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Thursday, October 15, 2009  

And I Won't Forget to Put Roses on Your Grave

Dan Savage again shows his knack for saying things that sound true and reasonable but that actually aren't:

Our bodies are our own, FAT; they're ours to use, abuse, and, since we're all going to die one day, they're ours to use up. Sane adults strike a balance between taking care of our bodies—eating right, drinking in moderation, getting exercise—while still allowing for pleasures that require us to eat poorly, drink in excess, and lie motionless for days at a time while we recover.

The actual advice he's giving strikes me as pretty sound--everything in moderation, including moderation. But the premise is highly problematic. My body may be mine to abuse and use up in a legal sense, but I have a wife who would (one hopes) be very distraught if I used it up really quickly. I have fathered a son who would be better off growing up with me. My parents would never stop grieving if I chose of my own free will to take heroin and then overdosed and died. These people all have a moral claim on me and, yes, my body--a claim that I am inclined to call sacred. It is not an unlimited claim, but it is real.

And it doesn't end just with our families. Humans, wicked as we may be, seem somehow coded for a minimum of solidarity. If you crash your motorcycle, we're going to send an ambulance to get you and we're going to pay the emergency room personnel even if you can't. So therefore we can insist that you wear a helmet and not drive like a crazy person. If you orphan your children, we're not going to let them go hungry or unhoused, so we can and must intervene if you're being extravagantly reckless. Basic provision for mutual care is pretty close to natural in human communities.

This is my fundamental problem with libertarianism--it requires, at bottom, a reconditioning of human beings away from any glimmer of self-recognition in the other. To be a true libertarian, you have to be prepared to let someone die when they run out of money for cancer treatments. You have to be prepared to let children suffer cruelly for the mistakes of their parents. Not that I think most actual libertarians think this way; it's just a necessary and unsightly consequence of following the idea through to its conclusion. If you acknowledge any moral claim between people, you get into taxation and regulation and all the rest.

But at least libertarianism is a coherent worldview. What Dan Savage is doing is something else, a strange cocktail of radical individualism and economic liberalism. It just doesn't add up. How are we supposed to acknowledge any obligation to provide a decent minimum of health care to everyone if each one's body is her own to use up? How do we square distributive economic policies with a to-each-his-own social ethic? Sure, the social contract theorists have been figuring out ways to turn economic liberalism into the precondition for true individual freedom, and they're not wrong. But we're talking about something more powerful than political philosophy here--we're talking about the assumptions of a culture.

As I said a while back, if there's a saving grace to the Tucker Max phenomenon, it's that he holds a liberal society to its own miserable bargain. We celebrate the economic and sexual liberation of women, but when we see insults flung at female bartenders or ridicule at strippers and so forth, we start backpedaling. This, surely, is not what we had in mind. But unfortunately, it is. Exchanging your labor power for money guarantees no minimum of decency nor even the recognition of your humanity. Just try to come up with an answer to Tucker Max that doesn't involve looming paternalism. Auden wrote once that man overvalues everything, "yet when he learns that the price is pegged to his valuation / Complains bitterly he is being ruined, which of course he is." The price of freedom, real freedom, is to invite degradation, to ebb out your last moments on a bathroom floor, to be left naked and drunk in the street, to be called "bitch" by a self-satisfied moron to whom you are required to serve beer. It's a price that is only barely suggested by Tucker Max, but that is quite fully hidden by its more earnest, naive proponents.

Not that any communitarian alternative is unproblematic. Humans have spent much more time groaning under the burdens of too much community than dissipating themselves in its absence. It's understandable that pushing limits will happen. But eventually those of us who value something in humanity beyond our ability to make contracts will have to embrace ourselves in the other, and the other in ourselves.


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 5:24 PM
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