Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Fatherless America

I recently came across the book Fatherless America by David Blankenhorn. Published in 1995, it's too good to adequately discuss in a single column. For now, I just want to cover the most important section of it.

In the chapter "The New Father", Blankenhorn discusses the way that fathers are now meant to be. He believes that the ideal of the new father is androgynous, that "fatherhood without the masculinity" is what is being aimed for.

There is now an assumption that "parenting" is what women have traditionally done - the hands on care and nurture of children - and that a good father is therefore a man who shares or takes over this mothering role.

Blankenhorn has no trouble finding authorities who promote this vision of a non-masculine fatherhood. For instance, he quotes James Garbarino, the president of an institute for the study of child development, who asserts,

To develop a new kind of father, we must encourage a new kind of man .. If we are to rewrite the parenting scripts to emphasize nurturing and the investment of self in children's lives, we need to ask, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?"

Similarly, Diane Ehrensaft in Parenting Together openly endorses the idea of men and women "mothering" their children together. Then there is Andrew M. Greely who states bluntly that society should administer a "dose of androgyny" to men and "insist that men become more like women". One textbook on family life reassuringly claims that "androgyny would be especially beneficial to men".

A necessary fatherhood?

To his credit, David Blankenhorn immediately identifies one of the main dangers in this vision of a new, non-masculine fatherhood: it makes men unnecessary within a family. Blankenhorn puts it a little more academically, writing that,

At bottom, the New Father idea presupposes the larger thesis that fatherhood is superfluous. In this respect, the New Father is indistinguishable from the Unnecessary Father.

If there is no distinctly masculine role for fathers, then the most that men can do is to help out with mothering tasks. But this is not a necessary role. It could be done successfully by a single mother, or by two women living together.

Which raises a critical question. Why would intellectuals insist that there is no distinctly masculine role for men as fathers? Blankenhorn argues that,

undergirding the entire New Father model is the imperative of gender role convergence. The essence of this imperative is the removal of socially defined male and female roles from family life.

I think he's right. Liberals, who currently dominate the political class, believe that we should be self-created by our own will and reason. This means that they don't like the idea that we should be defined by things we haven't chosen for ourselves. One thing we don't get to choose for ourselves is our sex. This means that liberals wish to deny or remove the traditional influence of gender on our identity and behaviour. And this includes overthrowing "gendered" roles within the family. Hence the liberal preference for "gender role convergence".

Blankenhorn actually lays out a very similar argument to this. He writes that there are two ideas which are supposed to replace socially defined gender roles.

The first is "the moral importance of personal choice - the belief that choosing freely among family behaviors is not simply a possible means to something good but is itself something good." This is, in other words, the liberal idea that it is a moral good to choose for ourselves our role within the family, rather than accepting a traditional role.

The second is "an ideal of human development based on a rejection of gendered values ... In part, the imperative of role convergence simply urges the reduction or elimination of sex specialization within the family. But in a larger sense, the imperative warns that any notion of socially defined roles for human beings constitutes an oppressive and socially unnecessary restriction on the full emergence of human potentiality."

Blankenhorn really gets to the heart of the issue here. The liberal political class believes we must be self-defined rather than socially defined, or else we are oppressed and restricted in expressing our humanity.

The critical moment

We now arrive at what I think is the most interesting part of the book. Blankenhorn has already traced the acceptance of the "unnecessary father" back to the idea that we must be self-defined and therefore should choose our own family roles and reject socially defined gender roles.

He then quotes one supporter of this view, Mark Gerzon, who celebrates this self-defining principle of family life because,

Couples may write their own scripts, construct their own plots, with unprecedented freedom ... a man and a woman are free to find the fullest range of possibilities. Neither needs to act in certain ways because of preordained cross-sexual codes of conduct.

Blankenhorn notes that this is "a vision, ultimately, of freedom". He is right: liberals, no matter whether they are left-wing or right-wing in their politics, usually justify their beliefs with the claim that they promote individual liberty. Blankenhorn is also right when he goes on to note that the liberal concept of liberty has an undeniable appeal and that it is an orthodoxy within American (he could have said Western) culture. He writes,

In many ways, it is a bracing, exhilarating vision, bravely contemptuous of boundaries and inherited limitations, distinctly American in its radical insistence on self-created identity. It draws upon the American myth, the nation's founding ideals; it echoes much of what is best in the American character. It is the vision of Whitman in his "Song of the Open Road":

From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines.
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.

There is so much to commend in this vision. It is the reigning ethos of much of contemporary American culture.

And here we have that crucial juncture which separates liberals and conservatives. A liberal will at this point stick to his vision of individual freedom, and deal with negative social consequences as they arise (or ignore them). A conservative, though, will too much value what is being lost, and will question a "freedom" which destroys an important human good.

Which way does Blankenhorn go? He decides for conservatism. He declares of the liberal vision that,

... as a social ethic for fatherhood, I dispute it.

I dispute it because it demands the obliteration of precisely those cultural boundaries, limitations, and behavioral norms that valorize paternal altruism and therefore favor the well-being of the infant.

I dispute it because it denies the necessity, and even repudiates the existence, of fathers' work: irreplaceable work in behalf of family that is essentially and primarily the work of fathers.

I dispute it because it tells an untrue story of what a good marriage is. In addition, I dispute it because it rests upon a narcissistic and ultimately self-defeating conception of male happiness and human completion.

The last point is, I believe, of tremendous significance. Can we really as men achieve a sense of self-completion, of fulfilling our natures, if we accept the role of a genderless self-defining individual, with no necessary place within a family as father or husband? I can't help but agree with David Blankenhorn that the answer is no.

Fool's gold

I'd like to finish by quoting some of the conclusion to the chapter on "The New Father". I think these excerpts show the quality of thought and expression that exists throughout Fatherless America. Blankenhorn writes,

The human child does not know or care about some disembodied abstraction called "parent." What it needs is a mother and a father who will work together, in overlapping but different ways, in its behalf...

Ultimately, the division of parental labor is the consequence of our biological embodiment as sexual beings and of the inherent requirements of effective parenthood ...

In service to the child and to the social good, fathers do certain things that other people, including mothers, do not do as often, as naturally, or as well ...

Historically, the good father protects his family, provides for its material needs, devotes himself to the education of his children, and represents his family's interests in the larger world. This work is necessarily rooted in a repertoire of inherited male values ...

... androgyny and gender role convergence reflect the ultimate triumph of radical individualism ... it is the belief, quite simply, that human completion is a solo act. It is the insistence that the pathway to human happiness lies in transcending the old polarities of sexual embodiment in order for each individual man and woman to embrace and express all of human potentiality within his or her self ... Now each man, within the cell of himself, can be complete ...

This idea, so deeply a part of our culture, is fool's gold. It is a denial of sexual complementarity and ultimately a denial of generativity ... Especially for men, this particular promise of happiness is a cruel hoax. Like all forms of narcissism, its final product is not fulfilment but emptiness.

I hope that it's possible to glean the quality of David Blankenhorn's writing from these excerpts. He has written a detailed, insightful and eloquent book which still stands nearly a decade after its first appearance as a most compelling defence of traditional fatherhood.

(First published at Conservative Central, 21/11/2004)

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