Linguists define the pulls and pushes on our identity: Biology & nature (man is a symbol-making, language using animal), society & nurture (we speak the language that surrounds us), and, finally, our separate and individual selves. We express our own vision, our own interpretation of life in our unique sentences. The unique nature of our choices is what contemporary tests for plagiarism reset on – the series of words we choose from our flexible language are not likely to be repeated in another document on Google or Turnitin. But biology is important. I don’t come from demonstrative people. The family jokes that I avoid hugs, touching, commitment. But that isn’t because I don’t think part of love’s impetus and expression is physical. Instinctive, it is biology, defined by culture; of course, it is also expressed in the unique ways of our clan, of ourselves.
My friends find motivation in religious beliefs that provide discipline, teach generousity, encourage altruism. My Baptist friend, my Catholic friend, my husband’s Jewish aunt, and, indeed, some of those in Sunday School – are quick to put arms around those in need, quick to notice across the room another’s discomfort, quick with a soothing word. They have led me to keep my tongue (though they would be surprised – properly suspecting I must have been pretty awful in my youth). But the faith of my fathers is a fairly tart one. And so, I return here to my Sunday class. I haven’t returned there; somehow, I oversleep. I suspect it is guilt; that isn’t the forum for my arguments. I keep returning in my mind to the last time I went. An incident disturbed me – and reminded me of how ignoring nature, nurture or will leads to policies remarkably destructive – and irritatingly self-righteous. It is a Chicagoboyz incident – but it is is one to which those great old stories can bring much wisdom.
Ours is Bible-oriented class. We were going through some Old Testament sections on child-raising. Since most of us have grandchildren, this theme unites us. We’ve seen broken families and unwed mothers. Some give to such families, knowing how difficult life without a partner can be for mother & child. But most were critical.
The substitute teacher (from sociology) saw the rate of incarceration as factor. He stumbled over his words – as I do when speaking from the gut; it seemed a gauge of his intensity. He argued the disproportionate number of single mothers in the African American community arose from the disproportionate number of men in prison; surely, he argued, they are not disproportionately irresponsible. Arguing backward to cause invites flawed reasoning, but my immediate response was he had the cart before the horse. Incarceration rates rise as percentages of intact families decrease.
He allowed circularity. If you think you are on a moral mission, data can be ignored and rearranged. After all, it can be easy to merely begin after the medieval warming period. Or to begin after the great changes of the sixties to the family. But if the family structure is sufficiently broken, it is possible to ascribe the lack of families to the lack of men. That ignores the policy and cultural pressures of the sixties.
Needless to say, he had begun such comments by implying the class lacked sympathy. The church clubs are often generous to single families. Me, I’m different. Actually, I’m even uncharitable about his motives. His Ph.D. is from Chicago in the late sixties – the days of scholars like the SDS leader, Flacks. The ideas promoted when our teacher was in graduate school prompted the decline of the family. I know; I believed them. In one of the more absurd gestures of a pretty stupid period, I gave my newlywed brother and sister-in-law a book about open marriages. I thought I understood the world. I didn’t.
A few weeks earlier, I’d remarked that his discipline had gone too far in nurture and seemed now to be giving minimal weight to nature. Horrified, he noted the pendulum needed pulling back – look at Watson. Did I know who Watson was? Dryly, I nodded. The reference seemed odd; Watson isn’t a gauge of sociology research. But I could see where we were headed.
Our cultural & governmental policy has devalued marriage (duty, faithfulness, integrity), argued the government should be the husband, encouraged no-fault divorce, actively valorized the single mother, and sexualized our relations in a superficial way at ever earlier ages. It is too early for revisionists: those who defined these movements in our youths collect the data of our maturity. I doubt they are disinterested.
Another member of our class, one of the oldest and most liberal, observed that children were raising children. Well, we could all agree on that – as most groups in their sixties would. His solution? The obvious caring & sympathetic one: the government should send someone home with the new mother and teach her and the child, staying with them, “bringing them both up.” The response of my Baptist friend who spends some time each week trying to prepare felons for the “real world” was a wry look, “Ah,” she said, “that has worked so well.”
Yes, the government’s child raising is likely to be faddish. It’s likely to be improvident. But at heart it is heartless. Nature, gut response, is important. A government worker does not look at the child as a mother does, a father does. The government is incapable of love. My oblique response was that despite much of the feminist literature about the molestation of girls by their fathers, this seldom happens within a biological relationship. The sociologist said he didn’t know. My Catholic friend, as I recounted this, said tartly, “They don’t want to know.” Well, I, too, don’t like to know some things. But I wish academics were curious about the role of biology. I’ve always thought our founder’s greatest wisdom was their desire to understand human nature, to allow for our biological instincts. A culture that survives, certainly one that flourishes, needs to understand & appreciate the raw energy within us.
Not surprisingly, abuse by father-substitutes is more common. The role of the biological father and that of the biological mother is defined by society to encourage nurture but our acts are vivified by a passion from heart & head, biological and rational. We love our own – that is a good thing. It blends our society’s need for responsible parenting with our tribe’s need to nurture and define its own. We try, with our wills and our individual choices, to provide for our children because we feel responsibility and we feel love. Probably our natural choices are the most consistently sensible. We can be influenced by bizarre theories and so can our society (witness my early response to my brother’s early and still happy marriage). But society and our own conscience also discourage us from taking advantage of a child’s vulnerability; our beliefs and our society socializes us, protects the fragile child.
Being a parent seems the most difficult, open-ended of responsibilities: working without a net, the wire seems slippery and falling inevitable. What’s best for this child? What might work better for that one? How much to hover and how much to protect and how soon to shove out of the nest? Sure, that’s difficult.
Still, nature, nurture, will – all make a strong family. We should valorize stepfathers when they truly become loving fathers – it is not instinctive, it is an act of grace. But a stepfather shouldn’t be valorized merely because he lives with or even marries the mother. We need to notice what love can do – and how much the father in a family gives love. The class discussion continued; some seemed to see a father’s love as less important. It isn’t a mother’s love, perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it is less important. The government can’t replace it. We don’t want it in the midst of our lives; we don’t want it to name us and give us its impersonal, general heritage. We want a relationship with the supplier of half our genes – a fallible but real person. And, if the impossible occurred and its fathering was consistently good, it still could not care. Did anyone in that class want a grandchild raised by the government? And to return to the earlier discussion, did any want their daughters to marry men let out of prison merely because the rate of incarceration is higher for their group? This is hypocrisy – a hypocrisy far more damaging to others than a prissy Congressman’s clandestine affair. If we don’t want it for our own children, how can we believe in it for others’ children?
A destructive society enforces patterns that run counter to biology. The Utopias of the last couple of centuries have not fared well; they eat themselves because their assumptions ignore our basic drives. Democide happens in a society with an insufficient sense of the others’ worth (the divine in the other). But it also happens when that society has not restrained but rather encouraged the worst in us. It can be destructive to encourage tribalism to take the paths it has (even when the “tribe” has been the ideological). But pretending that tribalism doesn’t exist is not useful; indeed, its power results in much good as well. The familial is tribal; however, its strength can help as well as undermine a larger society. If we encourage strong families, the rate of incarceration will take care of itself.
Economics – that still relevant social science – offers examples. When society works against our natural familial desires, it will have to employ more force and is likely to be undermined. One of our friends during the pre-Velvet Revolution days had a favorite aphorism: “A man who doesn’t steal at work is stealing from his family.” That a man should support his family is a biological imperative our society reinforces; we see it as a moral duty. In an open market, work is likely to better provide if the father has successfully understood his customer’s needs; the business is likely to be more successful if he trains and keeps a competent staff. In an open market, a man who steals at work or cheats his customers or exploits his workers is not likely to remain successful – certainly to pass the business on to the next generation. Morality & the spiritual reinforce this system. Of course, a businessman may make the moral decision (not to steal) for selfish reasons. And we are more likely to cut the man slack that provides his family’s necessities by stealing at work. Still, theft remains immoral and governments that encourage it kill productivity. Cynicism, dissociated sensibilities: the damage may be subtle but no less real.
It is in the nature of a father to love his child; it is in the nature of a family to provide love. Love empowers acts, empowers selflessness. The government cannot give love – and those who think of themselves as more thoughtful of their fellow citizens because they want to give them the government are not just mistaken, they are badly mistaken. They are doing their fellows an irreparable harm. Alienating ourselves from our natures may appear to create bypaths to freedom but, of course, they don’t. They lead us to the bleakest of deserts. Is this what we want for our children? For others’ children?