Marriage is the new bogeyman for our “progressive” friends. It’s worth asking why that is the case.
Consider this recent Slate article entitled: “Just Say No: For White Working Class Women, it Makes Sense to Stay Single Mothers.” The co-authors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone both seem well connected to the school of feminist legal theory that claims marriage is generally an outmoded and “patriarchal” institution. So perhaps it should come as no surprise they would be interested in discouraging it for yet another demographic: white, working-class mothers.
Cahn and Carbone walk readers through their case study of Lily, employed but possibly pregnant by her boyfriend Carl, who’s unemployed and aimless. We’re told that Lily is not concerned about raising the child alone. She views Carl as more of a hindrance than a help, essentially just another mouth to feed.
The Slate piece rounds up various statistics and trends – socio-economic, cultural, and so on – to make the case against marriage for Lily and all women of her class and color. The authors emphasize that men are less marketable these days, while working class women are increasingly more employable. They then argue that “both men and women generally agree that a man who can’t hold a steady job shouldn’t marry.” Complicating matters further is that the men who do have better economic prospects, faced with a “choice of committing to a woman who outearns them or keeping their independence… seem to prefer their freedom.” They conclude that the dearth of “marriageable” men should convince Lily she’s better off going it alone. (Amusingly, the authors here seem to borrow from an old timey explanation of the facts of life regarding male behavior, like mother-scolds saying, “He’s just not marriage material, Honey.”)
There is a ream of statistics on the other side of this equation. Indeed, if single motherhood were such a boon, we wouldn’t see such a grossly disproportionate number of that demographic living in poverty. The Slate piece also adds to the confusion by essentially promoting the emasculation of working class men, ignoring the benefits of strong relationships, and accommodating the irresponsibility of both mother and father in cavalierly producing a child.
But there are deeper aspects to that argument meriting closer examination.
Could the Real Target be Strong Relationships?
In the end, all of the statistics quoted in this Slate are superfluous. For the real story we have to read between the lines. And the real story is this: society is not cultivating the habits and trust that build strong relationships among individuals.
Let’s start by looking at Lily as a real person. She is in need of relationships, intimacy, and a life not overwhelmingly dominated by 9-to-5 drudgery. Let’s consider Carl a real human being also. Yes he needs a job, but he also needs the same things as Lily: to feel respected, connected, and useful to others. They both need to feel anchored to something worthwhile, not like displaced persons wandering about life. How does such anchoring happen? Through strong relationships with real people.
Most telling in the Slate piece is this throwaway line about Lily: “She has very few friends, married or unmarried, in strong relationships.” That is a statement worthy of deep exploration.
Consider one major reason the authors urge Lily not to marry:
If a couple marries [sic—then divorces], a court will insist on a custody order and it will expect that both spouses continue their relationship with the child. Indeed, some states presume that the child should spend approximately equal amounts of time with both parents. These changes make marriage a better deal for elite men.
How wacky is this? First, our friend “Carl” is a schlub (that’s why Lily blows him off), certainly not an “elite.” But the fundamental point here is that children and family, you see, are chopped liver in this deal. Marriage here is all about who gets what. Essentially, this means Lily is supposed to deprive her children of a relationship with their father because . . . ? Why? The deck is stacked against her? He doesn’t “deserve” or presumably doesn’t even want a relationship with his kids? Lily should have an exclusive “right” to custody?
The upshot of all of this is to seal off the doors for Lily’s children in having a relationship with their father. It also serves to reinforce a jaded outlook in women like Lily so that the doors are sealed against any hopes they might harbor to cultivate strong – i.e., mutually respectful and loving — relationships with potential fathers for their children.
Ultimately, the Cahn-Carbone argument is about separation and isolation. It serves primarily to separate people and separate families. And it’s another example of how children are the pawns and political footballs in just about every so-called “progressive” agenda. Ironically, the argument also seems to cultivate a view of children born of casual sex as less deserving of intact families than children born to “elites.” They are barely an afterthought in this picture, in which men are a hindrance to be avoided.
So, raising a kid on your own is a snap? Well, possibly when you don’t really have to raise your kid—since in the case study, Lily’s parents are “devout Christians who supported both her decision to have the child and her decision not to marry Carl, [and are] helping with child care.”
The authors offer lip service to the idea that men like Carl should (someday) be employed – but only through government programs that don’t interfere with “women’s autonomy.” For women like Lily this really means a fake Julia-style autonomy that likewise comes from heavy dependence upon government programs.
Most troubling is that it seems the authors at Slate are happy to keep women like Lily separated from potential husbands. Why such eagerness to discourage the coming together of people by ties of family and kinship? Why tell single working mothers en masse that it’s best to “just say no” to marriage?
What have our progressive friends really discovered? They have discovered that strong families — i.e., strong relationships — are the primary source of well-being in society. But rather than seeing that as a good thing to be encouraged, many are instead making the case that families are the main source of “inequality.”
Literature expressing this line of thought is mushrooming today. We have, for random example, an author of a forthcoming book on family inequality, a University of Maryland sociologist, whose blog rhetorically asks: “Is ‘the family’ a barbaric, pre-modern holdover institution, perpetuating irrational relations and inherited forms of inequality?”
But this style of attack on the family has been bubbling up for a while. Consider this 1999 paper by a British professor of philosophy “Is the Family to be Abolished Then?” She opens by proclaiming “The family is one of the main causes of morally arbitrary inequality. . . . the effects of the family are so profound that its mere existence may severely impede the access of individuals to equal life chances.” She suggests that everyone could be better off if raised in a well run state orphanage.
Then you have this 1998 trial balloon essay “The Child Swap Society” published on the op-ed pages of several major newspapers. The author Sandra Feldman (d. 2005), president of the American Federation of Teachers, fantasizes in it about a society in which all parenting is done through state controlled lottery, solving the problems of inequality. Just 15 years ago the essay seemed very fringy. Not so much anymore.
Another example is a project of the feminist legal theorist Martha Fineman, who heads up an initiative on “Vulnerability and the Human Condition” at Emory University. Her work seems aimed at promoting government intervention as a means to remedy “inequality.” Fineman openly advocates for the end of family autonomy and privacy in much of her work, including the 2004 book The Autonomy Myth in which she calls for abolishing all state-sanctioned marriage and replacing it with a scheme that requires all parties to draw up contracts regulated by the state.
In all of their ponderings about inequality, our progressive friends never fully address the ultimate source of human misery: isolation brought about by broken and weak human relationships. Of course, cultivating strong human relationships would be counter-productive to an agenda that aims to grow impersonal bureaucracy and its attendant power cliques.
Isolation is the real source of inequality
So the only element I see in the Slate piece when it comes to relationships is that it prescribes separation from a male figure in the household – for both the working mothers and their children – as the best choice across the board.
If I were a single working mother, here’s how this Slate chorus would sound to me: “There are no good men out there, so don’t even look! . . . All the statistics are against you and resistance is futile. But we have this nice isolation chamber for you. We’ll put food and drink out for you. We’ll assign you work and school and ‘communitarian’ opportunities as long as you don’t get married. We’ve got pre-K programs for your babies and toddlers. (Contrary to popular belief, we are just itching to be the hand that rocks the cradle.) And we’ll provide you with plenty of free contraceptives to further encourage you to have lots of loveless sex. That way you’ll continue to enable those ne’er-do-wells you like to hang out with. We know you want intimacy. But our policies are aimed at modifying your behavior so that you’ll never catch on and cultivate the habits that encourage real intimacy. Honey, you’re a great poster child for us at the moment. But we progressive elites really see you as a useful idiot. The main thing is that you give up on seeking any permanent male figure around you or your kids. No need to think deeply or independently about this, because we elitist progressive white women have it all figured out for you working class female drudges.”
Perhaps you find this interpretation far-fetched? After considering the arguments of feminist gender theory listed above – how families are the main source of “morally arbitrary inequality” – it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that strong relationships would get in their way. After all, strong relationships built on habits of mutual and loving self-sacrifice are ultimately where “inequality” comes from – why some people are ultimately happier and more prosperous than others. Could this be the real basis for the slam on marriage of the Slate piece?
Dangerous Liaisons: Personal Relationships and Power
Ultimately, personal relationships are the source of all real power. Connection with others is the font of knowledge and wealth for human beings. Whoever controls personal relationships pretty much controls everything.
If you look around, you can see this sort of impulse to control relationships everywhere. The 12-year-old “queen bees” in middle school culture as well as dictators on the world stage – from Stalin to Kim Il-Sung – can turn it into an art form. For seemingly harmless little girls the impulse exhibits itself in nasty lunch room or cyberspace snubs that dictate who can be friends with whom. For world dictators it manifests itself in show trials that condemn and socially isolate political enemies as “non-persons.”
Unfortunately, it’s always been the little dictators of the world who understand the ultimate power of personal relationships better than the rest of us who wish only to live and let live.
Some of the 12 year olds in Lily’s world are in the business of telling all of us what to do and how to live, and ensuring that the only enduring relationships we have are with our government keepers. Others among them — in politics, academia, the media, Hollywood — will keep in place conditions that that suppress strong personal relationships. Why? Because only weakened human relationships and alienation can serve to build a culture of distrust, envy, and divisions in class, gender, race, etc. that empowers an elite “vanguard”—among whom, politicians, academics and media moguls are prominent.
By enabling a culture of excess in which self-absorption and self-indulgence reign supreme, power elites seem invested in guaranteeing our problems will be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. Their bait — sloth, sex, and nonstop mind-numbing entertainment – is a feel-good trap. Nothing substantial can be built on what they offer, least of all solid relationships.
A Modest Agenda for the Future
So there you have it. Lily thought Carl was good enough to screw, but not worth a commitment. According to the authors at Slate, that seems to be a good thing. It seems ironic, doesn’t it, that good habits and good relationships are really the bugaboo of progressive agendas? Our culture of self-indulgence, self-absorption, and sexual excess – which has been pushed very hard by so-called progressives – also cultivates ignorance about this reality.
It seems funny, doesn’t it, how progressive agendas always seem to begin as “solutions” in search of problems? Collectivist agendas breed alienation, isolation, distrust, and dependency, which produce poverty, social chaos, and epidemic anxiety, which soften the ground for collectivist agendas. The myth of “inequality” is perpetuated with the prescription that further isolates people from one another.
But here’s an idea: How about cultivating a climate for strong relationships? Strong relationships naturally have their roots in marriage and family life. They are then re-broadcast into society by the partners in and children of such relationships.
Strong relationships are about teamwork: real communication, real cooperation, real trust, and real fellowship. How might individuals seek to cultivate these things? They can, you know, if government gets out of the way. And teamwork is about self-sacrifice, which is a dirty word these days. Yes, strong relationships may be difficult to produce. But that’s what makes them strong. The blacksmith analogy is apt: the tempering of the iron in the fire – as with a relationship through trials — will give it shape and strength.
But the really dirty little secret statists would rather you not know is this: strong relationships of mutual self-sacrifice yield the greatest prosperity of every kind – spiritual, emotional, and material – for everyone.
The hunger for strong family relationships will persist. Social engineers can only offer weak “communitarian” relationships as cheap imitations for the real thing, which, in the end, is real, human love.