Gwynnyd and roh_wyn had a fascinating conversation which I mostly sat out of (and Brian made some thought-provoking comments over at FB). I'll admit I got a bit intimidated (and on my own blog!) – I'm still feeling a bit gunshy around conflict after having too much of it the last few days, and also the conversation really unrolled while I was away – too much to address to do an adequate job with any of it, unfortunately, by the time I got back to my computer. But it was fascinating. I encourage people to read it.
The exchange did remind me of a scene in The Handmaid's Tale. The book is dystopian fantasy, set in a world where many women can't reproduce and those that can are basically kept in sexual slavery as "handmaids." Think the Biblical story of Sarah, who gave her handmaid Hagar to Abraham so she might bear children on Sarah's behalf. Fertility problems aside, the situation also is a reaction to women's lib, from a society dying of choice (in the book's words). The scene I was reminded of is about one of those handmaids, comparing her old situation where she earned a paycheck like most unmarried women do today, with her life after the revolution that made it illegal for her to work or earn money.
The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on the cracks. I'm remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I used to wear on them. Sometimes it was shoes for running, with cushioned soles and breathing holes, and stars of fluorescent fabric that reflected light in the darkness. Though I never ran at night; and in the daytime, only beside well-frequented roads.
Women were not protected then.
I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don't open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don't stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don't turn to look around. Don't go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.
I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.
It feels a bit odd to cite the Handmaid's Tale in the same breath as I'm advocating more of a role for the government, but I think this distinction is useful. It also serves as a warning in red letters six feet high about one major pitfall of relying on government. But I think that concern really relies on a certain way of thinking aboput what the government is.
Over at FB, Brian gave an analogy. We all know the saying "you'll follow my rules as long as you live under my roof. He's concerned about a similar thing happening with government: as long as people are relying on the government for things. Basically, the idea that people rely on the government means they aren't truly mature and the government can tell them what to do. If you think of the government as something above and beyond individual people, I can see how that makes sense. It's an other, an outside force that can exercise power over you – and that can be infantilizing.
I think I see government in a fundamentally different way. Government isn't something that oppresses us but that uplifts us. It forces people with a lot of power (or groups of the same, as in corporations) to play by certain rules so they don't run over the rest of us. It also provides a structure for those of us who don't have enough money or power to influence society all by our lonesome, to organize so our opinions have a role play in deciding what direction our society goes in. I think our democracy is more or less broken these days (and I blame our modern news culture for this at least as much as Citizens United). The realist in me doesn't really expect governments to act in the average citizen's best interests.
But I think we need to keep in mind that government is supposed to be by and for the people. It isn't dad keeping you from doing the cool stuff you want to because he still pays the bills; in many ways it's us, the collective us, and in others it's the big brother who makes sure that kids who have several years on us don't mess with us around the playground. Of course I'd love for the government to be unnecessary, but that's not because I think it's bad or oppressive; it's simply inefficient, and if the government did a good enough job giving opportunities to everyone that we had a decent distribution of wealth, I'd be happy to leave it up to everyone to satisfy their basic needs as best they can.
The thing is, though, so far the market hasn't obliged. I'm thoroughly middle class and there are times when I worry majorly about how I'll pay for health care. Sometimes how I'll pay for food, in the summer. And if I hadn't had family to live with after I graduated undergrad I'm not sure what I would have done. I looked long and hard but I was either overqualified (to the point of being unhireable), or the only work available was temp or part-time. (I actually had very few college loans, so that wasn't a huge issue.) And others are so much worse off than I am.
In light of that reality I don't really view dependence on the government as such a bad thing. Even if we look at things as more than just a practical matter. This is more about the sick needing treatment, the hungry needing food, etc. Rather I see it as empowering that there is a way the poor can go toe to toe with the rich. The government ought to be allowing everyone and not just the uber-rich to stand up and be counted. The fact that it doesn't is a great failure of democracy. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't imagine what it would be like if the government actually fulfilled this basic function, and try to make that wishful thinking into a reality.
All of which brings me back to the Handmaid's Tale quote. The irony's not lost on me! I mean, really, using a post-apocryphal story about the ravages of an all-invasive government to encouraging more government? And the story illustrates the ways government can go bad (and I'm as aware of that as anyone, and am all for vigilance against abuses of power). But this distinction between freedom-to and freedom-from has always struck me as profound. Aunt Lydia was perhaps being ironic, or being presented as absurd, but in other circumstances – ours, for instance – I think she's actually on to something. There's the freedom to not have other people make you do things you don't want to (freedom-from), but then there's also having the freedom and ability to do those things you want to do. And freedom is meaningless without the power to exercise it. Freedom-from is important, but freedom-to is crucial, too. That's worth remembering.
I know others won't see government this way. I'm actually not trying to convince people – just lay out more where I'm coming from. Life is still hectic just now and I am still answering MEFA emails, so I don't know if I'll reply to every comment. But do let me know what you think, whether you agree with this vision of government or see things in a different way. I'm definitely reading everything said.
Now off to grade papers. I have a hundred-odd pages of student attempts to evaluate the Euthyphro Dilemma or Russell's free-man's worship that need reading + marking over the next few days. Ah, summer school!
(Originally posted at LJ.)