The latest victim of the modern ages's inclination to destroy all that came before
Back in 2001, the prolific poet and critic Richard Howard reviewed for the Los Angeles Times a minor memoir by a woman who had adopted a disturbed boy—and he began his review of the book by writing, “I must acknowledge an interest, or rather a dismay, in discussing this ‘family memoir,’ for from experience and observation I have come to regard the American Nuclear Family in the last fifty years as the enemy of individual determination, of personal autonomy—in short, as a disease.”
In one sense, Howard was expressing nothing new. From Plato to Schopenhauer, one can find philosophical doubts about the family as the best instrument for the ordering of society. From Sophocles to Henry James, one can discover literary doubts about the psychological effects of family life. In the Israeli kibbutzim, the hippies’ communes, and the religious cults, the twentieth century alone saw many attempts to redefine the family.
Still, the angry tone of Howard’s line, the rage not for something new but against everything old, hinted at a difference. This was not a messianic promise of having found better ways to live. This was an apocalyptic fury that demands a smashing of the existing ways. The metaphor of disease is telling: We don’t propose substitutes for cancerous tumors; we cut them out. Health isn’t found in the presence of alternates to disease; it’s found in the actual absence of disease. And so the apparent unhappiness of the human condition doesn’t need an alternative to family. It just needs to get rid of family.
At the time, I hadn’t encountered anyone writing quite as openly, quite as purely, about the bulldozing impulse as Howard, but it seems to have become something of a staple in the fourteen years since his Los Angeles Times review. In recent weeks, for example, Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, took to the pages of the Boston Globe to declare—on Mother’s Day—that “motherhood is a cultural invention” that needs to be deemphasized: “Mother’s Day is a good day to double down on the work required to reconstruct our conception of motherhood.”
Meanwhile, in a much-reported incident, Adam Swift, a professor of politics at the University of Warwick in England, told an Australian radio audience that parents’ bedtime reading to children is a guilty, fraught activity—since such reading gives the children a pronounced advantage in later life. “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children,” he explained, “but I think they should have that thought occasionally.” And parents should certainly be prevented from sending their children to “elite schools,” since the advantage of such schools creates an inequality for disadvantaged children.
The examples can be multiplied beyond all counting. And the question they all raise is why the family as an institution should be under such attack. Some modern destructive impulse has turned its attention in that direction, which is never a good sign for the survival of the threatened institution.
The answer has to do in part with the sheer destructiveness of modern times. The family is a premodern arrangement of human life, and the modern turn subjects all premodern things to deconstruction: philosophy, theology, and history; monarchy, nobility, and the Church; culture, art, and society. It just took us this long to dig down to the family. Richard Howard is a late, miniature Voltaire, and the president of Smith College is a tardy, shrunken Jacobin.
Even more, however, these recent attacks on the family take their shape from the absence of any alternative. If one impulse in modern times was the destruction of the past, another was the creation of the future. And it’s that second impulse that seems to have failed. Since the fall of Soviet communism, radicalism has had no horizon, no goal or plan for a new society, and all of its passion has been directed in anger at the present.