Published November 30, 2020
America’s got a problem that’s systemic in nature. This problem has less to do with individual intentions than the structure within which our intentions are formed. That structure explains a great deal about observed disparities in wealth, and other advantages, between various racial and ethnic groups. It helps explain why we’re torn apart by arguments over school shootings and abortion. It even helps explain why we’ve turned away from traditional religion and patriotism and adopted a secular faith built around hollow and pernicious ideas like systemic racism instead. In short, our systemic problem helps explain many of the core disagreements around which contemporary American politics are organized. The challenge I refer to — our real systemic problem — is family decline.
A twist of this issue—and a telling sign of our times—is that we’re barred from discussing it. Charles Murray once said, commenting on the connection between a vast range of positive outcomes for children and being reared by two biological parents who remain married, “I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.” That Murray himself is periodically shouted down on college campuses adds a nice touch.
While our fake systemic problem is on half the country’s lips, our real systemic problem is verboten. We don’t want to risk offense by mentioning an issue so touchy — and that touches nearly everyone nowadays in some way or other because … well, because it’s systemic. Because the family has been seen since approximately forever as society’s foundation, it makes sense from the traditional point of view that family decline would have pervasive social effects. Yet no one dares discuss it.
No one but Mary Eberstadt, that is. Think of Mary Eberstadt as a latter-day Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan gained fame for his 1965 report arguing that rising out-of-wedlock birthrates were crucial to explaining persistent poverty and crime in the black community. Although Moynihan was a liberal who favored aggressive federal spending to alleviate poverty, his insistence on the importance of cultural factors rooted in family decline earned him accusations of “genteel” racism, along with years of ostracism in liberal circles. That response to the Moynihan Report was an early sign of what later came to be called “political correctness.” The accusations against Moynihan also began a process by which the concept of racism has been extended vastly beyond its original meaning.
Since then, the rate of out-of-wedlock births in the black community has skyrocketed, while the out-of-wedlock birthrate for everyone else now resembles the rate in the black community in 1965. The diverging intellectual responses evident during the Moynihan controversy have persisted as well. On the one hand, accusations of racism and bigotry that bear little resemblance to the original meaning of those terms have ramified. On the other hand, observers like Mary Eberstadt continue to parse the implications of family breakup and social isolation. From Eberstadt’s perspective, “nasty old isms are everywhere” is the cover-story, false god, and all-purpose silencer obscuring the real story of our time: family decline.
“The Fury of the Fatherless” is Eberstadt’s latest effort along these lines. The statistics on cop-on-black crime don’t add up to an explanation for our recent riots, but the statistics on fatherlessness (white as well as black) just may. One of Eberstadt’s most interesting points is the link she draws between Portland’s seemingly unending anarchy and Portland as a national mecca for abandoned and runaway children. Family decline is now so pervasive that it’s difficult to isolate it as an explanatory variable. This is perhaps Eberstadt’s greatest challenge. From my point of view, however, that challenge ultimately adds plausibility to her argument.
The best way to come to terms with Eberstadt’s project is to take in its depth and breadth. The easiest way to do that is via “Mary Eberstadt on What Plagues the West,” where Ryan Anderson manages to draw out Eberstadt’s reflections on her entire body of work. For a quick, fun, easy and current book, try Eberstadt’s Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. For her opus with the mostest, try How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. There you will learn how family decline and religious decline are linked and mutually reinforcing problems.
I think Eberstadt is correct to finger the pill and the subsequent sexual revolution as the root of systemic family decline. I would add a friendly amendment. The ever-growing number of Americans who pursue education post-high school, and the ever-lengthening number of years during which they do so, is now driving the delay of marriage and, with it, family decline. For many young people, those extended years of education are unnecessary and life-distorting. That means one way to help mend our systemic problem is by exploring apprenticeships and related alternatives to years of college and postgraduate education. Faster, cheaper alternatives to college could help return us to an at least somewhat more familiar timetable of family formation. In short, we ought to be spending more time puzzling out ways to combat our real systemic problem — family decline — a problem ably explored in Mary Eberstadt’s thoughtful and courageous work.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.