James Q Wilsons marriage problems

The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families
By James Q. Wilson
HarperCollins, New York, 274 pages

You have to admire James Q. Wilson’s nerve. In his latest effort, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, the noted conservative social scientist bushwhacks through a set of thorny problems. He’s well prepared for the brambles. Currently the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University (say that three times fast), Wilson comes armed with reams of data and a formidable curriculum vitae: a quarter century at Harvard as a political science professor, copious writings on sociology, crime, urban issues, politics, and character–and, incidentally, a lengthy career in public service (the man has served on umpteen federal task forces).

His powerful, wide-ranging intellect has produced a short but dense synthesis of research, social history, and sharp opinion. It’s a polemic, but mostly an informed one, if you can tolerate the occasional rant. Before we get started on the substance, though, be forewarned: Wilson is no prosesmith. On the dryness scale, I would give the book several martinis. Despite a tendency to fulminate, he treats even his most titillating material in such a clinical fashion that it’s unintentionally funny. Here’s an example: “Sex, after all, is nothing more than intimate contact accompanied by a certain amount of friction. In purely mechanistic terms, it is not that different from a handshake.” At other times, Wilson comes off as an aging paterfamilias struggling to relate to today’s youth. When he uses a term like “boy toy” I just want to giggle; same goes for when he turns his cerebral laser beam on Sex and the City.

Still, the sheer volume of research material he crams into a 274-page book would be enough to smother lyricism by itself. Wilson doggedly marshals a small army of scholars to support his basic argument, which is this: Marriage is in trouble, and that means trouble for all of us, across the board. In making his case, statistics such as these speak with their own frightening eloquence: In 1960, one-fifth of black children in America under age 18 lived with a mother and no father; in 1996, it’s more than 50 percent.

Given the author’s extraordinary background and voluminous research, it seems a daunting challenge to disagree with him at all. But The Marriage Problem is only an intermittently satisfying work. Its strength is in illuminating the changing role of matrimony over time–not just the last few decades, which is where conservative commentary generally concentrates its fall-of-civilization analysis, but over the centuries. Its weakness is Wilson’s desire to ascribe to the debasement of marriage a host of other problems plaguing modern society. Crime, gangs, drugs, illegitimacy, teen pregnancies, welfare dependency, etc., are all traced to the rising rates of divorce and illegitimacy.

As a conservative, Wilson is on firm enough ground here. But as a social scientist, his footing gets a little slippery. There are so many strands and variables to every “control” group in social research that even as bold a synthesizer as Wilson has to admit–and, to his credit, he does–that there are other points of view and that sometimes he just doesn’t know the answers. As a result, the book is full of solid information, but its boldest assertions are tied to that scholarship only loosely.

But there are no two ways about it: Wilson is fearless. His search for answers to modern-day social ills treads on ground that is notoriously volatile, covering issues of race, gender, and class, to mention a few. He’s relentless and methodical in his quest, ranging over not only the social-science literature but the history of Western society.

In tracing marriage’s institutional decline, Wilson’s not afraid to be provocative, even in obscurity. He’s got real reservations about the Enlightenment, for instance. I mean, it never occurred to me that the Enlightenment might be a mixed blessing. Newtonian physics, the reasoning of Hume, the hilarious acerbity of Voltaire, the principle and courage of the Declaration of Independence–what’s not to like? But Wilson says the individualism and secularism glorified in that age have wreaked havoc ever since on marriage, the family, and society as a whole–and for Wilson, the three are inextricably bound: “The Enlightenment laid the groundwork for replacing a sacrament with a contract and then a contract with an arrangement. Where marriages were once controlled either by local custom or religious tradition, they were now controlled by the married parties and by them alone.”

Showing no fear of political incorrectness, Wilson wades right into the minefield of the African-American family. He begins with a discussion of the legacy of slavery. “As Orlando Patterson put it, slavery prevented a black man from being either a father or a husband; he could offer to the mother and the child ‘no security, no status, no name, no identity.'” Savage racism, Jim Crow, and the sharecropping system further militated against the benefits of Emancipation. But Wilson suggests that the pattern of peripheralmale involvement in the family probably pre-dates slavery, originating in African kinship structures.

From there he moves on to mother-only families, divorce, and working mothers, giving each one some serious scolding. Many of Wilson’s observations are tough to argue with. The family is obviously at the center of our social structure, and a strong family would seem more likely to nurture a responsible adult than a disintegrating one. Most Americans still see marriage as basically a good thing; Wilson even cites data indicating that marriage makes you live longer. But from those truisms Wilson takes extraordinary leaps of logic, if not invective.

In describing today’s sexual mores, he quotes Tom Wolfe: “If a boy from his pack likes a girl from hers, they hook up, which means have sex, chiefly oral sex, and as a recent president has explained that isn’t really sex at all.” Or take this statement: “Marrying is now a wager that people enter into because of sexual attraction and personal friendship (sometimes accompanied by the existence of a fetus), a wager that in the future things will work out for the best.” Certainly, that’s reductive, to state the least. Tina Turner notwithstanding, surely love’s got something to do with it.

He also gets pretty darn sweeping about the sins of working mothers: “Women have always worked in every family going back to the beginning of time, but when they can work independently of the family the family must inevitably lose some of its value.” Pardon? As a working mom myself, I don’t even know where to start with that one. He’s certainly underestimating the benefits of putting bread on the table. And what about the father? Might he not be at home while a woman works, putting some of his value into the family? It happens–and if it doesn’t, why is the working mother the only one to blame?

Welfare is another hot potato Wilson grabs onto with both hands. I learned a lot from his concise history of public and private aid in America, which, when administered by private citizens, Christian societies, etc., involved some type of moral assessment of the recipient. The problem is that the generalizations Wilson makes from this history come off as just petulant. “Welfare activists and a Supreme Court majority completed the revolution in how we think about people. Families do not matter, only individuals count….We started by asserting that the government ought to help families; we ended by saying that families don’t matter.” Well, who says families don’t matter? Given the crispness with which Wilson can deploy reason and data, you would expect a bit more clarity.

Does Wilson offer remedies for the devalued state of wedlock and the social ills he claims attend it? Some, but they are a mixed bag. Repeatedly, Wilson looks to some vaguely defined forces to counter a culture that’s seen as encouraging single parenthood. One is social stigma, a sanction that he says works better in the country than in the city. “For blacks and whites alike, living in a rural community makes you feel the stigma of welfare more keenly and with greater effect than is the case for similar people in cities…In urban areas, where the majority are mothers without husbands, it is hard to imagine how stigma could operate at all.”

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Indeed, Wilson waxes nostalgic for all sorts of moralistic systems that, in reality, did not live up to their billing. When Wilson offers a wistful paean to the Victorian Era’s “inculcation of a stronger set of moral habits,” it’s hard not to gag. In Victorian England itself, social hypocrisy was off the charts, with prostitution at an all-time high in the kingdom of upstanding marriages. And how were those moral habits going over in the empire’s colonies?

Wilson is a disciplined researcher who often makes compelling arguments. But in this book, what comes through loud and clear is that he’s mad as hell. It’s a little unnerving when you expect Harvard, but get Hannity & Colmes.