A few weeks ago, my comments on Chris Ramsey’s review of Robert O. Self’s All in the Family elicited some heated commentary, along with accusations that I had no business commenting on a book that I had not read. In defense of my initial post, I must say once again that I was not commenting on anything specific to Self’s book, but rather a narrative of progressive cultural diversification that Ramsey identified as an organizing of Self’s book. As this is a narrative that should be familiar to anyone reading current academic history, I thought that I was on safe ground using Ramsey’s review as an occasion to take issue with some of the normative assumptions informing this narrative. Instead, I was accused of taking irresponsible pot shots at Self. In response to these charges, I have read Self’s book and now wish to return to the issues I raised initially and respond to some of the later comments.
I would first like to thank Chris Ramsey for his thorough and accurate summary of Self’s book. My first-hand reading of the book has given me a greater appreciation for the nuance and scope of Self’s argument, but I found the normative orienting ideal of public support for the progressive diversification of family life much as Ramsey presented it. Self lays out his assumptions quite clearly and honestly early in the book. Like the left-liberal heroes he chronicles, he believes that “women and men, male and female, sex and sexuality are in the end socially constituted, made by human society. As such, they can be remade. To imagine a social order in which a lesbian mother, a female physician, and a poor African American man with AIDS are all equal citizens is a noble and morally just goal”(13). Self is free to invoke any moral standards he wishes, but his linking here of cultural relativism and citizenship seems to undermine his other stated purpose conjoining negative and positive rights in a robust public political culture. By his own account, the New Deal and early Great Society programs supported positive rights largely by appeal to a common, public social ideal of the heterosexual nuclear family. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the federal government finally stood poised to extend these positive rights to African Americans, who overwhelmingly accepted the moral legitimacy of the male breadwinner model of family life promoted by what Self calls “breadwinner liberalism.” In this framework, the positive rights of government assistance existed in reciprocal relation to the duty to strive to live up to accepted, shared cultural norms. Whatever one thinks about that norm (narrow, repressive, homophobic), this social compact seems to me to represent a political life that we may properly call public and a good we may properly call common.
Self describes the breakup of this consensus on breadwinner liberalism in exhaustive, nearly encyclopedic, detail. Technically, the book is a model of scholarship and should be the definitive reference for anyone seeking information on the who, what, where and when of family politics since the 1960s. I take issue not with Self’s technical virtuoisity, but with the normative framework that structures his narrative and is surely as responsible as his “pure” scholarship for the accolades the book has received. For all of his subtlety, Self frames the battle over the family as a Manichean struggle between those who see the family as a social construct able to be remade according to human desires (the good guys) and those who assert that “manhood and womanhood, sex and sexuality, are fixed and timeless” (the bad guys) (13). The political corollary to this philosophical divide pits liberals, who assert both the negative right of individuals to determine their own family structures and the duty of the state to ensure the positive right of individuals to be free from the material (and social, cultural?) constraints that inhibit the exercise of that freedom of choice, against conservatives who assert the negative liberty to be free from state interference in “traditional” family life but deny the obligation of the state to secure the positive right to pursue the family ideal of one’s choosing. I agree with Self’s assessment that conservative idea of negative rights has undermined public life. Still, I think his evidence shows that the left-liberal notion of positive rights had the same effect in ways that he does not fully acknowledge. The divide separating contemporary liberalism from the breadwinner liberalism of an earlier era lies not simply in different notions of family, but different notions of public life—and this not simply a difference of expanding diversity. The transformation is one not of content, but of form.
The best way to get at this is to take a closer look at Self’s use of the key terms, positive rights and negative rights. These bear some relation to Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction between “positive liberty” and “negative liberty,” which Self cites when he introduces his particular terms (12). Berlin’s categories are classic distinctions within modern liberal political theory and have figured prominently in the liberalism/communitarian debates over the last few decades. For Berlin, negative liberty is “freedom from” constraint, while “positive liberty” is “freedom for,” the freedom to achieve some substantive good and to realize our true nature as human beings. Berlin actually rejects the political pursuit of positive freedom as akin to totalitarianism for its presumption that the state could posit any natural, substantive end for man beyond the freedom to pursue chosen ends. Communitarian thinkers such as Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor have defended positive liberty as an antidote to the empty proceduralism of the liberal tradition, the lack of attention to substantive human goods best represented by the political theory of John Rawls.
Self invokes positive rights as a way to move beyond classical liberal negative liberty, yet ultimately defines positive rights as merely “the rights guaranteed by state action” (12). Positive rights are less a “freedom for” than a fuller “freedom from.”Self repeatedly illustrates this distinction through the example of poor African American women.Civil Rights legislation may have removed de jure constraints on opportunity, but government must work positively to remove the de facto material constraints (poverty, lack of education, lack of access to child care) that still inhibit the advancement of African American women.The goal of positive rights is thus procedural rather than substantive. These rights serve not to incorporate poor women into any particular public norm or good (i.e. the dreaded patriarchal breadwinner liberalism), but to prepare them to be effective market actors in the private sphere.Indeed, the market emerges as somewhat of hero in the book, an appealing alternative to marriage “as the vehicle for women’s economic security and public standing” (20).Here Self buys into what Garry Wills long ago identified as liberalism’s “myth of the starting line.”Wills addressed this myth in his classic Nixon Agonistes, still the best book on the 1960s and maybe the best book ever written on American political culture.Self makes passing reference to Wills’s book, but never engages his argument, which seems very relevant to the market thinking that structures All in the Family.As I have argued in my books Conspicuous Criticism and A World Made Safe for Differences, left-liberal critics of capitalism have never truly been able to think beyond market freedom, even when they invoke seemingly organic alternative social ideals such as “culture.” For all of the limitations of breadwinner liberalism, and I believe there are many, it at least allowed a space for some non-market values in public discourse.If breadwinner conservatism has used family values as a weapon for privatization, Self’s progressive alternative, which I can only see as a kind of breadwinner individualism, would require the government to provide the positive rights necessary for every individual man and woman to achieve breadwinner status regardless of whatever family lifestyle they choose. Market freedom is universal norm, while family is a particular consumer choice, a private good that must nonetheless be subsidized by public funds.Self is free to endorse such consumer pluralism as progress, but I do not think he is free to identify it with some robust, revitalized public life.The reduction of family life to personal choice is yet another example of the thinning of our non-market public language.To gloss the radical transformation of family life over the last forty years as an evolution from unity to diversity is Orwellian at best. In response to comments on my earlier posts, I suppose I should come clean on my own family values. I suppose I would call myself a traditionalist with a great sympathy for the vision of family life presented in the work of Wendell Berry.There can be no real family apart from a family economy, and so much of the ink spilled on “the crisis of the family” since the nineteenth century has been a futile evasion of this basic fact.In parts of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan invokes the frontier wife as a model of woman as an economic actor; in the end, she chose middle-class professionalism over a true home economy that would have men and women working together within the home.To the commentator who feared that I might be criticizing Self from a “monistic” understanding of sex and family life, I can only say that sexual novelty and experimentation make for a rather dull and shallow pluralism.Family life, especially farm family life, took on diversity through ethnic and religious traditions rooted in specific local places.The continuity in place over time require to foster and sustain any culture worthy of the name is exactly what a market economy that rewards rootless mobility refuses to tolerate. Among Americans of European descent, there is far less cultural diversity than there was a hundred years ago, despite all of our sexual experimentation.How many of us speak the language of our ancestors?In many ways, sexual and family experimentation is a symptom of the poverty of our post-traditional, consumer culture to satisfy the real and legitimate human needs once met by true culture.
Yet in another sense, the revolution in family life over the past forty years is a symptom of something more. In a controversial public address delivered in December of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI provocatively identified the stakes of the debate over the family in the following manner:
“. . . the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”
These are questions that historians such as Self often answer, yet seldom really ask.