In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz lays bare with nearly overpowering evidence a number of myths permeating American society that an open mind will have pondered. Chapters three, six, and nine provide symmetry in creating one of many clear arguments put forth in this concentrated classic. Chapter three revolves around the myth of gender roles as relating to the individuals within “traditional” families and their relation to the state; six strips away methodically at the myth of state intervention being the ruin of this family; nine is a thorough dismantling of the idea that parents alone are responsible for their children and the unavoidable risks inherent in life.
Finding one coherent argument in the book was much like dipping my hands into a box of treasures; I may have missed some rubies, but I made out better than I started. The primary truth she shares with us is that the nuclear family, which is held up on all sides as the foundation upon which all individual character traits rely and on which all of societal calm and prosperity rests - indeed, where all morals and virtues come from - in fact is not in danger of collapsing, but instead naturally diversifying. This, given America’s history of exclusion, is a source of fear to those who profit from the lack of honest discussion. This diversification could be a source of strength for the individual in our state system if we re-discovered the strength of non-kin networks. Finding the proper role for government will mean more actual discussion, but until, through voter engagement, we can force corporations to participate more equally in taxation as a way to keep inequity from rising, any progress towards inclusivity will be moot.
In chapter three, Professor Coontz lays waste to the myth of “a traditional family.” This traditional family is supposed to be made up of mothers--excuse me, women--who are expected to be the domestic based givers of all affection and emotional validation, goddesses of altruistic nurturing, essential in the character formation of each and every individual and so all of society. Woe be to those who fail this ideal or are raised by those who fail, and further woe to the society that does not protect this role for moth—excuse me, women. Femininity in this role is required to “counteract capitalism” (56). Fathers are to always and only be competitive and arrange for provision/shelter, absent any sentimentality and incapable of intimacy outside the binding marriage. One major point she raises is that non-white, non-males and even those white males of lower classes have historically been seen as less fully human to the upper and elite classes (I believe this is class imposition) (48).
Coontz points repeatedly at the history of humanity as not having required or even accepted these gender roles. Requiring such discordant roles from individuals and families puts the natural need for state intervention (redress, etc.) into an unnecessarily shameful light. This, as she puts it, is “foreign” (44). The origin of the word ‘family’ comes from the word ‘slaves.’ The concept evolved in pre-capitalist societies so as to recognize authority, not paternal or maternal structure. But the state here in America is presumed under the myth to exist for the purpose of protecting the idyllic, 1950s-era nuclear family structure. Such expectation, absent a comprehensive allowance for reality ( i.e., the fragmentation of our individual rights as regulated by the state), demands failure from the many for the benefit of very few. This occurs while we allow more power to private firms and corporations that are most-often owned by very old money. A long-term trend towards polarization in our politics and policy has long prevented reasonable solutions for forced inequity from being discussed, proposed or accepted.
To continue living within these “traditions” without questioning them , one must ignore and avoid consequence of willful ignorance, be willing to hold inconsistent and even contradictory positions, and remain outright acceptant of the consequences (infanticide, abandonment, illegitimacy, etc.) we face as a whole for not dealing with these inequities. Coontz shows that the history of labor division in other cultures, and in our pre-Civil War society, relied not on gender based divisions but always helped create and reinforce culturally approved ways for each gender to receive and give intimacy inside and outside of marriage. These intimacies prove nonfamily reliance led as much as to American prosperity as any family structure (65). One consequence of “falling for” these myths that are so beyond complex is that dependence on the state and subjugation to any “higher” power emerge as the only roles an individual can fill. This cannot be healthy, or continue much longer without another violent realignment.
The chapter six myth is pretty straightforward: since family is the basis for all morality and individual traits should come from the family alone, any need for state intervention comes from weakness, be it criminality or immorality. The need for outside intervention, says this myth, is due to an unhealthy reliance bred from families with poor morals or individuals with poor families. This weakness is effectively criminal, for it drains the state of resources with which to enforce morality, and breeds dependency on the government instead of the family. This has lead to the further collapse of the family…the myth that dies is that the nanny state (excessive government intervention) is the reason for the collapsing family, and the collapsing family (supported by the paternalistic nanny state) is the reason we cycle through booms and recessions…
One of the many problems/causes of inconsistencies we see is that all sides decry the “growing” nanny state. Each, however, are inconsistent in their position. She lays out the basic failings of each philosophy and their history of providing lone and incomplete solutions (124). Coontz is careful to point out liberal complicity in the selfishness of our system. Enlightenment thought and the rise of self-interest drove the rise of capitalism, and the desire of those who benefited most from early capitalism to protect their “privacy” led to the rise of the state. “Privacy rights” were never meant to be inclusive. Eugenics, for example, arose from “child savers” asserting Christian values, terrified that “unworthy families” would receive the benefits of government (132). As it stands, most families would prefer to be invaded by a doctor (145). To need this “invasion” puts you in opposition to the interests of the state, especially once the state took a position on which family structure to protect (140).
Coontz wins the day when she quotes education professor Joseph Featherstone: “An anti-statist position, pure and simple, is a tacit endorsement of rule by the giant corporations.” A clear example of this control is the 1978 Right to Privacy Act, which “severely restricted” federal access to “bank account records and credit reports, but exempted private employers, state agencies, creditors, and even solicitation firms.” Truly, “business policies regulate family life far more extensively” than the so-called nanny state (146). Down goes the myth!
Chapter nine highlighted my own upbringing as being irredeemable to society and left me feeling repugnant. My experience was as a child saved by state intervention - literally, by being adopted away as an infant from an abusive mother - but I’m not allowed as a parent to lean on what was for me a righteously “paternalistic” state without exposing some “immorality” or proving my bastard status. This is both frustrating and alienating. Parents, goes the myth (especially in light of the two mentioned) are the sole entity responsible for raising children amidst the collapsing society filled with at-risk families—this is a trap for failure and cannot change absent an honest dialogue. There is no normal, largely because any attempt to study and find a normal would/has left out some important considerations (211). There is no way to measure normal, but we do know that most abuse comes from inside the home, not some stranger danger (227). Normalcy in human familial structure historically comes from “co-parenting relationships” and “shared responsibilities;” the consequence of failing in those relationships depends largely on your class status (227). We survived for centuries recognizing “tacit communities,” a structure that in our state system is seen as less valid than the nuclear family, and so has been legislated to have less access to redress and equality of intervention. Our system is “hopelessly-biased toward one kind of family setting.” This bias leads to the failings or feelings of failure in parents, as the individual and family roles they have to live up to cannot in fact all be lived up to. No worries for the children of the extremely wealthy, though; they have “special advantages” in maintaining their success (227).
For high and low income individuals, the “omnipotence” we are supposed to display as parents is more relevantly on display from corporate employers towards us (225). This creates in turn an inward and collapsing pressure on parents that trends towards divorce (though no evidence, again can show functionality suffering more under one familial structure than another). Coontz draws a master stroke in pointing out that the discussion in America about parenting centers around impossible roles, incredible risk, blame to go around and always individual behavior is compared to the most tragic situation being dragged through the media at the time (228). The truly dysfunctional gets the attention and seems the norm…who to blame? Why, the collapsing family and the values we are not passing on to our children! Unfortunately, because we lack an honest discussion about these myths, those who suffer from severe risk and true dysfunctionality are in less danger of being “invaded” by a helpful societal force in part because they lack access to “social capital” (231). She closes her argument with the idea that all children can be loved by all of the adults in a society, and a transition to this ideal would be more healthy than our current inverted and imploding morass.
Instead, we see a continuing decline in open, honest and fair dialogue concerning very real risks to our Union. This reduction in discussion benefits an increasingly miniscule few who have no fear of failing or of being required to do the actual work that would be involved in failing to live up to the ideal (47, 227). By establishing the nuclear family as a “state” unto itself separate from the “nanny” government, democracy (as I took the major lesson to be) is decaying from within our deep center as a result of this continual opposition. Each individual not a member of the “oppositional state” finds themselves stuck in a paradoxical role, forced to act in the best interests of capitalism, not the expansion of democracy. We see a paradox here that can only be rectified by a renewed allegiance to the idea of government as having a legitimate role in the life of the family and the individual.
I was not just convinced by the validity of her arguments; I have carried this book with me everywhere marking it up since the beginning of semester. I am spending my summer reading her follow-up (The Way We Really Are) because I am determined to be ready to debate when, inevitably, my failings as an individual, a man, a husband, and a parent (especially in relation to the state structure) are called on the carpet. We have become consumers, not producers, and the major firms lead the effort to defund, privatize and decentralize the federal and eventually the state governments in the interest of our masters. We are, whether we recognize this or not, a society of slaves to our masters. These undying corporate persons see individuals and families as a “species of property” and “not fully human” when not literally related, historically (126, 48). The words and some expectations may have changed, but privacy rights have never been truly inclusive; making rights equal and access to redress accessible is not in the best interests of capitalism, and so it (capitalism) is at odds with democracy. Unregulated capitalism decays democracy (123, 126, 129, 132, 135, 137 - 138). Non-familial networks, in this light, are a human right.
“The increase in poverty…is entirely attributable to changes in taxes and government benefits rather than demographics” (260). While the “nanny” state may have grown larger (there is no doubt America has more government now than at its founding, and that this government is more inclusive than originally planned), our government today is literally controlled by families not exactly looking out for the best interests of anyone except that of their undying corporate sons.
By engaging in democratic participation and continuing education, each of us raise the chance of the other to be successful in overcoming these extremely unhealthy myths and their multiple effects on us as individuals, families, and as a whole society. Continuing to accept rising inequity as a consequence of trying to meet impossible expectations is unbearable, and I believe for democracy, unsustainable. Stock and trust bred by nativism, not mom and dad, rule America (111, 272). Let’s change that by establishing our own non-kin networks: that’s right…go make a friend!