“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.


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.

The Vocabulary of Love: What are “Lovers?”

CoupleWhile looking up something else I came across a blog by Kate Trgovac which featured an article on “The Subtext of Stock Photography.”

In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces.  Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”

“Seriously?” she wrote, “Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace.  But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua?  Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?”

I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.

“Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English,” he wrote.  “Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently.  Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”