Strengthening America's Families
David Blankenhorn, "Letters", The Nation, October 1, 2001
Judith Stacey, in "Family Values Forever" [July 9], describes me and my colleagues at the Institute for American Values as leaders of a
"neo-family values movement'" whose philosophy in the 1990s "triumphed over the religious far right, on the one hand, and progressive family politics on the other." And under Bush, Stacey argues,
our movement is "prospering" and even "busting out all over."
Stacey's infatuation with our little group goes back years. In 1994, in Social Text, she announced ,that an institute-led "revisionist campaign for
family values has flourished under Democratic skies." Unlike the efforts of "right-wing Republicans and fundamentalist Christians," the institute-led campaign "has an explicitly centrist
politics, rhetoric, and ideology. A product of academicians rather than clerics, it grounds its claims in secular social science rather than religious authority, and eschews anti-feminism for a post-feminist family
In 1997, in Family Relations, Stacey worried at length that "the IAV and its associate organizations have been remarkably successful in attracting
favorable media coverage." In 1998, in Footnotes, she fretted, "During the past decade the Institute for American Values has waged a vigorous, influential political campaign for neoconservative 'family values' while successfully representing itself as 'non-partisan.' " During this time, Stacey and others formed a group called the Council on Contemporary Families, in effect named after the Institute's Council on Families, and intended by their own admission to function as a kind of anti-Council on Families in the public debate.
While I am flattered by this attention, and while I sometimes show Stacey's writings to others in order to demonstrate our group's amazing prowess, the truth
is, Stacey is missing the point. As an analyst, her fundamental weakness is the tendency to .view the world in conspiratorial terms. In attributing nearly everything that she thinks is wrong with today's family
debate to one little group - the members of which most people, except for Judith Stacey and her friends, have never heard of - Stacey is in effect blinding herself to the real causes of contemporary social change,
including changes in public opinion about marriage 'and families.
Besides the fact that we are, in her eyes, too influential, what seems to upset Stacey most is that we are ideologically hard for her to define (thus her
shifting and consistently awkward formulations, such as "neo-family values"), since we bring together a very diverse group of scholars and leaders. Also in the July 9 issue, Katha Pollitt brings up again
her longstanding complaint that Cornel West, widely viewed as a man of the left, is associated with the institute. Stacey and Pollitt are outraged that some of us won't stay safely put inside the tiny ideological
boxes they've constructed for us.
Our most recent public statement, Watch Out for Children: A Mother's Statement to Advertisers, which critiques
contemporary commercial advertising, was co-signed by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. Edelman was also an original member of the institute's board of directors. Do Stacey and Pollitt want to
excommunicate her as well' from their constantly shrinking church? Before founding the institute, I was a Saul Alinsky-inspired community organizer, and before that, a VISTA volunteer. I am a life-long Democrat. I
have never, to the best of my memory, described myself as a "conservative," neo or otherwise, or as in favor of a political campaign called "family values," neo or other-wise. All of those terms
are just Stacey calling people names. (Her description of Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, a liberal feminist professor of sociology who favors same-sex marriage, as a "neo-family values author"
is so crude as to be comical.)
Regarding the status and future of families, there will always be clashes of opinion on specific issues, but the underlying question for progressives, if I may
be so bold, is whether we believe, with Stacey, Pollitt and about two other Americans, that strengthening marriage and family life is almost by definition a bad thing, or whether we think that it might be a good
thing, especially for children.
president, Institute for American Values
David Blankenhom misreads political differences for personal ones. He mistakenly claims that the marriage movement troubles me because I cannot pigeonhole its
ideology. On the contrary, I object to the profoundly discriminatory and antidemocratic character of the policies it promotes.
Despite the presence of some well-intentioned individuals, the marriage movement; as my article documented, fosters economic, social and legal discrimination
against all single adults as well as cohabiting couples and their children. Blankenhorn, for example, relentlessly extols the personal and social benefits of marriage but never advocates extending these privileges
to same-sex couples. He exalts the two-parent family but belittles lesbian co-mother families for committing the sin of "radical fatherlessness." After my Nation article appeared, these political differences took on even greater urgency when the newly formed Alliance for Marriage launched a national campaign for a constitutional amendment to prevent any state from extending the benefits of marriage, or even of civil unions, to same-sex couples.
Far from believing, as Blankenhorn charges, that "strengthening marriage and family life is almost by definition a bad thing," I favor policies that
strengthen successful families for everyone, not just for heterosexuals, the affluent or those who are allowed and choose to marry. The marriage movement insists that one size and shape of family fits all and
implies that those who do not agree should be content to wear rags or to remain in the closet. In contrast, groups like the Council on Contemporary Families seek to improve the fabric of family relationships for all
people without dictating a uniform they have to wear.
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