November 16, 2012 · 19 Comments
By Marie Burns:
The past ten days have been exceptionally news-heavy in the U.S. First, the election of course, which drove some of the other news, like the negotiations over the falsely-named “fiscal cliff,” then the Petraeus affair with its ever-expanding sideshows, which has morphed into – among other things – the unraveling (again) of Senator Grumpy McCain, who brings to mind that other aggrieved also-ran Mitt Romney, this week doubling down on his “47 percent moocher” school of sociology by explaining away his election loss as the result of President Obama’s “gifts” to special-interest moochers – not to be confused with his running mate Paul Ryan’s explanation that too many urban (read, black) moochers voted (despite the best efforts of Republicans to frighten them into staying home). That’s just on the domestic front. There have been regime changes of sorts in both China and Japan, Europe has slid back into recession, the Syrian civil war goes on and a new series of skirmishes has shattered the fragile detente in Israel-Palestine. Any or all of these international crises might have repercussions here.
So with all this dramatic news in the mix, we find David Brooks using his New York Times real estate to advocate for traditional family values. Perhaps the Petraeus affair has unsettled the Family Brooks. Or, just as likely, Brooks received a copy of The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future? by Joel Kotkin and others. Channeling Kotkin, et al., Brooks tells us people the world over are rejecting the traditional nuclear family in favor of other arrangements or no arrangement at all. According to Brooks, Kotkin and his fellow scholars posit a number of theories as to why this is happening. If one is to rely on Brooks’ reading, it appears none of these geniuses noticed it might be women who are most responsible for the new paradigm. I don’t know if the scholars forgot about women or if Brooks did. What is pretty clear is that Brooks goes out of his way to ignore the role of women here.
Brooks notes that the political consequence of the changing demographic is bad for Republicans:
Politically, married people in America are more likely to vote Republican; Mitt Romney easily won among married voters, including married women. Democrats, meanwhile, have done a much better job relating to single people. President Obama crushed Romney among singles, 62 percent to 35 percent. The 2012 election results illustrate the gradual transition we are making from one sort of demography (the current Republican coalition) toward another sort of demography (the Democratic coalition). The rise of post-familialism is a piece of that shift.
Notice how Brooks does not mention the demographic we’ve heard most about: that fully two-thirds of single women voted for President Obama over Mitt Romney. So Romney-fail is one reason Brooks is not comfortable with the single ladies thing. But it’s worse than that, in Brooks’ view. Brooks sees the paradigmatic shift to non-traditional life choices as indicative of irresponsibility or hedonism. Or something like that. He warns us not to be seduced by the freedom to make choices:
People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice – commitments to family, God, craft and country. The surest way people bind themselves is through the family. As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind. Therefore, our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like…. The problem is … people who go through adulthood perpetually trying to keep their options open.
Strangely, it does not occur to Brooks that single people, just like married people, are choosing to make commitments – they are just not gorging themselves on the full menu of commitments David Brooks recommends.
The suggestion that single people are selfish, self-centered and anti-social is offensive. The implication that single people are less “worthy” than married people is even more offensive. And make no mistake, that is exactly what David Brooks is saying here. Moreover, what he wants to say is that single women are making selfish choices that are destroying the fabric of society. He has written in the past that women – now that they often have better jobs with equal or better pay – are rejecting traditional family arrangements. He just can’t say so in the context of scolding wrongdoers — as he does here. As unpopular as Brooks is among New York Times readers, blaming women for the decline of the nation might be a bridge too far.
As for singles being anti-social, on the whole, it seems likely that singles are more sociable than married people. For one thing, singles often have more leisure time than people who are married with children. But the clock isn’t the only determiner: the U.S. spent the decades after World War II building the most insular, self-centered physical infrastructure in the world. It’s called Suburbia – the place where every man is king of his castle, ruler of his teeny, tiny domain. Sure, to make up for it, those with larger castles also enjoy a layer of socializing infrastructure: the country club, the Chamber of Commerce, etc. The utility of these “social” organizations, however, was and is often just a vehicle for making business contacts. The same is true of churches. Brooks describes a connection to a religious institution as a “commitment to God.” I lived in a large Midwestern City where all the local movers and shakers attended the same downtown church. “That,” I was told, “is where the deal are done.” I’m sure all those churchgoers were exceedingly pious. God – and their membership in the Methodist Church – had been good to them. Brooks himself belongs to a Torah study group that includes David Gregory of NBC News, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Far be it from me to question anyone’s commitment to God, but – coincidentally, I’m sure – God sure is good at networking.
Unlike Suburbia, urban settings – where Democratic voters are more apt to live – are particularly conducive to sociability. Single people gravitate to cities specifically because they want to socialize. They aren’t interested in hiding in their own little gated communities behind their own little picket fences.
Do we really have to be “induced to care about others,” as Brooks suggests? I don’t see how a spouse is preternaturally better than parents, teachers and other role models in making a person a more caring member of society. Again, a spouse is necessarily more demanding of one’s time than are most other people: if anything, the presence of a spouse can mean a person doesn’t have time to volunteer his time to charitable or social causes. The same goes for children. We may be wired to care for our own children, but that narrow love does not necessarily translate to “good citizenship.” Indeed, during the months leading up to the election, Brooks’ pundit pals incessantly told us that undecided voters were undecided because their families kept them too busy to think about their civic responsibilities.
Brooks claims that being part of a traditional family causes people to “devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind.” I am sure there are millions of parents who care about the future of the earth, and maybe for some, thinking of their own children is the impetus for that concern. But there’s a good chance many of those parents’ ideals aren’t as egocentric as Brooks suggests. My own parents, for instance, didn’t take an active interest in environmental politics until their children were grown and they had time to devote to other concerns. I don’t recall once, in all of our discussions about their activism, that either said, “We’re doing it for our grandkids.” They were doing it for everybody’s grandkids. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t selfish. Brooks might argue that my parents’ social awareness was the result of their commitment to one another, that their marriage taught them to commit not just to each other and their children but to the wider world. That could be. But it doesn’t explain the substantial percentage of single people who were active in the organizations to which my parents belonged.
David Brooks has made his own choices. He seems to think his choices are inherently better than other people’s choices. Maybe for Brooks, they are. But it is the height of hubris to try to impose one’s own personal choices on everybody else. I’m not knocking marriage. It is a choice I’ve made, well, more than once. I’m not knocking other types of commitments, either: “God, craft and country,” as Brooks calls them. What I am knocking is the notion that one size fits all, or that one set of “values” – specifically, “traditional family values” – are superior to other values.
Let me end on one more personal note. I had three great aunts – sisters who remained single and lived together all their lives. They were deeply religious Roman Catholics. I sort of thought of them as nuns. The two older sisters were twins. Their father died when the twins were in high school, and they had to get jobs to support their family, including their youngest sibling, Elizabeth. The twins did so for at least a decade, even to the point of supporting Elizabeth while she took a secretarial course after she completed high school. Elizabeth put her education to good use and became an executive in a major company at a time when women were rarely seen on the top floor. Although the twins continued to work until they reached retirement age, Elizabeth was the major family breadwinner. One of the twins did most of the cooking, but she broke her hip when she was in her late 80s, so Elizabeth went to cooking school “with the brides,” she said, and learned to cook for the three of them.
When she was in her 90s, Elizabeth said something offhand to me about a boyfriend she had had. I was shocked. I told her I didn’t know she had ever dated. “Oh, yes,” she said, “I had my chances. One man who I liked a great deal asked me to marry him.”
“What happened there?” I asked. “I wanted to marry him,” she said. “But I thought about my sisters. When they were young, they gave up their own ‘chances’ to take care of me. So I thought I had a duty to take care of them when I was able. I told my suitor I couldn’t marry him.”
So. David Brooks, don’t tell me “our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility.” Traditional nuclear families have nothing on my maiden aunts.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com