U.S. Intellectual History Blog

All or Nothing in the Family, Part II

The following is a guest post from Christopher Shannon, assistant professor of history at Christendom College in Virginia.  The post is a follow-up to one he wrote regarding a review by Chris Ramsey on Robert O. Self’s latest book, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s.   
A few weeks ago, my comments on Chris Ramsey’s review of Robert O. Self’s All in the Family elicited some heated commentary, along with accusations that I had no business commenting on a book that I had not read.  In defense of my initial post, I must say once again that I was not commenting on anything specific to Self’s book, but rather a narrative of progressive cultural diversification that Ramsey identified as an organizing of Self’s book.  As this is a narrative that should be familiar to anyone reading current academic history, I thought that I was on safe ground using Ramsey’s review as an occasion to take issue with some of the normative assumptions informing this narrative.  Instead, I was accused of taking irresponsible pot shots at Self.  In response to these charges, I have read Self’s book and now wish to return to the issues I raised initially and respond to some of the later comments.

I would first like to thank Chris Ramsey for his thorough and accurate summary of Self’s book.  My first-hand reading of the book has given me a greater appreciation for the nuance and scope of Self’s argument, but I found the normative orienting ideal of public support for the progressive diversification of family life much as Ramsey presented it.  Self lays out his assumptions quite clearly and honestly early in the book.  Like the left-liberal heroes he chronicles, he believes that “women and men, male and female, sex and sexuality are in the end socially constituted, made by human society.  As such, they can be remade.  To imagine a social order in which a lesbian mother, a female physician, and a poor African American man with AIDS are all equal citizens is a noble and morally just goal”(13).  Self is free to invoke any moral standards he wishes, but his linking here of cultural relativism and citizenship seems to undermine his other stated purpose conjoining negative and positive rights in a robust public political culture.  By his own account, the New Deal and early Great Society programs supported positive rights largely by appeal to a common, public social ideal of the heterosexual nuclear family.  In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the federal government finally stood poised to extend these positive rights to African Americans, who overwhelmingly accepted the moral legitimacy of the male breadwinner model of family life promoted by what Self calls “breadwinner liberalism.” In this framework, the positive rights of government assistance existed in reciprocal relation to the duty to strive to live up to accepted, shared cultural norms.  Whatever one thinks about that norm (narrow, repressive, homophobic), this social compact seems to me to represent a political life that we may properly call public and a good we may properly call common. 
Self describes the breakup of this consensus on breadwinner liberalism in exhaustive, nearly encyclopedic, detail.  Technically, the book is a model of scholarship and should be the definitive reference for anyone seeking information on the who, what, where and when of family politics since the 1960s.  I take issue not with Self’s technical virtuoisity, but with the normative framework that structures his narrative and is surely as responsible as his “pure” scholarship for the accolades the book has received.  For all of his subtlety, Self frames the battle over the family as a Manichean struggle between those who see the family as a social construct able to be remade according to human desires (the good guys) and those who assert that “manhood and womanhood, sex and sexuality, are fixed and timeless” (the bad guys) (13).  The political corollary to this philosophical divide pits liberals, who assert both the negative right of individuals to determine their own family structures and the duty of the state to ensure the positive right of individuals to be free from the material (and social, cultural?) constraints that inhibit the exercise of that freedom of choice, against conservatives who assert the negative liberty to be free from state interference in “traditional” family life but deny the obligation of the state to secure the positive right to pursue the family ideal of one’s choosing.  I agree with Self’s assessment that conservative idea of negative rights has undermined public life.  Still, I think his evidence shows that the left-liberal notion of positive rights had the same effect in ways that he does not fully acknowledge.  The divide separating contemporary liberalism from the breadwinner liberalism of an earlier era lies not simply in different notions of family, but different notions of public life—and this not simply a difference of expanding diversity.  The transformation is one not of content, but of form.

The best way to get at this is to take a closer look at Self’s use of the key terms, positive rights and negative rights.  These bear some relation to Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction between “positive liberty” and “negative liberty,” which Self cites when he introduces his particular terms (12).  Berlin’s categories are classic distinctions within modern liberal political theory and have figured prominently in the liberalism/communitarian debates over the last few decades.  For Berlin, negative liberty is “freedom from” constraint, while “positive liberty” is “freedom for,” the freedom to achieve some substantive good and to realize our true nature as human beings.  Berlin actually rejects the political pursuit of positive freedom as akin to totalitarianism for its presumption that the state could posit any natural, substantive end for man beyond the freedom to pursue chosen ends.  Communitarian thinkers such as Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor have defended positive liberty as an antidote to the empty proceduralism of the liberal tradition, the lack of attention to substantive human goods best represented by the political theory of John Rawls. 

Self invokes positive rights as a way to move beyond classical liberal negative liberty, yet ultimately defines positive rights as merely “the rights guaranteed by state action” (12). Positive rights are less a “freedom for” than a fuller “freedom from.”  Self repeatedly illustrates this distinction through the example of poor African American women.  Civil Rights legislation may have removed de jure constraints on opportunity, but government must work positively to remove the de facto material constraints (poverty, lack of education, lack of access to child care) that still inhibit the advancement of African American women.  The goal of positive rights is thus procedural rather than substantive. These rights serve not to incorporate poor women into any particular public norm or good (i.e. the dreaded patriarchal breadwinner liberalism), but to prepare them to be effective market actors in the private sphere.  Indeed, the market emerges as somewhat of hero in the book, an appealing alternative to marriage “as the vehicle for women’s economic security and public standing” (20).  Here Self buys into what Garry Wills long ago identified as liberalism’s “myth of the starting line.”  Wills addressed this myth in his classic Nixon Agonistes, still the best book on the 1960s and maybe the best book ever written on American political culture.  Self makes passing reference to Wills’s book, but never engages his argument, which seems very relevant to the market thinking that structures All in the Family.  As I have argued in my books Conspicuous Criticism and A World Made Safe for Differences, left-liberal critics of capitalism have never truly been able to think beyond market freedom, even when they invoke seemingly organic alternative social ideals such as “culture.”

For all of the limitations of breadwinner liberalism, and I believe there are many, it at least allowed a space for some non-market values in public discourse.  If breadwinner conservatism has used family values as a weapon for privatization, Self’s progressive alternative, which I can only see as a kind of breadwinner individualism, would require the government to provide the positive rights necessary for every individual man and woman to achieve breadwinner status regardless of whatever family lifestyle they choose.  Market freedom is universal norm, while family is a particular consumer choice, a private good that must nonetheless be subsidized by public funds.  Self is free to endorse such consumer pluralism as progress, but I do not think he is free to identify it with some robust, revitalized public life.  The reduction of family life to personal choice is yet another example of the thinning of our non-market public language.  To gloss the radical transformation of family life over the last forty years as an evolution from unity to diversity is Orwellian at best.

In response to comments on my earlier posts, I suppose I should come clean on my own family values. I suppose I would call myself a traditionalist with a great sympathy for the vision of family life presented in the work of Wendell Berry.  There can be no real family apart from a family economy, and so much of the ink spilled on “the crisis of the family” since the nineteenth century has been a futile evasion of this basic fact.  In parts of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan invokes the frontier wife as a model of woman as an economic actor; in the end, she chose middle-class professionalism over a true home economy that would have men and women working together within the home.  To the commentator who feared that I might be criticizing Self from a “monistic” understanding of sex and family life, I can only say that sexual novelty and experimentation make for a rather dull and shallow pluralism.  Family life, especially farm family life, took on diversity through ethnic and religious traditions rooted in specific local places.  The continuity in place over time require to foster and sustain any culture worthy of the name is exactly what a market economy that rewards rootless mobility refuses to tolerate. Among Americans of European descent, there is far less cultural diversity than there was a hundred years ago, despite all of our sexual experimentation.  How many of us speak the language of our ancestors?  In many ways, sexual and family experimentation is a symptom of the poverty of our post-traditional, consumer culture to satisfy the real and legitimate human needs once met by true culture.  

Yet in another sense, the revolution in family life over the past forty years is a symptom of something more.  In a controversial public address delivered in December of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI provocatively identified the stakes of the debate over the family in the following manner:

 “. . . the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”
These are questions that historians such as Self often answer, yet seldom really ask.  

28 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks so much for these further reflections and clarifications.

    By way of further clarification, is your issue with a market economy or with historicism? In other words, you’re critique of “experimentalism” in sex and family practice assumes some sort of extra-historical, transcendent model of human relations, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is too obvious to even point out. But it does seem to be a recurring theme in the history of culture criticism, explaining why Kirk eventually found Catholicism and Lasch eventually found Reinhold Niebuhr: You can’t get to normative family values apart from revelation of a particular, exclusive variety. Again, not casting stones, just seeking clarification for what’s really at stake in your critique of pluralism.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for this follow-up essay. It would seem to me that your critique of contemporary cultural liberalism from a traditionalist vantage point is consistent, in fact, with one strain of Marxist criticism that pops up now and again in New Left Review circles. That is, that cultural liberalism, especially in the form of second-wave feminism and pluralistic family politics, not only gets sopped up by neoliberalism, but has helped pave the way for the marketization of everything. I’m sympathetic to this mode of thought, especially insofar as it longs for non-market social space. But I get stuck on the normative angle of the traditional family, if heterosexuality is the norm. How do you reconcile this? Or do you? The passage you cited by the Pope is in the context of his opposition to gay marriage, is it not?

    • I would first of all like to thank Ray for allowing me to post a full-length reply to the first round of responses to my take on Self’s book. I thank also those who have dived into round two, and will try to respond here to their further queries.

      First, on Mark’s comments concerning historicism and revelation. Yes, my critique proceeds from a sort of transhistorical norm of human relations, but then so does Self’s promotion of progressive diversification. The contemporary sexual experimenter is the autonomous individual that has been the moral compass of a good bit of Western thought since the 17th century. There is no pure relativism. Self simply extends an older model of freedom, an originally white/straight/male model first directed toward economic freedom, to family and sexuality. Particular family forms and sexual practices may be relative, but autonomy from traditional norms and constraints is absolute. Here is where there seems to me to be a fundamental dishonesty in Self’s supposed historicism. He repeatedly refers to trends, change itself, as a proper guide to moral action. Thus, in the early sixties it was clear that more and more women were working outside of the home. He argues that Great Society liberals should have accepted the reality of this trend and crafted policies based on that reality. Instead, they clung to an older, and seemingly obsolete model of the male breadwinner, thus stalling the progress of the emancipation of women. Why should liberal policy makers have accepted a trend that they found morally objectionable? Simply to follow the logic of history, or natural evolution? If so, how are we to assess the “reality” of the disaffection with Great Society liberalism? Should liberals simply have accepted this historical reality and changed with the times? Some did–the neo-cons. They are the true heroes of historicism because unlike true conservatives, who never changed their positions but simply allowed the times to catch up with them, neo-cons had the courage to change with the times. I am of course not endorsing neo-conservatism (and I have a particular loathing for Catholic neo-cons such as Michael Novak and George Weigel), but I simply point out that historicism is a two-edged sword, and people who invoke it often only acknowledge one side.

      [Character limits require me to post this response in multiple installments.]

    • That being said, I do not think that my views necessarily require divine intervention or revelation. Kirk converted to Catholicism, but there is no evidence that Lasch ever converted to Protestant Christianity. From his writings, he would appear to have been a much wiser and more profound “atheist for Niebuhr,” following in the tradition of many a mid-century secular intellectual. Niebuhr’s vision of the world simply seemed to him more compelling, a better fit for what history seems to tell us about what it means to be human, than any of the secular alternatives.

      Nor do I think that my position on the family is “exclusive.” I simply look for inclusion in different areas of family life. Again, I appeal to ethnic traditions. Until recently, Anglo, Italian, Irish and Jewish families might all agree on hetereosexuality, procreation and permanence as being essential features of marriage; the wealthy among these groups might even have considered property an essential component of marriage. That being said, the customs and emotional dynamics of family life could vary dramatically from group to group. Novak made this point when he was wearing his ethnic regular guy mask in his Rise of the Unmeltable Ethics (a pre-neo-con work of his that has its merits.) One could make the same argument for cultural pluralism according to country, region and locality. The “traditional” family has limits and boundaries, but within these limits there is plenty of room for diversity.

      Without limits there can be no definition, which is one of the frustrating aspects of the current debate about gay marriage. What exactly is all the fuss about? A “piece of paper from the city hall” (as Joni sang in an old song dismissing heterosexual marriage as an empty legal convention)? Today marriage has effectively been severed from production, reproduction and permanence. What is left? Public validation of a friendship?

      [To be continued in next post]

    • This brings me to Andrew’s comments. Andrew, when you say you are “stuck on the normative angle of the traditional family,” I assume you mean that you are uncomfortable with a non-market norm that seems to exclude people from participating in a non-market good–more specifically, it excludes gays. Thus, opposition to gay marriage is bigoted. Well, in one sense I agree with you. Given what marriage effectively is in America today, the exclusion of gays is bigoted. There is no good reason to exclude gays from a publically validated friendship. The problem isn’t gay marriage in particular, but the state of straight marriage and by extension the broader social bond. This is what Benedict was trying to get at. Yes, he spoke out against gay marriage and was predictably vilified by the liberal media. No one at the Huffington Post seems to have been willing to tackle the deeper questions that he asked, questions I quoted in my post. Andrew, I appreciate your concern for non-market values, but I wonder how you would answer Benedict’s questions, which are after all a plea for such values. Left-liberalism has failed to articulate non-market values precisely because it sees tradition as a constraint on freedom.

      This brings me to dandiacl’s issue of consistency. I appreciate that he admires the consistency of traditionalists, though I suspect he may regard it as a foolish consistency. In many ways I am arguing that liberalism has consistently displayed a foolish inconsistency that has often been ignored, or not fully understood, by historians. The simultaneous promotion of culture and individualism that I have examined in my books is but one example of this. Self’s simultaneous promotion of expanding private choice and public responsibility is another. Whatever one thinks about the family, it seems to be the responsibility of historians to at least confront these contradictions rather than gloss over them with fairy tales of progress.

      [To be continued]

    • How can we demand social commitment to the poor when we can’t even accept commitment to our spouses? How can we defend the environment in the name of future generations when we reserve the right to destroy future generations in the womb? What kind of ideological mindset tolerates such contradictions? These are the type of deeper questions that Benedict was raising in his address on gay marriage, and I have yet to hear any critique of Benedict respond to them. Benedict spoke to these issues perhaps most eloquently in his 2011 address to the Reichstag. The tolerant, open, progressive Green Party boycotted Benedict’s visit in opposition to the Church’s position on birth control. In the address, Benedict reached out to the Green Party and the environmental movement in general, expressing support for their goal of protecting the environment–or as Benedict and Wendell Berry might prefer to say, the creation. He then posed the question, why is it that environmentalists are concerned to protect and preserve every kind of nature except human nature? The environmental movement is, I believe, the most promising area for the development of a non-market public language, but it too founders on the same old liberal contradictions stemming from a distorted notion of human freedom. When it comes to non-human nature, there are limits. There is an order we must respect and work within, indeed, submit to. When it comes to human nature, however, the battle cry is “drill, baby, drill.” There are no limits. As Self says, family and self are social constructs that can be remade in any way people see fit. If that is the case, who are we to prevent the executives of oil companies from creating themselves through a business enterprise that exploits nature? This, to me, is where Self’s analysis falls short and his book, for all its empirical rigor, distorts the meaning of cultural debates on the family over the last forty years.

  3. “There can be no real family apart from a family economy, and so much of the ink spilled on “the crisis of the family” since the nineteenth century has been a futile evasion of this basic fact.”

    can you say a little more about what you mean by family economy?

    • Eric,

      Nothing real sophisticated here. I suppose I am just referring to the pre-industrial family, in most cases this being a farm family. This family really was the “basic unit” of society in that most of the productive work necessary for the survival of society–the production of food, clothing and shelter–took place within this family context. The family was an economic institution yet one based on personal relations, duties and obligations, unlike the impersonal marketplace of a later invention. This family economy was the normal mode of production for most of the world (with a wide range of local and regional variation) from the earliest recorded history up to the nineteenth century. This home economy is the starting point for Aristotle’s discussion of the political order in his Politics. It is also the starting point for most academic labor history monographs, which since E.P. Thompson have looked to the pre-modern economy as a humane alternative to market capitalism, even as they have criticized its social restrictions (patriarchy, etc.) As I mentioned in my post, even Betty Friedan appealed to this family model as a noble alternative to suburban consumerism. I believe her rejection of 50s suburbia to be well founded, even if I can’t quite accept her alternative.

  4. “How can we defend the environment in the name of future generations when we reserve the right to destroy future generations in the womb?”

    We say that fetuses do not have the same rights nor command the same obligations that humans do.

    If you want to argue about philosophy – which is what many of your points come down to – why do so via history? The answer to whether fetus should command the same rights and obligations as humans is not, after all, something that a history of the family sheds much light on. In fact, I think your combination of history and philosophy leads you astray: instead of tackling the philosophical arguments, your present an amorphous caricature of left-liberal thought. (The same problem that plagued your shifting criticism of defenses of non-marital sex in your last posting.)

    • My rhetorical question is a historical one, not a philosophical one. I am asking, what kind of a society makes claims that even fifty years ago would have been seen as contradictory? As late as 1972 or so, Ted Kennedy opposed abortion because he thought it betrayed the social justice concerns of the Democratic Party. Now, a significant portion of our population, probably a slim majority, no longer longer see as an obligation a basic human activity once viewed as natural and obligatory: carrying an unborn child to term. I am arguing that this represents a historical thinning out of our sense of obligations and duties to each other. Self is shocked by this thinning out when it comes in the guise of right-wing libertarians rejecting the welfare state, but gives it a free ride when it comes to sex. Libertarians do not think that the poor have the rights and command the obligations that supporters of the welfare state believe they do. I think these two political positions have fed off each other and combined to create a political culture with a weakened sense of social obligation. This ideological conjuncture on freedom from obligation seems to me to explain the past forty years better than Self’s Manichean struggle of progressives vs. reactionaries.

      On the issue of the relation between philosophy and history, I guess I thought that a web site devoted to intellectual history would be an appropriate place to soften disciplinary boundaries. But more importantly, I am simply responding to philosophical issues that Self has introduced into the debate. He begins by asserting a normative model of the family as open to manipulation according to human/social desires. The book is nothing if not a historical defense of that philosophical position. As to my “amorphous caricature of left-liberal thought,” could you please give me an example? I am simply taking Self’s philosophical position as representative of left-liberal thought. The massive documentation in his book seems to confirm this. Did Self miss something? Did I miss something in Self?

  5. This has been a really thought-provoking and enjoyable post for me – so thanks for wandering in here. I have what I am sure are restatements of the painfully obvious and possibly trite, but they speak to questions I nonetheless would like to ask you.

    First, this in concern to liberal recommendations for policy for poor mothers seems spot on to me: “These rights serve not to incorporate poor women into any particular public norm or good (i.e. the dreaded patriarchal breadwinner liberalism), but to prepare them to be effective market actors in the private sphere.” I have not read Self’s book, so I am not sure where he places the transition from liberal policies supporting breadwinner liberalism to helping single mothers incorporate themselves into the market, but in my research on the policy of the War on Poverty it seems pretty clear that by then they were doing almost entirely the latter. Now, what is interesting to me in reading a critique of the supremacy of the market in the liberal imagination coming from a more conservative, or traditionalist, viewpoint is that of course, there were similar critiques being made around the same time from the left, as well. Much of Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven’s welfare rights activism revolved around the argument that you should not be trying to push single mothers into the market – that a society that does not consider the work of a mother as productive work has lost its mind. Now, we would probably disagree about whether the policy should be to enable mothers to just be mothers, or whether the policy should be to pressure mothers to be both mothers and wives – but nonetheless, this fundamental weakness of post-war liberalism is quite evident if you are critical of the goal to free everyone to be dependent on the market – and of course you can come to that position from both non-traditionalist (which I would definitely identify as) and traditionalist viewpoints.

    So, insofar as you argue that liberal individualism has not provided, and has no way of sustaining, a true concept of the public good, I completely agree. Pretty much anyone on the left worth their salt would most likely agree as well, which I’m sure you’re aware of.

  6. What historical evidence shows that “carrying an unborn child to term” was “a basic human activity once viewed as natural and obligatory”? Neither Hammurabi’s Code nor the Bible treat feticide as murder. Abortion has been incredibly politicized over the course of the 20th century, but its occurence was not new. Midwives often proffered herbs and used more invasive measures to induce abortions; the methods may have changed, but the idea that one always had to carry a fetus to term actually seems quite new, especially given the rates of miscarriages, stillborns, and maternal death before medicalized abortion. You can disagree with abortion, but if you’re going to talk about it in terms of the history of family politics, then historical evidence seems appropriate.

    Similarly, the “family unit” was not necessarily a self-sufficient farming family. Plenty of families lived in urbanizing areas — even in the medieval world. Sure, the trend toward urbanization increased tremendously over the past 300 hundred years, but it was not new innovation in the 19th Century.

    • Rachel,

      I do not contest that women have been having abortions for as long as they have been having babies. I also do not contest that the specific legal prohibitions that Roe v. Wade declared unconstituional were of a relatively recent vintage. It is a big leap of historical thinking, however, to suggest a moral or cultural equivalence between earlier practices and our current abortion on demand culture. I think you are on stronger ground if you make an analogy between pagan infanticide and modern abortion, but this is one that supporters of abortion generally shy away from. The “Letter to Diognetus” famously noted the rejection of infanticide as a position that distinguished Christians from pagans. I suppose I should have more clearly limited my historical generalization to “only” the roughly 2000 years of Christian history, and only to social norms rather than actual practices. Do you have evidence that the willful termination of pregnancy was generally accepted before the legal prohibitions hit the books in the late nineteenth century? Certainly in earlier times nature did alot of the population control that is now done by abortion, but are you suggesting that historians should take Malthus as our guide to studying these issues?

      Similarly with urbanization. Yes, of course, people lived in cities before the nineteenth century, but the overwhelming majority of people lived in the countryside. The dominance of rural farm life, bound to the cycles of nature, provided a base of stability that contained the more fluid and dynamic (and commercial) social relations of the urban areas. Since the nineteenth century, that relation has been reversed, with the flux and fluidity of commercial urban life setting the standard for all, with the consequent decline of rural stability.

  7. But I get much more uncomfortable when we talk about the state of marriage, the family, and how that relates to the current debate about gay marriage.

    “Today marriage has effectively been severed from production, reproduction and permanence. What is left? Public validation of a friendship?….

    Given what marriage effectively is in America today, the exclusion of gays is bigoted. There is no good reason to exclude gays from a publically validated friendship.”

    First, I’m not sure the severance between marriage and all these aspects is quite as complete as you think it is. No doubt, the connection has drastically been weakened, and has been for quite a long time – Nietzsche was already on to this in the nineteenth century – but it has not been eliminated. People still struggle and suffer and sacrifice for marriage and family, and while many many more eventually give up, some stay with it, and continue to suffer in the name of these broader commitments. And not all of these people, moreover, are religious. But of course, as for the people who quit, in all cases, would we really want them to stick it out? I’ll get back to that later.

    Second, there is nothing to say that a public validation of a friendship is or has to be a trivial thing, and rhetorically treating it as such does not make it so. (Indeed, the fact that divorce, while common, is still not treated as an incredibly trivial event might have something to do with this.) A lot would depend on how the society defines friendship and the obligations that come with it – and I think there is a lack of imagination going on here in believing that such a definition is inherently shallow and undemanding. But regardless, you are right that such a definition does not require strict adherence to traditional gender roles.

  8. But this is where things get problematic. If marriage was not severed from these things – if it still was “more” than a publically validated friendship – would opposition to gay marriage then not be bigoted? I do not see how one can sustain such an argument unless one has some very traditional and universalistic views about gender and human nature. Let’s look at your three qualities of marriage in the good old days of the family farm – production, reproduction, and permanence. The only one of those which even remotely requires a traditionally gendered family is reproduction, but that too is really no longer a problem. The only way to sustain that argument is to also consider adoption as a dilution of the function of reproduction – as an adopted child who comes from, in all honesty, the most fiercely loyal and committed family I’ve ever encountered (and we have no particular ethnic or religious tradition…as blandly middle-class white as you get), I would have quite a problem with that. But if you are going to insist that the traditional formulation of a wife and a husband is needed to make these functions of marriage work, then you are also identifying yourself with very conservative arguments about essential differences between men and women and the relationships between them; and at this point we completely part ways, and there is no point going into a discussion I imagine we all would find futile and unpleasant.

    But to return to the question of suffering for the sake of commitment and fulfillment through that commitment – first, this happens much more than a mere glance at divorce statistics suggest. It often also occurs outside of marriage and it certainly still occurs in relationships between parents and children and between siblings. But more importantly, as much as I am sure you are aware of and opposed to the dark side of patriarchy – abuse, both physical and emotional, the status of the woman and children as not-quite-fully-human, or human within very narrow limits – it seems to me that calls for returning to something looking like the traditional family farm ignores the fact that in order for that to be made to work, power inequalities have to exist – man has to be set over woman, and father over children, in a way which not merely gives him the authority to demand deference or respect, but the authority to treat his wife and his children in any way he pleases. If we say otherwise – if you argue we can somehow create a traditional family without traditional power relationships – you’re actually not much different from the liberals or the Victorians you mildly mocked in your original post. Rather, you’re just haggling over the aesthetics of what a modern, non-hierarchical family should look like. In other words, perhaps you think we could constitute a modern traditional patriarchy without the ugly, but I don’t think you could – and if you suppose we could, I would argue that you’re not so much a traditionalist as a nostalgic liberal.

    Of course, one could argue that the human suffering caused by unequal power relationships in the private sphere is unfortunate, but the price one pays for the “meaning” in the public sphere (and in life generally) the Pope is referring to; the meaning obtained from narrower definitions. This is at least, indeed, consistent, but if so, again, we part ways at the cross-roads of a discussion that would not yield anything new.

    • Robin,

      Thank you for your comments. I am glad to hear from another scholar who recognizes the affinity between traditionalist and leftist critiques of liberalism. You have given me alot to respond to, and I will try to do your comments justice.

      First, on the market. Though traditionalists and leftists critique the market and bemoan liberalism’s failure to develop a robust understanding of the public good, they have different visions of what that good would look like. In my books I have argued that most of the left criticism of the market has not been able to transcend market thinking; critiquing the inequities and injustices of the market as it exists, they posit an “alternative” social vision that amounts to a “truly” free market, a world in which people could really make free choices and control their own destinies.

      On the state of marriage today, that there remains in practice a connection to production, reproduction and permanence suggests that there are some enduring truths connected to that relationship we have historically called marriage. But the problem is that our current marriage culture isn’t really comfortable with enduring truths. You speak eloquently of the ability of gays to participate in in a marriage bounded by production, reproduction (through adoption) and permanence. I do not doubt this, but this is not the point. As currently constructed, gay marriage is about choice, not any of the nobler virtues you invoke. It is so because straight marriage is about choice. To demand anything more of marriage would be to impose an arbitrary standard on gays and straights alike. People may choose to endure the pain that can often accompany a permanent relationship, or they may file for no-fault divorce. This to me suggests a rather thin conception of marriage (gay or straight) as a public good, and this has been my historical point throughout these posts. And it again seems to me a symptom of the inability of left-liberal progressives to get beyond the language of the market.

    • Robin,

      Before the site shuts down, I want to address briefly a couple of other issues you raised. First, the dark side of patriarchy–hierarchical domination. As you say, I am aware of this. As I perhaps have not made clear, I do not propose an egalitarian rehabilitation of the traditional family–at least in the modern, “rights” sense of egalitarianism. Rather than distribute power equally, I would propose distributing submission equally. This is a biblical model–wives, submit to your husbands, husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church (a love best expressed by His submission on the cross). I won’t say any more on this, because as you say it is simply an ethic that we won’t be able to agree on. I did, however, want to make my position clear and at least, I hope, save myself from the charge of nostalgia.

      Turning to an issue on which I think we can have a fruitful debate, I challenge your characterization of the alternatives of hierarchy and equality. It seems to raise the same issues as Self’s opposition of unity and pluralistic visions of marriage. Even at its best, modernity has not seen a shift from hierarchy to equality, but a shift from one kind of hierarchy, one rooted in traditional social structures such as the family, to another, best represented by the supposedly meritocratic hierarchies of modern state and corporate bureaucracies. You seem to endorse a social policy that prepares women for competition for positions in these new bureaucratic or market-based hierarchies, but history has shown us that there are always losers in this competition. Were every poor minority woman to have a degree from Harvard, there would still be only so many jobs–unless we fall back on the liberal escape hatch of endless economic growth solving all our power problems. Regardless of how you would like things to be–a kind of nostalgia for the future–how would you assess the standing of women after forty years of efforts to integrate them more fully into the market? Certainly for the daughters of Friedan, this has been a boom time. For those less privileged, we have seen the increasing vulnerability of women and the feminization of poverty. I know you don’t approve of this collateral damage, but it is simply the reality of the age (a reality that, to be fair, Self acknowledges). For all the dark side of patriarchy, it seemed to provide women with more protection and support. If you are going to talk about the dark side of patriarchy, you need to also address the dark side of autonomy. I am not simply talking about the condition of the poor and minorities. Talk to any teacher who works in a suburban, middle class high school and you will hear about the collateral damage of broken homes. Talk to any one who works in student life at a college campus and you will hear of the damage that the hook up culture does to women. Is autonomy worth it? Do children need to learn to grow through divorce? Do women need to adopt the coarser sexual ethic of men (this seems to be the upshot of the recent Atlantic article on this issue).

      This last point speaks to another issue raised, the nature of distinctions between men and women. I will grant your position that there are no essential differences. What follows from this? I would seem that men and women are both supposed to view their bodies as having no natural ends, but instead being tools or instruments of the human will. This attitude reflects the very kind of instrumental reason so often criticized in other contexts by people on the left, most famously the Frankfurt School. Yet in the realm of sex, instrumental reason appears emancipatory. This is the notion of “compulsory sexuality” that I critique in my World Made Safe for Differences. Is this the position that you are supporting and that you think a just society should promote?

  9. My thanks to Chris Shannon for offering a post that allows us to consider our historical relationship to the notion of the common good. My relationship to the way the Catholic Church has debated that notion is, like others, both personal as well as a scholarly. First, the scholarly: when I wrote about the debate Catholics had with American culture during the post-1945 period I came to see the Church’s role as either prophetic or misguided. At base, when Catholics opposed trends, actions, and conditions they believed were wrong they often did so based on a set of traditions that were rooted not merely in an institution in Rome but in the institutions that followed from a communion among generations of Christians. Such witness led to questions about the nature of bombing civilians in German cities and, on the opposite end of the moral spectrum, whether one’s soul was in mortal danger when watching a movie labeled “condemned” by the Legion of Decency. The difference between the two examples depended on the idea of prophetic witness—John C. Ford’s opposition to obliteration bombing asked the right questions about American actions; the Legion’s opposition to certain kinds of movies asked the wrong questions about art, speech, and the intellectual capabilities of the laity. So, my question to you Chris is this: if Benedict has raised questions to bear prophetic witness to our time, to whom is he speaking? Who is the “I”? Does it include all those who are willing to suffer for their commitments? What precludes any human person—no matter if they are homosexual or heterosexual—from entering into the kind of commitment that produces such suffering?

    The second part of my relationship to Catholic notions of the common good is more personal and relates to the history we are bounded by and the witness Benedict asks us to bring to bear upon it. When Benedict argues that “only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does [man] discover the breadth of his humanity,” I hear echoes of those who have brought change in public policy through witness to historical wrongs because they have either suffered or have made a world aware of suffering. And so as intellectual historians we combine a moment of historical change (end of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights) with an idea that clearly had origins outside of the politics of the era in which it produced change (I am thinking of David Chappell’s book A Stone of Hope as a good example of that). So when writing about the family, do we make a choice about to whom we think Benedict’s statement applies? Can it apply to homosexuals who suffer not because the state fails to certify same-sex marriage or the Church sanctifies it but because they enter into commitments that demand sacrifice? What do you think is our obligation to choosing those who suffer for their commitment?

    • Ray,

      The issue of suffering speaks to the theme of the public good that has run through these posts. Daniel Rodgers has identified the loss of a language of sacrifice as a symptom of what he calls our age of fracture, an age that has seen a loss of the public commitments that once united us in the age of consensus. Willingness to endure suffering has long been a requirement for membership in a commmunity, most clearly in the practice of military service. As you mention, some of the most powerful social movements in American history have been animated by an ethic of suffering, most notably the civil rights movement. Yet the heroism of civil rights activists lies not simply in their ability to endure suffering, but the rightness of the cause for which they suffered. Nazis, after all, were willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause, but most people don’t see them as heroic.

      As I mentioned in my response to Robin, I do not doubt the ability of gays to enter into commitments that demand sacrifice. There are many commitments besides marriage that demand sacrifice and contribute to the common good. Why must gays have access to marriage? Not so they can heroically sacrifice themselves for another, but so they have the freedom to choose the terms of that sacrifice. Secular moderns have shown a tremendous ability to sacrifice for any number of causes of their own choosing, but have largely been incapable of making sense of a suffering that is not willfully undertaken. On this, I am reminded of the Bob Dylan line from “Tears of Rage”: “What dear daughter beneath the sun, would treat her father so? To wait upon him, hand and foot, yet always answer no.” For moderns, the greatest sacrifice is to give up our desire for absolute control over our destinies. This is the point Benedict was making, and I believe he was speaking to the world, incuding homosexuals. The Church accepts homosexuals as human beings who can be full members of the Church without being sexually active. This may strike many as bigoted, but please recall that for the Church, celibacy is a higher state than marriage. I don’t think this is the place to go any further into the Catholic understanding of marriage and human sexuality, but I think Benedict’s general point, one that even non-Catholics have to confront, is that modern secular society has largely rejected all notions of human nature and natural limits. If we are not united by a nature, then what does unite us? Recent history, including the history of the family, suggests that we are united by our desire to be free from all constraints not freely consented to, and free to disengage ourselves from even those constraints when they no longer satisfy our desires.

  10. A few points:

    1) Is it true that it was really a common belief that having children was “obligatory.” If by that you mean most people expected to have children in the course of their life, then sure, that sounds right. If you mean that they saw themselves as having a moral duty to have children, that seems suspect as a broad characterization. No doubt some did. But how many, when, and where?

    2) You appear to forge a binary between the instrumental use of our bodies and our natural ends, seemingly meaning that their natural ends are child birth. But of course we need not agree that this is the choice we are confronted with. We can follow Adorno, et al, in fact, in saying that certain forms of non-generative sex can contribute to happiness and the fulfillment of the body and the self, whereas other forms partake of self and external domination of our inner nature. In other words, that non-generative sex can serve the true nature of our bodies – but where that true nature is not the one of Catholic thought.

    3) You do well to point out the state of many women in a world in which marriage has lost its force. But in highlighting the key role of class and describing it as the necessary result of left-liberalism, you neglect that much political liberalism calls for the amelioration of the economic problems so deeply related to the problem of poor women. See, for instance, the entire Rawlsian tradition.

    4) “but I think Benedict’s general point, one that even non-Catholics have to confront, is that modern secular society has largely rejected all notions of human nature and natural limits.” I propose that this language is so exaggerated as to serve no purpose other than framing the issue in a way charitable toward your side of the debate. The question is not about whether there is a “human nature and natural limits” – the question is where to draw the line over what is “human nature” on specific issues and what kind of moral force to give such distinctions.

    5) “As currently constructed, gay marriage is about choice, not any of the nobler virtues you invoke. It is so because straight marriage is about choice. To demand anything more of marriage would be to impose an arbitrary standard on gays and straights alike. People may choose to endure the pain that can often accompany a permanent relationship, or they may file for no-fault divorce. This to me suggests a rather thin conception of marriage (gay or straight) as a public good, and this has been my historical point throughout these posts.”

    You appear to draw a rather stark dichotomy between individual freedom and thick notions of the public good?

  11. I will reply briefly, point by point.

    2)In one sense you are correct, instrumental use of our bodies is not antithetical to natural ends. Our body is indeed a means to these ends. Instrumentalism, however, severs any natural relation between means and ends. As William James–certainly no traditionalist Catholic–once lamented, “we have power, but no motives.” I concede too that Adorno would allow for distinctions (domination/non-domination) within non-generative sex, but then he was ultimately dismissed as an old modernist fuddy duddy. By the late 60s, modernism appeared to many postmodernists as yet another oppressive authority. Self provides many examples of radical feminists who began to see all heterosexual sex as rape. My point is that Self’s social constructionist assumptions make it difficult, almost impossible to make meaningful moral distinctions that cannot be dismissed as acts of power. Self acknowledges the fragmentation, but not quite as clearly as Rodgers.

    3) Yes, I know liberals want to help the poor, but as I have said before, I think their promotion of a cultural individualism is a significant factor in the breakdown of the consensus that united the country behind some commitment to welfare from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

    4) Yes, many people, even left liberals, continue to talk of nature and human nature, but see my comments on #2. The problem is we have many human natures and no basis of agreement among them, another aspect of Rodgers’ age of fracture. The anti-essentialist rhetoric that Self directs against breadwinner conservatives doesn’t help this problem.

    5) As with the issue of means and ends, the dichotomy need not be stark, but the rhetoric of autonomy makes it so. There is not a proposed public good that cannot be critically unmasked as a private interest, and thus a threat to my freedom. Isn’t this the animus of so much cutting-edge critical, poststructuralist scholarship?

  12. Thanks again for filling out your critique of Self’s book and further articulation of your position. As several of these posts reflect, your concerns about pluralistic liberalism and markets are widely shared.

    I want to step back to ask more historiographical questions:

    1) Do you see your work as history or history-as-cultural criticism? I know you mentioned your affinities for Wendell Berry; your line of thought also reminds me alot of Bellah, Lasch, and McCarraher.

    2) If your work is more history-as-cultural criticism, what function do you think it serves? To summon the all-powerful Keanu, is post-New Left Christian communitarianism about building up Zion (non-market spaces) or about destroying the Matrix (market forces)? Or both?

    I’ve been wrestling with these broader questions recently as part of my reading in the evangelical left–which was most definitely a post-New Left Christian communitarianism–and so would welcome your thoughts.

    • Mark,

      Well, I guess as the two genres are generally understood, my work is more history-as-cultural criticism than history proper, though I think the distinction is often an invidious one. By the late 70s, Lasch was routinely dismissed by professional historians for not doing “real” history. He certainly didn’t write the kind of conventional monographs that the profession showers prizes on, but I think it is safe to say that he understood the American past better than anyone else of his generation, and certainly understood conventional monographs better than most of the people who wrote them. I am an intellectual historian and I am reading Self’s book as a text of early 21st century liberalism, much as Lasch read Hofstadter’s books as texts of 1950s liberalism.

      If I may channel the spirit of the all-powerful Keanu, hey dude, I want to build up Zion and destroy the Matrix. But this is not because I’m a cultural critic rather than a “real” historian. Self is doing the same thing in his book, building up the Zion of sexual experimentation and alternative family models, and tearing down the Matrix of breadwinner conservatism. No one has accused Self of clouding his history with an imposed ideology. The near universal praise the book has received (from like-minded historians) takes this all for granted as natural, so I am simply doing what historians always pride themselves on doing–de-naturalizing the natural, which one always ends up doing in the name of another nature.

  13. I’m curious how you would respond to Marissa Chappel’s book, The End of Welfare. She argues that the welfare (e.g. AFDC) was unsustainable precisely because 1950s/60s white liberals endorsed a male breadwinner family and undergirded welfare policy with assumptions of a male breadwinner-sahm even as that was never a realistic family model for poor families who long relied on multiple incomes and different family structures. This suggests that the stable, farm family model as a unit of production holds in that there was a broader conception of a family wage present among poor families than the male breadwinner model holds but also that the family unit was far more multi-faceted as well. It also suggests that to the degree a welfare is viable, it needs to draw on actual not ideal (to policy planners or “the people”) attributes of family life.

    In addition, the post and the responses in the comments seem rather Christo-centric. Jews seem like the most obvious counterexammple to the family farming unit; as Yuri Slezkine has described the ultimate representatives of modernity, Jews were long “urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible.” For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, Jewish women often worked outside the home–from the early modern period forward, there is excellent historical evidence for this — and it ceases mostly among upper middle class Central European family attempting to look like their non-Jewish neighbors in the early 20th C. It had consequences for the structure of Jewish family life, as Paula Hyman’s *Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History* and Chae-Ran Freeze’s *Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Late Imperial Russia* (among others) attest. If nothing else, the Jewish experience underscores that there isn’t a single, uniform, historical family across religious and class lines.

    • Chappel’s book sounds interesting, though I am always a little skeptical when policy makers invoke “realism.” Yes, poor and working-class families rarely approximated the breadwinner model held up by liberals, but as even Self concedes, most working-class women aspired to live a more domestic life, the very life that middle-class women were fleeing for careers. Yes, policy makers have to begin with a realistic understanding of the situation at hand, but policy often reflects what policy makers desire as much as what they think is possible. I’m sure in the early 1950s many poor women wanted access to abortion on demand, but this was beyond the pale even for Planned Parenthood, which promoted birth control as an alternative to abortion. At the same time, policy makers strove to accommodate women who aspired to domesticity. Twenty years later, the situation was reversed. This wasn’t simply a response to objective reality.

      Thank you for bringing in the example of a particular kind of Jewish family model. In some of my earlier posts, I stressed that religion and ethnicity were sources of family diversity that could still be called traditional, and Judaism offers many varieties of traditional family structures. I should note, however, that the particular model you invoke is one that you yourself identify as proto-modern (urban, mobile, etc.). This sounds very different from the rural peasant family structures that we see glimpses of in the ethnic fiction of writers such as Anzia Yezierska. Even though she tends to write narratives of liberation, she presents the destruction of tradition with great pathos. Yezierska’s characters are unsure of where their post-traditional life will lead them, but none of them take the cavalier attitude Self commends as a guide to understanding the true nature of the family, which is that it is simply a social construct.

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