Social Conservatism and the Coates Family

In the course of a discussion of Big Love, Ta-Nehisi had a moving post about his own family's complications, which I linked to in a post of my own, via a remark that HBO's portrait of suburban polygamists "captures the kinds of familial confusions that post-Sexual Revolution Americans already experience as a matter of course." Now he writes, in response:

I would obviously differ with Ross over the "familial confusions" and "post-Sexual Revolution" characterization of my own family. To the contrary, I'd say if you laid out the basic, traditional values you'd want parents to communicate to kids we had them.

It's true that there are seven of us by four mothers. It's true that we didn't all grow up under the same roof. It's true that some of us did time in the projects, and some of us didn't. But it's also true that I've got a brother who's a civil engineer, another who's a programmer for Pixar, a sister who works for the AARP, a brothers who just graduated and is apping for law school, a brother and sister who work with my Dad at the company he founded in his basement, and so on...

It's also true that I'm the one who spent the most time in a "traditional" two-parent household. But more true, is that out my Dad's kids, I'm the biggest screw-up. I'm the only one who was kicked out of high school--twice. I'm also the only one who didn't graduate from college. I was also the second youngest to have a child. When I dropped out, it was like the world ended for my parents. And then it ended again when Kenyatta got pregnant. And then it ended again when we didn't get married. And then it ended again when I came to New York. And the saga continues...

My point is that while we didn't have the artifice of the traditional family, in terms of values, goals and outcome--to paraphrase Malcolm--we were the family the Waltons thought they were. We were the ones Reagan and the conservatives were waiting for--they were just too single-minded to see.

I think he's reading my language as more pejorative than I intended it: The word "confusions," in particular, was just a stand-in for "complicated, hard-to-summarize family structures that don't fit the nuclear-family model." But let me uncork one of my patented on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hedges in response to Ta-Nehisi's broader point. On the one hand, what he's getting at here is precisely the thing that a lot of socially-conservative rhetoric is deaf to - which is not just the extent to which the post-nuclear family society is already here, but the extent to which, for an lot of people in this enormous country of ours, it basically seems to work. One man's "dysfunctional family" is another man's, well, family: That divorced father with the second wife is your father, and his second round of kids are your half-siblings; that out-of-wedlock baby is your baby, or else your nephew or your cousin or your best friend's child); and so on. (Without "family breakdown" of various kinds, millions of Americans wouldn't even exist.) The generalizations, whether moral or social science-y or both, that undergird social conservatism often break down on a case-by-case basis. There are third marriages that are healthier than first marriages; unwed mothers who do a better job than married ones; kids who are better off being raised by a village, if you will, than by an abusive biological father. And it's a rare American who hasn't experienced or at least crossed paths with a family like Ta-Nehisi's, where the supposed "dysfunction" turns out better for almost everyone involved than what a lot of ostensibly more-functional families have to offer.

But on the other hand, the generalizations matter too. The "artifice" of the traditional family isn't just an artifice, and the values that social conservatives hold so dear - monogamy, marriage vows, the idea that every kid deserves a mother and a father in his life - don't just exist to make people in non-traditional families feel bad about themselves. In the aggregate, Dan Quayle was right. In the aggregate, marriage is better for kids than single parenthood. In the aggregate, marriage is better for men and women than long-term cohabitation. In the aggregate, divorce is bad news - for your finances, your health, and your children's long-term prospects. And in the aggregate, if you're concerned about income inequality or social mobility or the crime rate or just about any area of socioeconomic concern, then you should be at least moderately fretful about the long, slow decline of the American two-parent family - among blacks, whites, and Hispanics alike.

These aggregates don't capture the lived reality of millions of American lives, and they can easily become rote and hollow pieties. But they capture a pretty important reality nonetheless.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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