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.

Here I hope Ta-Nehisi won't mind my quoting his post about why he and his partner, Kenyatta, are unmarried despite having a child together, which I meant to link to months ago. You should read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:

As much as I can recall, there were basically three reasons for us to get married. 1.) I might leave. Marriage would force me to do the right thing. 2.) To declare our commitment to each other before a community of people whom we loved. 3.) The business reasons--the legalities of your estate and guardianship. I found--and still find--the first two reasons were utterly unconvincing. The third held some sway, but with the help of a lawyer we've managed to take care of that. The first turned marriage into a kind of insurance policy, and I just believed that if you felt you needed insurance for the person you were having kids by to stick out, you needed to reconsider the whole proposition. The commitment and community reason held some appeal. But I believed, and still believe, that long-term romantic partnerships are between the two people entering into it.

I hated the idea of public declarations, because the life blood of the relationship--what bills to pay, how to raise your child, your love life--all of that happened when no one else was around. Kenyatta knows more about me than any human being walking the earth--and this is as it should be. No one knows more about my strengths and my weaknesses, my failings and my successes. I trust her to the end. But that trust was worked for--it was not declared or conjured by the presence of other people ...

That gets at the essential truth for me--a relationship couldn't be about talking to other people. It couldn't be about telling other people what I was gonna do; it had to be about the actual work. From that perspective, a wedding was abominable to me. It was the antithesis of everything I wanted--a vain spectacle of love, when love is to be demonstrated, it is to be done, it is to be worked like a job ....

There's serious truth here - but again, it's not the only truth. Yes, the best relationships shouldn't need institutional hedges against infidelity and/or abandonment. But an awful lot of relationships worth fighting for do end up benefiting from being hedged around with institutional supports - because life is long, people are complicated, and you don't always know when you're starting out what you'll need to reach the end of the road together. Yes, relationships are about the two people involved far more than they're about anybody else. But that doesn't mean that they aren't also about the community, particularly when kids are involved. The private is central and essential, but it still spills over into the public; your relationship is about you and your partner, but it's also, inevitably, about your friends and neighbors as well.

And these two points go hand in hand. When people don't do the right thing, whether by their partner or more importantly by their kids, it's by definition a problem for the community, because it's the community that's left to pick up the pieces. Which is why it makes sense for your community to ask you for a public commitment when you set out to rear a family, whether you think that you and the mother/father of your child needs such a thing or not. You may be sure that you're in the kind of relationship that won't benefit from an institutional commitment, but the community doesn't know that: It just knows that in the aggregate, public commitments tend to be stronger than private ones - and thus better for parents, for children, and for society writ large. So a community that asks for public commitments isn't disrespecting your potential exceptionalism; it's just asking you to respect the aggregate, and to set an example for the people who might not be as exceptional as you.

And the truth, as anyone who's read his blog or his book knows full well, is that Ta-Nehisi is exceptional - the exceptional son of an exceptional father and family. But most people aren't exceptional. Most American families in which a single man fathers seven kids by four mothers don't produce engineers, Pixar programmers, and writers for the Atlantic. And that's why norms matter, why institutions matter - and sometimes why stigmas matter as well. Not for the sake of Ta-Nehisi's partner and child - I think things are going to turn out pretty well for the family Coates no matter what - but for the sake of all those people who won't be as lucky in their mate and in their parents.