The Silence of the Good People

by Stephen Baskerville

Wade F. Horn, David Blankenhorn, and Mitchell B. Pearlstein, eds. The Fatherhood Movement: A Call to Action. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 1999. ISBN 0-7391-0022-X.

The last five years has seen an explosion of campaigns dedicated to the crisis of fathers who are cut off from their children. Some are large, well-funded national organizations, generally dedicated to promoting responsible fatherhood in cultural rather than political terms. Others are small, scattered, and ragtag groups concerned with the political and constitutional rights (or lack thereof) of fathers and their children.

The relationship between these two wings of the fatherhood movement has thus far been largely complementary and amicable. They share the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of fathers and families, and rights and responsibilities are, clich�that it is, undeniably two sides of the same coin. But as the movement grows (which it is doing by leaps and bounds), friction is bound to increase.

This collection of essays by some major figures in the more established wing of the movement makes clear that that they wish to include and accommodate fathers rights advocates among their ranks, at least to a point. Too much discussion of rights does make some conservatives (and nowadays some liberals) uncomfortable in a society where every group under the sun seems to be staking a claim. For their part, fathers rights advocates are ill at ease with the implication that fathers should be presumed to be irresponsible. All this may appear as another division familiar in any political movement between moderates and radicals, but the political dynamics are complicated. While radicals are unlikely to be entirely satisfied with this book by moderates, they should not dismiss it and may even gain a few useful insights.

Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, the most well known fatherhood organization, repeatedly writes in his keynote essay about the new attention to fatherhood as a social movement (my emphasis). The word he avoids, quite intentionally, is political. Horns reluctance to discuss fatherhood politically may proceed from justifiable concern that some could use this to dismiss the movement as a stalking horse for some hidden agenda to restore patriarchy. What remains of politics therefore is largely public policy. But the parallels Horn himself invokes with movements that initially had little connection with government (abolitionism, temperance, civil rights) betray the fact that, admit it or not, what we have here is a political phenomenon from which the demand for civil rights is inseparable.

The volumes main concession to the rights of fathers is the essay by Ronald Henry on divorced dads, which is indeed one of the most forthright in the book. Henry sets off to elucidate brilliantly the dangerously intrusive nature of family courts:

A custody decree is an order that restricts parents access and custodial rights with respect to the child andenjoins the parents from the exercise of their former, unrestricted rights. In all other situations, the guiding principle is that injunctive relief should be carefully crafted to impose only such minimum restrictions upon the parties prior freedom as is required to resolve the present dispute. In contrastthe most common custody decrees issued by the courts today impose maximum rather than minimum change upon the parent-child relationship.


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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.