Family values from the left?

By Stephen Baskervillepage two

The tension between “conservatives” and “liberals” is a refrain throughout The War on Parents. Both are excoriated: the left for positions that hardly need mentioning to ejected fathers; the right for its acceptance of the hardships and dislocations caused by the unregulated market and for its tolerance of corporate “greed.” These last place an impossible financial burden on low- and middle-income parents struggling to make ends meet. This should not be dismissed, for Hewlett and West make a powerful case. Fathers should pay particularly attention (as do the authors) to the disturbing drop in male wages.

What they do not do is address the fathers counter-argument, a poignantly concrete variation of the “conservative” argument that conservatives themselves seldom voice. This is that the various provisions of the welfare state, however well-intentioned, eventually amount to a kind of institutional surrogate fatherhood, which by providing what used to be provided by the family breadwinner, contribute to the redundancy of the father. Taken to its logical conclusion the welfare state does have this danger. (Living in formerly communist Eastern Europe, I frequently observed couples where the woman was elegantly attired and the man was sporting a boiler suit. This was explained as a holdover from the cult of “the worker,” when the state provided so much that the man never provided anything.) Yet we do not always have to take everything all the way to its logical conclusion. Other factors most notably the legal custody racket — are at least as important to the destruction of fatherhood and the family, and taken on its own the welfare state may be relatively minor. European societies with much more extensive welfare state provisions are (as Hewlett and West do point out) far less “advanced” than the United States in family and father destruction. Having said this though, I actually doubt this argument ever occurred to Hewlett and West (until recently it did not occur to me), but they should be aware of it, for it is undoubtedly a significant contributor to the right turn in the politics of American men, and addressing it would have made their book more convincing.

The other important section of this book is where Hewlett and West (like Mack) take on the ravages of child protective services, which routinely confiscate children from parents of both genders for any reason or no reason. While containing little that has not been documented elsewhere, this section is again significant for its ideological vantage point from the left. It also provides the occasion for some nice quotations that underline perhaps unintended ironies as far as fathers are concerned. The authors write of

a new class of professionals social workers, therapists, foster care providers, family court lawyers who have a vested interest in taking over parental functions. Bureaucracies everywhere have a remorseless drive to expand to widen their client base. If children are the clients, parents can quite easily become the adversaries the people who threaten to take business away.

The term “new class” may or may not consciously refer to Milovan Djilas characterization of the communist apparat, but the comparison is apt. One striking feature of communism was how it absorbed and institutionalized precisely the exploitations it aimed to eradicate: unsafe and unhealthy working conditions became symbols of “working class” pride; the bureaucratic state, far from withering away, became almighty; state-sponsored repression became more systematic and savage than what it replaced; cults of personality and “bread and circuses” became more lavish–and spontaneous political activity more strongly discouraged–than in the most decadent divine-right monarchy.

On a more subtle level something similar now pervades the Western democracies in the form of the compassionate state: child protection bureaucracies have become a system of institutionalized child abuse; bureaucratic courts who loudly advertise their commitment to “the best interest of the child” systematically and ruthlessly destroy the homes and lives of children for their own power and profit; child support enforcement bureaucracies thrive and expand by relentlessly plundering and destroying responsible, loving, and solvent fathers, thus creating the very impecunious “deadbeat dads” they claim are the problem. In short, the state as surrogate father launches a reign of terror to eliminate its competitors.

Hewlett and West know all this and illustrate some of it admirably, yet they continue to insist on a central role for government in promoting the family. As a child of two federal “civil servants” (yes, that archaic term was the one we used in our household), I am not ready to declare them wrong. But a government that comes in the night and takes away the children is one that fathers especially are now a little leery of accepting favors from. Mothers too no doubt, as Hewlett and West would say, and indeed they should be. “Witch hunts” like those in Wenatchee, Washington demonstrate that bureaucratic zealots have no more regard for mothers than for fathers and that mothers should be wary of how they condone the stealing of children from their fathers, especially when aided by false accusations of child abuse.

Yet this is not the message we hear in this book. Rather the lesson to be drawn is the evils of the “profit motive.” Again, my response is “yes indeed, perhaps.” The December issue of Government Executive, a trade journal that bills itself as “governments business magazine” carries a cover that blares out “Wheres Dad? HHS is leading a forceful change to make deadbeat parents pay up.” The latest moves by government to unleash corporate bounty hunters on fathers indicates that the marriage of the public and private sectors does not augur well for the Bill of Rights. If I am now more likely to see bureaucratic aggrandizement than corporate greed, perhaps that is simply a matter of age. The authors themselves note that “most of the critical literature on the foster care system has come from the right wing,” and they scathingly point out that “it is rather surprising that liberals have so readily bought into a fee-for-service approach to child-raising, particularly when many of the victims of Child Protective Services and the foster care system are poor people of color.”

This leads to the other dimension of the book which, while hardly neglected as anecdotal background, is perhaps not sufficiently tied in to the central theme. This is the great tragic flaw that runs through every issue of American history and politics: race. Possibly the most important statement in the book ties race to fatherhood (and then, inexplicably, lets it drop): “When it comes to husbands and dads, the African-American experience prefigures the contemporary mainstream experience.” (Or, as Frederick Douglass once put it more generally, “the Negro and the nation are to rise or fall, besaved or lost, together.”) When fathers groups fully come to grips with the implications of this statement they will begin to win the war. It may not be fair to expect Hewlett and West to do so in this book. But it may be that this book marks the crossing of a historic divide of quite far-reaching importance indeed: the replacement of race by gender as the central fault line in American politics.

But this is too much to expect from one book. Perhaps the point for us is that the war on fathers is doing for domestic politics what the implosion of communism did internationally: it is making the entire left-right spectrum obsolete. From this perspective what fathers might salvage is simply the insight that, however wise and salutary their views, conservatives almost by definition and certainly by temperament make lousy political activists. If left radicals too often make fanatical ones, that may be what the fathers “movement” needs a tad more of right now. (Youve got to give those communists one thing, my right-wing friends admit, they sure know how to organize.) The make-up of fathers groups is in fact strikingly reminiscent of the former pockets of Eastern European dissidents: It spans the political spectrum, and as Vaclav Havel once accurately predicted of the dissidents, if they were ever successful against their regimes they would be far too divided ever to exercise real power of their own. For a former fellow-traveler now witnessing the closest this country has ever come to Stalinism, perhaps thats no bad thing either.

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