Sunday, November 29, 2020

Fury, protest & fatherhood

Mary Eberstadt has contributed an excellent piece on fatherhood at First Things. I say this despite her accepting aspects of liberal modernity (e.g. she is clearly a civic nationalist). What she does do, however, is to draw out an argument that I've made before at this site, namely that a father symbolically represents the larger social order, so that if the paternal relationship is absent or hostile, children are more likely to grow up to reject and act against that order.

What I particularly like about Mary Eberstadt's article is that she recognises the way that filial piety creates a tripartite loyalty, namely to one's father & family; to God & church; and to nation/patria. That is why it is unwise, say, for a church to ask for loyalty to itself whilst seeking to undermine a loyalty to patria, or for someone seeking to uphold national loyalties to attack the loyalties of individuals to their own fathers or to the churches. The three tend to stand or fall together because it is given to us, as a deeper part of our nature, to either honour the virtue of filial piety or to act against it. To put this another way, it is difficult for an individual to have a deeply developed sense of duty and fidelity in the absence of filial piety.

This is how Mary Eberstadt explains the outbreak of political violence in American cities earlier this year:

The explosive events of 2020 are but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives. That eruption exposes the threefold crisis of filial attachment that has beset the Western world for more than half a century. Deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.

I am particularly impressed by the next quote in which she directly connects the three loyalties that emanate from filial piety:

Plainly, weakened bonds in one phase are not an isolated phenomenon; they encourage weaker bonds elsewhere. Filial piety, perhaps, is like a muscle that is strengthened by different forms of exercise.

We are only beginning to understand how filial ­piety operates, such that loss of patriotism, loss of faith, and loss of family each seem to encourage breakdown in the other parts of the triad.

Mary Eberstadt sees the young people who lack the ordered existence that is brought into being via the father and what he represents as suffering from ressentiment. She makes a good case that this helps to explain the targets chosen by activists during the protests:

Like Edmund in King Lear, who despised his half-brother Edgar, these disinherited young are beyond furious. Like Edmund, too, they resent and envy their fellows born to an ordered paternity, those with secure attachments to family and faith and country.

That last point is critical. Their resentment is why the triply dispossessed tear down statues not only of Confederates, but of Founding Fathers and town fathers and city fathers and anything else that looks like a father, period...It is why bands of what might be called “chosen protest families” disrupt actual family meals. It is why BLM disrupts bedroom communities late at night, where real, non-chosen families are otherwise at peace.

Unsurprisingly she discovers that many of the key thinkers behind critical race theory lacked a father:

...the biographies of at least some of today’s race-minded trailblazers suggest a connection between fatherlessness and identity politics. The author of the bestseller White Fragility was a child of divorce at age two. The author of the bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race reports that her father left the family and broke off contact, also when she was two. The author of another bestseller, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, was raised by a single mother. The author of another hot race book, The Anti-Racist: How to Start the Conversation About Race and Take Action, was raised by his grandmother. Colin Kaepernick’s biological father left his mother before he was born, but he was then adopted and raised by a white family. James Baldwin, a major inspiration for today’s new racialist writers, grew up with an abusive stepfather; his mother left his biological father before he was born. The list could go on.

I noted the same thing about the leaders of second wave feminism:

Germaine Greer once wrote a book entitled Daddy, We Hardly Knew You. Gloria Steinem said of her father that he "was living in California. He didn't ring up but I would get letters from him and saw him maybe twice a year." Jill Johnston wrote frequently about her missing father who never tried to contact her. Kate Millett adored her father but when she was thirteen he abandoned the family to live with a nineteen-year-old. The father of Eva Cox left the family to pursue a relationship with a pianist "leaving an embittered wife and a bewildered and rebellious daughter".

It was the same with the earlier generation of feminists. For instance, Rebecca West's father left the family when she was a girl and all three of his daughters became radical feminists, as did Rebecca's feminist friend Dora Marsden:

Dora and Rebecca shared certain searing family experiences. Dora's father had left the family when she was eight...

Mary Eberstadt's argument about the significance of fathers when it comes to wider loyalties has been made before, for instance, by Lawrence Auster:

Symbolically, the father is the structuring source of our existence, whether we are speaking of male authority, of the law, of right and wrong, of our nation, of our heritage, of our civilization, of our biological nature, of our God. All these structuring principles of human life, in their different ways, are symbolically the father. The rebellion we've discussed is...a rebellion against the father. The belief that the universe is structured, intelligible, and fundamentally good, and that one can participate in this universe - this is the experience of having a father, which is the opposite of the experience of alienation that drives contemporary culture.

The Danish historian Henrik Jensen wrote a book on the issue, The Fatherless Society, which unfortunately has never been translated. His core argument has been described as follows:

The masculine — which Henrik calls the “father” — is not simply about men as individuals but is an essential aspect of culture.

He sees it as the vertical dimension, which includes everything that human beings have looked up to, from God on high to ideals and excellence as well as the father’s traditional moral authority.

That vertical dimension is the source of our higher aspirations. This upward reach needs a strong foundation of healthy human relationship — which the more horizontally inclusive world of mothering traditionally has provided. As Henrik said to me, there needs to be a balance between the two.
(If you're interested I wrote a post about Jensen describing his theory in greater detail here - it includes his ideas about the shift from a duty based culture to one based on rights and victimhood.)

I'll finish with a quote from a modern feminist, Sophie Lewis, whose desire to abolish the family is very clearly connected, as Mary Eberstadt would predict, to her terrible relationship with her own father. She does not feel filial piety but instead a fury that she has been unable to escape:

The anger and rage we might feel towards a not something we can expel, once and for all, and nor does it yield a clear solution. Rage has instead to be folded into everything else we may simultaneously feel; it does not simply burn itself out.


  1. Your race is your father(s).

    And so the pathology of anti-racism is in the hatred for one’s father(s).

  2. Semi-relevant to your post: I once went into a commonwealth bank branch with my child, I needed to change some detail in the kid's youth saver account, and the young woman staffer looked at me rather unfriendly and asked whether i had the authority to do that, was I the adult in charge of the account, and I should have said "well yeah I'm the kid's father you know". It was obvious she assumed that that was a mother's job, and she sullenly went off to check that it was me who had that authority but she clearly didn't like it.

  3. I love reading blogs on this site although I am not certain that I belong here. I am a brown woman from a third world country. I feel that Western conservativism has deeply helped me in making the right choices. There's no better system that I have found so far, for orienting myself and my family in. Even if a woman hasn't had a good relationship with her father (I didn't), life today offers many opportunities to gain a holistic perspective.