David Brooks has scored a four-bagger with his new Atlantic article on whether the recent American focus on maintaining and fortifying the nuclear family has been such a hot idea. He’s powerfully challenged the conventional wisdom about a long-time social and cultural institution and public policy goal. He’s taught readers fascinating and important lessons about American social history. He’s spotlighted a host of recent developments and trends on this crucial front. And (I guess this is just my own personal bag) in the process, he’s reminded me of what a clueless snob I can be in jumping to conclusions.
To continue momentarily on a personal note, I was staring in disbelief as I wrote most of the above, for Brooks, a New York Times columnist, has never struck me as much more than the kind of establishment conservative who long dominated the Republican Party and the right half of the mainstream media, and who’s spent the last three years bitterly inveighing against the rise of Trump-ian populism – without offering any useful suggestions as to what might replace it.
It’s true that Brooks had also made quite a name for himself as a social and cultural commentator, but I never paid much attention to these writings. If his new Atlantic article is any indication, that was a major mistake.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with Brooks’ main policy argument – that it’s no longer possible to restore the nuclear family’s primacy in American society, because that prominence only emerged because of overall national conditions in the post-World War II United States that simply can’t be replicated. In particular, I still strongly doubt that the developments that have weakened the nuclear family were inevitable, or were all inevitable, and are therefore irreversible.
I’m thinking of indiscriminate economic globalization and Open Borders-friendly mass immigration policies that have destroyed generations of middle class jobs and the incomes and economic opportunity they create; welfare policies that surely discouraged to some degree the maintenance, especially in the African-American community, of traditional two-parent families; the ever-mounting incompetence of the nation’s public primary and secondary schools; and a values transition that (thankfully) fostered greater social and cultural freedom and diversity, but that also unmistakably encouraged individualism, pointless exhibitionism, and the insistence on instant gratification to run riot, and all but scorned the idea of commonly accepted norms, self-restraint, and short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
In other words, maybe the dominance of the nuclear family nurtured much of the economic progress and prosperity in particular that characterized the 1950s and 1960s, rather than the other way around.
But what I’m thinking mainly about today aren’t those big policy and (inevitably politicized) questions, but about some of the forms of extended families that Brooks mentioned prominently, and that I had completely forgotten about. Not that I’m the only one. But this blind spot recently led me in particular to ridicule someone and his outlook on life (not to his face, but to friends and relatives) who deserved much better.
It came at a wedding during which at one point, the father of the groom stood up to give his toast to the happy couple, and began waxing nostalgic (as parents at these moments understandably do) about the good old days of his son’s youth. He was anything but silver-tongued, but one point he made struck me at the time as especially absurd and revealingly parochial. Back then, he pointed out, so many of the aunts and uncles and cousins lived on the same block, and we saw each other all the time. But now, most of the family has spread out as far as – and he named a town a whole two towns, and only a few miles, away.
I found this hilariously small-minded, and missed few opportunities to bring up his remarks and what the volumes they allegedly and unflatteringly spoke about this kind of crimped perspective (which also characterized many attendees at the affair).
But as Brooks’ article pointed out, these types of extended families have been the norm for much of American history, and boasted and nurtured many virtues that sadly are in short supply today – like community and mutual support and the spread of constructive social and personal norms and values.
So as I was reading his piece, I began to think that yes, there’s a big difference between being able to spontaneously run into relatives just by stepping out the front door and seeing them on the front porch across the street, or at the supermarket, and needing to take a short drive two towns over in order to visit.
And I began thinking about the history of both sides of my own childhood nuclear family. My father’s father came to America from Lithuania and was aided almost as soon as he stepped off the boat not only by various Jewish-American charities, but by relatives that preceded him and by an organization comprised of other immigrants from the same town. He remained active in their affairs for the next five or six decades.
My mother’s parents lived in a small apartment building in the south-ish Bronx that was full of related families. I spent the first nine years of my own life in a small apartment building in Flushing, Queens (New York City) that was dominated by two or three closely-related families. They not only socialized constantly; they took summer vacations with each other at the same bungalow colony a little ways upstate.
So most of my playmates were each other’s cousins. Moreover, I also went to grade school with and hung out with a bunch of Irish-American kids from across the street who were related as well. Meanwhile, when we were very young, the various mothers took their turns walking us the six blocks to and from P.S. 20. And at about the same time, when my brother was born, we moved upstairs to a larger apartment in the same building and my mother’s mother moved into our old place. I.e., instant babysitter!
These networks, by the way, didn’t vanish even in the suburban north shore of Long Island to which my family moved in the early 1960s. Even though single family houses had replaced apartment buildings, lots of our neighbors in our community were very chummy, and have remained so. Ditto for their kids. (My father was kind of standoffish for various reasons, but the sheer number of chuldren for my brother and I to play with and the advantages of car-pooling kept us at least in the outer reaches of these circles.)
Nor, apparently, was this community unique. I was very moved about a year ago to read a Facebook post from an alum of my high school (who I didn’t know but have connected with since) to another alum (who I didn’t know either and haven’t connected with) fondly remembering the days when all the families on their block held cookouts and other backyard parties together and went on outings and looked after each other’s kids.
And according to Brooks, these patterns and structures were common during the 1950s and 1960s:
“[N]uclear families in this era were much more connected to other nuclear families than they are today—constituting a “modified extended family,” as the sociologist Eugene Litwak calls it, ‘a coalition of nuclear families in a state of mutual dependence.’ Even as late as the 1950s, before television and air-conditioning had fully caught on, people continued to live on one another’s front porches and were part of one another’s lives. Friends felt free to discipline one another’s children.”
Brooks isn’t indiscriminately nostalgic for extended families, and rightly notes major drawbacks:
“[T]hey can…be exhausting and stifling. They allow little privacy; you are forced to be in daily intimate contact with people you didn’t choose. There’s more stability but less mobility. Family bonds are thicker, but individual choice is diminished. You have less space to make your own way in life.”
And no small matter: “[M]ost women were relegated to the home. Many corporations, well into the mid-20th century, barred married women from employment: Companies would hire single women, but if those women got married, they would have to quit. Demeaning and disempowering treatment of women was rampant. Women spent enormous numbers of hours trapped inside the home under the headship of their husband, raising children.”
Further, these extended families do tend to encourage parochialism that can too easily degenerate into outright ignorance of, indifference to, and even hostility toward the outside world, or certain major portions of it.
Is some kind of middle ground possible? Brooks insists that that train has left the station:
“Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal.”
Again, I’m skeptical about abject pessimism – just as I am about Brooks’ (cautious) optimism about the possibility of building a healthy society with many more non-nuclear families and many fewer nuclear families than even exist today. More important for now, though, is recognizing Brooks’ stunning achievement – which will force any but the completely closed-minded to start thinking.