Friday, August 6, 2010

Kids and BMWs, Ends and Means, Sense and Nonsense

I herein respond to Eli's plea that someone, anyone, with living offspring and functioning neurons address the pro-breeding ravings of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (RSB). He begins, or tries to, by establishing his own child-having bona fides:

Our decision to have nine children revolved around a simple love of kids. We love their cuteness, their playfulness, their gentleness, their innocence ...
Neat! I have long since abandoned the hunt for a solid rationale for having children, and this illustrates why: the reasons people offer tend to be embarrassingly glaring bullshit.

In this instance, RSB and his wife had "a simple love of kids," which evidently isn't quite so simple since it led them to bypass the obvious alternative of appreciating some of the kids already existing in favor of generating nine new ones. Well, I have a simple and abiding love of hi-fi equipment, running shoes, chickens, house cats, sperm whales, stouts, IPAs, natural scenery, and albums by Stereolab, but it doesn't follow that I make new ones from scratch.

As it happens, I don't. Sure, I'd be weirdly proud if I managed to outright manufacture a convincing chicken, but a quick look around reveals there are oodles and oodles of them already pre-made by nature and society, nearly all of them doomed to a pretty lousy life. So it is with children, sadly.

Rationales for breeding that aim for loftier than "we had sex, the sperm did the thing with the egg" start off  suspiciously and typically go worse from there, which takes us to RSB's next priceless observation:
If you're having children for your own happiness, you will be a lifelong burden to them as parents. Rather, the happiness that our children bring to us is the natural and organic by-product of being a parent rather than the reason to become one.
Um, but didn't RSB say above that "a simple love of children" inspired him to make nine of them? Was that "simple love" meant to denote something other than a happiness-bringing or happiness-correlating thing? If so, he landed on an extremely misleading way to phrase it.

I agree with RSB that parents should avoid being burdens to their children to the maximum extent possible, and in every way possible: one should not have children in order to produce a pair of shoulders to cry on. I do not, however, agree with this nonsense:
Want to know why Islam is taking over Europe and why Latinos are becoming such a political force in the United States? It's because they love children and they are exploding demographically. In the summer of 2008 The New York Times Magazine published a cover story entitled 'Disappearing Europe' that explained that countries like France, Norway, and Russia had hit 'lowest low fertility,' having so few babies that they cannot replenish their numbers even in two generations. In the 1960's, as Time itself notes, Europe constituted 20 percent of the world's population. Today the number has fallen to under 10, despite massive efforts to boost births. How ironic that as the West has become richer and more capable of affording children it has lost its appetite for kids, believing instead that real happiness lies in a BMW or a Prada handbag.
Sigh. RSB takes only a couple of paragraphs to start spinning out pro-breeding rationales anchored in racial paranoia, which for all I know appeals superbly to the teabagger crowd, but for everyone else, serves only to ratchet up the unbearable fremdscham (Cf. I, II, III) that attends the piling up of such reasons and rationales.

RSB's churlish dismissal of happiness as a "BMW or a Prada" would perhaps make a dent if not for the simple fact -- yes, it is a simple fact, so I denote it as such -- that, for some people, there is a genuine pleasure in working toward, acquiring, and owning such things. It's unclear to me who, if anyone, would truly mistake that pleasure for "real happiness" -- the Rabbi is either too kind or too full of shit to name names -- but even if we assume that large numbers of people are consciously chasing happiness at the checkout counter rather than the delivery table, that view would at least bear a passing resemblance to the body of ideas and larger social context in and through which a "BMW or a Prada" enters the world.

The people who make such goods expend significant effort and resources promoting the idea that they're pleasing, if not happiness-correlating, things. If that's a mistake, it's a mistake gotten by honestly, and when it goes badly -- when a luxury item fails to deliver the delights promised in the ads (and it gives me no joy to report that, indeed, some ads do overstate the happiness-bringing potential of consumer products) -- the harm goes only to the purchaser. Recall we are already talking about hypothetical people who haven't had children, after all, so they're not buying the fancy car or lavish handbag at the expense of fresh vegetables for the triplets.

Believing the ads for having kids, whatever form they take, is considerably more perilous and no more rational. There is no trouble-free returns policy on newborns; propaganda in favor of having children should take the higher stakes into account and observe a higher standard, starting with the principle of saying what we mean and meaning what we say. If that is too much to ask, far better to let it go and say nothing.

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