The first family, by which I don't mean the Bushes, but Adam and Eve, certainly had it problems. One of the children killed the other. Patriarchs like Jacob also had a time of it with much strife and plain old misconduct within the family. And the Hebrews probably weren't the worst of it, either. Consider the Greeks-the Oedipus family and all the rest of that clan who so generously donated their names to innumerable of our modern psychological disorders. And I'm not through. What about the Hamlet family and the Macbeth family? What about all those oppressive, loveless, just plain deranged families living behind a facade of respectability that the 19th-century novelists immortalized for us? What about Eugene O'Neill's imploding families? We're talking Western cultural tradition here, which good conservatives want us to submerge ourselves in,. and we of course have. Is it any wonder, then, that Americans don't seem universally to believe that your basic configuration of five-Dick and Jane and Spot and Mom and Dad whether in ancient Attica or right up the road in that nice suburban house where Junior just mowed down the whole lot of them and then called the police, necessarily defines domestic tranquillity and moral rectitude?
I have been brooding over all this by way of trying to understand why the hard-edged GOP family-values blast of August played so badly with the public and had to be revised. Surely in some sense the people who thought it up were on to something. A lot of us are powerfully uncomfortable with and unhappy about the descent to so much that is sexually shameless, exhibitionistic and savage in our society. We are importuned to accept today behavior that only yesterday was generally considered as unacceptable. I think most of us have picked and chosen our way individually among all this, have had our own personal struggles over what we can accept and what we cannot and have created our own individual equilibrium. If this is the case, as I believe, it is hardly any wonder that people were so offended by the original Republican effort to scare them back to where they'd been and so inhospitable to speechifying that politicized and vulgarized this subject known as "family values."
But there is more. I think people resented the intrusion of political figures lecturing them on their moral behavior and in addition were contemptuous of those politicians' presumption that they could judge the character of so many human relationships on the basis of large categories. It is fair to say that most people have known in their own environs at least one superficially perfect family whose back biting members were walking examples of every familial vice in the book. They have also known disorganized and wholly unconventional families, families missing husbands or wives or both, groupings of people banded together to be a family where none existed,that day in,day out displayed more of the values and virtues of family relationships than the local pillars of society. In the ravaged aftermath of Hurricane Andrew some of those impoverished, non-Cleaverlike families struggling to stay together and redeem their modest common life seemed like exemplars of love and responsibility and devotion. You do not have to be sentimental about all the poor or the offbeat or the untraditional as groups to know such people exist and to know that this is true.
One special target of the midsummer assault was the feminist wife, or perhaps just the feminist-period. Political pulse takers were to say that this failed to accomplish its end because it offended so many women in America. There was an implication, first, that women who took jobs outside the home were doing so as a lark, rather than out of economic necessity. And from this followed the idea that they must be pretty callous or unfemale or something to do so, to have such fouled-up values. Again, this had to fly in the face of experience that tens of millions of people have had, either as observers of the scene the Republicans were talking about or participants in it. It is, I suspect, nigh impossible to work in a large enterprise anywhere in the country these days without being in continuous contact with women who are working especially hard in their jobs and equally managing to give enormous amounts of energy and attention to their families.
The Republicans who got mixed up in this in Houston in August now tell us that they were misunderstood and misrepresented by the media, etc. Some of their best friends are single mothers and working mothers-Lord, some of their nearest relatives are even single mothers and working mothers-and they never meant these noble (voting)women any harm.They maybe right.They may have had some whole other categories in mind and only been clumsy in their formulations. Maybe they were only meaning to condemn promiscuous sex, kinky sex and strident, anti-male; radical feminism. The problem is that once politicians get inveighing on these subjects a couple of things happen. They don't want to limit their attacks to identified individual perpetrators of the vices they condemn because this usually will make them look as if they are training a huge amount of firepower on a relative handful of wrongdoers. So they go general and nasty and end up seeming to condemn large swaths of the population they claim are a threat to everyone else in the society, while implying their own moral perfection or at least superiority. But people don't feel that politicians are so superior these days, never mind perfect. And they aren't ready for blanket condemnations of others on grounds that they have failed their familial duties.
And again I would insist that the main reason is that the stereotypes as piped out of Houston are unreliable in the experience of so many Americans. People of my generation observing close up modern two-care marriages of women much more feminist than we were are struck, in fact sometimes even put off, by the almost obsessive (in our view) closeness and interconnection and family-mindedness of these newly formed young families. We are trying to adjust our opinions from an era in which gay males were denounced for living obstreperous, sexually scavenging, violent lives to one in which they are denounced for wanting, as couples, to replicate heterosexual domestic life. We are trying to figure out how you protect very young people against AIDS without seeming to sanction or even encourage behavior you think is wrong. It is a new world and the question is how do you make old and tested values apply to it? That mid-August blast from Houston didn't inform, instruct, understand or help.