Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Old Father

One of the best books on fatherhood is Fatherless America, by American writer David Blankenhorn. In one of the chapters of this book, "The Old Father", Blankenhorn notes that the traditional, masculine father arouses a strong, negative reaction in modern cultures.

The question is why? I'd like to set out my own answer to this, drawing on the useful source material (and many of the arguments) provided by Blankenhorn.

Gender splitting

Why has there been such a strong rejection of the Old Father? One reason is that the traditional father was strongly masculine. As Blankenhorn writes,

In essence, the Old Father is the paternal embodiment of ... what several analysts term "the masculine mystique.


Why is this a problem? The answer runs as follows. We live in a society shaped by liberal political principles. The first principle of liberalism is that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own individual will and reason. However, our sex - our manhood and womanhood - is not something that we can choose for ourselves. It is, in the terms of liberalism, a "biological destiny".

It's difficult for liberals to accept the idea that our lives might be influenced in an important way by something unchosen like the sex we are born into. They prefer to believe that traditional sex roles are oppressive social constructs which can be overcome. They think that we are liberated when we throw off the "confines" of such sex roles, by achieving genderlessness (androgyny) or better yet by reversing traditional sex roles.

Blankenhorn provides a large number of good quotes illustrating this kind of liberal thought process. For instance, Carolyn Heilbrun claims in her book Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1993) that,

our future salvation lies in a movement away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and modes of personal behavior can be freely chosen.


This is simply a very orthodox liberalism in which gender is thought of as a "prison" because gender roles are not "freely chosen" by the individual.

Another interesting quote is Judith Lorber's call for "the eradication of gender as an organizing principle of post-industrial society" and the "restructuring of social institutions without a division of human beings into the social groups called 'men' and 'women'."  Lorber is so concerned here to show that gender difference is merely an outmoded social construct, that she puts the words men and women in inverted commas and refers to them as "social groups".

Susan Moller Okin spells out the liberal view in these terms:

A just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes. No assumptions would be made about "male" and "female" roles; childbearing would be so conceptually separated from child rearing and other family responsibilities that it would be a cause for surprise, and no little concern, if men and women were not equally responsible for domestic life or if children were to spend much more time with one parent than another. (Justice, Gender and the Family, 1989)


In this quote Susan Moller Okin is calling for gender to be made so entirely irrelevant that it would be both surprising and concerning if mothers spent more time with their babies than fathers did (and note again the placing of the terms male and female in inverted commas).

Finally, there is family therapist Frank Pittman's warning that "Heavy doses of masculinity are unquestionably toxic, and no longer socially acceptable."

So liberals reject the Old Father because they are led by their first principles to reject traditional sex roles. Blankenhorn adds a further twist to this idea by noting that many theorists are especially opposed to the male sex role because they believe that it is the origin of "gender splitting" - in other words, that it's masculine fathers (rather than feminine mothers) who trigger the masculine identity of their sons and feminine identity of their daughters.

That's why family therapist Olga Silverstein specifically targets the male sex role when urging us to seek "the end of the gender split", as "until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role ... we will be denying both men and women their full humanity." (Our very humanity is at stake! ... as liberals see it, anyway.)

What is the conservative response to all this? I won't launch into a full-scale criticism of the liberal attitude to gender at this point. I'll simply point out that science has already proven that differences in male and female behaviour can be at least partly attributed to differences in the biological natures of men and women. So liberals are going against both nature and reason in claiming that gender differences are a social construct which can be overcome.

Paternal authority

There's a second major reason why the Old Father arouses a hostile response in modern Western societies. David Blankenhorn perceptively recognises that,

At bottom, much of this assault [on the Old Father] centers on the problem of paternal authority: the use of power by fathers in family life and in the larger society.


Why should paternal authority be such a problem? Again, we have to go back to liberal first principles for an answer. Liberals believe that we should be subject only to our own individual will and reason, but this means that liberals can only accept forms of authority that they themselves have consented to or contracted with. Unchosen forms of authority are made illegitimate by liberal first principles.

That's why early forms of liberalism were often so hostile to the power of kings and priests, as the authority of both was unchosen. The eighteenth century writer Denis Diderot captured this hostility perfectly in his famous saying that,

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.


But it's not only kings and priests who wield unchosen authority. So too do fathers. We don't vote to accept our father's authority, nor do we formally assent to it. Instead, we are simply born into our father's dominion. Our own reasoned preferences don't come into it at all.

So it's little wonder that the Old Father should provoke such opposition within a liberal culture. As Blankenhorn describes it,

The Old Father wields power. He controls. He decides. He tells other people what to do. He has fangs. This aspect of his character generates suspicion and resentment ... This is the heart of the matter. Many contemporary critics view authority ... as synonymous with male identity itself.


Blankenhorn provides quite a number of examples from within popular culture in which the authority of fathers is feared or reviled. For instance, in 1993 Oliver Stone produced a television miniseries, "Wild Palms", in which there is a struggle in Los Angeles in the year 2007 between liberal humanists and malignant totalitarians. The humanists call themselves "Friends" in contrast to the totalitarians who call themselves "Fathers".

There is also the case of Sara Maitland who in describing "every dark thing that father means" confesses her desire to "cast out the Father in my head who rules and controls me ...This frightens me; I want to protect my father and my love for him. I do not want to kill him, to see him dead. I want to set the man free from having to be a father."

From the sphere of "high" culture there is also the viewpoint of poet Adrienne Rich, who believes that our unjust society is a Kingdom of the Fathers, which stands for "rapism and the warrior mentality".

Of course, the tension created by paternal authority is not only a product of liberalism. It exists also because it's an authority which is so close to home, so personal: if it's wielded unwisely it touches an especially raw nerve.

This is a point focused on by Blankenhorn who notes that "antagonism toward paternal power seems to go with the territory of fatherhood." Although maternal authority also exists, the father's power is "more rule-oriented, more emotionally distant, more aggressive, more physically coercive, more instrumental, and therefore more overtly severe."

This means, in Blankenhorn's words, that there is a "necessary but potentially explosive tension between father and child. Much of this tension is rooted in the fact that the child both craves and resents authority. So does culture."

Blankenhorn continues by eloquently rebutting those who think the solution to the question of paternal authority is to destroy it. He writes,

Here is a core irony of fatherhood. If having a father fosters anger in children, having no father fosters greater anger. If fathers generate tension and ambivalence in children that is hard to resolve, fatherlessness generates cynicism and confusion that is much harder to resolve.

If paternal authority it problematic, abdication of paternal authority is tragic. Yes, a fathered society must struggle with the inherent tensions of domesticated masculinity. But a fatherless society must accept the consequences of undomesticated masculinity: mistrust, violence, nihilism.

Adrienne Rich is wrong. Ultimately, rapism and the warrior culture mentality represent the kingdom of the fatherless, not the fathers. Male predation is not the synonym, but rather the necessary antonym, of encultured paternity.


Bringing it together

Liberals, therefore, reject the Old Father on two grounds. First, for liberals it is illegitimate to base parenting on traditional gender roles. Second, liberals don't easily accept unchosen forms of authority, including paternal authority.

So liberals need to find a way to avoid gender splitting on the one hand, and to overcome paternal authority on the other. One logical way of doing this is to have a single parental role shared by both sexes, but based on the mother, rather than the father.

Back in 1982 this is exactly what Sara Ruddick urged in her book Rethinking the Family. In this work Ruddick tells us that she looks forward,

to the day when men are willing and able to share equally and actively in transformed maternal practices ... On that day there will be no more 'fathers,' no more people of either sex who have power over their children's lives and moral authority in their children's world ... There will [instead] be mothers of both sexes.


This must have seemed a radical proposal back in 1982. Yet we can't laugh at it, or dismiss it as "going too far", because it has already become the accepted attitude to fatherhood.

In the mainstream media it is now assumed that a good father, an involved father, is one who takes on a traditional mothercare role, especially hands-on babycare tasks. It is also assumed that because the Old Father did not engage much in these tasks that he was uninvolved in family life.

It's not even considered that the Old Father contributed to his family in an important way by going to work to provide an income, by teaching discipline and morals, by actively guiding and socialising his children and by providing emotional stability and physical protection for his family.

To put this another way, there is no longer a recognised masculine role for men within the family. Effectively a distinctive fatherhood has been abolished as a social ideal. Men can now either be one part of a motherhood team, or else simply not be recognised for their efforts by the culture they live in.

Liberty & fatherhood

The liberal principle is that to be fully human we have to be self-created by our own individual will and reason. If true, this means that that the liberty to be unimpeded in our individual will is what makes us human. Liberty of will therefore becomes the trump card of politics.

Liberty of will, expressed simply as "liberty", is an attractive slogan. There are even conservatives who wish to make it a one word definition of conservative politics.

I hope, though, that what I've written above serves as a warning to conservatives not to accept the current understanding of "liberty of will" too lightly. The logic of this concept, as currently understood, requires a radical transformation of society, including the effective abolition of fatherhood.

Nor does "liberty of will" really deliver a true sense of freedom to the individual. Is abolishing our gender identity - our sense of manhood and womanhood - really felt as a personal freedom? Is it really a freedom to restrict men's participation in the family to a feminine role?

Liberty of will just doesn't work as a sole reigning principle of politics. It doesn't correctly define what is worthy and what is necessary within a social order. It cannot even deliver the one thing it promises, namely individual freedom.

Conservatives, then, will be exactly those people who reject the idea that "liberty of will" is the sole determining principle of politics. If masculine fatherhood is an impediment to individual will, conservatives will not automatically sacrifice fatherhood to remove the impediment.

This is because the worth and the necessity of fatherhood is not reasonably measured just in terms of its effect on liberty of will. Fatherhood has its own importance, residing elsewhere: in the security provided to mothers and children by a strong, protective father, in the transmission of moral values through paternal authority, and in the successful socialisation of boys to a productive and well-directed manhood through fatherly role models.

(First published at Conservative Central, 18/01/2005)

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