The Silence of the Good People

by Stephen Baskerville
page two

Unfortunately Henry then capitulates to what Maggie Gallagher belittles as good divorce in setting forth joint custody as the least intrusive alternative to automatic sole mother custody. Joint custody has much to be said for it in some circumstances those where the divorce is truly mutual, for example (a mere 20% according to Gallagher) and it mitigates some of the trauma of divorce for some children. But Gallagher is right to debunk joint custody as a panacea for the traumas of divorce. For connected reasons, I also do not think it is very effective or inspiring as a political focus for fathers. Here is one place where we might emphasize common ground with some in responsible fatherhood. (Though Gallaghers position on marriage is far from universally accepted even among them, as the essay by Ronald Mincy and Hillard Pouncy indicates.)

For one thing, joint custody appears to fulfill the stereotype of the divorced dad, a stereotype which is too visible a presence in this book as it is. Far too many times it is simply assumed that divorced and absent fathers are willingly divorced and absent rather than, as is much more likely, divorced over their objections and absent because of a court order. But we lend support to the stereotype or we are at least acquiescing in it when we make joint custody, rather than judicial kidnapping, our only battle cry.

Moreover, joint custody is not the least intrusive custody standard. The least intrusive standard is also the only morally and constitutionally defensible one, the only one that provides for minimal state intrusion into the family, that will bring down the out-of-control divorce epidemic, that will end the use of children as weapons and tools for the power and profit of adults, that avoids the abominations of primary caretaker or highest earner and the extremes of sole mother or sole father custody: Custody goes to the parent that (barring legitimate grounds) wants to hold the family together.

A parent that leaves a marriage without grounds, knowing she is walking away from her children, is putting her own desires before the needs of her children.

She is, by that fact alone, a less fit parent than one who holds the family together.

Moralistic? Judgmental? Perhaps it is time we grasped this nettle. We are moral beings. More importantly, our children require a moral upbringing. Children are not pets who only need feeding and exercise. And many writers in this book emphasize fathers as specifically moral leaders. Horn highlights fathers as disciplinarians and moral instructors. Ken Canfield stresses promoting moral and spiritual development. Don Eberly writes that fathers engender trust, cooperation, and a social generosity among citizens are preconditions of a vigorous civil society. To remove moral judgment from the family (and justice from family law) is, inherently, to undermine fatherhood.

This brings us to what, for our purposes, may be the most suggestive essay in the book, the one that establishes fatherhood as serious political topic. In No Democracy Without Dads, Eberly says that Fathers can be a powerful influence in making better citizens. This argument might be taken much further, but Eberly makes it concisely. A democracy requires of its citizens that they possess enough faith, energy, imagination and self-control to work actively together to solve common problems, to help one another, and if necessary to sacrifice for their own future well-being and the nations, he writes, Fathers play a key role in developing and sustaining the kind of personal character on which democracy depends.

Eberly writes in a long tradition of what was once known as republican virtue. This in turn was a secularized version of Puritan godliness, a testimony to the connection of religion not only to fatherhood but also to the politics of fatherhood. The Puritan belief in the family as a little commonwealth anticipated our conviction that families are the building blocks of civil society. It was a radical and revolutionary idea, responsible for the toppling of monarchies and the expulsion of colonial powers. (And lest feminists point to this as evidence of a resurgent patriarchy, it might be added that it did so by destroying the patriarchal theory of divine right monarchy and that women were drawn to Puritanism and Republicanism in disproportionately large numbers.)

For Eberly trust within the family is the precondition for social cohesion. When sad experience has taught you that you cant trust your own father, he asks who are you likely to trust? Overlooking (yet again) the slur on fathers who may have no choice, the point is central. In fact what Eberly seems to see only obliquely is that it can be extended to every other authority, for example mothers and government institutions. He is exactly right to point to the erosion of trust produced by a growing number of parents who fail to preserve the bonds of trust with their own children, adding: Since most absent parents are men, we are referring primarily to fathers.

No we are not. Most absent parents are indeed fathers, but it is not necessarily they who are causing the absence, and depending on their age, children (unlike policymakers) are quite capable of perceiving this. A mother who has put her own desires before the needs of her children by removing them from their father also has no moral authority to correct or discipline a child. Likewise, a court or social service agency that has engineered the destruction of a childs home for its own political or bureaucratic purposes is also morally bankrupt in the childs eyes. When the fathers expulsion is condoned by relatives, clergy, the media, and virtually every other social and cultural institution (as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead describes in her essay), it is not difficult to see why children grow up with no moral authority in which they can put their trust. It is this destruction and moral bankruptcy of all authority that accounts for the alienation of fatherless children not only from their own fathers and families but from the institutions of our entire society and government as well.

For our purposes, the implication is that political action on behalf of children and fathers is, in and of itself, an antidote to the destruction of fatherhood. The remedy arguably the only remedy for this destruction of authority is the father who is politically active for his rights and those of his children. It also means that restoring our fatherhood is simultaneously a work of restoring our democracy. Social and religious activism is part of this and may be sufficient for some fathers. But the stigma of the Bad Dad (as described in the excellent essay by Armin Brott) is far too advanced for many to be overcome without vocal and public agitation.

Moreover, the political attack on fatherhood is far too advanced. The child custody/support machine is a power that is, in the true and strict sense of the term, not far short of totalitarian. This overused word is appropriate to describe this machine for at least two reasons: It ruthlessly invades and destroys the private sphere of life, and it involves the bureaucratic pursuit of officially designated villains.

This last, unfortunately but not surprisingly, has even infected the fatherhood movement itself. Horn admits that Some are tempted to designate absent fathers as the enemy. Horn himself flatly rejects this, but even broaching a fatherhood movement in which fathers are the enemy provides as clear an admission as we could ask for that we are engaged in a witch hunt. Senator Dan Coats, for one, has no hesitation in using his contribution to the volume to vilify private citizens who have no opportunity to reply in their own defense: The most serious problem is absent, irresponsible fathers, he says flatly. Mitchell Pearlsteins essay is a paragon of political correctness, qualification, and evasion, with the masculinization of irresponsibility, abandoned kids, and missing men. By his own admission, Pearlsteins words are carefully chosen. But his reluctance to offend is more apparent toward groups that are politically influential, and he is more than willing to bash those who are not. Like the good senator, who lauds millions of single mothers who raise their children in hard circumstancesexamples of sacrifice and commitment against the suffering of children caused by absent and irresponsible fathers, Pearlstein is confident that millions of single mothers are rising their children heroically and successfully with little help from men, whereas some men are honorable and responsible (128).

With this bashing of the politically mute within the fatherhood movement, we may justly ask what is going on outside it. Were Mr. Pearlstein to walk a mile in the shoes of these absent fathers he might discover they are some of the most heroic fathers there are. They certainly do not deserve his cheap excoriation.

This leads to the most troubling thing about this book. What is missing from these pages is any voice from the fathers concerned. Many of the writers are fathers, as indicated in the biographical sketches. But they are not the so-called absent fathers. The voices of the absent fathers are absent from this book, and the obvious question becomes whether it is for the same reason they are absent from their homes: because they are not welcome and have been removed by people who wield political power.

If this fatherhood movement is a movement of fathers, there is little indication of it here; it is more of a movement about and perhaps for fathers. But this violates a basic tenet of any social movement: that people must accept responsibility for their own liberation. Yes, responsibility: This is a perfectly valid and important word, and fathers rights advocates should not forget it. But there is also a rather glaring omission in a movement promoting this term in every sense but a political one. A social movement comprised solely of government officials, policy wonks, and foundations can hardly help but be (if you will pardon the term) a little paternalistic.

On this score it is no criticism to point out the likelihood that, like many moderate reformers in the past, Horn and his colleagues may eventually find they have started something they have difficulty controlling.

This is especially likely when we see (as we must) the mobilization of one constituency about whom (but again, perhaps, not to whom) this book is addressed: young, unmarried, urban black fathers. David Blankenhorns suggestive remarks on the potential for racial reconciliation in the fatherhood movement might have been worth developing into a full-length essay:

“Even ten years ago fatherlessness was largely seen as a black problem, with specific causes and dimensions that were distinct from trends affecting the larger society. Moreover, from the mid-1960s until quite recently, many opinion leaders, both white and black, have insisted a few still insist today that calling attention to father absence amounts to little more than racism, an attempt to blame the victim. No longer.”

Or at least the victims now come in all races. Since Blankenhorn doesnt develop the argument, I will suggest it might run something like this: There is an important sense in which we I mean white males are now paying for what we, or at least our forefathers, did to black males. I say this not to cheaply expunge white guilt but to achieve a perspective and perhaps some sense of humility in our legitimate outrage. We destroyed the black family and in particular the black male in slavery and segregation, and the image of his superfluity and worthlessness has now been extended to us. Those who blame feminism might also consider that the womens movement has, in both the last century and this one, followed in the aftermath and mimicked the techniques and the rhetoric of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. The Bible says that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children, and we who would understand the politics of fatherhood should be mindful of this. By the same measure fatherhood will explode politically when (and perhaps only when) these fathers are mobilized and allied with their more affluent, better-educated, and politically experienced brothers. The common denominator linking the two groups is the thus-far largely apolitical black middle class.

Currently, however, policymakers have a different agenda for this constituency: to spend more money. I dont want to dismiss some of the worthy things on which money might be spent, but our willingness to spend money as a way of avoiding difficult choices is a metaphor for the crisis of fatherhood and parenthood generally. (Judith Wallerstein urges more parenting classes.) We have all seen the weak parent who will spend any amount of money on his children to avoid dealing with a problem. Likewise, the surrogate father in the form of government is willing to dole out money to reunite fathers with their children on its own limited terms rather than taking the politically more costly step of restoring their rights to be true, full-time parents. Here the essay by Mincy and Pouncy provides a salutary reminder of the realities facing low-income unmarried fathers that middle-class divorced dads ignore at their peril, but one might have hoped they could have moved beyond the image of these fathers as passive recipients of generosity from the state.

It is tempting for ditched dads to be contemptuous of responsible fatherhood promoters, to deplore their timidity and sneer at their hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. This is a mistake.

The cultural and educational work promoted by the responsible fatherhood movement is important, and ditched dads should not sneer at it. But it is not mutually exclusive with political action, and it should not become an excuse for inaction. This too was the experience of the civil rights movement. There are always those individuals who argue that legislation, court orders, and executive decrees from the federal government are ineffective because they cannot change the heart, observed Martin Luther King. It may be true that the law cant make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me. The law cannot make us value fathers, but it can prevent us from ripping away their children.

We must also recognize that it is not up to Horn to speak out against the political machine; it is up to us. But above all, there is in political thought an old and functionally necessary sense in which oppressed people are by definition irresponsible: they are irresponsible to the extent that they fail to stand up, speak out, and shake off their oppression. We are irresponsible to the extent we tolerate the judicial kidnapping and institutionalized abuse of our own children. This is more than a clich� As Frederick Douglass once commented:

It is a doctrine held by many good menthat every oppressed people will gain their rights just as soon as they prove themselves worthy of them; and although we may justly object to the extent to which this doctrine is carriedit must still be evident to all that there is a great truth in it.

This proof comes through the very process of struggle. What might be called the Booker T. Washington side of the fatherhood movement may not wish to appear political, but its political significance is profound. Historically, movements for social responsibility apparently apolitical and often religious have invariably preceded or accompanied political mobilizations in ways that even their early advocates may not have anticipated. The Puritans began by rooting out wickedness in the alehouse and the brothel and ended up executing a king in the first of the so-called “great revolutions.” The Great Awakening created a style of popular agitation that culminated in the American Revolution. Methodism left a similar legacy in English working-class organization. The advent of Promise Keepers, the Million Man March, and other quasi-religious mass movements (recounted here in an essay by Glenn T. Stanton) along with responsible fatherhood itself however fundamental our differences may now seem, are all unmistakable signs that our day is now arriving.

And yet as we sit by and watch the unopposed spread of one of the most shameful episodes in our history, it may be another truism of the struggle for civil rights that eventually comes back to haunt us: Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection, King wrote in the same essay. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

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Copyright © 1999 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University, where he recently organized a conference on The Politics of Fatherhood.