Saturday, November 22, 2008


For a day or so I’ve been rereading Barbara Ehrenreich’s early book, “Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.” Copyright 1983. That’s the year I left seminary in Chicago to fulfill a three year grant supporting the Unitarian Universalist Montana Ministry by “riding circuit” among four small fellowships. I can’t remember preaching about Ehrenreich’s book, which is an account of the unraveling of the nuclear family after WWII. She pointed out that jobs that would support a family (Mother, Father, Dick, Jane, Puff and Spot) were NOT the norm, but only a useful illusion. Hanging the economic well-being of the family on the necks of the men made some into zombies and some into runaways, but we pretended it didn’t happen. Some men turned out to have very dark hearts, the kind that destroys human health. It’s a short book, but I paid close attention. In those days and for a few more short years (I stepped out of the ministry in 1988), men were my colleagues, my mentors, and my role models. Everything Ehrenreich said was illustrated around me in various ways.

She describes sequentially what was really more of an interacting mosaic which had as its changing core the relationship between economics and family patterns. Recent progressive thinking about the family is not about which two people should fall in love and “marry” but how a family can be a “firm,” a “franchise” that protects and supports all involved, as well as the contextual society. Such an approach is much more in keeping with the major paradigm shift science has given us by “verbing” the world, in the way we used to fancy that Hopi language did. No more chairs, but chairing; no more god, but godding; no more family but familying. Too big to consider in this blog post.

Gore Vidal supplies the epigram for “The Gray Flannel Dissidents.” “The thing that makes an economic system like ours work is to maintain control over people and make them do jobs they hate. To do this, you fill their heads with biblical nonsense about fornication of every variety. Make sure they marry young, make sure they have a wife and children very early. Once a man has a wife and two young children, he will do what you tell him to. He will obey you. And that is the aim of the entire masculine role.”

Hating the role was part of the change -- for a WWII soldier that same role of family and quiet job must have seemed a refuge -- but the next part is the Playboy revolution: the single man who was defiantly, promiscuously heterosexual, because the accusation of being “a fairy” and wearing yellow on Thursday (enforced by taunts from elementary school forward) kept a lot of men at least pretending to be happy while they slumped in front of the TV, obviously alcoholic or comatose as Dagwood. The Playboy owned a hi-fi, knew all about cocktails, wore silk pajamas, and lay around discussing “Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex” with a compliant female youngster on the pill. There was a LOT of talk about sex. (Those who don’t do, talk about it.)

Then there were the “beats,” quickly diminished to “beatniks,” but clearly anti-family, except for mom. No wife, no kiddies, no home, they seemed from the outside to be a combination of Thoreau and Byron: reckless, on the road, and hip enough to con the psychologists (male) who tried to diagnose them. Think Kerouac. Women LOVED them. Black leather jacket, road hog and attitude -- the movies loved them, too. No need to name the stars.

Dark-hearted Type A men were maybe the scariest category: the hard-driving CEO’s who ate like lumberjacks but sat at desks, simmering with rage and competition, and keeled over with heart attacks at inopportune moments. Ehrenreich’s chapter epigram is from Ivan Illich: “Medicine is a moral enterprise and therefore inevitably gives content to good and evil. In every society, medicine, like law and religion, defines what is normal, proper or desirable.” This is how medicine joins the economy and the family.

So no wonder when the hippie movement came along it attracted the women as much as the men. Sort of Beat-lite, the point here was “why not?” and the focus was on growing people and other living things, which seemed to be mostly a matter of freedom and peace. The territory of Rousseau and the idealized Native American, this movement tried to pull away from the commodification of America but didn’t quite manage until “Third Force” psychology (Maslow, Perls, Rogers, et al) joined the melee and demonstrated how to get money out of hot tubs and growth groups. Now it was okay to choose your lifestyle, so long as you had a good MMPI score. (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.)

Ehrenreich also recognizes that the path to legitimacy for homosexuality -- which once caused “real men” to go into frothing and violent attacks -- was becoming a recognizable community, which could be redefined as a marketing opportunity. Now one wasn’t just “gay,” but strove to the be the right “kind” of gay with commercial lifestyle markers, just like straights. And women.

These categories linger on, and other demographic forces have come into play by now: globalization, the drug underculture, the prison underculture, immigration, the rise of the tech economy, urbanization, empowerment of minorities, green power. Some have pushed towards the re-valorization of the traditional family, like the Catholic South Americans. Others are patterns we’ve never seen, like the National Guard unisex army that includes gays. What will come of their confrontation with violently separated gender roles in the Middle East, the cradle of the Abramic religions? Some Americans claim they want to reinstate them: early Christianity, for instance, but with Old Testament suppression of women and re-empowerment of patriarchy.

It is in this sweeping panopticon of factors that I reflect on Tim Barrus life and my own life, trying to understand whether we have gone our own ways for worthy reasons as seekers, or as unworthy push-outs who just don’t fit. Whichever it is, Puff and Spot, ever faithful, have come along with us to our very different households.

In search of a good epigram, I went to Ehrenreich’s website and discovered, not a quote, but crossed trails. Born in Butte in 1941, she is two years younger than myself. We are about a decade younger than Barrus’ parents. She took her undergrad degree from Reed College in Portland where I grew up. We are in sympathy.

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