Saturday, March 3, 2012

Giving Culture a Bad Name

When I was a boy, everyone who was anybody, or hoped to be somebody, wanted to be cultured. Cultured meant good taste, good manners and a good education (which, in the dictionary, at least, it still does).

Henry Higgins tempting Eliza Doolittle
Somehow though, the term has been hijacked to mean something more like tribal norms. Now, norms may be what, by common consensus, most people accept, but they aren’t necessarily cultured. Slavery was the norm in the south a hundred and fifty years ago; witch burnings in Salem a bit before that.

And so, disputes that owe more to the Hatfields and McCoys than to Henry Higgins are labeled “culture wars.” They have nothing to do with culture. They have everything to do with provincial resistance to change. They are not in good taste; they are not well mannered; and more often than not they owe little to the kind of open-minded thoughtfulness fostered by education.

The latest tribal norms to emblazon the banners of the “culture wars” are religious tenets. Historically, this is boringly unexceptional, of course. There have always been religious crusades. On all sides. Think of Christians and Muslims pushing each other back and forth across the Middle East for centuries. But those days of religious zealotry and intolerance seemed like barbaric episodes from our unenlightened past. As we became more educated, more cultured, we became more tolerant.

That’s the way it has seemed in this country for many years. Perhaps the truth is somewhat different, though. Perhaps the truth is that our tribal norms, most often expressed as religious beliefs, simply had no serious challenges. For many generations, America was a Protestant land. Most were believers, and most believed the same things. Our early settlers and founding fathers felt that their laws came from their moral beliefs, and that their moral beliefs were handed down by their Christian god. So religion and law were not separate at all, not in that sense. Religion in effect gave us our laws.

Then came the others. The Jews, of course, but they stuck to themselves. Then the Italian and Irish Catholics. Well, they weren’t so different. A few niggling differences about birth control, but most people ignored that little inconvenience anyway. But beginning in the 1950s, the secular state raised its heretical head. Not the legislative branches--they were still pandering to the accepted norms--but the Supreme Court. First in the Griswold decision striking down state bans on contraception and then in Roe v Wade.

The Supreme Court told us what the cultured believed, that contraception and abortion are matters of personal conscience, protected by a right to privacy. Apparently, some of us weren’t ready for that message. Several generations later, we are still squabbling over it, now more vociferously than in a long while.

Why is that? What’s happening here? It is the last stand of a dying norm. The Civil War of reproduction. In this case, women are the slaves. Eventually the outcome will be the same as in our first Civil War. Slavery, by color or gender, cannot endure in our society. We are too pluralistic, and too prone to libertarianism. Even when we don’t sympathize with one slave or another, we don’t want to be slaves ourselves, so we tend to band together, across norms, to fight repression.

A true culture war would be an oxymoron. People of good taste, good manners and good education can find better ways to resolve disagreements than by going to war. That’s what college dorm room discussions are for. You know, the ones that one politician recently said are threatening to indoctrinate our young people in liberalism.

Yes, that’s the threat, all right. Liberal thought. Broad mindedness. No wonder those clinging to repressive gender norms are fighting so desperately.


  1. The argument is not about enslaving women. The debate is over when life begins, and whether the state can compel people to act in ways contrary to their moral philosophy.

    Employees can choose for whom they work. If insurance providing contraceptives and abortions is important to them, they can choose to work for a non-secular organization.

    Next thing you know, government will tell us what transportation to use, clothes to wear, and food to eat.

  2. >disputes that owe more to the Hatfields and McCoys than to Henry Higgins are labeled “culture wars.”

    This is so true, and so well put.

    And for anonymous, if you open up the possibility that people can chose to defy laws in on the excuse of religion, then you open up to all sorts of possibilities, including the effective enslavement of women as happens now in many religions cultures. No one is forcing anyone to take birth control (all though of course even 95% of Catholic women have). No one is forcing anyone to have abortions. And under President Obamas compromise, they don't even have to pay for birth control; that's left to the insurance companies.

    What's the alternative?

    The Qur'an, for example, says that women are only allowed to work if that work doesn't interfere with their roles as wife and mother. Should Muslim employers be allowed to discriminate against the employment of married women in challenging jobs because to do otherwise would violate their religion.

    The Bible provides that "if there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones." (Deuteronomy 22:13-29). So any religion that follows the Bible might reasonably claim that their religions requires them to commit murder, and they must be allowed their "religious freedom."

    We already allow religions to discriminate against women by, for example, allowing the Catholic Church to refuse to allow women to be priests. I hope there will come a time when we see how wrong that is. I don't have a problem with people following whatever faith they would like. I have a serious problem allowing them to hide misogynistic attitude behind cloaks of false piety, and try to impose their warped morals on the rest of us.

  3. The church and state need to respect each others boundries.
    My fellow contributor above is uninformed however, if he or she thinks the insurance companies are "paying" for anything.

  4. Anonymous does not have his facts straight. Of course the insurance companies are paying for the contraceptives. In a rare twist, they, indeed, want to pay for contraceptives. It saves them money. It is cheaper for an insurance company to pay for contraceptives than to pay for prenatal care and the expense of childbirth. It is these savings with which the insurers will pay for contraception.

    But Anonymous's statement that "The church and state need to respect each others boundries [sic]" begs the question. Where is that boundary and, further, do not the boundaries overlap? Take marriage, for example. There are both civil and religious marriages. So the boundaries overlap. But we prohibit religious organizations from acting contrary to societal wishes even when their religion expressly sanctions some conduct when their doctrine conflicts with a fundamental freedom or fundamental societal belief. The most obvious example of this is the ban on polygamy which Mormons formerly practiced (and which some Mormons still do practice). Another example is the refusal of society to sanction Sharia law among Muslims.

    So the question is not "Where is the boundary?" The question is "What religious practices are we willing to tolerate?" When the question is properly phrased this way, Mr. Clayton's response is the only one that makes sense. First because, as noted above, the insurers, not the religious institutions, are paying for the contraceptive. So the Catholic Church is not being compelled to pay for, or even endorse, contraception. It is, in fact, not required to do anything contrary to its doctrines.

    But also because citizens have, so to speak, voted with their feet over this fundamental freedom. Of Catholic adults, 98% have used birth control. So who, exactly, is the Catholic church trying to protect? It's own flock, whose actual conduct has shown it to be nearly unanimously opposed to the church's policy? Those of other religious faiths, or no religious faith, who disagree with the Catholic Church's policies?

    Contraception has undoubtedly freed women from much of the danger of unwanted childbirth and women have shown, by their conduct, that this is a fundamental freedom that they want. Further, the Supreme Court, in Griswold, has recognized contraception as a fundamental freedom. When a fundamental freedom (or fundamental societal belief) clashes with religious doctrine, which side should win? The answer is obvious: the fundamental freedom. If it were otherwise, religious doctrine would always prevail, which we, as a society, decided must not be the case.

    So the question is not "Should the Catholic Church be required to provide contraception against its doctrine?" Rather there are two questions. First, "Does the proposed rule require the Catholic Church to provide contraception?" Second, "Even if it is required to provide contraception, should the Catholic Church's doctrine denying a woman's fundamental right to contraception, especially in the face of almost unanimous opposition, prevail over that fundamental right?" The answer to both questions is "No."

  5. Meg! Cut me a break! What are you doing, filing a motion?
    We can argue all day about where the church/state boundries are; but I'd rather see you debate that with your former church.
    As far as your theory of "free" contraceptives, don't be naive; the cost is being passed to the consumer, or they're cutting benefits elsewhere........I assure you.
    And by the way, you can call me David.
    PS: Your writing style is fluid and engaging as always!

    1. That would be another waite, David. I fear my brothers may be swarming all over this piece. He, too, has a legal degree, though. And can litigate. Unlike his big sis.


  6. Not Meg, Dave. MWaite is her brother Mark. And yes, he's a lawyer, so he's making the constitutional argument. Rather well, I thought.

    I do think your're right that ultimately insurance companies foot the bill for nothing. Mark is correct that contraception saves them money, but if there turns out to be any net cost (or perhaps even any gross cost), I'm sure we all can agree that the insurers will do their best to pass it along. What we really need to do is what some other countries who have universal health care backed by insurance do, and that is limit insurer profits to fixed percentage, say 2%. It should be a low margin business based on big pools. As it is, health insurance consumers are being gouged.

  7. Well, that's a relief! And hey,while we're cutting my profits with your 2% solution, I'd like to see plaintiff Attys. work for an hourly rate. But here's a better solution; cut the fourth party administrator out of the transaction.... the Feds. And while we're at it, cut out the medically unnecessary mandates, like birth control. And don't hand me this goofy talking point that it's cheaper than maternity, of course it is; which should be enough incentive for any self respecting citizen to buy it
    it instead of getting pregnant. It should be an option, but it shouldn't be mandated. What's next; is the Government going to require car insurance carriers pay for oil changes? After all, it'll make your car last longer....right?
    If you really want to hold down health insurance premiums and healthcare cost, don't mandate that every little sniffle be covered, make it an option instead. It will also hold down over-utilization. Second, and as important, offer a "no litigation" healthcare pool. That will reduce the cost of healthcare by reducing the practice of defensive medicine, and help bring back trust between physician and patient. I know I know, plantiffs Attys. will go through a little withdrawal not being able to play malpractice carriers like slot machines, but their distortion of human relations will be curtailed. And this enviornment (culture?) of entitlement will be as well.


  8. Mark,
    I must add; the Catholic church is not denying a woman's fundamental right to contraception; they're just not going to aid and abet breaching their own Church Doctrine by providing it. A woman's right to contraception doesn't require it be provided free of charge or against the conscience of the church. It's available in far too many venues to claim usurpation of rights.
    You have the right to eat meat, but you don't have the right to force a vegetarian to kill your cow.

    1. One of the things that frustrates me is that this is couched as a woman's issue, when presumably there are men who are benefitting as well. Because the alternative, you know, doesn't actually risk pregnancy.

      But I think Mark already stated eloquently that the Church is not required to pay for birth control under the current structure. And Mac did a nice job of articulating why the insurance companies are happy to do so.

      So we have a situation where the people using birth control want to use it, and the insurance companies are happy to pay for it. Really, how rare is that? But we should set their desires aside because of the moral objections of a Church that has no interest in the transaction, which the overwhelming majority of their own followers don't even agree with? I'm not sure what there is for them to object to here.

    2. Sorry anonymous and Mark. You all state your cases very elequently; but your basic understanding of economics scare me because I know you're not alone. You act as if there is no financial consequence to these add-ons...there is. Call it "trickle down" expenses if that helps.

    3. One last thing: Ms. Fluke claims her birth control pills are $3000 during her time in law school; aren't our priorities a little shallow if we're willing to provide payment for that while there are still hungry children to feed?