Two years after George Bush moved downtown to the White House, the suspicion is beginning to twinkle in the brains of his conservative followers that the President is not one of them after all. What tipped them off to this shattering truth was their leader’s nonchalant decision last summer to support a tax increase. But for some months previously they had had ample warnings that the Duke of Kennebunkport was not in fact the Gipperite they had concocted in their heads.
The same week Mr. Bush broke his pledge not to raise taxes, he was wining and dining Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress. Mr. Mandela, sometime fellow of the penal colony on Robben Island, is most noted for a brutally conceived but incompetently executed plot to wage people’s war against white South Africans in the 1960’s. His consort, the incomparable Winnie, has more recently acquired fame in her own right as an apostle of “necklacing” as well as the object of an official investigation into the torture and murder of a young man in her household. Given the lies and propaganda that have enveloped the Mandela family since Nelson’s emancipation last February, it is perhaps understandable that the President had to meet with him. But that he and Mrs. Bush greeted the gruesome twosome so gladly ought to have suggested something about the first family even more strongly than the President’s new fiscal policy.
Indeed, the whole substance of the Bush era is suggestive in a way that ought not to please the right. You can tell a good deal about politicians from the social gatherings they attend and the symbols they play with. Last spring Mr. Bush invited to the White House representatives of the “gay community” to observe the presidential signing of what is now known as the “Hate Crimes Act.” That too ought to have dropped a hint to social conservatives that the President and his closest advisers don’t experience the kind of abdominal heaves that normal people, not to mention real conservatives, invariably feel when they contemplate the subject of sodomy. But though there was some muted grumbling about the incident, most right-wingers were silent.
Then, perhaps most substantively, there is the actual legislative record. The first two years of the Bush administration have witnessed an expansion of federal power on a scale probably not seen since the Great Society legislation of 1965. Not only the “Hate Grimes Act” itself, which requires the federal government to keep records of criminal assaults against ethnic and sexual “minorities”—for the ultimate purpose of showing that American society is pathologically hostile to such groups and that major therapeutic programs are needed to extirpate its sickness—but also half a dozen other noisome statutes have sailed through Congress this year with not much more than a whimper of opposition from Mr. Bush.
The Child Care Bill, the Disabilities Act, the Glean Air Act, and the Kennedy-Hawkins Civil Rights Act of 1990 all promise to embark the country on the shoreless seas of utopianism. Unlike most of the social and economic legislation of Lyndon Johnson’s era, these laws threaten not merely to cost taxpayers more money, restrict freedom, and fatten the bureaucratic herds, but also to manage, manipulate, and generally reconstruct the cultural norms of American society. As enacted, some of them may seem a bit toothless, but the point is that almost all of them stick their toes in a door that the federal government had not until recently been able to force open. The common assumption of most of them is that there is something profoundly wrong with some of the characteristic norms of American life, that these norms are and ever have been racist, brutalizing, and unfair toward more or less supposedly helpless or victim categories of citizens—the handicapped, the young, the deviant, the nonwhite, and the simple souls who want merely to breathe pure oxygen and drink clear water—and that it is the duty of the state to cure mainstream America of its spiritual and behavioral affliction of being mean to such groups.
Yet what is surprising about their passage through Congress is not only the generally tepid resistance from the Bush White House but also the equally spineless response they received even from congressional conservatives. Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch actually helped cosponsor (with Senator Ted Kennedy) the Hate Grimes Bill—”I feel very deeply about people’s heartaches and problems, and I don’t care what their sexual preferences are,” Mr. Hatch told the New York Times. “That’s their business and I’m not going to judge them by my standards or what I think is right.”
The Clean Air Act, strenuously opposed by the journalistic myrmidons of the right, nevertheless galloped through the Senate with only six Republican nays. While Senator Jesse Helms, Idaho’s Steve Symms and James McClure, Oklahoma’s Don Nickles, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop, and Mr. Hatch’s colleague from Utah, Jake Garn, voted against it, other tory stalwarts clambered on board, including Mr. Hatch himself, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, known for his free marketism, and retiring solons William Armstrong of Colorado and Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, who can have no reason to fear the orchestrated votes of the earth-shoe lobby.
Of course, most of these gentlemen, including the President, have sought to redeem their conservative souls by strapping themselves to the pole of the flag amendment, thundering for more capital punishment, denouncing drugs, and polishing up periodic declamations on the greatness of America and the sanctity of the family. So far that has succeeded in persuading their constituents to keep them in office, but how much longer it will work is unknown. In any case, such issues are thin substitutes for the meatier dishes that the seemingly immortal left keeps serving up. To be fair to Mr. Bush, why should he call for stronger wine when the guests at his own table sip only Perrier?
In the last few years, much has been written (a bit of it by me) about the intellectual derailment of the American right and the transformation of its mind into a body of notions indistinguishable from New Deal-Great Society liberalism. A foreign policy that dotes on “global democracy” rather than the national interest as the defining object of the State’s affairs, a domestic policy that celebrates the charms of the underclass and ponders how to improve its condition even itself out of the picture by declaring itself-and its predecessors-incompetent to approve or condemn social regulations that are within the purview of state governments. At times Justice Scalia seems to be alone in understanding that the Court is limited in the good it can seek to accomplish. In his concurrent opinion on the parental consent decision, Scalia reviewed the confusing course of judicial reasoning on abortion, concluding that “the tools for this job are not to be found in the lawyer’s-and hence not the judge’s workbox. I continue to dissent from this enterprise of devising an Abortion Code, and from the illusion that we have authority to so.”
Justice Scalia’s scruples may have more to do with his theology than with judicial restraint, but it is a good sign that he also insisted in the Cruzan “right to die” case that “the Federal Courts have no business in this field.” We can only hope that his skepticism will spread to the other “conservatives” on the Court. The left has no monopoly on judicial activism (Chief Justice Rehnquist has been almost as zealous in the service of government as Earl Warren), and while Rehnquist’s political views are vastly more wholesome than his two predecessors, he ought to recollect, from time to time, that he is not a legislative or executive official. If the justices wish to govern Missouri or Minnesota, let them resign their positions and repair to the hinterland where they can run for office with all the tricks of honest chicanery-for which American politics is celebrated.
The debate over abortion and euthanasia has been cast in the predictable form of conflicting rights: the right to die vs. the right to life in Missouri, where the parents of Nancy Cruzan-lying hopelessly in a coma -have decided to put an end to the medical profession’s arrogation of the power of life and death; and in the Minnesota and Ohio parental consent cases, a woman’s right to an abortion vs. the parents’ rights vs. the rights of the unborn. However, neither ruling took much account of the family per se as a basic social institution. For the Court, it is individuals that matter, and when a person is incapable of making rational decisions (because of age or condition), responsibility may be delegated to family members or friends. The conte5ted point in Missouri was not over who had the power-state or family-to make the decision to cut off life support, but over how explicitly Miss Cruzan had stated her wishes. (Even where patients have made their intentions plain, they may still be kept alive artificially, as in the Edward Winter case commented on in the July Chronicles.) In the parental consent decisions a great deal of time has been wasted-as Justice Scalia pointed out-in discussing whether it was possible or preferable, where a pregnant minor’s parents were divorced, to require two-parent as opposed lo one parent notification.
But while the family is a legal institution, it cannot be made or unmade be law. That responsibility lies in the hands of nature, which compels us to mate and rear children, and of Cod, who has given us clear instructions in Scripture and in the teachings of the church. A friend, no matter how dear, is not the same thing as a parent, and while it might be useful to permit us in some cases to delegate a life-and-death decision lo some trusted friend, the presumptive human authority must always reside in the family, the ultimate basis both for human society and for government.
What is at stake in both these cases is really family autonomy. Who better than family can decide on a question like abortion or the removal of life support? Judges? Social workers? Policemen? In fact, neither the Minnesota nor Ohio laws go far enough: neither actually gives families an absolute veto power over abortions; they only require parental notification, and even then, it is possible to get around even this minimal requirement, if a girl can show some plausible reason why her parents should not be informed.
The main question facing the Court is not the sanctity of life or individual rights but the liberty of the family to make its own decisions without interference. A similar point lies at the heart of the cases of parents who, out of religious scruples, refuse to seek professional medical attention for their sick children. No one would want to countenance child neglect, but no one in his right mind would want to tum over life-and-death decisions to the American Medical Association. What are the odds, today, of surviving to 70 for people who don’t go to doctors as opposed to people who do? In individual cases, of course, physicians save countless lives, but if one can believe the physicians themselves, a large proportion of life-threatening operations performed are absolutely unnecessary. We do know that when doctors and hospitals go on strike, the death rate falls.
Still, what if it could be established that the child mortality rate is much higher among religious groups that eschew medical treatment? One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (September 22-29, 1989) compared Christian Science college graduates with a control group. The authors concluded that Christian Scientists do, indeed, have a lower life expectancy and, what is worse, die from cancer at a rate that is twice the national average. Still, a man’s health is his own business. As a general principle, however, it would be preferable to attack the problem directly by discouraging the spread of religions that sacrifice children. The Romans outlawed the Druids, because they practiced human sacrifice, and it is time for these United States lo do something about Santeria. If and I do say if-a plausible case can be made to include Christian Science or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then it is better to outlaw a religious sect than to allow the state to intrude further into the family.
Family autonomy is the only solid foundation for a free society, and the status of the family as a primary social institution was an established fact both of ancient law and of the major philosophical systems of antiquity and the Middle Ages. In America, these ancient views of the family, already embedded in the Common Law, took on new life as this continent was settled by small household groups that constituted virtually independent republics.
The social history of America; as it has been written by professional historians, has concentrated far too much on the East, particularly the Northeast. In fact it has been the unsettled and half-settled areas of the frontier, the back country, and the backwaters of Middle America that have determined the national character. And this story-like so much social history-has been better told in fiction and memoirs than in monographs and dissertations. To get a flavor of what life was like for the free American families, you can tum to writers like Ole Rölvaag and Willa Cather, or to the works of a redoubtable mother-daughter team of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.
Free Land is the title of a Rose Wilder Lane novel dedicated to the American farmers who pulled up stakes and took advantage of the western lands made available under Homestead legislation. The title is richly suggestive. There was nothing “free” about land that men and women earned by the sweat of their brow, and Mrs. Lane drew upon the memory of her father, Almanzo Wilder, for this portrayal of grinding poverty, blistering drought, and blizzards that could be more devastating to human life than a tornado or major hurricane. But in a deeper sense, these prairie lands were free, because the families who settled them were free. One knew this better than Laura’s daughter Rose, who moved from the farm to the big city and who in her career as journalist went from being a fashionable leftist to a life of protest as an anti-government, anti-war, anti-tax anarcho-libertarian.
Reading the firsthand accounts of the families who settled the frontier, “the land vaguely realizing westward,” I am always struck not so much by the hardship as by the resilience of the settlers. Years ago Robert Hine (in Community on the Frontier) showed with what determination the women, when there were women, set about establishing the norms of family life under the most adverse conditions. Men were the leaders and organizers, but women were indispensable both for their labors and because they conveyed, in their very persons, the lares and penates of domestic life and human society. Sarah Royce observed that the rough miners of California were aware of how deeply they had sunk into barbarism: “Even in their intercourse with each other, they often alluded to this feeling, and in the presence of women, then so unusual, most of them showed it in a very marked manner.”
In heading west into a country without law, many of the settlers apparently were afraid of encountering the anarchy and violence that has been portrayed in fiction, film, and television in our own century. John Mack Faragher (Women and Men on the Overland Trail) quotes one woman pioneer’s realization that “when we set foot on the right bank of the Missouri River we were outside the pale of civil law.” But, as Faragher points out, the threat of anarchy rarely materialized. Settlers quickly organized themselves either into wagon trains or, even more frequently, into parties of kinfolk. Fights there were, as there always are when people-many of them previously strangers-are put under severe physical and moral strain, but order did not break down in the absence of official constraints. Far from it.
Then, as now, it is not police and courts that keep people from killing and robbing each other. Wherever an extensive police force is required, it is a sign of a social dissolution so hopeless that no penal system can prevail against it. In my neighborhood, you hardly need police, and where they are needed-in the projects of Washington, ew York, and Chicago-the police are virtually powerless.
Read through the Little House books, and you will find few mentions of law or police. Even where the institutions of law and order existed in rural and frontier America, they were never the primary mechanisms of social control. Families minded their own business, quite literally, and when they had cause to quarrel with a neighbor, it was rarely the cause of a suit or action. What government there was had no authority to interfere within households, where a father’s word was law. A man had not only legal but economic control over his wife and children down to the middle of the century, and even when the various Married Women’s Acts were passed, giving wives the right to make contracts and wills, the man of the family remained in fact the lord and master in his own home.
Feminists and men not worthy of the name like to speak of “the patriarchy” as an oppressive tyranny from which we are only just beginning to liberate ourselves. Tn one sense they are right. Despite the vicissitudes that male dominance has undergone in history-relatively low in imperial Rome and high in England under the Tudors and Stuarts-adult males have been in control since the days of Adam or, if you prefer, of Homo erectus. Feminists are also probably right in their contention that Western civilization, when compared with many savage and barbarous cultures, has been remark ably patriarchal. I say remarkably rather than uniquely, because all great civilizations have shared this quality.
While it is dangerous to compare the experiences of different peoples at different stages of their development, a brief glance at Western man’s record as patriarch is suggestive. Homer’s Odyssey is, to a great extent, fiction, but it does portray a society in which women like Penelope and Arete (Queen of the Phaeacians) exercise enormous influence, while in Periclean Athens women were rigidly supervised and segregated from most male activities. Contrast democratic Athens with royal and oligarchic Sparta, where the women were, proverbially, indulged to the point of license. The Republican Rome that defeated the child murdering Carthaginians allowed household heads full enjoyment of the patria potestas, the power of life and death over their dependents, but the Roman law of Diocletian’s day-when most citizens had become wards of the imperial state-generously protected the rights of women and children. In our own history, that is in the history of Britain and America, it is a cliche that patriarchal power was strengthened in the 17th century and remained strong down into the Victorian era.
For those of us who think that history has lessons to teach, it would seem that patriarchal power tends to be stronger in societies that emphasize personal liberty and self-government, weaker under regimes, like Sparta and later Rome, in which the state exercises great power over private life. This should not be surprising, since the only alternative to paternal supremacy is government supremacy. A man’s children, even when they are grown, could never by themselves represent a threat to his power, and the same holds true for his wife, whose “rights” have almost always been protected primarily by her male relatives-fathers, brothers, and husbands.
Today, women’s rights are the subject of legislation and judicial fiats. Whenever you hear the word “rights,” it is time to release the safety on your Browning, because you know that some politician somewhere is planning to make himself richer and more powerful at your expense. This is not a new insight. Aristotle, in his discussion of tyranny, observed that it was the habit of tyrants to champion the cause of women and social inferiors. This is not a question of power going to the head. What all irresponsible authority fears is honest merit, the proud aristocrat, the uncompromising intellectual, the statesman who cannot be bought. Such men are dangerous and must either be eliminated in purges or else be forced to endure the constant humiliation of seeing their dependents liberated and set above them.
Among the many ironies of intellectual history is the association of the term “patriarchy” with political absolutism. This is largely due to the influence of Sir Robert Filmer, the author of Patriarca, a work that defended the royal prerogatives of Charles I against the rights of Parliament or people or even law. While much of Filmer reasoning is inextricably bound to the circumstances and quarrels of his own time, there is a core of insight that retains its vitality, now that the fruit of monarchy is withered and rotted. What Filmer realized-and so few political thinkers since have grasped- is that the authority of government can never be based on consent alone, because consent always comes down to voting majorities which will assume the right to do exactly as they please with minorities.
Such assumption of power, whether it comes from a despot or a democracy, can never be legitimate, and even though Filmer went to extreme lengths in defending the royal prerogative, Charles I went to his death insisting that, as a defender of his own and the people’s traditional liberties, he was “a martyr of the people.” Comparing Charles’ record of petty oppressions with the vast tyranny of Cromwell, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he was telling the truth. This is not to say that monarchy is a better form of government than a republic or a democracy, because political systems cannot be compared in the abstract. Most people were freer, in their private life at least, in monarchical England than they were in the oligarchic republic of Venice, and in many ways, our ancestors who fought lo liberate themselves from the yoke of a half-mad king and a venal Parliament were already freer than we their descendants will ever be.
Americans did not achieve their liberties either by fighting a revolution or by making a constitution. They wrested it from an unfamiliar land and under strange skies, minding their own affairs in their own households, cooperating freely with their neighbors, and settling their own problems with little recourse to soldiery, constabulary, or judiciary. The kinfolk of Sir Robert Filmer who settled in Virginia did not transmit Sir Robert’s regard for royal authority; however, they did bring with them that country gentleman’s independence and self-reliance, and it is no irony that the great patriarchalist’s blood flowed in the veins of many Virginians who led the American fight for independence.
The democratic habits of self-reliance and cooperation (but not communalism) were handed down from one generation of farmers and independent tradesmen lo another. They also infected the Germans, Scandinavians, and other settlers of the frontier. I sometimes wonder if the real conflict in America is not so much between old stock and new stock as between the people whose families braved the wilderness and busted the sod and those whose ancestors clung to the safe apron-fringe of the continent and never sank roots into the soil of America. I know that I have more in common with a Finlander working a dairy farm near Lake Superior than l do with an English-born banker in New York. Individuals are forgetful, but families have memories. What else explains the peculiarly American philosophy of Josiah Royce, with its concern both for individualism and for local community and provincialism? I was never able to appreciate Royce until I looked into his mother Sarah’s account of her experiences as a pioneer.
If you really want to understand America as it once was and might, impossibly, be again, go visit, sometime, the little towns of Missouri and Wisconsin. Get off the interstate and drive, as we did last summer, to De Smet, South Dakota, a town named in honor of the heroic Belgian Jesuit who missionized the Plains Indians. There you will find the simple relics of the Ingalls family, whose period of residence there Laura in later years referred to as “these happy golden years.” Consider the lives of these decent plain folk who spent their life in labor without asking or expecting anything from government, and you will begin to understand why Rose Wilder turned to anarchism as the only sensible response to the mess we have allowed our masters to make of this country.
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