Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On why modernity is awesome

Reading this New Yorker article titled "Narcissism in Pink and Blue," I feel like I must have been born without some critical gene that might help me grok the author's point. Ostensibly, the author's argument is that there is supposed to be something horrifying about parents throwing "reveal" parties, in which they announce the sex of their soon-to-be-born child by either whisking out pink and blue balloons as appropriate or color-coded cupcakes. What exactly is so horrifying about this is never quite made clear, although perhaps that is the sunny Whig techno-optimist genetic disability kicking in again. It doesn't seem specifically to be about the amount of cash spent. The costs of cupcakes and balloons seem decidedly modest anyway. There are repeated references to "narcissism," but that doesn't quite clarify things either. Isn't it normal for parents-to-be to be excited about a baby that's on the way? And isn't finding out the sex of the approaching newborn supposed to be one of the more exciting milestones of the pregnancy? Like, is the appropriate response to just refuse to tell people what is the sex of your child? Are you just supposed to stare at your shoes when asked and say, "Gosh gee whiz, but I didn't think you care about it?" And isn't wanting your friends to share in your excitement about your upcoming baby by inviting them over for a cupcake and balloon fete friendly rather than narcissistic?

Yes, there are some references made to the importance of the author's work in re-integrating felons with society. I completely agree that it is deeply unfortunate that many paternalistic licensing regimes keep willing employers from hiring ex-felons, even if they want to. It's absurd that in any state in the Union, an ex-felon cannot get a manicure license. I probably do differ with the author of this piece regarding the wisdom of laws that try to prevent employers from looking at potential employees' arrest and conviction records; I fear that such laws only make it harder for employers to get information that may be genuinely job-related and may even increase unemployment among racial and ethnic minorities. These differences of opinion on policy issues aside, though, surely people devoted to important social causes can be expected to set aside their labors for a few hours for parties every once in a while? Perhaps it is, dare I say it, narcissistic to look down on one friends' relatively harmless fun because it prevents them from being devoted 24/7 to one's pet social causes?

So, too, I am puzzled by the claims about the search for meaning. Is it odd that I have never felt at a loss for meaning, despite having been a skeptic about organized religion since about the age of 12? It is true that I have invented social rituals, such as Pnin's and my annual Hayek Party, in which we gather a group of mostly libertarian friends together to eat traditional Austrian foods. I have not done this out of a search for meaning or anomie or rootlessnes. My thought process was more like, "I will do this because it seems like fun and is a good excuse to make Sachertorte! If it sticks and becomes a tradition of sorts, then so much the better!" This points also to the oddity of looking down on "contrived" or "invented" events: weren't traditional rituals once also contrived or invented ones a long time ago? How would any traditional events ever come into existence if not contrived or invented by someone at some historical point?

It is also hard to say for certain, but I tend to doubt that the fall of religion or tradition explains the credulous reaction of people to extremist political movements or to anti-vaccination crazes. Suspension of science and credulity have been problems in many different societies, including some much  more religious than ours. See, e.g. (I am not sure when disenchantment with modernity is supposed to begin in the eyes of this article -- are we talking "modern" in the sense of "Now there is Facebook," e.g. circa 2004, or are we talking "modern" in the sense of "not medieval," as historians might use it, e.g. circa 1400?) I am confused.

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