May 19, 2012

In My Opinion: Cultural issues need attention


---- — Amid the various issues debated as we approach the next elections, two are important to all individuals here, as in the rest of the country: debates over birth control and over interest owed on student loans.

Most people know the surface issues. But I think that, underlying the explicit motivations for the debate are broader cultural issues that need our attention.

Beneath the direct issues of control of reproduction are issues that relate much more broadly to the roles and identities of women. "Keep 'em barefoot and pregnant" is a well-known phrase that refers to the proposed status of women among the men who largely want to control them. In other words, use frequent pregnancy as a means to keep women ignorant, subservient and purely domestic.

Availability of birth control has not only permitted women to feel and express their sexuality, it has given them the means to make their own reproductive choices and, by doing so, take control of their own lives: make time for careers, education, leadership positions, sports and any kind of free expression of their own identities.

As a result, it has also afforded men a wider perception of their potential roles — i.e., it has broadened men's identities, at least among men willing to embrace the new reality.

Limiting access to birth control has a lot to do with attempts to put women back "in their place." In other words, it relates to attempts to restrict the freedoms that women have enjoyed since the birth-control revolution of the 1960s with the introduction of the pill. It also threatens the benefits that men (and non-reproductive women) have all enjoyed from the broader range of thought and experience that women have contributed to our society. (Note the number of positions of power held by women in corporations — obviously reflecting recognition of their contributions — despite remaining prejudices about women's "limitations" producing a "glass ceiling" on women's careers, artificially limiting their opportunities. The later acts as affirmative action for white males.)

As for student loans, ostensibly the issue is about the cost of loans and therefore the cost of an education.

For New York students, benefiting from in-state tuition, education in SUNY colleges represents a great value because it is far cheaper than private institutions.

SUNY colleges allow the meritorious but less wealthy to attend; and they open doors to students from families less certain about the value of an investment in college. But 70 percent of students graduating, and their parents, are in debt for up to $30,000 — a debt load that limits their ability to explore careers or pursue careers that although of great value to society do not pay high salaries.

The burden of debt they generate is a kind of tax on higher education — for those who cannot afford to pay the whole load. And like all situations of debt, it tends to funnel money from the poor who need to borrow to the wealthy who can enjoy the profits generated. But there is another, even more insidious result. We pride ourselves on being an open society in which anyone can rise to the top by virtue of his/her own qualities. The wealthy like to feel secure in their knowledge they have achieved wealth by superior prowess or industry. They feel that they are "self-made men/women." But that, of course, is a myth. The real success may result in part from individual prowess or work, but it also relates to pre-existing wealth, luck, connections, community support and investment, pre-existing access to people and resources and a host of other factors.

As above, limiting the access of others has always been a kind of "affirmative action" for well-to-do white males. That affirmative action has finally begun to crumble — but note, still, the importance of community support and investment, access and connections. Students who need to take out loans already have less than their full share of those resources. Crippling loan rates have a role in preventing people of prowess or hard work from competing in the market place.

Both of these issues provide more affirmative action for the wealthy.

The solution for all, as well as students, is to lower interest rates — and, of course, provide more outright support for students.

Dr. Mark Cohen teaches at Plattsburgh State, is a SUNY distinguished professor of anthropology and is author of the book, "Culture of Intolerance," which analyzes issues like those discussed here.