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Us Against the Gangs What Liberals Know That Isn't So

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Middle Class Family Values

by Christopher Chantrill
March 20, 2004 at 7:00 pm


HE’D GROWN up fatherless, the caller told radio host Dennis Prager.  Now he was a born-again Christian with a wife and kids, and liked to think of Dennis as the father he never had. 

Everyone agrees that the conservative movement has spawned a renewed interest in the family and family values.  But what does family values mean?  Conservatives like to represent it as an ageless devotion to the permanent things, and liberals like Stephanie Coontz as a suffocating nostalgia for The Way We Never Were.

In fact, of course, both conservatives and liberals are wrong.  The middle-class family is a new and radical concept, so conservatives are mistaken when they imagine the family as a sacred tradition that goes back to the dawn of time.  But the liberals are wrong too.  Who cares whether families in the 1950s were really like the Cleavers in Leave it to Beaver?  The middle-class family has never been a reality; it is instead a revolutionary ideal.

American philosopher Lee Harris makes this clear in Civilization and Its Enemies when he shows how the modern family came to replace the traditional family in Europe.  This change did not just happen; it was forced upon the world when the dynamic modern form of social organization, the team, elbowed its way onto the world stage.  The modern team cannot coexist with the traditional family.  One or the other must give way.  This was starkly illustrated recently in City Journal by British writer Theodore Dalrymple in an article about his work as a young doctor in a hospital in Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe.

Although black doctors were paid the same as white doctors in Rhodesia, they did not enjoy the same standard of living.  There was a simple reason for this: the black doctors “had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill.  They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members... and people from their village, tribe, and province.”  And the more they made, the more they were expected to spread their good fortune around the family.  The white doctors, on the other hand, had no obligations to family and tribe.  They worked long and hard, but lived like kings in spacious villas attended by servants, and enjoyed “friendship, sport, study, and hunting.”  To the African, this lack of family obligation in the westerner is “puzzling and unfeeling.”  To the westerner, it is called freedom.

In Africa, people still live in a web of consanguinity; in the west, people live as members of a team.  It is therefore a mistake to think of the bourgeois world as one of rugged individualism.  The modern economy is more like a sports league, where well-coached teams come to play against each other for the honor of giving the best service to the consumer.  Modern corporations expend enormous effort to promote team spirit in their employees.  The modern nation state is another remarkable creation, establishing a new social focus of belonging to replace the old social membership that could only comprehend blood relationship.  But the most notable modern team is probably not the corporation but the nuclear family with its husband and wife forming their own team, their partnership, to raise and fledge their children. 

Looking back on the transformation from a family-oriented world to a team-oriented world, one is struck by the audacity of it all.  How could anyone have dared to break out of the safety of blood relationship and (in the formulation of Lee Harris) recklessly experiment with a new way of socialization by adapting the teenage boys’ gang into the cooperative team?    But it worked, and to replace the old family, the middle class built up a new myth of the family, no longer the sprawling network of cousinhood but the focused, purposeful, nuclear family team.

The post-enlightenment left hates this world of middle-class teams: the families, the churches, the businesses, and the self-help associations.  It hates the hearty competition and the dogged pursuit of respectability.  It celebrates refusal, the multitude refusing the invitation to accept citizenship and the creative genius “challenging” the system.  It believes in a world of creative geniuses swimming in a world of universal community.

Again and again, the left has fought to destroy the team spirit of middle-class culture.  They pretty well destroyed the mutual-aid associations; they made fun of corporate teams; and now they are trying to destroy middle-class marriage.  The last time they tried this, in the 1960s, they ended up sending the respectable working class into the Republican party.  This time, they will likely unmoor blacks and Hispanics from the Democratic party base.

Middle-class tradition and family values may be nothing but a “myth.”  But they are a myth by which ordinary Americans climb up from single-parent indigence to proud competence and respectability.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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