Commentary Magazine


The War Over the Family, by Brigitte Berger and Peter L. Berger

Holding the Center

The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground.
by Brigitte Berger and Peter L. Berger.
Anchor Press/Doubleday. 252 pp. $14.95.

Respecters and defenders of the much-maligned traditional family should take pleasure in this book. For it is the aim of the sociologists Brigitte and Peter L. Berger to define here a position for reasonable people who feel comfortable with the extremes of neither Right nor Left in the current battle over the role of the family in American society. They identify three major camps in the struggle. One, made up of militant feminists, homosexual activists, and redistributive egalitarians, calls for radical change in what it perceives as an obsolete or actually destructive institution. A second—Middle Americans, members of the business community, and many religious groups—takes an old-fashioned “pro-family” position. Finally, there are the professionals and bureaucrats of the new “knowledge class” who along with their diagnosis offer their own cures.

Although the Bergers make no secret of their own partisanship in favor of the traditional middle-class family, they proceed in proper sociological fashion by characterizing the various ideological positions taken by the contending camps as reflecting conflicts between classes with different values and different interests to protect. They are particularly good at revealing the inherent paradoxes in some of these positions. Ever-increasing areas of publicly-funded social-welfare programs, for instance, have resulted in a disenfranchisement of the family by professionals and government bureaucrats pledged to protect it. The family has grown steadily weaker in precisely the period in which professionals have been most involved with it, leading the Bergers “to the awful suspicion that the professionally prescribed remedies may actually be part of the disease.”

Another key paradox identified by the Bergers is that the very values inherent in the traditional family ethos may germinate, if they do not actually sow, the seeds of its destruction. They see the bourgeois family as the source of attitudes and virtues—individuality and privacy, enterprise, thrift, discipline, moral propriety—which prepared the ground for Western industrial modernization. The chief business of the family throughout the 19th century was the rearing of children educated in these middle-class virtues, an education that took place in a religious context which provided a certain balance between individualism and responsibility. With the loss of that balance in recent times we have seen the middle-class family’s contributions to modernity carried to extremes that can destroy the family itself, as in the neo-bohemian counterculture of the 60’s (which originated among the children of the affluent bourgeoisie), the narcissism of the “liberated” woman with no commitment to husband, home, or children, or the potentially damaging professionalism of the “expert” armed with bureaucratic powers. Today, the Bergers point out, the family ethic persists most strongly not in the middle class in which it originated but in the working classes upon which it was historically foisted by reformers.

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The secret of the traditional family, the Bergers suggest, was in the balance it struck between what was owed the self and what was owed the community. It functioned as a “mediating structure” linking the individual and the institutions of society. Its shared values, its rules for conduct in private as well as public life, provided the basis for a consensus that was in turn necessary to insure the continuity of society. All this, they write, remains true and valid for us today. It is the family that provides the sense of community that can link the disparate elements of a pluralistic society. In defining a centrist position in support of the family the Bergers hope to contribute to the possibility of a shared national ethos.

Their recommendations are modest but, by that token, within the realm of possibility. They see not only that public policy is limited in its capacity to do good, but also that, even with the best of intentions, it is able to do harm. In line with this they call for a moratorium on interventionist programs that tend to redefine previously private matters as public concerns. As a means of encouraging the confidence of families in their own ability to act for themselves, the Bergers support the voucher concept in education and suggest extending the concept to other areas of social services as well. They support parental rights—“not over children’s rights, which are usually not the real issue,” but over the claims of the professionals who step in presumably to represent the “best interests” of children in such areas as teenage sexual activity, birth control, and abortion. In matters involving both a great deal of human suffering and very little real knowledge, such as abortion, they would keep public-policy strictures to the minimum. And where individual families are no longer able to cope, they suggest turning to other mediating structures—churches, community and neighborhood organizations—before having recourse to professional or bureaucratic agencies of government. In general, they argue, public policy would serve families better by empowering them to help themselves than by empowering others to do the job for them.

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The Bergers write that “in a world that seems to become ever more complex and abstract and uncontrollable, Americans continue to look on the family as the most significant and lasting reality in their lives.” They know that, left alone to do so, most people in this country continue to marry, have children, take care of them, and work for their futures pretty much as they have always done. One can only applaud and be grateful to the Bergers for declining to write yet another modish epitaph to the American family, and for offering instead a thoughtful program for its enhancement and support.

While asserting, however, that the traditional family is uniquely able to meet both the basic needs of the individual in the early years of life and the basic needs of a free democratic society, and while marshaling historical and sociological evidence to buttress their case, the Bergers seem unable or unwilling to go further—to say just why it is that the human requirements for stability and love in infancy are best provided by the family, and best achieved within the family (rather than in, say, a day-care center).

One suspects this is because to do so would involve them in psychoanalytic concepts of child development and character formation, a prospect with which they seem uncomfortable. The result is that in their frequent references to psychological “experts,” they fail to distinguish clearly between the serious and the faddish. Yet psychoanalytic observation and theory provide the most useful idea we have of how and why a sense of who we are and what we owe to others develops in relation to one’s early feelings toward one’s parents. By begging the question of the relation of private and public morality to family experience, the Bergers omit an important dimension of the evidence for the truth of their contention.

Where the Bergers’ stance as academic sociologists serves them well is in identifying historical relationships and defining present trends. Where it serves them ill is in a tone of assumed objectivity and even-handedness that can sometimes sound superior or condescending. (“We will not conceal our serious reservations with regard to each one of these camps”; “We have learned to become more conscious of the middle-class bias inherent in much writing about the family.”) Before they can conclude that “there is no viable alternative to the bourgeois family for the raising of children who will have a good chance of becoming responsible and autonomous individuals,” they feel called upon to say, “We are conscious of the bourgeois family’s sociohistorical relativity, and we do not wish to absolutize it in an ideologically conservative manner.” Such disclaimers are perhaps par for the academic course these days, but still it is a pity to see two such forthright critics having to resort to them.

These reservations aside, however, what Brigitte and Peter Berger have done is to provide a solid intellectual case for the traditional family. They make clear the connection between the ideals of the middle-class family and those of a free society and suggest policies to strengthen the latter by encouraging the former. The authority of their argumentation and the plausibility of their proposals serve to remind us all that if the family is in trouble, we would do well to think carefully before abandoning it to its enemies and detractors.

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