So let me just lay my bias out there for you: my own family formation was complex. The story’s not of interest to most people. I bring it up only to remind us all that there are a lot of different ways in which families end up outside of the Rick Santorum-approved family model of “mom and dad, two kids, a dog, a Volvo, and a Firefox cache full of gay porn.” Life is complex. America is complex. Outcomes are unpredictable and family formation is hardly ever a matter of choice.
“Maybe raising people with a single parent is not so good.” Maybe so, Dr. Haidt, maybe so. And maybe people dying of cancer or in car accidents is not so good. And maybe mothers having to flee with their children at night because the father is an abusive alcoholic is not so good. And maybe generations of people having their sense of self-worth and ability to comport with society’s norms ground into dust by decades of poverty is not so good. A lot of things are not so good. The question is, what do you want to do about it? I’m afraid cancer is immune to legislation. Social mores have proven almost entirely incapable of preventing drug addiction. Social science can’t tweak the “number of marriageable men” dial and ensure that every successful woman who wants to raise a child has some strapping, nurturing brodude at her side to help her do it.
I’ve been reading these laments my whole life. The Murphy Brown debacle was one of the first national political conversations to puncture the bubble of childhood, for me. Since that time, there’s been many people trying to put a human face on enforcing family norms and attacking the legitimacy of my family and families as nontraditional as mine. There’s plenty of them out there now, your Ross Douthats and your William Saletans and your David Brookseseses. At this point, I kind of prefer the old school, judgy variety, your Pat Robertson-style sanctimony. There’s something more honest, and thus less cruel, about it. At least when Rick Santorum tells us our lives are wrong he has the guts to just come out and do it.
Honestly, what do these people think is happening? Families aren’t cooked up in a lab. Liberals aren’t out there campaigning for fewer traditional families. They aren’t rubbing their hands together and scheming on how to drive people apart. They don’t have to. Life does that. Loss does that. The endless bullshit of human existence does that. What liberals are trying to do is to deal with the messy nature of life in a way that asserts the dignity and value of nontraditional families. The new breed of moralists gives us no rational advice on how to deal with those inevitable realities and so function as just more tongue-cluckers, asking us to feel guilty about situations we have no control over. (If you really care about stigmatizing people, you don’t keep using the term “illegitimate,” I’m sure of that.)
Haidt says that “the most dangerous person in the world is mom’s boyfriend.” He references his research with Brazilian street kids and how often their mother’s boyfriends end up hurting them in some way. What Haidt doesn’t explain is what, exactly, single mothers are supposed to do. He’s just said that single parent households are bad for kids. But okay, Mom getting a boyfriend is bad too. What is Mom supposed to do? Live a life of chastity? What if the father is dead? What if he’s in jail? What if he’s just the wrong guy, and staying with him is bad for everybody? There’s never any notion of what better alternatives are, of what should have been done and what should be done now. Very little good is ever accomplished by declaring that things aren’t ideal.
I confess: were Haidt to lend me the keys to his time machine so I could journey back like Sam from Quantum Leap and preserve my family in its “optimal” state, I probably wouldn’t do it. Just like I wouldn’t go monkeying around with the family with a single lesbian mother, or the family where a second cousin is raising the kids, or the family of street kids who aren’t biologically related. Nor, I must confess, am I willing to judge them. My life experience has been an education in tragedy, and it’s taught me that the project of the human species is the effort to manage that tragedy. Yes: nontraditional families can house acres of hardship and dysfunction. So can the classic kind. If I ever take that knowledge as an invitation to put the screws to those struggling under the burden of that hardship and that dysfunction, strike me down and leave me for dead.