Friday, December 16, 2011

There Are People Who Do Not Love Their Fellow Man

I don't know much about Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. I probably wouldn't even if I watched TV, since reality programs about religious nuts are not my cup of tea. What little I do know comes primarily from voyeuristic liberals who throw tantrums about them but at the same time can't or won't avert their eyes.

This sort of thing always reminds me of something that happened in the 1960s, when I was in my late teens. My brothers and I were riding with my mother to go shopping in town, and we passed a couple of long-haired, possibly bearded young men hitchhiking. My mother's head spun around as she gawked at them; it's a miracle we didn't go off the road. This was rural northern Indiana, and the hippie look wouldn't be taken over by country music fans for another decade or more, so actual hippies were in short supply. "I thought you said those people were just doing it to get attention," I remarked with typical teenage acidity. "Well," my mother replied with a high-pitched giggle I hadn't heard from her before, "I'm giving it to them!" Her prescription for us, of course, when dealing with those who are just doing things to get attention, was to withhold it. But quod licet Mommy non licet loinfruit.

I think it was my Facebook Tabloid Friend who first linked to a story about the Duggars, when they announced her latest pregnancy. I believe he linked to this story, a bit of concern trolling about the health risks of too many pregnancies. Tabloid Friend has thousands of friends on Facebook, most of whom appear to be Obama loyalists and nominal liberals like himself, people who scorn religious fundamentalists who forget that Jesus taught Love, you bigoted assholes! LOVE!!! So, of course, being true followers of the gentle Nazarene, they reacted to the Duggars with disgust. Loving disgust, of course, in the true spirit of Christ. Like my RWA1 on Facebook, TF saves me a lot of time in finding this kind of material.

Then after Michelle had a miscarriage, Tabloid Friend let us know that the Duggars had taken a picture of the little mite and distributed it publicly! to the whole freakin' world! ... Well, actually, they distributed it at the memorial service they held for her. According to Mary Elizabeth Williams's post on the story at Salon, one of the Duggars' young cousins tweeted the picture, and it eventually went up on the Duggars' website. Now, we all know I'm weird, but I don't see this as a big deal. The picture wasn't a gory, pro-lifer dead fetus; it was a cleaned-up tiny hand resting on (I presume) Michelle's finger. Not nearly as morbid as a Victorian dead-baby picture. Not as morbid as Eric Clapton's memorial song for his four-year-old son. But goodness, the fury this inspired! Christlike love-like fury of course. (I'm not being entirely sarcastic there: judging from the gospels, Jesus was given to exactly such outbursts himself.)

After the first flush of vitriol subsided -- Williams writes that "Commenters right here on Salon called them 'an obscenity' who are “unfairly crowding the planet with [their] disgusting obsession' and 'selfish, polluting choices,' who were, in essence, 'asking for it'" -- the main accusation was that the Duggars were making a spectacle of themselves with that picture. They were so worked up that they ignored matters that Williams had covered in her post, like who took the picture, and that it was spread first by a young cousin on Twitter. (We all know how aware teenagers are of privacy issues in social media.) They claimed that the Duggars were making a spectacle of themselves, exploiting their children just to make a buck for their reality TV show. Which has some justice, since the Duggars are indeed the subject of a reality TV show, but that means everything they do is connected to it. If the fetus had survived to term, the show would have exploited her baby cuteness. So anyone who wants to level this accusation has to ask whether a given act is good or bad in itself, and as I said, I don't see anything wrong with taking and distributing this picture.

I suspect a couple of other factors. The (slightly) less sinister one is just good old-fashioned squeamishness about the human body-- except that we right-thinking liberals are supposed to be healthy, life-affirming, pro-sex and pro-pleasure; hostility to the flesh is supposed to be the domain of Them, the Bible-thumpers. It's not that simple, though. One of the first things I noticed about Tabloid Liberal and his Obama-loving community of commenters was how much time and energy they spent rubbernecking and clucking over sex scandals, like Anthony Weiner's photos. Again, the party line is that only Republican Bible-thumpers care about what a politician does on his own time, but in reality it appears that liberals are at least as hysterical about it: at least as much as the Republicans who went after Bill Clinton in the Nineties, they demand that (especially male) politicians be monogamous and preferably married, a role model for our youth. (I remember that during Monicagate some Republicans wailed about how difficult it was to explain these horrible things to children, who would be traumatized for life because Our President had a dick; I think it was Katha Pollitt who pointed out that children were much more traumatized by the wars Clinton was waging, especially the terror bombing of Iraq, and by the alarmism over bad Muslims who were going to attack America if we didn't kill them first.) And good old Christopher Hitchens, who has just become late; I'll always remember his panicky revulsion over Clinton's "horrid leavings" on Lewinsky's blue dress. (And then there was his dismissal of the Dixie Chicks as "sluts" and "fucking fat slags" for mildly disrespecting George Bush.)

Another factor is squeamishness about death. Despite American secularists' self-righteousness about their rationality, their openness, their liberality, they exhibit very little of any of these. Death is scary, and I'm not putting people down for being upset by it. But "disgusting pictures of their dead baby"? The picture can be seen on Williams's post; I don't think it's disgusting -- if anything, a better criticism would be that it's too sanitized.

The other factor expresses itself in rhetoric reminiscent of the eugenics movement: the Duggars are breeding like rabbits, "pumping out so many babies on an already crowded planet", "the batshit Duggar woman, who spits out babies like a dog whelps pups - all for the greater glory of whatever sky fairy she and her semen-donor worship", "if everyone had the Duggar's thoughtless self-entitled attitude towards breeding the world would be a desolate, Mad Max style wasteland" -- but wait a minute, isn't it already a desolate wasteland?: "7 billion people on this earth and this lady thinks its cool to pop out 20. effing ridiculous", "This lady is a kid collector , she pops em out like rabbits", "This women is like a self fufilling prophecy pregnancy puppy mill." And there's a lot more like those out there. This is lynch-mob language, the sort of swill you hear from Israelis about the Arabs, that you used to hear about Jews from the Nazis, and from eugenicists about just about everybody.

Sure, you can argue against having such a large family, but that's just the point: these people aren't interested in arguments, they're just venting rage against people who haven't, as far as I can tell, actually harmed them in any way. They refuse to avert their gaze from this sight that inflames them so much. They're rubberneckers, ghouls, like people who gather around a fight or a traffic accident, hoping to see gore. If anyone's mental health is suspect in this little circus, it's not the Duggars'.

Two criticisms about the Duggars do seem possibly relevant to me. I've seen a couple of claims that the Duggars rely on public assistance, but evidence is slim so far. The best support I've seen is one commenter on this post, who answered another commenter's claim that taxpayers aren't contributing to the Duggars' income: "I admit that I do not watch this on a regular basis; however, when I did, the family (all of them) went grocery shopping and the mother used food stamps, a program that is tax-payer funded." (No permalinks to the individual comments, which are nested under this one.) This is only of real interest because the Duggars are apparently right-wing Christians who would be happy to get rid of public assistance for other less worthy people; if so, they're hypocrites and do have too many children: more than they can support despite being debt-free and employed.

The other important negative is that the Duggars belong to the Quiverfull Christian movement, which explicitly and overtly encourages the production of children, with women subordinated to men. (Interestingly, the movement also rejects medical treatment for infertility on the grounds that they are "a usurpation of God's providence".) Typically, Quiverfull focuses on a couple of "Old Testament" verses as the core of their doctrine, while apparently ignoring the New Testament's exaltation of celibacy and sexual abstinence. In this light, the Duggars' reality show can be seen as an attempt to make their cult look "normal" (to reverse right-wing attacks on gay-friendly television programming) by presenting a relatively attractive family as its emblem.

You could compare the Duggars, by the way, to the secular scientists Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who had a dozen children in the early twentieth century in a somewhat more egalitarian marriage, immortalized in the book and movie Cheaper by the Dozen. Which reminds me of a reason, suggested by one online writer, why someone might enjoy watching the Duggars' show: it's interesting to see how people manage the logistics of a difficult task and bring it off successfully -- and raising a large family is a difficult task.

But there, you see? This fuss has tricked me into spending much more time than I intended online looking for information about the Duggars, who don't seem to me worth that much attention. In the case of Tabloid Friend and his community of commenters, the Duggars are much more interesting than, say, Obama's last-minute decision not to veto the indefinite-detention bill -- a matter on which, so far TF has had nothing to say. (You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, I guess.) But that's normal, isn't it? Scandalous sexual material is always handy for diverting the ignorant masses from issues that might actually affect their well-being. TF isn't that different from a Republican comparing homosexuality to bestiality -- he's just doing it from the other direction.