Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do Human Rights Require an Imagination?

I believe in the power of narrative to change the world. Or at least it is my way of changing the world. We know that words themselves are mightier than the sword, and I admire many a persuasive speaker, but to me it is the ability to enter people’s imaginations, not just ignite their passions, that sets poetry and prose apart from other media.

In her article “Sentimental Education,” (Harper’s, May 2007), Joanna Bourke reviewed Lynn Hunt’s book Inventing Human Rights: A History. The review unfolded both Hunt’s and Bourke’s arguments that the downfall of slavery, the emancipation of women, and even the pursuit of animal rights, can be traced back not to the simple statements that these truths and rights are inalienable and self-evident, but to the moment in history when the masses began devouring popular novels. By entering the minds, and more importantly, the emotions, of well-drawn characters, normal people began developing empathy for their fellow person. It was only when another’s heartache, distress, unhappiness, and desires entered our imagination—not just our intellect—that humanity began to believe that all people are truly created equal.

Obviously, we still have a long way to go. It’s easy to feel powerless in a world full of inequalities; it’s easy to fret at the iniquities perceived on all sides and one’s inability to right them. Injustices large and small burn my heart. I want to feed the world, to soothe all neglected children, to house every head, to protect every abused animal, to shield beauty and wilderness from environmental devastation, to make motherhood the most revered (and well-paid) job in existence.

As I write this, my son is asleep in the other room. Some days he drives me mad and I’d like to give him away to a passing band of gypsies. Other days I look at him and think there’s no more delightful creature on the planet. On all days, though, when I’m nursing him or just watching him play, my thoughts turn to the other mothers of the world: a mother holding her babies close in Mosul as her house is bombed, a mother looking for her son who’s been stolen and is learning to be a child soldier in Uganda, the mother across town who doesn’t know how to extricate herself and her children from an abusive husband and father. No mother, I think, should ever have to watch her children starve, or be beaten, or should need to protect her baby from a bomb.

It is imagination that gives me empathy and makes my heart ache for the mothers of the world, and it is only through entering others’ imaginations that I can change a world that allows these situations to exist. Writing helps people from different cultures understand one another. It makes previously ignorant readers aware of the beauties of untouched wilderness, and our need to protect it; it turns the hard edges of political rhetoric into something malleable and soft, something closer to real life. Writing that touches people's imaginations will, I hope, help regenerate the power of women, of the Amazon warrior and the mother in all of us.

Writing is the place where I feel I can make a difference. I hang on to the final words of Bourke’s essay: “Although words by themselves cannot eliminate suffering, they can extend the boundaries of our moral imagination. … The words we use to describe others represent contrasting meditations on what it means to be human. Our future depends on which of these meditations we adopt.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

One Rotten Apple...

The Dictatorship of Healthy Living

I have been living in a bubble ever since my daughter was born almost two years ago. I do not have time to read the paper or watch the news and a lot of days pass without me even starting up my computer. I admit that I live my life in a state of ignorance-is-bliss, but so far I do not miss much.

Some weeks ago I made the mistake of checking on the state of the world and went online. The headlines that greeted me were horrifying: Tibet was burning, Belgrade was burning and the stock markets were collapsing. It took me about thirty seconds until I had seen enough. My computer shut down and I decided that as long as I did not know about these disasters they simply did not exist.

I am bad about denying and ignoring, and I certainly do know that the world can be a rotten place. Of course I blame politicians and big industries for it. Governments are unpredictable and unreliable. They see threats in every neighboring and far away country and in every foreigner crossing the border for whatever reason. They pass laws that restrict citizens' rights and freedoms under the pretense that it is best for their safety.

If political reforms are tackled they usually sound good when they are first presented but by the time the bill is passed the original idea is barely recognizable because of lively horse-trading behind closed doors, also referred to as compromising. Not that compromising is a bad thing. No relationship will stand without mutual compromise. The difference, however, is that in a relationship the parties involved are not under the influence of big industries or political strategies.

Governments also support any questionable form of science as long as it puts their country up one place in global rankings and as long as it promises to make products better and cheaper. This is why we can never be sure how much toxic and genetically modified food we have in our fridge. In the US, nowadays, about 80% of all grain is GM, a German farmer recently told me. It is hard to check and confirm this figure but even if it is only 50% it is too much. Especially as we do not know yet about the effects GM food might have on us and on our children, nor do we know the effects it will have on the environment. One hint is that the honeybees are already dying. Of course, pro-GM-food lobbyists claim they die from anything but GM plants. Apiarists, however, are convinced the cause lies in the new crops and demand immediate removal of GM plants.

I consider our little family a miniature state built on grassroots democracy. We discuss big decisions and act according to the final vote but in some departments everyone gets to make his or her own choice because not everyone can be a specialist in every field. As I am taking care of our daughter full time I get to decide on most issues concerning her.

I have never been a greenie except for a short excursion into vegetarianism and self-knit sweaters when I was sixteen. This phase wore off soon enough because my self-made clothes looked hideous and I also could not resist my grandma's roast beef. Where the food came from never really mattered to me as long as it was tasty and on my plate when I was hungry.
However, ever since our little daughter started to join us for meals, I have taken very good care that I put as much organic food on the table as possible. You might say that organic products are unnecessarily overpriced and that I am a victim of some clever marketing strategy of the organic food industry. You might further argue that organic food producers are just as profit oriented as everybody else and that their means of cultivation are not any better for the environment than the traditional ones. You may be right and I do not claim that organic food is the panacea for a better future. But I am convinced that even the slightest decrease in pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and whatever else farmers use to make their products more resistant, less fatty and faster growing is an asset for our and my daughter’s future. Buying organic food is a compromise I am more than willing to make. And the best thing is, it is a decision I make on my own, like any other dictator of the home who cares about the well-being of her people. Moreover, as I do it for my daughter it also makes me feel good and it improves the spirit in our little, happy world without wars and terror.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How Much Guilt Can a Mother Take?

I've been having one of those soul-destroying days that makes you want to crawl into bed with a cup of tea and an escapist novel. Or else throw things. Neither of which I can do because in the other room is my lovely boy who's been crying and fussy all day long, and he's been like that for several days running. It's the teeth, I know it's the teeth and they hurt and it's awful but I've just had enough of it. He's in his crib right now, crying and whimpering intermittently, and I feel guilty and horrible for just letting him be there--an evil, rotten mother who cares nothing for children at all, who's waspish and mean and selfish, the mother of nightmares.

How come nobody ever talks about these days? How come nobody ever warns you of them?

I'm not the mother of nightmares. I'm a good mother so far, loving and giving and conscientious most of the time. But I am also so tired. Bone tired. Today is one of those days when motherhood feels like living with an abuser, being buffeted by violence so often that you can only, finally, be still inside and take what comes and look forward to escaping into sleep.

Days like this I just want to run away. I want to be free--to be a person, my own human being, again. Why aren't mothers allowed to admit that more often? That we're tired of our own personhood being taken from us, or taken for granted? I am. This isn't a job you can quit or take a vacation from and it sucks up every particle of energy, every moment of the day.

It feels damned unfair that we're not revered and worshipped and paid zillions of dollars (or euros or pounds) for what we do, like movie stars and professional athletes.

How long can I let him cry before psychological damage sets in? How much guilt can I take?

Not enough. It's been about twenty minutes with little abatement. I know he's exhausted, but his teeth hurt and he will neither eat nor sleep. I don't know what to do except either hold him, rock him for ages and ages, or drop him off at a friend's house and run away forever. I know what sounds more appealing right now.

How can infinite love and something akin to hatred exist so seamlessly, side by side in one person so that you can shift from one to the other in the time it takes to blink?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Federalist Paper 1: General Introduction

I've just put my son (2 weeks short of a year old) down for a nap, after changing the nastiest smelling diaper I think he's ever produced. Was it the avocado he didn't like last night? The garlic in the roast chicken? The peaches? What could produce a stench that bad and of that consistency? Maybe it's the super-drool from his teething. It was all mushy and got everywhere and almost required a bath. I use cloth diapers, which means the cover usually catches any excess (good), but that I then have to rinse said cover and throw it in the wash (bad).

I bet Alexander Hamilton never faced a smelly diaper. Bet he never tried to switch gears from helping a baby knock down stacks of blocks for 3 hours to bending his mind to the momentous questions that faced the educated, gentlemanly creators of a brand-new country. You need undivided attention, which meant, I'm sure, that his wife Elizabeth bore the brunt of running their household and caring for their 8 children.

It says a lot about the great men of past ages that they could, in all seriousness, write something like the following when searching for a cook, helpmeet, mother of their children, and showpiece for their drawing room--that is, a wife:

"She must be young—handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape) Sensible (a little learning will do) —well bred... chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness); of some good nature—a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagent and an economist)—In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of—I think I have arguments that will safely convert her to mine—As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me—She must believe in God and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better."

That's Alexander Hamilton (quote from Wikipedia) in1779, giving instructions to a friend who is meant to procure him a spouse from South Carolina. Hardly needs mentioning that this "enthusiast in notions of fidelity" later had an affair.

Still, that doesn't change the fact that his language in the Federalist Papers was cogent, persuasive, and intelligent, and to this day thrills both with its idealism and the weight of his argument.

His first Federalist Paper, the General Introduction, breathes the essential yin-and-yang of a democracy:

"[I]t has been reserved to the people of this country ... to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitution on accident and force."

One could argue that recent events prove this question has failed: America has definitively decided that force guided by those wise old guys in the White House is the only way to preserve the country.

This first Paper lays out Publius's notions of moral and ethical rightness in political choices, and hints at the practical aspects of governance that the new country's Constitution had no choice but to consider if it were to succeed. But I am attracted less by Hamilton's introduction to future arguments here than in his philosophical statements as to the movement of human nature and the nature of human governance. So much of his observation can be transported directly to issues confronting governments around the world today, now, over 200 years after they were penned. And it's not that I agree with all of them. But they open up the mind and force one to question one's own ideological assumptions.

"We are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. ... [N]othing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties."

How searingly true.

But what do you think of this:

"[T]he vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-formed judgment, their interests can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republic, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants."

The danger in this beautifully written paragraph is that Hamilton doesn't seem to have envisioned power-hungry oil barons-come Bible-thumping neoconservative authoritarians. It is so easy for the Cheney-ites of the world to bite off the first section of the paragraph and throw it to the masses who, arguably, seem eager to give up their rights in favor of a specious "security."

I bet Hamilton never had to leave his masterpieces because his kid woke up screaming from a nap, either. That's why this is called Mothers with Brains--we do all the work, from the contemplation to the cuddling.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading The Federalist Papers: Finding the Roots of the American Democratic Ideal

It's no news to any person with half a brain (even a sleep-deprived Mommy Brain) that American democracy is in the tank -- whether it's been that way for decades or simply since George Bush took office is a matter for debate, and not one I'm particularly interested in.

The point is, it's gone. Our laws are written and passed mostly by lobbyists, who pay vast amounts of money to the right people in Congress to advance or halt legislation to the benefit of their company or industry. (The EU recently got a taste of what American citizens take for granted: the constant presence of these lobbyists pressing for entrance to the office of people writing the new chemical safety standards for the EU.) Politicians' relationship with citizens and voters is a depressing, constant rehash of nonsense sound bites and "us vs. them" pandering. The corruption behind our voting system is so bare that practically everyone accepts it as given -- what's worse, nobody thinks they can do anything about it.

It's hard to remember these days that there was a point to America, when the creation of its democracy was something new and revolutionary and almost idealistic. Not perfect by a long shot, but striving to be something better than what had come before.

I'd like to get back in touch with these ideals, to taste again the intellectual and hopeful basis behind the (now failed) American democratic experiment. So this year I started reading The Federalist Papers, and I'm using this site to mull over thoughts and responses to the ideas set forth in these documents. Please feel free to join the conversation.

A little background: Most of the Western world knows of the US Constitution, and even some of its Bill of Rights and Amendments. The document is used, supposedly, as the factual and philosophical/theoretical basis of every American law. But at the time it was passed, the Constitution did not have universal popular support. Its tenets were fiercely debated, by those who believed it gave too many rights to the federal government rather than the states (for those who weren't aware, the United States is run under a system called "federalism," whereby certain powers are delegated to the states and others to the national central government -- a balance that has shifted to the national level consistently since the country's formation), and by those who believed that a stronger central government was needed for the country to function properly.

The Federalist Papers are a collection of letters written in the late 1700s under the pseudonym Publius by pro-Constitution advocates Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. In the letters these three men laid out the philosophical, political, practical, and moral reasons why the country should adopt the Constitution.

Over the centuries, the US government turned repeatedly to these letters to further understand the founders' intent behind the words and laws of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has used the papers extensively to interpret laws and pass judgment.

So, despairing over the current state of American democracy, I'm going to live in the past for a while, to get back in touch with the bedrock shoring up the often illusory idea that this democracy has striven for something wonderful, even if it failed to reach it.

There are 85 of these letters. I hope to read and respond to one a week, followed by a reading of the Anti-Federalist Papers, written by those who at the time supported, instead of the Constitution, a weaker central government under the Articles of Confederation.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why Pooplosophy? What is Pooplosophy anyway?

A few months ago fellow Mother-with-Brain Julia and I were sitting with our little ones (then 18 months and 9 months, respectively) in a hotel room in a small Austrian village. While the babies slept the two of us tried, quietly, to devour as many pages as possible of our books before the call of mommy-hood was again upon us. I was reading a collection of travel essays by Welsh writer Jan Morris, and Julia was reading a biography of Susan Sontag written by a man she'd gone to university with (Julia, not Susan Sontag). As it was in German, and I only have conversational German, I couldn't read it over her shoulder, so Julia related some tidbits to me.

We spoke in whispers, trying not to wake the two little people, treasuring, as mothers do, a few minutes of adult conversation. We talked about Susan Sontag, and our envy and awe at the people she'd been surrounded by during the early period of her intellectual development. And I think we were both somewhat saddened by the lack of such stimulation in our own lives. "Where," asked Julia, "is the new thought going on now?"

In other words--I thought--where are all the thinkers right now? The philosophers? The post-post-modernists? Where are the intellectuals? Just sitting it out in universities? Who knew? We didn't.

For all the attractions universities hold for those of intellectual bent, I'm not entirely sure that their campuses are generating new thought. I have seen few new ideas come out of the academe, as much as I revere it and often long to be back. They generate great amounts of energy, yes, and enthusiasm, and a whole lot of people hoping to graduate into good careers. New ideas is even less true of think tanks, which seem to exist purely to perpetuate their own unyielding axioms: capitalism is good, capitalism is evil, socialism never works. Whatever.

When I got back to the States, Julia and I exchanged emails--in between taking care of sick children and managing households and visiting friends and dealing with the singular fact of life for the modern mother: it is at all times both extremely chaotic and on the verge of being unbearably dull.

We returned to lives surrounded on one side by other mothers who care little for new thought, or philosophy, or anything beyond diapers, and on the other side by people who grow glazed expressions every time our children's teething troubles are mentioned. It was great, we told each other, to spend a few short days with a person who could move smoothly from intellectual conversation to the trials of shifting a baby onto solid foods and sleeping through the night. It was a rare thing.

It was a rare thing. And why should it be? Why is it that, once a woman has a baby she is expected to either a) give up not only her career but all interesting outlets for her mind (except whatever time she can steal back to read) because clearly people who spend their days wiping spit-up don't have any interest in thinking, or b) spend six weeks to six months awash in the glow of motherhood, followed by dumping the baby in day care so she can go back to subsuming her maternal instincts for the nine-to-five grind of an office workday (often in the case in America, since we have no support system for working parents)?

Mothers are not expected to be intellectual. Wise, yes, in the cheesy Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul style that people can smile over in bed and ignore completely in the day-to-day workings of the world. But intellectual, no. Not a stay-at-home, full-time mother.

Nor are they expected to be philosophical. Or Zen masters.

And yet, it is my daily daydream, my fantasy, to be allowed months on end shut up in book-lined rooms, divining the nature of humanity; or to sit quietly for hours or days at a time on mountaintops, alone, divining the nature of the universe. Sure, I'd love to do that. Historically women were excluded from these pursuits. Why? Because--and I ask anyone to refute me--secretly men knew that they could only achieve great heights of spiritual or intellectual achievement if someone else was dealing with feeding a family, washing dishes, worrying about the health of babies, nurturing wounded feelings, cleaning floors ... in other words, women were busy making life happen so that men could go off doing both useful and useless things, like achieving Nirvana or starting wars.

But I'll tell you what. You can go live in a Buddhist monastery for a year and think you've found enlightenment. You can study philosophy or mathematics for a decade and think you've discovered answers. But spend one day with a colicky baby and all your wisdom will shoot right out the window. Because if you can't maintain an inner peace, or pull on sociological studies to give you strength and humor, while a baby is screaming for no reason at all and a toddler has just smeared poop on the bathtub and your partner is annoyed because dinner is cold and everyone is coming down with the flu, then you don't get it.

The new thought is going to come from mothers. Not only do they truly run the world (but never have the time to acknowledge it), but there is no wisdom greater than theirs, there is no group more equipped to understand the great philosophies and the great thoughts of the past, and to know what will work for the future.

The new philosophy will involve all aspects of life, from the dirty diaper to the book-lined study. Because it will be defined by mothers. With brains.