Happy Families: the Case Against 'Values'

TRB

May 28, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- What Vice President Quayle complacently mocks as ''indulgence and self-gratification,'' the founders of this nation referred to as ''the pursuit of happiness.'' They were for it. And they believed the government's job was to provide the conditions for that pursuit, not to dictate its terms.

Mr. Quayle's own pursuit of happiness has been conventional and easy; for most others, the pursuit is a struggle. That sound you hear across the land is millions of hands slapping on foreheads as deserted wives, gays and lesbians, men and women (and children) trapped in miserable marriages, assorted misfits, and -- yes -- even some lonely middle-aged professional women who somehow never got married but want a baby anyway say, ''Why didn't I think of that? I should just be a member of a happy two-parent family with a couple of normal, healthy kids. In fact, why not go all the way and inherit a newspaper fortune while I'm at it?''

The liberating social developments of the past few decades have surely had their down side, but to dismiss them all as a ghastly mistake is smug and cheap and stupid. The pill, easier divorce laws, gay rights, the increased toleration of single parenthood and other eccentric living arrangements -- all these have undermined the traditional family. They also have offered paths to happiness for millions who otherwise would be trapped by the conventions that provide the plots of so many gloomy 19th-century novels. ''Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,'' wrote Tolstoy in ''Anna Karenina.'' Well, we've disinvented a few of those ways.

But does ''the turbulent legacy of the '60s and '70s,'' as Mr. Quayle would have it, include a breakdown of traditional values that members of the middle class may have managed to survive but ''the poor, with less to fall back on, did not''?

It is hard to know which is more exaggerated: the notion that the problems of the ghetto can be explained ''predominantly'' (Mr. Quayle again) as ''a poverty of values,'' or the notion that the poor values of the underclass trickled down from the counterculture. Let us concede a grain of truth to both points. But if you're looking for social forces that contribute to the breakdown of traditional values and the epidemic of self-indulgence, it's absurd to obsess about Woodstock.

Even conservative social critics have made the point that free-market capitalism, in its constant stimulation and satisfaction of appetites, is the most powerful force eroding traditional values and social arrangements. The very decision to give Murphy Brown a fatherless baby was more a product of capitalist forces -- the quest for ratings -- than of any leftover Sixties ideology. In the search for cultural influences promoting self-indulgence and immediate gratification of appetites, the Reaganite 1980s is a livelier suspect than the distant and bedraggled 1960s. Kids weren't shooting other kids over $150 gym shoes in 1969.

To paraphrase Goering, whenever I hear the word ''values'' I reach for my gym shoes -- in case I want to run away. The problem isn't ''family values'' themselves. They're swell, in their way. The problem is the government trying to impose them. But I don't seriously worry that Mr. Quayle's speech is the beginning of any right-wing family-values Kulturkampf. That would require more courage of their alleged convictions than this Republican administration has got. And the more cynical uses of a new ''family values'' campaign are so transparent.

First, ''values'' are a convenient excuse for the failure of two Republican presidents to do much of anything about the cities and the underclass. They are another free lunch -- a seeming answer to some pressing national challenge that requires nothing of the mass of middle-class voters. If only poor people would pull up their socks and stop watching TV shows written by liberals, their problems would be solved.

Second, ''values'' are, since Spiro Agnew, a traditional weapon in the Republican presidential campaign arsenal. If the ''values'' debate were a real one, that would be fair enough. But it is not. The Republican technique is to create a straw man -- a parody ''liberal'' who doesn't salute the flag, doesn't love the family and so on. It worked in 1988, with the successful portrayal of Michael Dukakis as Abbie Hoffman.

When you've controlled the White House for 12 years and people are palpably unhappy with the country's condition, it's useful to have someone else to pin the blame on. Congress serves this function in our constitutional system. But there's also that old bogey, the ''cultural elite'' that's been secretly running the country while the president and vice president were off playing golf.

Thus ''family values'' are part of a campaign technique that predates even Spiro Agnew. It's the stigmatization of a Great Other: a group of people within the country but different from normal people and therefore responsible for everything that's going wrong.

No wonder we're running a $400 billion deficit when unmarried middle-aged women think they can just go off and have babies by themselves.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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