FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Natural law and the War on Wives
Human progress can be portrayed as a long, difficult, but highly successful war against nature, which retaliates with some very spectacular counter-attacks to remind us of our technological limits. Whenever I hear the state of nature romanticized, I find myself thinking that the “natural” life of man involves surviving a highly risky birthing process – ideally without killing our mothers on the way out – followed by a fairly short and unhealthy life, conducted primarily during daylight hours, probably not more than a few miles from the place of our birth. Everything we have accomplished – from harnessing fire to splitting the atom, from mapping the Earth’s surface to mapping the genome – has been a triumph over the conditions nature would have imposed on us.
And yet, we should be humble enough to remember that we have not transcended nature. We might be the “paragon of animals,” as Shakespeare sarcastically dubbed us, but animals we remain. Some of our current social discord stems from the progressive effort to stamp out politically inconvenient features of natural law – an effort to transform the human animal into something more agreeable to collective management. This effort can be made appealing to people, particularly young people, by presenting it as a courageous triumph of willpower – of consensus – over biology and tradition. Part of this appeal involves ridiculing traditions as foolish, arbitrary, sinister mechanisms of patriarchal control, or just plain outdated. Maybe these ideals made sense once upon a time, but now they’re dusty relics of a bygone era. Technology and prosperity have freed us to arrange our lives in ways that would have been impractical in the pre-industrial era. Since this is obviously true in some cases – imagine hopping in a time machine and trying to explain telecommuting to even the most enlightened minds of the 18th century! – people are willing to believe it might be true in nearly all cases.
Many of the hottest social flashpoints in this ongoing struggle against natural law concern romance, sexual relationships, and child-rearing. That’s no surprise, since those have been burning issues since the day primitive folk developed the language skills necessary to discuss them. They are matters of very keen interest to the young, who are always interested in hearing that they are not bound by tradition, or at least not hoary old traditions. One of the interesting features of campus life is how tightly bound by new traditions young people can be, how willingly they accept iron restrictions on thought and discourse presented by authorities they accept as cool and modern, and how easily irreverent non-conformists can be organized into herds by appealing to their vanity. Every idea formulated before the Sixties, however, is considered deeply suspect.
I’ve come to think of the late stage war on traditional marriage as the War on Wives, because the wife and mother role is the part of the arrangement the Left has big problems with. Part of that is fallout from the feminist revolution, where extreme fringe types still have a great deal of influence. From the earliest days of the movement, they’ve viewed marriage and motherhood as forms of humiliation, oppression, and servitude. That attitude is so thoroughly mixed into popular culture now that isolating it requires electrolysis. Few things are more incomprehensible to feminists than women who marry young and are happy to make career growth secondary to raising their children. In popular culture, such women are treated as more exotic than extraterrestrial life. It is commonly insinuated that they’ve been brainwashed by manipulative men and overbearing religious doctrines. Remember how Ann Romney was treated after she talked about being a stay-at-home mom during her husband’s 2012 presidential campaign?
There’s also the crass political need of the Left for a large number of single female voters, who have become the demographic Democrats must win by huge margins, or they can’t win at all. It’s not surprising that left-wing philosophy would be designed to create the kind of voters they need. Social engineering has always been a major obsession of collectivists. They’re not shy about using a combination of hard and soft power – everything from public money to cultural pressure – to change the electorate. Nothing makes them more furious than attempts by anyone else to reverse “progressive” gains using the same social engineering methods. For example, note the universal disdain heaped by liberals upon the idea of “returning to Ozzie and Harriet days” – a phrase virtually guaranteed to put a sneer of derision and loathing on the face of everyone to the political Left, including people who have never seen a single episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and could not pick either Ozzie or Harriet Nelson out of a police lineup. (I wonder if their metaphorical usefulness is beginning to fade with the inevitable passage of time, and someone else will be selected to serve as the icon of bygone days we can never Turn Back the Clock to revisit, and weren’t as great as stuck-in-the-past fuddy-duddy social conservatives like to pretend anyway.)
The Left is also very interested in separating children from their parents as early in life as possible. Their hostility towards parental involvement in the lives of even pre-teen children is palpable. Good citizens of the new world accept the State and its agents as maternal and paternal authorities at a tender age. The notion of family as a force for independence from the State is anathema.
Supposedly technology and prosperity have made the traditional understanding of family and marriage obsolete. People don’t have to get married young any more. The notion of deferring sexual gratification until marriage is, shall we say, quaint at best. Marriage is being forcibly de-coupled from childbirth, as both immense cultural power and compulsive legal force are put behind the assertion that marriage and children have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Part of that argument involves portraying all possible child-rearing arrangements as equally effective. Also, as marriage becomes more of a boutique item – something to do late in life, after a very long period of protracted adolescence is complete – the younger generation grows comfortable with the idea of having children quite some time before they get married. If you’re not going to tie the knot until the end of a successful career is in sight, it’s tough to wait that long to have kids.
The idea is that we’ve become liberated from all the practical considerations that might have made old-style marriage traditions somewhat sensible. But let’s leave all questions of religion and morality out of the discussion for a moment, and ask: what if that’s not really true?
Start with children, because that’s the most obvious biological truth that can’t be erased by either technology or ideology. The window of available time for having children does not extend across our entire lives. Maybe medical science will change that someday, but for right now it’s a fact, and furthermore young people are naturally interested in being mothers and fathers – an interest no amount of cultural pressure has been able to completely erase. Society also needs young people to have children – quite a few of them, in fact. No society can maintain its numbers without a lot of people having two or more children.
That’s a difficult project to begin late in life, especially for those with a mind to bring three or more kids into the world – and no matter what “overpopulation” fetishists say, simple math dictates that we need plenty of families in that Three-Plus club to keep the population going. In fact, the more people you have choosing not to have children at all, the more three-plus families you need. That’s even more pointedly true when looking at the mathematics of entitlement programs. Behemoths like Social Security and Medicare are slipping into death spirals because there won’t be enough young workers in the future to support a vast cohort of retirees living increasingly long lives.
Those children are vastly better off being raised by the married man and woman who gave birth to them. D.C. McAllister writes provocatively at The Federalist today that the common mythology surrounding alternative family configurations is “not just naive, it’s cruel and abusive.”
It doesn’t matter who raises children as long as they have money and basic parenting skills. That’s the gist of Emily Badger’s article at the Washington Post, “Children with married parents are better off—but marriage isn’t the reason why.”
Badger admits that children raised by “two parents tend to be more successful—at school, in the future labor market, in their own marriages—than children raised by a single mom or dad.” But it’s not because their own parents are raising them, it’s because of economics and parenting skills among the type of people who marry.
Let’s cut to the chase. This is just another attempt to attack the traditional family and undermine the importance of marriage. If all that matters for children “to thrive” (which Badger defines in basically materialistic and economic terms) is decent parenting skills—such as reading to and eating meals with the kids—and a healthy bank account, then most anyone could successfully raise a child. A single dad. Or not a dad. A single mom. Or not. Two men. Two women. How about a nanny? Would that work? Sounds like it.
McAllister goes on to explore why the traditional family is both economically advantageous and spiritually nourishing for children, in a piece she calls “The Harry Potter Generation,” in reference to poor orphaned Harry’s forlorn urge to know more about his murdered parents. Married parents raising their own children represent the single most formidable defense against poverty known to social science – we’re not supposed to talk about it any more, because it’s ostensibly insulting to all the other family styles McAllister listed, but the reduction in poverty and other social problems for the children of traditional nuclear families might be the closed thing to “settled science” in the entire field. But it’s more than that, as McAllister notes that “having a father in the home – not just a cohabiting male – has a positive effect on children that goes far beyond reducing poverty.”
None of this should be taken as an insult to families that don’t meet that traditional definition, but of course our culture has been rewired so that it’s impossible to venerate any life choice without denigrating everyone who doesn’t choose it. Everything either sucks or rocks now, and if married couples raising their own children rock, it must be that everybody else sucks. That’s rubbish – a society that loses the ability to encourage and celebrate desirable behavior without alienating sizable portions of the population has grown weak. Not everything has to be a binary choice between mandatory and forbidden, optimal and worthless. When you’re talking about millions of people, encouragement matters, and it shouldn’t be necessary to denigrate anybody in order to offer encouragement.
One other common assumption about modern life that I find myself questioning is the assertion that young people don’t “have to get married” any more, because most people can live comfortable lives on their own. This idea is usually expressed as a celebration of female independence: “You don’t need a man in your life to take care of you.”
Is that really true, though? Not just for women, I mean. Surely it’s easier for a single person to live comfortably than it has ever been before. Not many people in the Western world are eking out hard-scrabble lives under frontier conditions. Household tasks that used to require huge investments of time are now easily addressed by a single person in a matter of minutes. Food is cheap and plentiful, on a scale that would boggle the minds of generations not long past.
But isn’t one of the big running stories about modern life the considerable amount of difficulty young people are having at making ends meet? It’s become common for parents to fully or partially support adult children well into their twenties and thirties. The number of such adult children who actually live with their parents has grown dramatically. Melancholy warnings that the dream of home ownership is slipping out of the next generation’s grasp are sounded constantly in the media. Buying a house is an important step toward accumulating true middle-class wealth… and it’s much easier for a married young couple to do. (Since we’re talking in flinty-eyed financial terms here, let it be noted that home ownership is also a far better investment for a couple that stays together. Divorce can turn that asset into a big problem for at least one of the owners.)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t the Democrats’ whole “War on Women” routine an effort to frighten single female voters into thinking they need big, benevolent government to protect them from private-sector predators, and help them achieve their ambitions? If that’s the case, then doesn’t it logically follow that young people can’t afford protracted single lives as easily as they’ve been led to believe? And then there’s the gigantic burden of ridiculously inflated college tuition and student-loan debt today’s young people are almost universally saddled with, following the completion of public education that turns out to be worth far less than the exorbitant price we have all been made to pay for it…
In sum, we have a young-adult culture – stretching from college years into the early thirties – that might be considerably less agreeable to the practical needs of life than we’ve been led to believe. Some of that progressive “independence” from nature, that triumph over tradition, is illusory, and those old traditions aren’t as silly or outmoded as we might think. It’s a War on Wives because women drove the general urge toward marriage in times past – at a social level, across that great population of millions, it was something women demanded more urgently than men. (Those Sixties revolutionary morals worked out just fine for irresponsible men who wanted to have their fun without developing any obligations toward women, didn’t they?) Fathers are the missing ingredient from the lives of many children, but their absence is a broadside against the women who have to raise those children, too. It was women who were persuaded to view marriage as less valuable, particularly for young people, and it’s women who have paid much of the price for that mistake.
Is it too late to reverse those trends and “turn back the clock,” as progressives are wont to say? 21st Century Man remains the same animal he was when he respected 20th Century traditions. Contrary to all those gassy proclamations about how history only flows one way, toward the “progressive” destination, people change their ways. Ideas once discarded can be picked up again and made fresh. Some of the old ideas were rubbish, but the treasures endure, waiting to be discovered again.