Family values from the left?

By Stephen Baskerville

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West, The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for Americas Beleaguered Moms and Dads (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998). ISBN 0-395-89169-8. $24.00. Paperback, 1999. ISBN 0-395-95797-4. $14.00.

Reviewed by Stephen Baskerville, Department of Political Science, Howard University

Family values from the left? My first introduction to Cornel West was his attempt to reconcile the black church with Marxism, and I was almost as excited then as I am now. But it is possible we have both grown up a bit since.

This is an important book, but a very problematic one. Its tensions and contradictions are those of liberal America itself right now. For fathers, the first thing to be said is that Cornel West at least is on our side. His experience as a noncustodial father has awakened him to the nightmare that status entails and the almost complete absence of rights for fathers. The result is a general (though not always a consistent) recognition that “the war on parents” is foremost an assault on fathers. One of the four sections is entitled “Fathers Under Siege,” with a chapter on “The Disabling of Dads” and another on the escape routes of Promise Keepers and the Nation of Islam. But the gem of the book for fathers is where West takes on briefly but succinctly the myth of the “deadbeat dad”:

Over the last few years, the antifather bias in our public policies has found its clearest expression in the demonization of deadbeat dads. During the 1996 political conventions, vilification of these “deadbeat dads” won enthusiastic applause from Republican and Democratic audiences alike. In his campaign, President Clinton repeatedly promised to give this country the toughest child support enforcement it has ever had. Cracking down on deadbeat dads is about all our political leaders have to offer on the fatherhood front thin stuff in a country that leads the world in fatherlessness. Where did this punitive policy perspective come from?

This is much better than we will get from many conservative advocates of “responsible fatherhood.” “An overlooked fact is that almost 38 percent of “absent fathers” have neither custody nor visitation rights and therefore no ability to connect with their child,” West adds. “It seems strange to call them by the pejorative term absent when they have no right to be present.”

Our entire panoply of attitudes and policies toward noncustodial parents reeks with hostility to fathers [he adds.] The fact is, we dont need a bigger crackdown we need a new approach.

This is especially important and telling coming from the left. For one thing, it cannot be dismissed as “right-wing” or “patriarchal” or “misogynist” or any of the other inverse McCarthyite brushes with which extreme feminists try to tar fathers who refuse to acquiesce in the legalized kidnapping of their children. By the same token, it is also somewhat sobering for deserted fathers who understandably, but perhaps rashly, turn to the right in reaction to precisely this kind of feminism. Compare the passages above with one from the similarly titled The Assault on Parenthood (1997) by Dana Mack. Mack is connected with the conservative Institute for American Values, whose director David Blankenhorn is author of the acclaimed Fatherless America. Yet the only place where Mack specifically singles-out fathers is the jaw-dropper where she goes out of her way to insist (apropos of nothing else in the book, by the way) that assaulting them is quite acceptable:

If the courts have evinced consistency or stubbornness in any aspect of divorce law at all, it has been their peculiar resistance to the notion that there may be cases other than those involving alleged child maltreatment in which the only way a child can be rescued from the ravages of post-divorce animosity is to allow the parent with primary custody full power to determine visitation rights.

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The War Against Parents:
What We Can Do for Americas Beleaguered Moms and Dads

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Copyright © 1999 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.