Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

I am grateful to Chester E. Finn, Jr. for his generous and insightful review of my book, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem [Books in Review, April]. But may I quarrel with him on one issue—not just to defend my book or the National Fatherhood Initiative, but to clarify what I believe is an important and much misunderstood point?

Mr. Finn does not like my recommendations for strengthening fatherhood. Here, it seems, at the end of an “otherwise excellent book,” I suddenly “pull my punches,” offering “pretty pallid stuff” that is “bland and almost comically lacking in force.” To Mr. Finn, the what-should-be-done section of the book “faintly resembles a Just Say No’ poster on the wall of a crack house.”

Well now. What is Mr. Finn looking for? If I decided to “get truly serious about fatherlessness,” as he puts it, and stop serving up pretty pallid stuff, what would I be serving? To his credit, Mr. Finn has an answer. He wants welfare reform. Even more, he wants new laws that would make it harder to get divorced. More generally, he wants a public-policy agenda—a big, important-sounding list of things for Congress and state legislatures to do.

The core recommendation in my book is that we recommit ourselves in the United States to what I call the fatherhood idea, or what anthropologists call the legitimacy principle: for every child, a legally and morally responsible adult male. In a society where 40 percent of our children do not live with their fathers, few ideas, I submit, could be more radical than this one. Embracing the fatherhood idea would require a fundamental shift in cultural values and in parental behavior, especially regarding marriage.

Is such a cultural transformation possible? I do not know. But I am quite certain that we will never transform our culture in favor of married fatherhood by relying solely, or even largely, upon a public-policy agenda. For the essential challenge we face is not political but cultural. Legislation did not get us into this mess, and legislation will not get us out. Many smart people who study and shape public policy, and who tend therefore to act as if the world begins and ends with policy agendas, have a very hard time grasping this point.

Yes, public policy is a part of culture and can affect culture. So, by all means, let us get rid of the current welfare system and let us change divorce laws to give more respect and power to the spouse who does not want the divorce. In my book, I endorse the former idea and should have been more explicit about endorsing the latter. But we are kidding ourselves—we are serving up pretty pallid stuff—if we pretend that any clever list of public-policy ideas can drive or substitute for the much larger and more difficult project of cultural change.

The specific ideas in my book—such as a grass-roots “fatherhood movement” spearheaded by civic and religious leaders; an annual White House report on the state of fatherhood; new public-housing regulations favoring married couples; an interfaith council of religious leaders dedicated to strengthening marriage; community-organized pilot projects aimed at reversing the trend of fatherlessness in specific neighborhoods; city and county “vision statements” in favor of increasing the number of children who grow up with their two married parents; prohibiting the use of sperm banks by unmarried women; a public-service advertising campaign using sports stars to emphasize the importance of fatherhood; and a commitment by some well-respected scholars to write better school textbooks on marriage and family life—represent my attempt to identify some possible sites for cultural argument and some possible levers for cultural change.

Through my work with the National Fatherhood Initiative and the Institute for American Values, I am now involved in actually putting into practice a number of these ideas. I say in the book that they are primarily illustrations of how we might begin to recommit ourselves to the fatherhood idea. By themselves, they are necessarily speculative and inadequate; I hope that others will come up with more and better ideas. But the main point is to realize where our true challenge lies, and to get busy, rather than wait for politicians and policy analysts to do our work for us.

David Blankenhorn
Institute for American Values
New York City



Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes:

David Blankenhorn writes good letters as well as good books. I surely wish him well with his Sisyphean effort to foster “fundamental cultural transformation.” More than wishing him well, I am glad to help. So, I warrant, are many readers of this magazine. Indeed, discussions such as this may even help a bit with that daunting endeavor.

But changes in the culture and changes in our public policies can and probably should go hand in hand. And today I suspect—perhaps this is the erroneous view of a long-time Washingtonian—that we have a better shot at changing some policies during this lifetime than we do at changing the underlying cultural assumptions. For example, one way to stigmatize fathers who abandon their children—Mr. Blankenhorn’s way—is to write and preach and teach about their irresponsibility, get talk-show hosts jawboning about the topic, and get people to take pledges, join clubs, etc. Another way is by changing tax codes, welfare programs, divorce laws, and suchlike to create tangible incentives and disincentives. I am not saying that runaway fathers should be executed. But suppose they had to pay a whopping fine which went into, say, the “fund for high-quality orphanages”? And suppose that fine were built into divorce laws and tax codes? Perhaps that one is a bad idea, but not all such ideas ought to be dismissed.

I am not suggesting that the nation view its millions of fatherless children as primarily a public-policy problem. What William Kristol terms the “sociology of virtue” is chiefly to be sought outside the arenas of politics and government. In that regard, Mr. Blankenhorn is right: the nub of the problem of fatherlessness is to be round in our values and our culture. (And not just ours, I recently visited Chile for the first time, and I expected to see a fairly traditional Catholic society. I was told, however, that about 30 percent of Chilean babies nowadays are born to single mothers.) If we can figure out constructive steps to take in those domains, so much the better. Perhaps Mr. Blankenhorn’s “pretty pallid” recommendations will even do a bit of good.

But I believe we must also explore the public-policy possibilities at local, state, and national levels. To a great extent, today’s policies mirror today’s cultural values. If politicians can be persuaded to move out front and change some key policies in anticipation that the culture will (slowly) follow, they should surely do so. That is what finally seems to be happening with respect to the federal budget. Why not with respect to something even more serious?

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