Summary: As the dust from the election settles, let’s not forget the powerful elements of the conservative critique of 21st C America. Here we look at one of the many forces driving the expansion of the government — the family. What might be its fate in the next few generations?
- A question about the family, our government,
and the future of America
- The answer: it’s toast, it’s growing, and …
- Allan Boom explains
- For More Information
(1) A question about the family, our government, & America
Question from Matt D, in response to Civil rights just took a step forward, the slow hard way. The right way. (about same-sex marriages):
I read your first link with quotes from de Tocqueville, and I have a question: How does your support for gay marriage square with de Tocqueville’s observation that the suppression of natural hierarchy among individuals drives societies towards centralized despotism? It is clear enough that the legitimization of same-sex marriage is not a driver of the degeneration of well-defined gender roles, which has been taking place over the last half-century. But it is the direct result of this degeneration, and helps to make it more durable.
Through the lens of de Tocqueville’s analysis, would not the blurring of male-female distinctions represent the elimination of the last natural focus of authority in the smallest and most basic unit of human organization? I won’t speculate about the observable results of this process, as that is a topic where there is much diversity of opinion. But on a purely theoretical level, using de Tocqueville’s framework, will not the man who can no longer order his family and the woman who can no longer be protected by her man be filled with a thirst for an ever-stronger and more intrusive centralized authority?
(2) The answer: it’s toast, it’s growing, and …
Here we come to deep waters, in which the conservative viewpoint has much to say — if we can find these insights among the trash in which it hides today.
In brief, the family is toast in its current configuration. My guess is that the places where this disintegration have advanced most (eg, Scandinavia, Los Angeles) society is coasting, support by inherited cultural traditions which no longer have any foundation. My guess is that this is one of our greatest social problems, which the boomers bequeath to future generations much as the Founders did slavery. We’ve built a system that we don’t like with hopes it will all work, but no ideas as to how.
I agree with de Tocqueville, that the disintegration of the family leads to the growth of the State. Like night follows day. This might be the factor unforeseen by Martin van Creveld that not only prevents the decline of the State — but empowers it beyond anything seen so far.
(3) Allan Boom explains
For an explanation of our situation and how we got here I recommend turning to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987), pages 97 -140. Here’s a brief excerpt, which only hint at the depth of Bloom’s reasoning.
Contrary to the popular prejudice that America is the nation of unintellectual and anti-intellectual people, where ideas are at best means to ends, America is actually nothing but a great stage on which theories have been played as tragedy and comedy. This is a regime founded by philosophers and their students. All the recalcitrant matter of the historical is gave way here before the practical and philosophical ought to be, as the raw natural givens of this wild continent meekly submitted to the yoke of theoretical science.
… Now we have arrived at one of the ultimate acts in our drama, the informing and reforming of our most intimate private lives by our principles. Sex and its consequences—love, marriage and family—have finally become the theme of the national project, and here the problem of nature, always present but always repressed in the reconstruction of man demanded by freedom and equality, becomes insistent.
… The change in sexual relations, which now provide an unending challenge to human ingenuity, came over us in two successive waves in the last two decades. The first was the sexual revolution; the second, feminism. The sexual revolution marched under the banner of freedom; feminism under that of equality.
… At the origins of modern natural rights teachings, freedom and equality were political principles intended to bring both justice and effectiveness to the relationships of ruling and being ruled, which in the conventional order were constituted by pretended rights of strength, wealth, tradition, age and birth. The relations of king and subject, master and slave, lord and vassal, patrician and pleb, rich and poor, were revealed to be purely manmade and hence not morally binding, apart from the consent of the parties to them, which became the only source of political legitimacy. Civil society was to be reconstructed on the natural ground of man’s common humanity.
Then it would appear that all relationships or relatedness within civil society would also depend on the free consent of individuals. … The radical transformation of the relations between men and women and parents and children was the inevitable consequence of the success of the new politics of consent.
… Hobbes and Locke supposed that, although the political order would be constituted out of individuals, the subpolitical units would remain largely unaffected. Indeed, they counted on the family, as an intermediate between individual and the state, partially to replace what was being lost in passionate attachment to the polity. The immediate and reliable love of one’s own property, wife and children can more effectively counterpoise purely individual selfishness than does the distant and abstract love of country. Moreover, concern for the safety of one’s family is a powerful reason for loyalty to the state, which protects them.
The nation as a community of families is a formula that until recently worked very well in the United States. However, it is very questionable whether this solution is viable over the very long run, because there are two contrary views of nature present here. And, as the political philosophers have always taught, the one that is authoritative in the political regime will ultimately inform its parts.
In the social contract view, nature has nothing to say about relationships and rank order; in the older view, which is part and parcel of ancient political philosophy, nature is prescriptive. Are the relations between men and women and parents and children determined by natural impulse or are they the product of choice and consent? In Aristotle’s Politics, the subpolitical or prepolitical family relations point to the necessity of political rule and are perfected by it, whereas in the state-of-nature teachings, political rule is derived entirely from the need for protection of individuals, bypassing their social relations completely.
Are we dealing with political actors or with men and women? In the former case, persons are free to construct whatever relations they please with one another; in the latter, prior to any choice, a preexisting frame largely determines the relations of men and women.
… Man in the state of nature, either in the first one or the one we have now, can walk away from a sexual encounter and never give it another thought. But a woman may have a child, and in fact, as becomes ever clearer, may want to have a child. Sex can be an indifferent thing for men, but it really cannot quite be so for women. This is what might be called the female drama.
Modernity promised that all human beings would be treated equally. Women took that promise seriously and rebelled against the old order. But as they have succeeded, men have also been liberated from their old constraints. And women, now liberated and with equal careers, nevertheless find they still desire to have children, but have no basis for claiming that men should share their desire for children or assume a responsibility for them. So nature weighs more heavily on women.
In the old order they were subordinated and dependent on men; in the new order they are isolated, needing men, but not able to count on them, and hampered in the free development of their individuality. The promise of modernity is not really fulfilled for women.
… Locke believed, and the events of our time seem to confirm his belief, that women have an instinctive attachment to children that cannot be explained as self-interest or calculation. The attachment of mother and child is perhaps the only undeniable natural social bond. It is not always effective, and it can, with effort, be suppressed, but it is always a force. And this is what we see today.
But what about the father? Maybe he loves imagining his own eternity through the generations stemming from him. But this is only an act of imagination, one that can be attenuated by other concerns and calculations, as well as by his losing faith in the continuation of his name for very long in the shifting conditions of democracy. Of necessity, therefore, it was understood to be the woman’s job to get and hold the man by her charms and wiles because, by nature, nothing else would induce him to give up his freedom in favor of the heavy duties of family.
But women no longer wish to do this, and they, with justice, consider it unfair according to the principles governing us. So the cement that bound the family together crumbled. It is not the children who break away; it is the parents who abandon them. Women are no longer willing to make unconditional and perpetual commitments on unequal terms, and, no matter what they hope, nothing can effectively make most men share equally the responsibilities of childbearing and child-rearing. The divorce rate is only the most striking symptom of this breakdown.
More than two hundred years ago Rousseau saw with alarm the seeds of the breakdown of the family in liberal society, and he dedicated much of his genius to trying to correct it. He found that the critical connection between man and woman was being broken by individualism, and focused his efforts, theoretical and practical, on encouraging passionate romantic love in them. He wanted to rebuild and reinforce that connection, previously encumbered by now discredited religious and civil regulation, on modern grounds of desire and consent.
… He set utter abandon to the sentiments and imaginations of idealized love against calculation of individual interest. Rousseau inspired a whole genre of novelistic and poetic literature that lived feverishly for over a century, coexisting with the writings of the Benthams and the Mills who were earnestly at work homogenizing the sexes. His undertaking had the heaviest significance because human community was at risk. In essence he was persuading women freely to be different from men and to take on the burden of entering a positive contract with the family, as opposed to a negative, individual, self-protective contract with the state.
Tocqueville picked up this theme, described the absolute differentiation of husband’s and wife’s functions and ways of life in the American family, and attributed the success of American democracy to its women, who freely choose their lot. This he contrasted to the disorder, nay, chaos, of Europe, which he attributed to a misunderstanding or misapplication of the principle of equality — only an abstraction when not informed by nature’s imperatives.
This whole effort failed and now arouses either women’s anger, as an attempt to take from them rights guaranteed to all human beings, or their indifference, as irrelevant in a time when women do exactly the same things as men and face the same difficulties in ensuring their independence.
Rousseau, Tocqueville and all the others now have only historical significance and at most provide us with a serious alternative perspective for analyzing our situation. Romantic love is now as alien to us as knight errantry, and young men are no more likely to court a woman than to wear a suit of armor, not only because it is not fitting, but because it would be offensive to women.
… Here Rousseau is most helpful, for he honestly exposed the nerve of that incantation, whereas the discussion of roots is an evasion. There is a passage in Emile, his educational novel, which keeps coming back to me as I look at my students. It occurs in the context of the teacher’s arrangements with the parents of the pupil whose total education he is undertaking, and in the absence of any organic relation between husbands and wives and parents and children after having passed through the solvent of modem theory and practice:
I would even want the pupil and the governor to regard themselves as so inseparable that the lot of each in life is always a common object for them. As soon as they envisage from afar their separation, as soon as they foresee the moment which is going to make them strangers to one another, they are already strangers. Each sets up his own little separate system; and both engrossed by the time they will no longer be together, stay only reluctantly.
That is it. Everyone has “his own little separate system.” … The possibility of separation is already the fact of separation, inasmuch as people today must plan to be whole and self-sufficient, and cannot risk interdependence. Imagination compels everyone to look forward to the day of separation in order to see how he will do. The energies people should use in the common enterprise are exhausted in preparation for independence. What would, in the case of union, be a building stone becomes a stumbling block on the path to secession. The goals of those who are together naturally and necessarily must become a common good; what one must live with can be accepted. But there is no common good for those who are to separate. The presence of choice already changes the character of relatedness. And the more separation there is, the more there will be.
This continual shifting of the sands in our desert — separation from places, persons, beliefs — produces the psychic state of nature where reserve and timidity are the prevailing dispositions. We are social solitaries.
… The most visible sign of our increasing separateness and, in its turn, the cause of ever greater separateness is divorce. … Divorce in America is the most palpable indication that people are not made to live together, and that, although they want and need to create a general will out of the particular wills, those particular wills constantly reassert themselves. There is a quest, but ever more hopeless, for arrangements and ways of putting the broken pieces back together. The task is equivalent to squaring the circle …
The decomposition of this bond is surely America’s most urgent social problem. But nobody even tries to do anything about it. The tide seems to be irresistible.
The problem, however, is not that people are not authentic enough, but that they have no common object, no common good, no natural complementarity. Selves, of course, have no relation to anything but themselves, and this is why “communication” is their problem.
Gregariousness, like that of the animals in the herd, is admitted by all. Grazing together side by side and rubbing against one another are the given, but there is a desire and a necessity to have something more, to make the transition from the herd to the hive, where there is real interconnection. Hence, the hive — community, roots, extended family — is much praised, but no one is willing to transform his indeterminate self into an all too determinate worker, drone or queen, to submit to the rank-ordering and division of labor necessary to any whole that is more than just a heap of discrete parts.
Selves want to be wholes, but have lately also taken to longing to be parts. This is the reason why conversation about relationships remains so vacuous, abstract and unprogrammatic, with its whole content stored in a bottle labeled “commitment.” It is also why there is so much talk about phenomena like “bonding.” In the absence of any connectedness in their souls, human beings seek reassurance in fruitless analogy to mechanisms found in brutes.
But this will not work because human attachment always has an element of deliberate choice, denied by such analogy. One need only compare the countless novels and movies about male bonding with Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in the Ethics. Friendship, like its related phenomenon, love, is no longer within our ken because both require notions of soul and nature that, for a mixture of theoretical and political reasons, we cannot even consider.
The reliance on relationships is a self-delusion because it is founded on an inner contradiction. Relations between the sexes have always been difficult, and that is why so much of our literature is about men and women quarreling. There is certainly legitimate ground to doubt their suitability for each other given the spectrum — from the harem to Plato’s Republic — of imaginable and actually existing relations between them, whether nature acted the stepmother or God botched the creation by an afterthought, as some Romantics believed.
… The arrangement implicit in marriage, even if it is only conventional, tells those who enter into it what to expect and what the satisfactions are supposed to be. Very simply, the family is a sort of miniature body politic in which the husband’s will is the will of the whole. The woman can influence her husband’s will, and it is supposed to be informed by love of wife and children.
Now all of this has simply disintegrated. It does not exist, nor is it considered good that it should. But nothing certain has taken its place. Neither men nor women have any idea what they are getting into anymore, or, rather, they have reason to fear the worst. There are two equal wills, and no mediating principle to link them and no tribunal of last resort. What is more, neither of the wills is certain of itself.
This is where the “ordering of priorities” comes in, particularly with women, who have not yet decided which comes first, career or children. People are no longer raised to think they ought to regard marriage as the primary goal and responsibility, and their uncertainty is mightily reinforced by the divorce statistics, which imply that putting all of one’s psychological eggs in the marriage basket is a poor risk. The goals and wills of men and women have become like parallel lines, and it requires a Lobachevskyan imagination to hope they may meet.
… I am not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them.
… women, due to the unreliability of men, have had to provide the means for their own independence. This has simply given men the excuse for being even less concerned with women’s well-being. A dependent, weak woman is indeed vulnerable and puts herself at men’s mercy. But that appeal did influence a lot of men a lot of the time. The cure now prescribed for male irresponsibility is to make them more irresponsible. And a woman who can be independent of men has much less motive to entice a man into taking care of her and her children.
… All our reforms have helped strip the teeth of our gears, which can therefore no longer mesh. They spin idly, side by side, unable to set the social machine in motion. It is at this exercise in futility that young people must look when thinking about their future.
Women are pleased by their successes, their new opportunities, their agenda, their moral superiority. But underneath everything lies the more or less conscious awareness that they are still dual beings by nature, capable of doing most things men do and also wanting to have children. They may hope otherwise, but they fully expect to pursue careers, to have to pursue careers, while caring for children alone. And what they expect and plan for is likely to happen.
The men have none of the current ideological advantages of the women, but they can opt out without too much cost. In their relations with women they have little to say; convinced of the injustice of the old order, for which they were responsible, and practically incapable of changing the direction of the juggernaut, they wait to hear what is wanted, try to adjust but are ready to take off in an instant. They want relationships, but the situation is so unclear. They anticipate a huge investment of emotional energy that is just as likely as not to end in bankruptcy, to a sacrifice of their career goals without any clarity about what reward they will reap, other than a vague togetherness.
Meanwhile, one of the strongest, oldest motives for marriage is no longer operative. Men can now easily enjoy the sex that previously could only be had in marriage. It is strange that the tiredest and stupidest bromide mothers and fathers preached to their daughters — “He won’t respect you or marry you if you give him what he wants too easily” —turns out to be the truest and most probing analysis of the current situation. Women can say they do not care, that they want men to have the right motives or none at all, but everyone, and they best of all, knows that they are being, at most, only half truthful with themselves.
(4) For More Information
Posts about Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind:
Posts about the writings of Alexis De Tocqueville:
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
- A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009