If you’re foolish enough to fight in the culture war, then you need to know the rules. For instance, if a conservative tries to score points off a liberal by making reference to the latter’s private life, then that would be simply outrageous and quite possibly the worst thing ever. If, on the other hand, it’s the liberal attacking the conservative, then that’s called fair comment.
Here’s an example of how it works – a piece for Slate, in which Matthew Yglesias takes a pop at David Brooks of the New York Times:
“Brooks’ columns have frequently worried about the “dangerous level of family breakdown” in America, and have specifically put this crisis of family stability at the center of class politics…
“If Brooks were a truly self-aware columnist, I think this is the issue he’d be revisiting in light of the breakdown of his own marriage. My anecdotal experience growing up in affluent circles in Manhattan was that parental marriage disruption is very hard on kids, even on rich kids. But that’s hard meaning that it’s sad, not meaning that it’s a substantial barrier to the kids going to college and maintaining a high socioeconomic status. My guess is that Brooks’ kids will find their parents’ breakup to be pretty upsetting but that they’ll also get along fine in life, possessing all the various advantages that come from being David Brooks’ children.”
This is a bit below the belt. David Brooks is not America’s answer to Glenda Slagg; he is a reasonable and non-preachy commentator who bases his case on facts that are not altered by the state of his marriage.
But leaving aside the personal stuff, does Yglesias have a point? If it’s material deprivation that does the damage, then wouldn’t divorce matter much less if America were a more equal society?
In a post for the Family Studies blog, Bradford Wilcox disputes the premise of the argument:
“Not only do privileged children often get ‘sad’ when their families break down, they are also markedly more likely to fail to graduate from college, to have a child outside of wedlock, and to lose the socioeconomic status of their childhood than their peers raised in an intact, married family.”
In other words, family breakdown doesn’t just damage life chances because the families affected tend to be poorer – it is an important factor in its own right.
Wilcox accepts that economic need is also an important factor, but points out that marriage is powerful protector against poverty:
“The bottom line here is that money is not separable from marriage when it comes to family life. As Urban Institute economist Robert Lerman noted here and here, a substantial body of research suggests that on average, at every socioeconomic level, families headed by a continuously married couple will earn more money and accumulate more wealth than other types of families with similar educational and personal backgrounds. So even if you operate from a largely materialist framework, as does Yglesias, you should be concerned about the impact that family breakdown has upon children in less-privileged and privileged precincts in America.”
The lesson here is that we should emphasise the positive – by focusing on the good done by marriage, not just the harm done by family breakdown. In Britain, half of all children will, by age of sixteen, see their parents split up. But for the other half, who live under the same roof as both their parents throughout childhood, mum and dad are overwhelmingly likely to be married (to one another). Therefore marriage continues to be a vital force in our society, holding together millions of families.
On that cheerful note, let me wish readers of ConservativeHome a very happy Christmas. The Deep End returns in the New Year.