13 May 2022

Hazony on family

Yoram Hazony is one of the more intriguing political philosophers writing today. Three years ago I reviewed the Israeli scholar's book, The Virtue of Nationalism, here: Is Nationalism Worth Defending? Now he has come out with a book titled, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Among the topics he treats therein is the family, and Unherd has just published an excerpt here: The nuclear family has failed. Hazony argues that the contemporary nuclear family, consisting of husband, wife, and children, is not identical to a traditional family that once existed before the two global wars of the 20th century. According to Hazony,

the nuclear family is a weakened and much diminished version of the traditional family, one that is lacking most of the resources needed effectively to pursue the purposes of the traditional family. When this conception of the family became normative in America and elsewhere after the Second World War, it gave birth to a world of detached suburban homes connected to distant places of employment and schools by trains, automobiles, and buses. In other words, the physical design of large portions of the country reflected a newly rationalised conception of what a family is.

In this new reality, there were no longer any business enterprises in the home for the family to pursue together. Instead, fathers would “go to work”, seceding from their families during their productive hours each day. Children were required to “go to school”, seceding from the family during their own productive hours. Young adults would then “go away to college”, cutting themselves off from family influence during the critical years in which they were supposed to reach maturity. Similarly, grandparents were excised from this vision of the home, being “retired” to “retirement communities” or “nursing homes”.

Under this new division of labour, mothers were assigned the task of remaining by themselves in the house each day, attempting to “make a home” using the minimalist ingredients that the structure of the nuclear family had left them. Much of this involved increasingly desperate efforts to keep adolescents somehow attached to the family — even though they now shared virtually no productive purposes with their parents, grandparents, and broader community or congregation; and instead spent their days seeking honour among other adolescents. The resulting rupture between parents and their children was poignantly described in numerous books and films beginning in the Fifties. But these works rarely touched upon the reconstruction of the family, which had done so much to inflame the natural tendency of adolescents toward agonised rebellion, while depriving parents of the tools necessary to emerge from these years with the family hierarchy strengthened.

Small wonder then that, by the 1960s when I was growing up, the "generation gap" had become a reality, with coddled suburban adolescents incubated in public secondary schools generating their own immature—and thus distorted—peer-driven cultural patterns separating them from their parents. The nuclear family could not withstand the pressures of fragmenting post-war mores in which men, women, and children were made to live separate lives from each other on a daily basis, vulnerable to the seductions of an expressive individualism reshaping the western world.

However, Hazony raises the intriguing possibility that the COVID pandemic may have reversed this process to some extent, giving us a clue to what restored family life might look like:

The extended closings of businesses and schools, churches and synagogues, have offered many people some insight into the potential power of the traditional family. Suddenly, they have found themselves conducting their business at home, their schooling at home, and their religious life at home. Suddenly, many young adults have found themselves returning, over great distances, to live with older and younger family members or to be in close proximity to them. Suddenly, many families have discovered the healing joys of preparing and eating meals together according to a regular routine, and the unparalleled riches that conversations in such contexts can bring into our lives.

I know that in many cases, these experiences were not always pleasant. Not everyone lives in a physical home that was built for such an experiment, and having to make a living and educate one’s children under such conditions has often been a genuine hardship. Yet in spite of these challenges, or rather, because of them, many have had their first glimpse of what a family, thrown together and having to rely on its own resources, is capable of achieving when it takes on a more extensive array of common purposes. In particular, many have experienced the kind of heightened cohesion that can come of it. In other words, many have had their first glimpse of what the family was like when it was a strong political institution, in which generations worked together to create a permanent community, very much resembling a little tribe or nation.

I hope to obtain a copy of Hazony's new book soon.

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