Friday, September 18, 2009

"The Natural Family": Oh, no, not another "Manifesto"! Is procreation "almost mandatory"?

A couple weeks ago (on Sept. 6), on the Issue blog, I discussed a column by Washington Post commentator Cheryl Wetzstein, itself mentioning the 2007 book by Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero, �The Natural Family: A Manifesto�. The book is published by Spence in Dallas (known for conservative and Christian books), has ISBN 1-890626-70-8, is 256 pages hardcover, and carries a copyright owned by the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, (link) and the Sutherland Institute ("Personal Responsibility as the Basis of Self-Government") (link). The cover has a picture of a �tree of life�, almost like the tree on another planet in the last scene of the movie �Knowing.�

The book has a website called �family manifesto� (link) which seeks endorsements, and offers a PDF download that right now does not work. I had to order the book from a reseller on Amazon.

Most people are suspicious of any book or paper that calls itself a �Manifesto� (Marx wasn�t the only culprit; my own �Do Ask Do Tell� in 1997 was affectionately called �The Manifesto� by some). But this book�s Introduction does explain the word. I don�t think many high school English teachers will assign a �manifesto� as a type of theme to write for class.

The central point of the book is challenging enough. That is, the nuclear family, of a (married) father and mother and children is a natural social institution, preceding the state or corporation, and it is founded on intrinsically natural differences between the genders, necessitating complementarity. Furthermore, however, the family used to be (and still ought to be) the locus of personal identity. The goals of the person should center around his or her family, not just around himself or herself as an individual. Until he or she marries and has an "own" family, he or she should accept the group identity that goes with his family's genes: that sounds like the most shocking idea. Human beings, to that extent, are social animals and not atomistic loners. The authors maintain that every man naturally should aim to become a father and every woman a mother, in marriage � that is, procreation is, if not exactly mandatory, inevitable, except for a minority of people genuinely unable to do so, which the authors think the �family� should simply protect at home from the outside world. (An important quote from p. 14: "Even if sometimes thwarted by events beyond the individual's control (or sometimes given up for a religious vocation), the calling of each boy is to become husband and father; the calling of each girl is to become wife and mother." Human beings need to learn social attachment as part of their development so that they can become parents. The family provides a natural toggle pivot between altruistic and communal behavior (within) and competitive behavior (without), and the "family" lives outside the world of political ideology. Individualism, as envisioned by political libertarians, fails in this view because it advances separate views (whereas the family unites these visions) � I�m not sure how this kind of thinking could deal with religious diversity. Sustainable freedom, the authors maintain, can live only inside stable �natural� nuclear family units; individual cultural accomplishments are meaningful only when they lead to support of families. (Forget that when writing resumes.) An important corollary of this kind of thinking is that the right to "chose" significant others as an individual and to refuse unwanted intimacy is restricted in a world where blood loyalty is required (for extreme examples, look at how radical Islam behaves). Until one marries and has his (or her) own children, one's loyalties must remain collectively focused (in an "ability-need" axis) on other blood family members as a major locus of identity--experienced by some as a kind of forced intra-family "communism". (This is what happens on the soap operas -- and I wonder if this "moral vision" justifies crime families!)

One of the biggest concerns is depopulation among established families and among people economically able to raise children. This brings us back to the �empty cradle� argument of Phillip Longman (or even �demographic winter�), and leads to a number of �social contract� provisions to encourage families to form and to have more children. Today, the main public policy vehicle is tax credits, but in the past (before feminism) it was the �family wage� (an idea that was advocated by Illinois Senator Henry Hyde in a brief �Mom and Pop Manifesto� in 1994, in Policy Review).

The authors do go on some moderately anti-gay adventures, criticizing the attempt to lift the military gay ban and try to pass laws encouraging gay equality, including gay marriage. But the real issue is that �equality� is a meaningless concept in a world where everyone is loyal to a social group rather than his own ends. The authors pay little heed to arguments about "immutability", as they see "identity" as a matter of accepting other members of a social family unit (and their "problems")as one's own, although at one point they do acknowledge that some people do not reproduce for reasons beyond their control (or for religious vows).

Now, I would counter with this line of thought: Modern society, with its rapidly layered technology, offers �individuals� modes for success and expression that do not require long term committed intimacy or having families. This has become particularly important for women and for gays. But any social contract to favor the family and childbearing and rearing would tend to require �sacrifices� from singletons, and these could become quite crippling. On the other hand, �hyperindividualism,� which uses political �equality� to promote personal sovereignty, can leave families weakened and unable to care for their own weakest members (including adults), leading to more dependence on the �state�, as the authors point out.

An example of this could come with eldercare. Due to demographics, the childless are likely to wind up �paying their dues� with a larger share of the �burden�. I�m surprised that the authors don�t mention filial responsibility laws, and the possibility that budget-strapped states may start enforcing them strictly, as a �pro-family� measure. They do suggest tax credits for people who care for the elderly in their own homes (but not their parents� homes), and who suggest that family caregiving should earn social security credits.

My own experience growing up could reinforce some of the precepts of this book. I remember resenting the attention that my parents demanded to chores and mechanical and sports activities irrelevant to my talents in music and academics. In retrospect, I can see that these exercises were more about getting me to be able to fit in to a social unit, be able to raise children and �protect� a future wife myself, and do my part in defending the country (otherwise others have to make the sacrifice). I did pick up on the idea that the head of a family has �prestige� for the commitment he has made. But I felt that any such person should be �worthy� of the approbation. Since I was taunted for being developmentally behind physically, I developed the idea that I was not �competitive� enough as a �man� and that it made more sense emotionally to laud those who did (by external trappings) seem competitive enough. I did get "excited" by certain people with certain attributes; although it was a passive experience, it had some sort of moral significance; a person should be "worthy" of that kind of emotional ardor from me, and why would someone who would depend on me be worthy of it? That�s the �Existential Trap.� I wanted the �freedom� for my own emotional and erotic life which, in those days, was still seen as �private� (it is much less private today in an Internet age). But what (existential) �purpose� does that serve? It seems as though it might feed an idea of perfection promoted by the state (hence �body fascism� -- which arguably could someday encourage real fascism again, on another planet, at least). It�s ironic, that the one public venue where there is almost no obesity is a gay disco. We know the challenges in �gay history� in the past few decades; in the 1980s, the challenge was to fight for our own lives; now, it may be to care for the lives of elders. To pay your dues and enter the outside world, it seems as though you have to have a family to support. As John Grisham wrote on the first page of "The Firm", "that was mandatory." If you want to be heard from, shouldn't you be expected to value your own potential lineage enough that you would want it and take responsibility for it? Yes, I can see where the authors of "The Manifesto" are coming from here.

I do understand that socilogists like Carlson, Mero and Longman are saying that someone like me has an undue incentive to "get out of things" by avoiding certain levels of intimacy and connection to others in a social group ("family responsibility" from sources other than direct procreation). The problem is, if someone like me does wind up having to take care of people after not having children (because of filial responsibility, for example), I wind up as a "second class citizen," serving the interests created by the marital sexual intercourse of others when I am not "competitive enough" (or am "too self-absorbed", as Longman says) to procreate msyelf. But then, Carlson asks, if we all become family-centric, then no one (except God maybe) needs to "measure people" globally to "keep score" as to "station in life".

Carlson, with some naivete, perceives the world as automatically a place of plenty, to justify his call for larger families. The climate change crowd would disagree with him, but one could instead make the argument that the need for generativity and sharing of social experience in the future within smaller, local communities argues for family-centered sense of identity.

On p. 13 Carlson and Mero really paint a Rockwell portrait of the "natural family": "We see true happiness as the product of persons enmeshed in vital bonds with spouses, children, parents, and kin." Fine, but it sounds compulsory! "We look to a landscape of family homes, lawns , and gardens busy with useful tasks and ringing with the laughter of many children". Sounds Amish. In another way, sounds bourgeois. Yet, the "natural family", as an irreducibel unit, is immune to "ideology." Yet the authors' value system here amounts to an "ideology" of its own.

Carlson authored a book �Family Questions: Reflections on an American Social Crisis� in 1988. There Carlson had spoken of the "family wage" as a social contract provision (in the past) that protected families (especially with stay-at-home momes) from the "logical consequences of radical individualism" (p 111), and these consequences can be considerable and brutal indeed. There is a similar book �Men of Steel and Velvet� by Dr. Aubrey Andelin from 1982.Both of these are a bit prescient about today's debates on "sustainability".

Compared to other mammals, human beings can develop both socially and individually. All other primates are social; but humans (especially males) are both social and solitary (like carnivores). A cat lover would say that humans can act both as lions and tigers. The problem is, when too many lions desert the pride (if allowed to), the pride falls apart.

The book concludes with declarations from the World Congress on Families (link), in Geneva and Mexico City.