“Responsibility”… for What?

GrindstoneYesterday I was listening to NPR and the author of a biography of Margaret Thatcher was being interviewed.  He was clearly a great admirer of his subject. Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

This is responsibility to your city-state, your people.  This military tradition of responsibility continues. It is an ethic of placing the good of the whole above your own personal needs.  Being willing to sacrifice even your life in defense of your society.

Religion presents another model of responsibility– responsibility to God, a commitment to living in accordance with eternal values even when this is personally difficult.  Ideally, religion is a model of people putting aside their own personal concerns and focusing on something larger than themselves and vowing commitment to treat other human beings with compassion.  Responsibility to God and fellow man.

Using the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself.

In truth, there is no such thing as pure independence only interdependence.  The “trickle down” economic model implies that the business owner creates the jobs, but it is equally true that the workers make the business possible.

In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes,.  “…for centuries, economic orthodoxy held that it was the working classes that generated society’s financial resources– which the rich then dissipated through their taste for extravagance and luxury.”

He traces the end of the view of wealth coming from the laborers as beginning in spring 1723 when a London physician named Bernard Mandeville published The Fable of the Bees.  Its premise, now very familiar, was that the wealthy by spending, allowed those who they paid to survive.  Wealth in this model is seen as flowing down from the top (trickle down economics) rather than growing up from the ground.

I have been reading lately about British aristocratic society in its period of decline at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th.  As aristocrats saw their position being challenged, many of them made passionate defenses of the hierarchy  that placed them at the top.  Many of the arguments they made came right out of the Fable of the Bees.  Titled aristocracy was necessary because by living their lives of luxury and power they provided work for those who worked for them.

Indeed, the aristocrats felt that this was a duty, a responsibility.  Society put them at the top and they had the responsibility to remain there in order to take care of those less fortunate.  Someone once wrote “Power justified itself by pointing to powerlessness in others as proof of incapacity.”  The poor needed to be cared for by the compassionate rich.

The notion of “personal responsibility” grew in the era of the “self-made man” but it had a slightly different meaning back then.  It meant,  “Don’t worry Lord Such-and-Such, I can take care of myself quite well, thank you very much. Your lordship doesn’t need to maintain that manor house on my account.”

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

A quote by Upton Sinclair comes to mind:

“…the priests of all these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and less at any other man’s. Now and then you may see one bend and give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character.. But for the most part the priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect, many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation…”

I read an interesting article yesterday on Work in Progress, the blog of the American Sociological Association’s Organizations, Occupations and Work section.  The article argues that as a greater share of national income has gone to profits rather than wages it has slowed GDP growth.

As Özlem Onaran explained in her summary of her ILO study, “mainstream economics continues to guide policy towards further wage moderation and austerity as the main response to the Great Recession. Mainstream economists and policymakers treat wages merely as a cost item. However, in reality wages have a dual role affecting not just costs but also demand.”

We can’t escape the fact that we are all in this together.   It is a world of interdependence, and mutual responsibility.



The image above is from the 1934 book “Wasn’t The Depression Terrible?” by O. Soglow.  It’s in the public domain and you can read it on line.  Many of the cartoons seem quite contemporary.


“A Disreputable Person”


I’ve been thinking about the expression “disreputable person.”  It has come up in my reading about Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde.  After Wilde was released from prison, he wished to be reunited with Alfred Douglas, but when the lawyer for his wife got wind of it they cut off Wilde’s allowance.  A term of his divorce agreement was that she would pay him some support as long as he did not associate with “disreputable persons.”

“I do not deny that Alfred Douglas is a gilded pillar of infamy,” Wilde wrote to his agent, “but I do deny that he can be properly described in a legal document as a disreputable person.”

It struck me what a strange expression this is.  It implies that being “disreputable” is a quality inherent to a person.  In fact, it is other people’s gossip that gives someone a reputation.  The person himself has little control over that. Only the people who accuse and judge have the ability to determine if someone is “disreputable” or not.  By claiming Douglas was a disreputable person, they made him so.  There was only one thing necessary for Douglas to stop being “disreputable” and that was for other people to shut up.

By the way, if you’d like to read some of my past posts where I mused on the words we use try this one about the word “lovers,” this one about the expression “struggling with” and this one about “the lifestyle.”

Oh, and another “by the way,” according to my word press logs, my most popular posts are the ones I’ve done that mention Lord Alfred Douglas.  Not sure why.


The Universe is Godding

Today on the blog of the Lake Chalice Church in Gainesville, FL was an article on the language we use to speak about God and how this frames our perception.

It would seem, to carry Wieman to his logical conclusion, that the universe will have attained total, complete and perfect spirituality when everything signifies everything else — or when, we might say, when everything gods and is godded by everything else. Godding, then, would be the activity of building meaning by building interconnection and relationship…

Our grammar itself lures us into assuming that there are separate things, the referents of our nouns. Could we tell the story of life, of creation, in a language without subjects or objects, a language of only verbs, a language that perhaps the Cosmos itself speaks when it whispers to itself — or in your ear?

This, of course, (I say of course as though you have read my book of poetry Where Souls Grow Warm) was the theme of one of the poems in my collection.  So while we’re on the subject, I thought I would share.


The universe is godding.
Rain from the evening
showers from the trees
a powder in the morning sun
like snow in August
large drops and small
then a pause before
poised and still
before the next breeze

The world is godding.
A leaf from the ivy
that grows along the wall
with a single droplet
has become a mirror
shining as a tiny star
in the mid-morning glow

A butterfly gods above
in its halting, jagged flight
The ivy diamond disappears
as a cloud obscures
the rays of the sun,
then moves on
“Let there be light”
The morning is godding.

Beneath the overhang
an arachnid artist
has woven her stunning silver web
zen spider
I brush it away with a broom
and she starts again
The spider is godding.

A persistent squirrel
under the plastic bird feeder
gods as he climbs
the metal pole
and is baffled by a bevel
He will keep trying
The back yard is godding.

I, the guilty poet,
gaze out the window
as a leaf, all burnt umber
dances to the ground
godding in the updrafts

A perfection of messy weeds
peeks through the stones of the walkway
ripe for the picking
another task on my list
My distracted mind gods and wanders
Are there words for all these things?

Nearby an engine revs,
coughs and buzzes
a lawn is being cut to size
suburban fashion
intersecting with the interdependent web of life

In the house
a child is screaming,
“No! It’s mine!” she cries
The neighbor’s house is godding.

The beige cat approaches
slinky and masterful
and purrs as he rubs his head
against my leg
The universe is godding.

And I amen.
I amen.

What is Your Spiritual Orientation?

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to talk with Bishop Craig Berland on the Christ Enlight Podcast.  We spoke quite a bit about the various social roles we play in society.  We talked about how people try to define and label their sexual orientation, their economic class and how their stories are crafted in obituaries.

There was one area of social labeling that we didn’t directly touch on.  I was reminded of it by a post on Rev. Thomas Perchlik’s blog.  He describes an interfaith book reading group and one of the books they read.  It was written by Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright.  Perchik quoted the following passage:

“Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that when they stopped believing in such a being they had therefore stopped believing in God, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire…decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell. The first group decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of God, they must be atheists. The second decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of hell, they must be universalists.”
— N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

Universalists, Athiests, Fundamentalists, Agnostics, Evangelicals, Pagans, Muslims… What is your spiritual orientation? What label do you place on it?  (According to the Belief-o-Matic on Beliefnet, I am a “liberal Quaker.”)

We choose our labels through church shopping or book reading or by an accident of being born into a certain faith.  Yet what we most fundamentally believe and perceive about the nature of the divine, the transcendent, the universe and how to get along with people on earth is fluid.  It changes throughout a life and as our personal situations change.  The wisdom a person needs to deal with loss is different from the wisdom a person needs to deal with happiness.

But once we have given a label to what we find most sacred, we feel a pressure to be consistent to that label.  As we try to make our feelings conform to all that we think these spiritual labels mean, we voluntarily limit our mental options.  “I’m a Universalist, I don’t believe in Hell, so I can’t read Blake.”  (I’ve never actually heard anyone say this, but you get the idea.)

There are, of course, benefits to labels or we wouldn’t be so keen on them.  They are a shorthand that allow us to build a community of reasonably like minded people without having to spend months with each individual trying to sort out just what each one actually believes and values on a whole host of topics.  No one has time for that, and as much as we would like to love all of humanity in an abstract sense, the number of people with whom we can actually maintain that level of intimacy is finite because we are mortal and finite.

Still, it is useful to ask from time to time how much of what we think we believe based on our own free will and rationality is really a way of reinforcing our self-definitions.  How many of our conflicts with others derive not from real differences of opinion, but the desire to defend our labels? 

Angel Excerpt of the Day: “Special Friend”

When Mary Adams died at age eighty-one, it came as a surprise to no one. The end came after years of slow decline that took her motor skills, memories, and sanity. Then there was the long death watch. She held on, uncomprehending and in pain, for weeks. She finally slipped into a welcome unconsciousness, where she remained for several days before finally letting go. “At least she is not suffering anymore,” people usually said.

Through all of it, Stuart Briggs was at Mary’s side. Mary was Stuart’s first and only love. They had met in high school and hit it off right away, but for whatever reason, Mary never was attracted to him. They never dated. Stuart waited in the background as she dated other boys. He was a guest at her wedding to another man. When her first husband had died, Stuart was there, hoping for his chance, but it never came. He waited through a second marriage, which ended in divorce.

After that, Mary came to rely on Stuart’s constancy. He was the person she called when she needed someone to go with her to the movies, to help her with an errand, or just to talk. They became regular companions, but as far as anyone could tell, they never had a physical relationship and it was never a romance, at least not for her.

When Mary became ill, it was Stuart who cared for her. He took her to church on Sundays, pushing her in her wheelchair even as walking became a challenge for him. He was calm and patient with her confusion and mood swings. He visited her daily in the nursing home long after she had forgotten his name. He stayed with her every day she was in the hospital and then in hospice. He was there when she died, holding her hand. Now he was making the funeral arrangements because Mary’s children were scattered across the country in California and Colorado.

He now sat before Paul holding a small scrap of newsprint. It was Mary’s obituary, a short notice mentioning her career as a teacher and her long membership in the church. It named her first husband (“pre-deceased by….”) and said she was survived by her two children and their families. Stuart was identified only as “special friend.” He had loved Mary longer than her husband; longer than anybody. The center of his world was gone, and yet he had no official title to acknowledge his status. When someone says, “I lost my wife,” everyone understands the magnitude of that loss. “I lost my friend” is different. Unless you know the person well, it has no meaning at all.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

Struggling With… The Language of Seuxal Identity

Been thinking about the language people use when talking about gays and lesbians and how different it is from how we talk about heterosexually oriented individuals.

I’m “openly” straight, I’ve been “struggling with” opposite sex attractions for as long as I can remember. I remember the lovely evening when my boyfriend, who I’d known for three years, looked into my eyes and we decided to “act on our heterosexuality.” We have been a couple ever since, but we try not to “flaunt it.”

How does talking about my desire to love and be loved, desire and be desired, and my relationship with my beloved seem when I use this language to describe it? I’ve been trying to reflect on whether or not I would feel differently about myself if I was using this kind of language or others were using it about me on a regular basis.

What do you think?

P.S. Maybe we’ll get “straight married” someday.

“Happens to Be”

I love the expression “happens to be.”

We say it when we are pointing out something about someone’s social identity.  The thing we are identifying is held, by some groups, to be a pejorative.  Using the expression says that you are not one of those small minded people.  You are mentioning a distinction in passing, but it is not that important to you.  It doesn’t define how you see that person.  You hardly even notice it really.

Except you pretty much only use the expression in a context  in which the distinction actually is important.  You would probably not say, for example, “I handed my friend Julie, who happens to be a lesbian, the book.”  That would be weird.

You’re much more apt to use it when you’re speaking in a context in which the information about the person’s race/religion/political affiliation/gender identity is relevant. For example, you are talking about how the state of Virginia combined Martin Luther King Jr day with a celebration of Confederate soldiers and ended up with a compromise that pleases no one— “Lee Jackson King Day.”

One of your friends had something pithy to say about this and, by the way, she “happens to be” African-American.  In this context, you bring her race up because her perspective as a person of color is actually a relevant part of the story.

Yet you don’t want the listener to think you just go around all the time calling Lois “My Black Friend.”  “Happens to be” signifies that we’re comfortable with the difference we’re pointing out.  That’s what we’re trying to say with the words.  What we’re also saying, less intentionally, is that we’re uncomfortable talking about this difference.  That’s a lot of work for three little words to do.