Articles From the October 1995 Unification News


Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem

Review by Dr. Thomas Walsh-Louisville, KY

Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, by David Blankenhorn, Basic Books, NY, 1995. pp. vii + 328, $23.00, HC.

Fatherless America will be praised by some and despised by others. Many will draw their conclusions from the book's title or the blurb on the dust jacket alone. For arguably, issues of marriage and family, including the discussion of the proper way in which sexuality should be normatively ordered and children properly raised, are the most divisive moral concerns facing civil and political society in the United States today. There is a great polarization, akin to that which characterized the dispute between those who espoused the moral superiority of various socialist and/or communist experiments and those who favored the market economy. The cold war era, whose end some saw as marking the "end of history," was characterized by a need to make an important moral judgment, i.e., taking sides in an ideological, political and military conflict centering around the notion of justice as applied to the production and distribution of wealth. Some, of course, particularly in the waning years of the cold war, sought to defend the "moral equivalency" thesis in this dispute. But such a compromise paid little respect to the colossal moral significance of the respective positions.

At the core of the cold war was a debate about political economy. Should the state control the economy, or should the economy be largely in the hands of private citizens? Privatization won out over nationalization. At a deeper level, however, the cold war had to do with the values of freedom and equality. Most communists and socialists saw equality as more precious than freedom-or one could say that equality was seen as the prerequisite for freedom. The capitalists or free market advocates, on the other hand, saw freedom as prior to equality. The point here is simply that what divided the world during the cold war was a dispute over values, priorities and ideas. In particular, the free society was declared morally and politically preferable to coercive egalitarianism.

Freedom, however, if viewed as an end in itself, lacks substance or content. In general, freedom is a formal condition of human action, and ideally provides a context or arena for the pursuit of higher ends. If and when freedom is a priority in a society without discipline, virtue or moral vision, then it becomes the basis for a kind of Hobbesian state of nature. Thus, the challenge for the liberal democracies in the post-cold-war era is to move beyond the celebration of freedom and toward the normative regulation of a good society. No good society is founded on the ideal of freedom alone.

Today the central dispute in the highly developed free societies does not concern itself with the political economy, for neither democracy nor market economies have serious challengers. The new cold war is being waged over the definition of civil society. Hence, today we speak not of the cold war, but of "culture wars."

Given that the ongoing reproduction of the species and the socialization of the young are at the core of any discussion of civil society and culture, this more recent "war" leads to the question of sexuality, marriage and family. Blankenhorn's book is important precisely because he is fully aware of the significance of this struggle.

Blankenhorn's basic thesis is clear: "Fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation.... Men in general, and fathers in particular, are increasingly viewed as superfluous to family life: either expendable or part of the problem" (1-2). In the United States there has been a systematic erosion of the ideal, as well as the practice of fatherhood. Fathers are a dying, or at least endangered, species. Between 1960 and 1994 the percentage of children living apart from fathers more than doubled, going from 18 to 40%. Blankenhorn identifies two primary "preconditions of effective fatherhood": 1) co-residency with children, and 2) parental alliance with the mother. Fatherhood is integrally related to husbandhood. That is, an alliance with the mother is as central to fatherhood as a paternal care for the children. However, in contemporary society, divorce having become normative in popular culture, the ideal of fatherhood is itself being divorced from marriage and husbandhood.

Blankenhorn describes fatherhood as a society's most important role for men. Fatherhood, more than any other social role, domesticates and tames male selfishness and male aggressiveness. Fathers, he maintains, are "more likely to obey the law, to be good citizens, and to think about the needs of others." Moreover, fatherhood "privileges children" (25). The results of fatherlessness, on the other hand, are "rising male violence and declining child well-being" (26). Blankenhorn points out, for example, that a child is much less likely to be abused by his or her biological, live-in father, than by a boyfriend, step-parent, or ex-husband. The same is true of wife abuse: women are much more likely to be abused by boyfriends, live-in lovers and ex-husbands than by their spouse. Blankenhorn concludes, "If the cultural antidote for male violence is monogamous marriage and responsible fatherhood, the breeding grounds for it are casual sex, family fragmentation and nonmarital childbearing. As we deinstitutionalize marriage and fracture fatherhood in our society, we must not be surprised by the rapid spread of male violence, especially violence against women" (39). Fatherlessness breeds boys with guns, girls with babies, and single mothers in poverty.

Many, of course, do not share Blankenhorn's analysis, and view positively the statistics which reveal the decline of fathers, citing the end of patriarchy and the rise of androgynous parenting. Some celebrate single parenthood, arguing for either the irrelevance of fatherhood as conventionally understood, or the pernicious nature of traditional, oppressive fatherhood. Blankenhorn shows the ways in which pop culture, the establishment media, sociologists and members of academia have encouraged the demise of fatherhood. Blankenhorn points in particular to the work of Frank L. Mott at Ohio State University, whose research seeks to show that the decline of fatherhood has little social significance, and is in fact often more helpful than harmful. Blankenhorn describes such scholarship as attempting to "normalize fatherlessness-to remove from it any stigma of deviancy or even undesirability-by insisting that the baseline cause for social alarm is no longer the absence of a good father, but the hypothetical presence of a bad father" (79). Fathers are either unnecessary or undesirable. Moreover, fatherlessness is seen as the antidote to the "mascupathology" that some see as the chief cause of social ills.

Blankenhorn, at one point, compares those who affirm fatherlessness and a radical restructuring of the monogamous two-parent family to the Marxist social vision. In this new radicalism, class conflict is replaced by gender conflict as the central category for social analysis and social criticism. The capitalist is replaced by the father. One advocates the classless society, and the other a genderless society. Marxists are suspicious of private property, while today's post-Marxist cultural revolutionaries as suspicious of paternal authority (92). For Blankenhorn, just as Marxism's cure for capitalism was worse than the disease, today's reformers offer a potion that inflicts grave harm. Blankenhorn states, "A fatherless society must accept the consequences of undomesticated masculinity: mistrust, violence, nihilism.... Ultimately, rapism and the warrior mentality represent the kingdom of the fatherless, not the fathers. Male predation is not the synonym, but rather the necessary antonym, of encultured paternity" (95).

Much of the book is devoted to the presentation of a typology of various cultural "models" or images of fatherhood. There is the "Old Father," the scapegoat father, associated with abuse, oppression and totalitarianism, the one from whom the fatherless society is supposedly fleeing. Then there is the "New Father," who seeks to be a genderless or androgynous self; instead of any gender-specific father role, he engages in a generic kind of co-parenting with the mother of the children. The New Father ideal goes hand in hand, according to Blankenhorn, with theories upholding the viability, if not preferability, of single-parent families. Fathers as gender-types are unnecessary.

A third type is the "Deadbeat Dad," the ex-husband who refuses to pay child support. Blankenhorn shows how the rush to pursue deadbeat dads is grounded in the premise that the father role is not so relevant, and what really counts is financial support: the absence of a father is not a problem, only the absence of income. The pursuit of deadbeat dads, however, solves neither the problem of poverty nor the more serious problem of the absence of a father. Contemporary culture prefers the male income to the male image. Given that society offers no compelling narrative or vision for fathers, there is a rampant proliferation of deadbeat dads. Since society views dads as irrelevant, apart from financial support, they become ever more prone to see themselves as non-fathers and, naturally, non-providers.

The "Visiting Father," unlike the Deadbeat Dad, pays child support and cooperates with the mother of the children. But visitation, according to Blankenhorn, is wholly alien to the notion of fathering, for fathers do not visit their children-they live with their children. Children know this instinctively. Fathers know it, too. Mothers know it. Pretending to be a father while neither living with one's children nor with the mother of the children undercuts the basic meaning of fatherhood, i.e., a co-resident, fully allied with the mother, who invests himself to protect and provide for his family. The Visiting Father ideal is an offspring of hemorrhaging divorce rates. Unable to slow the rates of divorce-and having redefined divorce as therapeutic- society seeks to counsel divorcing couples to practice a better kind of divorce, a more cooperative type of divorce. The Visiting Father seeks to comply with this value; in the bargain, divorce is itself affirmed as a useful form of renewal and growth-perfectly fine, so long as one acts maturely and visits one's children regularly and provides child support.

The next type is the "Sperm Father." Sperm Fathers have no intention of being fathers. Their task is strictly biological, and in no way do they understand their role vis-a-vis their children as social or paternal; that is, they have no intention of raising their children. Most Sperm Fathers have no intention of ever being "cultural" fathers. In the discussion of Sperm Fathers, Blankenhorn considers political writers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who saw fatherhood as the foundation of civil society, i.e., that which distinguished civil society from a state of nature. The ordering of sexuality and progeny was the first step away from the unbridled violence of the state of nature.

Other types discussed include the "Stepfather" and the "Nearby Guy," both of which positions seek to distance fatherhood from biological connections. Neither succeed. Blankenhorn's ideal of the good father is characterized by gender complementarity (as opposed to genderless or androgynous parenting) and a commitment to protect, provide, nurture and sponsor his children.

Blankenhorn's book is a call to American society to move from a divorce culture to a marriage culture: "While we believe in marrying, we are losing our belief in the institution of marriage. As a result, we are simultaneously institutionalizing divorce and deinstitutionalizing marriage. For divorce, our goals are to regularize it, and improve its procedures. For marriage, our goals are the opposite. Deregulate and privatize it. Make it more flexible. Reduce its privileged legal status and cultural influence. Describe it in high school textbooks not as an ideal but as one of many options. In a divorce culture, marriage is increasingly viewed as a problem, divorce as a viable solution" (224).

Blankenhorn concludes the book with 12 proposals which are to serve to reinvigorate a marriage culture. These proposals range from a presidential "state of fatherhood" report, the establishing of Father's Clubs, privileging two-parent families in public housing, local populist organizations for civic and familial renewal, interfaith councils on marriage and family, and others which appeal to scholars, professional athletes and state legislatures to create a vision of fatherhood and families.

What is perhaps most important about Blankenhorn's book is his identification of the way in which the ostensibly private values of sexuality, marriage and family are thoroughly public in their implications. The social significance of the family has been taken for granted. The effects of its decline, including rampant crime, violence, psychological disorders, mistrust and rage will be with us for a long time. While issues such as poverty and the environment have strong support in the elite media and cultural centers, many are reluctant to address the decline of the family. In part, this is due to a misplaced compassion for, or perhaps even fear of, single parents, children without fathers, homosexuals and feminists who would take offense at any normative privileging of the traditional family. For this reason Blankenhorn's work, I suspect, will be vilified by many. This is natural, given the polarization on the issues of sexuality, male-female relations and the value of marriage. However, if Blankenhorn is correct, and I believe he is, the crisis of fatherlessness in America can be ignored only at great cost. For those who understand the significance of the contemporary culture wars, Fatherless America should be read.

Thomas G. Walsh is the executive director of the International Religious Foundation.


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