutionary view? More cooperative "alternatives" were once the dominant human strategy (and cohabited happily with
the family, thank you very much), one that worked for tens of thousands of years, and they are still the dominant strategy in many societies that have refused to say die, even though they have been assaulted relentlessly by the virus societies that emerged in the Fertile Crescent a few measly
thousand years ago. Evolution hasn't had the final say yet, nor has nature, despite the scary efforts that are being made by transhumanists and mechano-philes(like those meeting at Stanford this past weekend) to plan for a technological end run around them. So we'll see whose strategies bat last (well, maybe not we personally, I least not me. I'm already over 40 and I don't want to live to be 150 thanks to genetic engineering or designer drugs, thanks all the person's utopia is indeed another's hell as a previous poster remarked).

I'm actually more concerned--especially for people raising kids--with the prevalence of doomsday scenarios, the WE ARE F#@KED strain of thinking that many intelligent people are succumbing to, and think perhaps we need to travel more: in most of the world, where materialism hasn't cut most people off from mutual dependency so much, there is a lot of hard work going on to better things that would not be possible with a WAF attitude.

Neither utopia nor dystopia perhaps, is what we should be thinking about, but like I say, we can't seem to help ourselves. Between the two, I'll take utopianism, however problematic it is. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"I believe we are collectively doomed, if you will, to 'imagine heaven and create hell' over and over, until, well, until something else happens to us. ."

That's a great thought, a wonderful and terrible way of putting it.

Christy also writes that, "Collective 'alternatives' were once the dominant human strategy (and cohabited happily with the family, thank you very much)."

The problem -- and this is one of the problems I tried to tackle in my post - is that earlier human societies were much, much less mobile. If you try to export such communal arrangements, you have to account for the economic (slave-based, feudal, agricultural, etc.) conditions that created them. It's entirely plausible to me that communalism is incompatible with a society based on high-speed travel and electronic communications, no matter who owns the means of production.

As a father, I might have to simply accept that my son will grow up outside of any kind of extended family, biological or voluntary.

Incidentally, the best attempt I know of to imagine a society that combines advanced mobility (both in terms of personal identity and economic function) with communal living is in Chip Delany's book Triton - it's interesting and plausible, but very much a thought experiment.

Anonymous said...

I have had similar issues with utopia. It does seem that people are so different that the ideal society depends on what kind of person you are. So the fundamental problem is that not everyone is on the same page. Highly individualistic and driven people will prefer a different arrangement than people who are more giving and down to earth.

The trade off is always between personal freedom and social benefits and programs. And what one person sees as a "handout" another will view as "sharing".

Personally I think a simple solution would be to set an upper limit on individual wealth. After which wealthy people would be forced to share their stash with others. (It could be family or friends.) Just to do away with the ancient problem of hoarding, and diminish the obscene contrast between the very rich and the very poor.

Anonymous said...

First as an anthropology drop out, I've been mourning, for some time, the loss of this country's "close extended family" as a support system for young families, children, and the elderly, wondering how I'd establish a network when I started my family.
Second, I was recently married and am looking forward to children, however, I am faced with the reality of my mother going to prison for a long time. She will not see my children until they are adults if ever. (There are a lot of issues raised with this situation, but I'll leave them for another time!) I have, blessedly, found some answers to some of my concerns. My good friend, who has a son my age but is a drug adict, will be be wonderful grandmother to my children, my mother's childhood friend, that I grew up calling "Aunt", will be another and both are honored with the prospect. After years of being disappointed in my mother's parenting, I had long ago realized that sometimes, you have to build your own family and I have many friends who at times play the role of mother. My children will have many grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some we'll grow up with, others will be family for a shorter time as their lives take them on to other places. I look forward to teaching my children that we should treat family with the same "good" manners that we treat strangers and to treat strangers with the same love and patience that we treat our closest family members with.