A review of Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem. By David Blankenhorn.

Basic Books, 1995.

Thirty years ago American Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”. In it he wrote these words: “The breakup of the black family is the single most important social fact of the United States today.” The central insight of his report was that family stability should be the basis of social legislation. Said Moynihan, “A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Unfortunately his words went largely unheeded, and today the disintegration of the black family is nearly complete. Less than a third of all black children are born into a family where a father is present, and according to some projections, only 6 per cent of black children will live with both parents through age 18.

Sociologist Charles Murray has warned that white families are heading in the same direction, and we will soon see the emergence of a white underclass. “Illegitimacy,” he warns, “is the single most important social problem of our time – more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.” (“The Coming White Underclass” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 29, 1993)

The effects of fatherless families are now becoming all too clear, with almost all social commentators agreed that they have produced social problems of overwhelming proportions. As William Bennett puts it, “Today’s major domestic problem, clearly, is family solidarity, not race.”

While Moynihan’s words went unheeded thirty years ago, today most people accept his conclusions. Even Bill Clinton is now talking about the importance of marriage, and the right of children to be born into a home with two parents.

But if so many experts are coming around to the idea of the importance of marriage, one may ask whether it is too late. Politicians who long ago succumbed to the siren call of feminism, the sexual revolution and the homosexual agenda, have largely abandoned the family as a priority. Popular culture in all its forms (MTV, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, etc.) relentlessly pushes the ideals of excessive individualism and unbridled hedonism, all of which works against the values needed to make marriage and family work – values like self-discipline, self-sacrifice, commitment, faithfulness, mutual submission, and deferral of self-gratification.

Also, the legal world works against marriage and family. First, easy divorce laws (coupled with discriminatory economic policies), make it much harder for people who want to stay together, but make it much easier for people who want an easy way out, who couldn’t be bothered with the hard work of maintaining a relationship. Second, the litigation revolution wars against the values needed to make a marriage work. Today all of the emphasis is on rights and privileges, while we minimise our sense of duty and responsibility. Indeed, we have become a nation of victims – everyone is claiming victim status, while eschewing personal responsibility for our behaviours. Ben Wattenberg once called this “The Victim Dictum.” It goes like this: “Every Problem Can Be Assigned To A Hostile Outside Agent.”

The disappearance of marriage, and the collapse of fatherhood, has been admirably examined in a new book by David Blankenhorn, called Fatherless America. The book is based on a wealth of statistical information, including the fact that “tonight, about 40 per cent of American children will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live”. “Fatherlessness,” argues Blankenhorn, “is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation”. The primary results of this trend are “a decline in children’s well-being and a rise in male violence, especially against women.”

The problem is not just that of the absence of fathers, but “the absence of our belief in fathers.” Recalling the findings of Margaret Mead and others that the supreme test of any civilisation is whether it can socialise men by teaching them to be fathers, Blankenhorn traces the disappearance of the idea of fatherhood in contemporary culture, and the effects this has on our children and our society

While he acknowledges that the so-called traditional family was not without problems, he sees the move to a fatherless society as a far greater dilemma. As fatherhood becomes devalued, decultured and deinstitutionalised, the problems associated with inner city America will only compound themselves. We now know without question that the overwhelming generator of violence among young men is the fatherless family. There are now a multitude of studies available which make it perfectly clear that fatherlessness is the major factor in crime, more than race, poverty or any other social variable.

This affects every aspect of life. For example, we now know, contrary to feminist doctrine, that domestic violence is much more likely to occur in homes where the partners are not married. A woman is much more likely to abused by a boyfriend, a de facto or a live in than by a husband. The same is true of child sexual abuse. “What magnifies the risk of sexual abuse in children is not the presence of a married father but his absence.” Again, a host of studies have clearly established this point. Here in Australia former Human Right’s Commissioner Brian Burdekin recently stated that there is a 600 per cent greater risk of child sexual abuse from a non-married, non-biological father.

With all these studies confirming the importance of marriage and the presence of fathers, one would hope that our political leaders would be reaffirming our national commitment to marriage. The opposite is the case unfortunately. Australian society, like American society, is not intent on making sure marriage works, nor is it intent on making divorce less easy to obtain. Instead, it is in the process of deinstitutionalising marriage and fatherhood. It has become a culture of divorce. Instead of trying to reduce divorce, it seeks to make the process more cooperative and amicable. Divorce reform here and overseas means simply trying to involve fewer lawyers and more mediators. This may be better than conflict and litigation, but it does not deal with the real problem.

This utopian view of “better divorce” is “less a solution to our fatherhood problem than a sign of our unwillingness to confront the problem. . . . Divorce is the problem. Pretending that better divorce is the solution amounts to little more than a way of easing our conscience as we lower our standards. As fatherhood fragments, children’s well-being declines. But children need some ephemeral hope called better divorce about as much as they need some lifeless reminder of their father called child support. Both, for children, are only slightly better than nothing. What children need is a father.”

When anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski said that “the father is indispensable for the full sociological status of the child as well as of its mother,” he was stating a truth that is both simple and profound. Yet we live in a day where simplicity is spurned and profundity is not grasped. With no less than the Governor-General calling for same sex-marriage and adoption rights, the need to restate the obvious is all the more urgent. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The process of living seems to consist in coming to realise truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes.”

That children need mother and father, and that healthy families are a prerequisite for healthy societies, have been historical givens. Such claims now however are regarded with disbelief. The case for fatherhood and marriage needs to be remade for a sceptical age. Blankenhorn’s book is a valuable component in that argument.

And this task is especially pressing. Concludes Blankenhorn, “The most urgent domestic challenge facing the United States at the close of the twentieth century is the re-creation of fatherhood as a vital role for men. At stake is nothing less than the success of the American experiment. For unless we reverse the trend of fatherlessness, no other set of accomplishments – not economic growth or prison construction or welfare reform or better schools – will succeed in arresting the decline of child well-being and the spread of male violence. To tolerate the trend of fatherlessness is to accept the inevitability of continued societal recession.”

In the Australian context we can find this no better expressed than by Simon Leys of the University of Sydney who has recently written: “In the history of the civilised world, no substitute has ever been found for the family. Any society that allows it to disintegrate, or endeavours actively to destroy it (as we are now doing here) does it at its own horrific risks and costs.”

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