My friend plays bridge; she tells me the Soviets banned it. Ah, I thought, bridge is mysterious; why, I asked. But it wasn’t bridge – it was the four or eight or twelve – it was community, sharing an interest, and then companionship. It wasn’t as big as the God the party banned or as intimate as the family nor as public as deadened ideas in factory and academy. But it was one of those pillars Charles Murray describes in Coming Apart whose fall disorganizes and diminishes our lives – and our society. Our desire for them is strong; alienation requires strong dominance, perhaps murder – random and targeted, mass and individual. At first we don’t miss them; now and here, we can choose. We often don’t weight our choices as if they are consequential. But they are.
Government has intruded more in the last four years – will in the next four if Iowatrades has it right. But a half century ago we boomers loftily decided connections were oppressive. Above our water beds, posters quoted Emerson – Whim, yes, that was it. Well that’s part of growing up. Eschewing those conventions, consideration of “others” was hazy. We thought, in Haidt’s terms, with our chimp minds. And that’s pretty much adolescence – chimpdom. Spurning connections – religious love, familial love, communal love, and selfless passion for vocation/avocation – we devalued the hive. And the smallest, the first, hive is family.
Why the large “marriage gap” between Obama and Romney? They share one quality neither is always credited with – consistency of vision. If we see a part we can understand the whole. What they don’t share, of course, are definitions of success or family, government or power, integrity or responsibility. Those multi-generation pictures of the Romneys contrast with Obama’s disinterest even in his half-siblings. He may have a broader definition of community, but it isn’t because he has built on a smaller one. Remember how he described his grandmother – family less a marker than race.
The Separatists may have been extreme but they weren’t crazy: four hundred years ago they wanted their faith with no contamination by civil law. They didn’t sign loyalty oaths but they also – in a time when churches did – wanted no money outside their congregation – certainly not from a government. They’d seen clergy forced through hoop after hoop created by each Tudor, then the Stuarts and they’d paid the price for not jumping.
Today, families should be wary of bargains they make with the government that compromise their integrity. A government omnipotent and omnipresent threatens the family. Accepting government largesse accepts its role in the household – one that diminishes (first the father and, ultimately, all). Unlike a dutiful husband who partners, the state threatens and chides; dependency breeds servility. Romney understands; perhaps Obama does. It is not their understanding, of course, that is important – it is their response.
Murray describes how these pillars of the communal support our growth in the personal. With their support, we can take on responsibility, increase our productivity, indeed, gain a greater share of felicity in this life. And such strength strengthens a government like ours – and makes it stronger than one that destroys those four pillars. It may be bigger when it dominates our every moment but that size comes with a loss of strength: diminishing us, diminishing the family in the end diminishes the whole.
Little helps the government more than family. Two – bound by ties of affection and respect, feelings reinforced by rational concern for others, rationality reinforced by biology – are likely to more efficiently parent children in their private lives and more productively achieve in their public ones. This isn’t rocket science. Family can be evaluated from various perspectives – tradition, religion, natural law, legal precedents, subsidiarity, biology, efficiency, economics – without using the most obvious if varied of social conventions and institutions. The family unit (2 or 3 generations loosely and one tightly bound, with some sense of past and future) works. Not perfectly. It can be partial and it can be multi-generational. A sturdy family assimilates an adoption, enlarges to include step-parent and half-siblings, draws into the circle a homosexual union or unrelated friend. But the family’s elasticity has limits – asked to enclose too much, it thins out and finally breaks. A weak band can’t stretch. But if it knows its limits, if it is strong, it encloses and comforts, discipline and supports. That’s good for the family. It’s good for the community. We make ourselves solid, then we make our families so, then, we can help sustain our community.
Our generation was stupid, but the young tend toward arrogance: blind revolutionaries. We thought marriage a silly contract, “just a piece of paper;” duty & commitment oppressed. Why did the older generation let us get by with it? Perhaps it was because there were so many of us; they were worn out by the depression & the war & all those cigarettes. Had they lost confidence in what they knew? Like the Thebans mesmerized by the sphinx, did the evil of segregation confront them & make all past suspect?
Our revolution – like most – strained the margins; it required a strong elasticity in the family bond. With too little social or financial or educational capital, enlarging strains; the bond breaks. That is Murray’s “Fishtown.” With sufficient resources, the family notices that thinning, pulls itself back, accepts conventions that work, and retains sufficient strength to hold the family together. That is Murray’s “Belton.” But Belton saves itself while lying to itself and Fishtown blinks at recognizing how consequential bad choices are. Both suffer cognitive dissonance; for neither does it bode well.