The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Society's Train Wreck

Our national media is presently focused on the story of one Rachel Canning, who left her parents' home at 18 after refusing to break up with a boyfriend her parents had concluded was a bad influence and numerous conflicts over broken curfews, underage drinking, refusal to do chores, and other household infractions.

Rachel Canning
Were that all that happened, the tale of this 18-year old student still in her senior year at $12,700-a-year Morris Catholic High School would not even have gotten a mention. Young adults--and let us be clear about this: under American law, adulthood begins at 18, all of the protestations of people in their 40s and 50s to the contrary--often leave home when they find that their paths diverge from the paths that their parents want for them. Some partings go well, others poorly, and the outcomes of those decisions, like all decisions, may not be fully realized for many years. C'est la vie; c'est la liberté.

But Ms. Canning did not simply leave. She did not turn her back on what her parents have given her and chart her own course. Quite the opposite: she liked the course her parents had charted and financed for her so much that she went to court, filing a suit to insist that her parents, whose rules she flouted and whose home she had left, should still be responsible for paying her school tuition, room, board, transportation, and other expenses, and should be obligated to provide on her behalf money that they had previously earmarked for her college education, all while she continued to do whatever she liked.

This is a social train wreck, and it was entirely predictable. 

For decades, we have pulled our society in opposing directions with regards to the treatment of people relative to the society in which they live, and we have done so particularly with young people. American culutral norms have become consistently more accommodating of what young people want for themselves at the expense of what their parents or the broader society want for them, particularly on matters regarding sex, traditionally one of the defining characteristics of adulthood.

In American society, boys and girls are regarded as sexually autonomous when they reach a non-adult age of consent, and, while we have enacted very harsh penalties for any legal adult having a sexual relationship with a child below that age, we regard sexual behavior between children who are both below the age to be innocuous, making sexuality appropriate effectively as early as children choose to define themselves as sexually active. Because of our marketing and peer pressure, this definition can occur very early, and it has been exploited in too many instances to supply a ready population of underage prostitutes, sometimes kept in line by underage pimps. We also allow children virtually unfettered access to abortion to avoid interference in our student-to-worker production pipeline.

At the same time that we are busy granting children absolute sexual autonomy, however, we are also extending the umbrella of childhood far beyond its legally established boundary of 18 years. People who are 18, 21, or even in their late 20s are increasingly referred to as "kids," and society has accepted a shift under which young adult responsibility is questioned or even dismissed. Consumption of alcohol is not permitted until three years after reaching adulthood, and young adults who leave high school and marry, get jobs, or become soldiers--courses that in earlier generations collectively accounted for nearly all young adults--are today denounced as "too young" to make their own decisions.

That brings us back to Rachel Canning. At 18, she is a legal adult. She has asserted her independence by taking a firm stand that she will date whomever she wants, stay out as late as she wants, and (though it is not a liberty afforded her under our law for another three years), drink if she chooses to do so. Well and good for her. But Ms. Canning is not in court to demand that her independence be recognized. Instead, she is suing for a declaration of non-emancipation, asking a judge to establish that she is very much a dependent of her parents, unable to provide for herself and entitled to financial support up to and including the payment of expenses for her to attend the college of her preference. She claims for herself rights that we do not bestow to society as a whole--most people cannot afford college without taxpayer assistance--and does so with a straight face.

Ms. Canning has made other allegations--that her father was "inappropriately affectionate" and saw their relationship as "not one of a daughter, but more than that," that her mother emotionally abused her by calling her "fat"--, but we can safely dismiss those claims: Ms. Canning has filed no criminal complaints. She is using these sudden "revelations" in a misguided attempt to win public support, but the New Jersey Division of Child Protection already investigated her complaints and reported that Ms. Canning was merely "spoiled."

But she herself does not see this.  While she goes ahead with this lawsuit, underwritten by the cash reserves of the wealthy family of a friend with whom she is staying and levied against her own wealthy family, Ms. Canning not only fails to appreciate that she has put her face and her name out for the national media as someone no sane employer would ever, ever consider hiring but sees herself as entitled to do as she likes, exercising all of the privileges adulthood accords while absolved of the responsibility that adulthood demands.

No one meant for us to get here. No doubt, should a loophole in the law somehow be found such that Ms. Canning were to actually get what she is seeking, we will come together as a broad community of adults--remember, only people 18 and older can vote--to change those laws in every city, every state, and for the entire nation. Heck, I could see an enterprising politican seizing on this moment to push an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But we did end up here, and our ability to slap a patch on the hole we found should not make us blind to the problem we are facing. If we are going to promote a progressive, inclusive society that can deliver on the promises of the twenty-first century, there must be a hard line dividing the protection of childhood and the combination of privileges and responsibilities that define adulthood.

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