“The Madness of the American Family” by Midge Decter(Policy Review, September/October 1998)
Journalist and social commentator Midge Decter writes, “Talking about the family should be like talking about the earth itself: interesting to observe in all its various details … but hardly up for debate. … Where did the idea that the family might somehow be an object and choice come from? … I knew we were in trouble back in the late 1950s when I picked up Esquire magazine one day and read an essay about his generation written by a young man still in university. The writer concluded … that if he thought he might end up some day like his own father, working hard for the wife and kids, he would slit his throat.”
“[N]ot too much later,” writes Decter, “what we know as the 1960s began to happen. … n short order that young author's female counterparts began in their own way to declare that throat-cutting would be the proper response to the prospect of ending up like their mothers.”
The result of these “declarations of independence,” writes Decter, was that “young men began to cut out — cut out of responsibility, cut out of service to their country, and cut out of the terms of everyday, ordinary society … Insofar as the system was represented by business and professional life, most of them after a brief fling as make-believe outcasts cut back into that aspect of the system very nicely; but insofar as it meant
… building and supporting a home and family … they would for a long time prove to be at best pretty skittish.”
Meanwhile, their girlfriends and lovers announced they wanted their men, in Gloria Steinem's words, “to be the husbands we used to marry.” Steinem's remark, says Decter, is one tip-off that “underlying the real ideology of the women's movement … is the proposition that the differences between men and women are merely culturally imposed — culturally imposed, moreover, for nefarious purposes.”
Misguided attempts to resist such conditioning, Decter argues, reached their apex with the Gulf War era news photo “of a young woman in full military regalia, including helmet, planting a farewell kiss on the brow of an infant at most three months old being held in the arms of its father. The photo spoke volumes about where this society has allowed itself to get dragged to and was in its way as obscene as anything that has appeared in that cesspool known as Hustler magazine. … That photo was not about the achievement of women's equality; it was about the nuttiness … that has overtaken all too many American families. … For the household in which … ‘the sexual differentiation of roles'has grown so blurry that you can't tell the soldier from the baby-tender without a scorecard is a place of profound disorder.”
“We see milder forms of this disorder all over the place, especially in cases where young mothers have decreed that mothers and fathers are to be indistinguishable. … The child, of course, knows who is what. No baby or little kid who is hungry or frightened or hurting ever calls for his daddy in the middle of the night. … What is a husband, what is a wife; what is a mother, what is a father. How have we come to the place where they are open for debate?”
The fallout from this self-delusion is tremendous: “Too many young women, having recovered from their seizure of believing that they were required to become Masters of the Universe, cannot find men to marry them, while the men on their side cannot seem to find women to marry. Both grope around, first bewildered and then made sour by what is happening to them.”
And so “the land of limitless freedom … turns out to be nothing other than the deep muck and mire of Self. And there is no place more airless, more sunk in black boredom, than the Land of Self, and no place more difficult to be extricated from. … The only escape from the swamp of Self is the instinctual and lifelong engagement in the fate of others. … The kind of engagement I mean is the involuntary discovery that there are lives that mean as much to you as your own, and in some cases … there are lives that mean more to you than your own.”
Decter compares our era with comparatively death- and illness-ridden prior eras, and concludes that “because God has permitted us to unlock so many secrets of his universe, we are in constant danger of fancying that any limits upon us are purely arbitrary and we have the power to lift them. … Maybe people are just not constituted to be able to live with the ease and wealth and health that have been granted to us. But … [a]s Albert Einstein once said, the Lord God can be subtle, but he is not malicious. What does seem to be a fair proposition, however, is that given the whole preceding history of mankind, to live as we do takes more than a bit of getting used to. It takes, indeed, some serious spiritual discipline.”
Decter concludes that “two things will help us to be restored from our current nuttiness. The first is for us, as a people and a culture, to recapture our respect for the wisdom of our fathers. … The second is a strong and unending dose of gratitude: the kind of gratitude that people ought to feel for the experience of living in freedom; the kind of gratitude a mother of a newborn feels as she counts the fingers and toes of the tiny creature who has been handed to her.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.
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