In one sense, Howard was expressing nothing new. From Plato to Schopenhauer, one can find philosophical doubts about the family as the best instrument for the ordering of society. From Sophocles to Henry James, one can discover literary doubts about the psychological effects of family life. In the Israeli kibbutzim, the hippies’ communes, and the religious cults, the twentieth century alone saw many attempts to redefine the family.
Still, the angry tone of Howard’s line, the rage not for something new but against everything old, hinted at a difference. This was not a messianic promise of having found better ways to live. This was an apocalyptic fury that demands a smashing of the existing ways. The metaphor of disease is telling: We don’t propose substitutes for cancerous tumors; we cut them out. Health isn’t found in the presence of alternates to disease; it’s found in the actual absence of disease. And so the apparent unhappiness of the human condition doesn’t need an alternative to family. It just needs to get rid of family.
At the time, I hadn’t encountered anyone writing quite as openly, quite as purely, about the bulldozing impulse as Howard, but it seems to have become something of a staple in the fourteen years since his Los Angeles Times review. In recent weeks, for example, Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, took to the pages of the Boston Globe to declare—on Mother’s Day—that “motherhood is a cultural invention” that needs to be deemphasized: “Mother’s Day is a good day to double down on the work required to reconstruct our conception of motherhood.”
Meanwhile, in a much-reported incident, Adam Swift, a professor of politics at the University of Warwick in England,told an Australian radio audience that parents’ bedtime reading to children is a guilty, fraught activity—since such reading gives the children a pronounced advantage in later life. “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children,” he explained, “but I think they should have that thought occasionally.” And parents should certainly be prevented from sending their children to “elite schools,” since the advantage of such schools creates an inequality for disadvantaged children.
The examples can be multiplied beyond all counting. And the question they all raise is why the family as an institution should be under such attack. Some modern destructive impulse has turned its attention in that direction, which is never a good sign for the survival of the threatened institution.
The answer has to do in part with the sheer destructiveness of modern times. The family is a premodern arrangement of human life, and the modern turn subjects all premodern things to deconstruction: philosophy, theology, and history; monarchy, nobility, and the Church; culture, art, and society. It just took us this long to dig down to the family. Richard Howard is a late, miniature Voltaire, and the president of Smith College is a tardy, shrunken Jacobin.
Even more, however, these recent attacks on the family take their shape from the absence of any alternative. If one impulse in modern times was the destruction of the past, another was the creation of the future. And it’s that second impulse that seems to have failed. Since the fall of Soviet communism, radicalism has had no horizon, no goal or plan for a new society, and all of its passion has been directed in anger at the present.
Something must be making us unhappy. Something must be making us suffer. Something needs to be destroyed. And thatsomething now seems to be the family.
We needn’t construct an intellectual defense of the family here, not because the family is indefensible but because it comes to us as the longest-lasting and most-successful social arrangement in history—the most-successful arrangement, that is, for the preservation of children’s lives and the preservation of social knowledge. And the key lies in that notion of preservation. The family is not an immediate good; it’s a mediating good—good for something. Even the New Testament criticizes families when they are taken as goods in themselves, substituting for the goods of faith.
All tools are meaningless without a use. The lack of horizon, the lack of future goals and a sense of human purpose, has sent radicalism into a tizzy of annihilation, seeking ever deeper, ever more wildly, for the unidentified something that makes us unhappy. Everything old must go, and the family is one of the few surviving old things still around to be attacked.
At the same time, the lack of cultural goals and human horizons leaves us with no easy way to answer the attack. There’s no alternative being proposed, nothing that can be measured against the success of the family and found wanting. It’s bad enough, when radicalism tears down a house and tries to plant another in its place. It’s worse, when radicalism simply tears down the house while reassuring us that we don’t need shelter.
The imperfections of family life are real—as philosophers from Plato to Schopenhauer, artists from Sophocles to Henry James understood—but we have generally rejected all the proposed alternatives because we can see that they will not work as the mediating tools we need. The new attack on families preempts that defense. We don’t need families, it reassures us, and we can weaken or even abolish them without cost or argument over what will replace them.
Count me as one less than reassured.
Joseph Bottum is a bestselling essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.