Since the end of World War II, the United States has experienced prosperity unimaginable for preceding generations. With it has come a variety of anxieties and concerns. The most pressing one today is the question of maintaining prosperity. With this question has come uncomfortable realizations about the societal framework and family.
Culturally, Americans place tremendous importance on the ideal of the nuclear family. Reverence for a strong extended family model is apparent in our literature, films, and television, but in practice it is limited to more upwardly mobile families, where grandparents and extended family provide ongoing childcare support.
Even the model of marriage has changed. Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis:
In the college-educated, upper third of American society, a “neo-traditional” marriage pattern has emerged. It mirrors the 1950s [nuclear] family in many respects, except that both partners now typically work outside the home, they delay marriage and childbearing until their careers are under way, and they divide domestic duties more evenly. The result is something like Ozzie-and-Harriet [principal characters from a 1950s family sit-com] – except that Harriet is now a lawyer or social worker, Ozzie spends more time with the kids, and on two incomes they can afford more luxuries. These neo-traditional marriages are more egalitarian in the gender division of labor, and they have become nearly as durable as the 1950s model, as divorce rates among this upper third have retreated from the peaks of the 1970s.
The resurgence of the supremacy of the family, and not just the family, but the complete, intact family, has created a new elite - at least according to sociologists, such as Charles Murray, and political scientists who agree with Putnam. The foundational assumption of the equation family = elite is that children from emotionally stable situations tend to be better at making personal decisions and creating viable long-term plans, traits which the world rewards materially and professionally.
In this paradigm, family is now a “privilege” and as such is cause of progressivist guilt, in witness thereto, this article from ABC News (Australia) titled “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?”.The answer was “yes” and ended with the expert interviewed, philosopher Adam Swift of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Social Justice, stating, “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.” What Swift expressed is a completely perverted conception of the social contract, one in which Putnam’s top third must bear responsibility for all children through guilt, if not through economic redistribution at the behest of the state.
In the US, everyone agrees that the sharp divide between family and not-family, with all its ensuing advantages and disadvantages, is due to some fundamental breakdown in some type of social arrangement. Conservatives point to the welfare state and its perverse incentives system; Progressives intimate that the divide is due to racism. All serious scholars on the matter reject this stance, citing statistics indicating that all dysfunctional-family symptoms strike impartially with equal consequence. What everyone does agree on is that there has been a loss of family as a concept.
The contemporary issue is that family and family structure have become, in my view, analogous to the tropospheric wind cells. Starting at the equator with the Hadley Cells, air currents move toward the poles. The direction appears to be opposite in that the air north of the equator circulates clockwise (mostly) upward, and that south of the equator flows counterclockwise downward. The picture of American society created by Putnam suggests that the top third of the population is the wind north of the equator, while the bottom two thirds are caught in a tide drifting inexorably southward.
Since the experts cannot agree on the cause of the social wind movement, they are awash with solutions. For the more liberal minded, there is simply no solution since family is a deeply personal and intensely private, so, in the spirit of laissez-faire, a tropospheric society must be allowed to exist if it reflects the will of the people. Unsurprisingly, the more progressive ones prefer that the state should become active social regulators, elevating some families and kicking others back down the ladder.
The state argument reflects a broader conviction that somewhere, somehow the state is fundamentally responsible, both for creating the troposphere and for solving it. While the state can certainly be held culpable for some symptoms of the divide, it cannot truly be accused of generating it. In his book The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, historian Niall Ferguson argued that the crying after a social contract among classes and establishments is misguided; instead, Ferguson proposed that the social contract exists between the generations. In his view, the parents and grandparents were the ones who created the divide through refusing to invest properly and honestly in the succeeding generations.
Ferguson avoided pointing fingers directly at a specific generation, maintaining that the institutional aspects of the problem are much older than the Baby Boomer generation (whom Americans tend to stereotype as selfish, indifferent parents); instead he argued that when, following economic and societal changes, highly localized British and American community and religious networks collapsed, it revealed that the parents of all ages who used them had fallen out of the habit of actively parenting. The consequence was, Ferguson posited, a bifurcated society as older generations refused to either adapt to or fight the changes, driftingly allowing schools to fail and societal norms to die while refusing to pick up the slack at a personal level. In summary, the divide occurred on the line of which types of people betrayed their children and successive generations, and which type assumed full responsibility for theirs.
Although the results of family values are unimpeachable, very few contemporary American parents are willing to engage with them. This is the reality behind the divide, and no amount of carping from the progressive gallery about “privilege,” “fairness,” or “tolerance” will change the fact that one group with certain values obtains results while the other doesn’t. It is the price of American meritocracy: We may not care about a person’s lineage, but we do care about what he became due to his family.
Mary Lucia Darst
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