Against Patrick Deneen (II)

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In Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s America 3.0 an interesting observation is made about the nature of the American family:

A less appreciated factor pushing assimilation [of immigrants] was the American legal system, which compelled people to adopt American marriage and inheritance practices. However attached immigrants may have been to their own practices, if they were incompatible with our family culture, they could not maintain them here for more than a generation or two. Other cultural systems could not take root or survive for long in America because the law would not enforce any other system with regard to spouse selection, inheritance, or household formation.

The protection of choice in marriage partners, especially for women, was critical to the assimilation process. People who moved to America, and more importantly their children, faced no legal obstacles, and few social ones, to choosing their own spouses. In America, parents had no legal authority to interfere with the marriage decisions of adult children, whatever the law and customs may have been back in the “old country.” The children of immigrants often wanted to marry someone from outside their ethnic or religious community. They then necessarily formed their own families outside of one or the other other cultural milieu they came from, or outside of both.

The story of immigrants coming to America for opportunity and freedom, but feeling they are losing their children to a culture they do not always like or understand, is an old one that been repeated many times. There is an element of sadness to this. This process of loss of the old way of may be be felt as tragic by the parents but it has been a triumph for Americans over the centuries. We have peacefully, though not painlessly, assimilated millions of people one marriage and one family at a time, into a shared culture. [1]

One of the central themes of Lotus and Bennett’s book is that America’s characteristic individualism is baked into the structure of the American family, which has been from its beginning an “absolute nuclear family” type. In such a family system, the “family unit” is understood to mean a mother, father, and their under-aged children. Unlike, say, in premodern China, where sons would live with their parents until their parents’ death and (and a daughter would move into her husband’s household, living under the subjection of her in-laws), in the Anglosphere there is the expectation that a married couple would go off and establish their own independent household. Along with this conception of the family comes a certain set of norms (such as “individuals freely select their own spouses,” “there are no limitations on whom a person can marry, except that marriage to close relative  is forbidden,” “women enjoy a high degree of autonomy compared to most cultures,” and “extended families are weak”). [2] These norms are centuries old, preceding the colonization of America itself.

Lotus and Bennett slightly exaggerate the continuity of the American family type. There has been significant variation in household size and type over the course of American history, and in the early periods there was significant geographic variation as well. [3] Of the four central settler cultures identified by David Hackett Fisher, only one—the Puritans—lived and married according to type. The Cavaliers did not frown on cousin marriages, and the Scots-Irish were devoted clansmen; both Cavalier and Scots-Irish patriarchs made it a custom to decide who their daughter would and would not marry, while the Quakers went even further, giving not only parents, but extended family, church leaders, and even neighbors a veto on the marriage choices of their children. [4]

It is interesting to see, however, how quickly many of these practices died out. By end of century Quaker church courts are filled to the brim with young colonists who have violated one of their community’s gravest rules: do not marry outside of the Church. [5] Custom might keep Cavalier fathers and Quaker neighbors interfering in other’s marriage beds, but it seems that the English common law gave them no legal right to do so. As water flows to the lowest point, so any society whose legal regime protects a woman’s free choice will inevitably settle into a society of love-marriages. Thus while there was still some variation in practice at different parts of the social strata, the ideal of the freely chosen love-match was firmly enshrined in all regions of the country by 1820. [6] So it has been ever since.

This puts a new spin on Karl Marx’s famous description of industrialization’s effect on tradition and sense of place:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.[7]

It is a poetic passage. But in the American case it is not even half the story. Ask those in a conservative immigrant subculture why “all that is solid melt[ed] into air” after they moved to this country, and they will tell you the truth: nothing has tore their world apart quite like the centuries old English marriage system.

To read the first post in this series, see Against Patrick Deneen (I). For past writing on the relationship between family structure and individualism, read Historians, Fear Not the Psychologists and Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously. The post “Conservatism’s Generational Civil War” provides some of the additional context for what I am doing here. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Michael Lotus and James Bennett, America 3.0 (New York: Encounter Books, 2013), 54.
[2]  ibid, 27-28.
[3] Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: The Free Press, 1988), passim.
[4] David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 274-306; 481-501; 662-680.

[5] Ibid, 486.

[6] Mintz and Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, 43-67.

[7] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979), 476.

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"Was" able to force. American legal regime can only enforce such norms so long as it still retain the legitimacy to do so. And the very individualism you wax poetic over cannot sustain such legitimacy over the long term.

What is your opinion on David Brooks' Atlantic piece on extended family? It seems to me that he cannot help but thinking like an individualist WEIRDO even when repudiating WEIRDness.

All very interesting, but why do anglocentric historians, economjsts, and cultural scientists believe that these marriage customs are anglo-saxon? They are and have been a matter of course in many central european cultures, in part even before the advent of protestantism.
Anglo-saxon people should get over their ridiculous exceptionalism.

@Anon #1-

My heavens. The English common law has withstood the English civil war, the American revolution, the U.S. civil war, and four centuries worth of rebellions, riots, and general disorders in two different countries. A roman style collapse might be able to force it out–but even there the Roman laws came back in the end.

@Anon #2 – David Brooks does not impress me.

@Anon #3 – Because they weren't!

Well, Rome didn't fall in one day. And modern social-economic structure could have been unprecedentedly inclement towards nuclear family formation. The point is nuclear families are disintegrating in the West RIGHT NOW regardless if it hadn't been disintegrating before. Also, Roman laws are not the same as Roman kinship system, which in turn was not Nuclear family.

Please notice that I did not key in on the nuclear family household as the key to liberalism, but legally protected free choice of marriage partners as one of the great "liberalizing" forces of human history.

But free marriage in the west only emerged as the result of nuclear family enforced by the Catholic church. And it has in turn undermined the clans and kinship. Roman law really didn't enforce the tight kinship so it didn't really contradict the RCC teachings on that. English common law is really codified custom, no more than Irish anti-abortion law was codified custom. It is the whole package. And now free choice of marriage partner has become free partner. It is already one of the great disintegrating force of human history.And I don't think deep seated the liberal norm inherently contradict Deneen's argument on the Philosophe threat. Eric Kaufmann pointed out that Anglo elites in America managed to live with their double consciousness for a whole century. And even today large amount of liberal elites still live the traditional norm despite preaching otherwise. And family disintegration only started during the last century. My argument is prior to modern age, most people are stuck at the point of "free choice of partners but only marriage partners" as a custom(which makes them pre-liberal). But philosophers pushed the implication of free choice to the logical conclusion. Prior to modern age, their effect is limited to localized radical cults which often wiped itself out due to low fitness. But with the increasing centralization of the elites in early modern age. It became possible for them to capture the intellectual institution and propagate their ideology which the general population is already vulnerable to. And I need to remind the kind of radical anti family agenda was considered as absurd and downright dangerous when they were initially pushed to the population(Back during the early cold war, both sides were accusing the other of spreading moral degeneracy such as homosexuality). It may reflect the logical conclusion of the deep habits but it is one general population was unwilling to admit. There won't be any liberalism in future. At most you will get atomized despotism. And it is just as likely the state will eventually be captured by groups with strong Asabiyah which reject the free marriage and nuclear family and shift the marriage pattern just like Islamic conquest shifted FBD marriage into the social norm. That is one way to post-liberalism.

I agree that the Anglo-American individualistic culture, with free marriage and emphasis on personal choice is quite appealing, more so than most others.

However, does it explain why immigrants, after a voluntary marriage and family formation give up most aspects (e.g. language, dress, food) rather than share/pass it on to their kids? You could imagine a theoretical case where say, with free choice and no family/legal coercion, a German immigrant and a Chinese immigrant to the US assimilates to one or both of each other's cultures (e.g. the Chinese one lives in a German town enclave and learns German, or German one moves to Chinatown and wears Chinese clothes and eats Chinese food etc.) but not to the Anglo-American mainstream. It typically does not happen but rather the Anglo-American culture becomes the "common denominator" culture they teach their kids (the German-Chinese couple doesn't choose German or Chinese, but English). This happens on a global scale too — businessmen from two different non-English countries use English. Given enough interations, does voluntariness in marriage, social interaction, free association, lead to a homogenous culture where there is one desirable common denominator that is the point for different cultures to coordinate around when they intermingle, and this happens to be western (to the dismay of both the traditionalists and the anti-global left that puts the "local" and often the non-western, on a pedestal)?

I think the term immigrant already presumes newcomers arrive into unified, dominant established cultures and for some reason or another, the new culture appeals more to immigrants’ kids, so the old culture is only maintained by coercion/social pressure from family/kin. Perhaps like water flowing downhill — the desirability of the new culture over the old is given, only a matter of how quickly the outflow is. More individualistic cultures reduce the friction and prevent the local minority community from holding back members from leaving but don't determine how many choose to leave in the first place? Or does the individualistic nature of US culture make or decide the fact that given free choice, the minorities don't want to stay in the minority enclave but willingly leave?

Also, other non-Anglo, cultures have assimilated immigrants quite well, ranging from say, Latin America (e.g. see German, Lebanese or Japanese Brazilians), to even pre-modern ones like China (e.g. the Kaifeng Jews). I don't know how their kinship/marriage/family systems did or did not help. I think the general trend is that a minority (or less prestigious, less dominant) group assimilates into a majority (or more prestigious, more dominant) one which may be local, or in the American case now, global, since people don't even have to go to America to experience and pick up global US culture.

Perhaps, to generalize, minority cultures gravitate to dominant cultures like water flowing downhill. But to stop that, there has to be social/legal/culture pressure applied (like a dam holding it back). Maybe the pressure is previous-culture kinship ties (like arranged marriage) that try and keep the minority culture intact when transplanted into a new place, which natural voluntary assimilation chips away at. But other times it could be other factors (e.g. hostility from locals that they wouldn't want you to assimilate even if you did, or things like legal segregation — in the case of say black-white relations in the US, Afr. American culture was produced because blacks could not assimilate into white culture in some ways, of course in other ways they could and had to, like speaking American English, having southern-US derived folkways etc., or how most Jewish cultures were maintained by both voluntarily preference for one's own culture but hostility from others, in cases where the hostility is lifted, be it post 1950's and 60s America, or say old Kaifeng, Jewish populations willingly assimilate, culture-wise and marriage-wise to the local mainstream).

Legally protected free choice of marriage partners has its most significant effects in enabling free choice for wives of divorcing husbands, keeping half of family wealth, plus 30% or more (pretax) of the husbands income via "child support" payments. The long-term economic and social effects of that are devastating. Yet the same political forces that generate that result also make it nearly impossible to discuss. To get a sense of the problem, check out

Unfortunately, in many states in the United States for a large portion of their history, that freedom to choose marriage partners did not extend to black Americans and Asian Americans due to anti-miscegenation laws.