This essay critically examines the transcript of a talk by Midge Decter, who poses the question: “why the wealthiest and healthiest country on earth has such nutty ideas about the family.” She discusses what she perceives as a growing trend in recent times for people (women and men) to reject the idea of the family as being a normal and natural basis of our society. Whilst stating that they accept all the modern benefits such as superb health care and extensive technology in our everyday lives, she describes women and men rejecting the concepts of family and differences between the sexes – even joining courses to be taught about “family relations.”
Whilst the situations and examples cited in her talk are readily identifiable with a certain level of reality, this reviewer considers that although some of them are valid, others are neither representative nor accurate. For much of society, the family remains the core structure in their lives.
For example, Decter quotes an essay in a 1950s issue of Esquire magazine in which a young author expressed a preference to “slit his throat” if he thought he would otherwise become similar to his own father, who worked at his job to give his wife and children a comfortable home. It is easy to imagine that the young man was genuine in his sentiments at that time. Young people do tend to have ideas and principles that others consider extreme; ideas that in the majority of instances invariably change along with increasing maturity and wisdom. Further, it is probable that he was in a tiny minority of young men holding that view but that nonetheless it made good magazine copy.
Decter also discusses the rise in the 1960’s of what is popularly called “Women’s Lib.” She mentions the new-found equality in employment afforded to women since that time.
For example, under the sub-heading “The Soldier and the Baby-Tender” in paragraphs 22-24, Decter deplores the publication of an image depicting a female combat soldier going off to endure the risks of war, leaving a young baby behind in the care of its father. Describing the scene as “obscene” is rather extreme and overly emotive, even though the concept may seem to some to be taking equality one step too far. We (the readers) are not aware for example that the husband may be unemployable and the wife may have had a career in the armed forces long before the baby came along, so had little choice in the matter. Even so, female combat soldiers and women doing “man’s work” are still very much in the minority, not truly representative of the vast majority of working women.
Decter’s paragraphs 25-26 concerning interchangeability of the roles of husbands and wives do not truly represent reality. There is more sharing of domestic duties now than in the past, but not to the extent that Decter’s unfounded comments suggest.
Paragraphs 30-34 in Decter’s transcript seem to be based on very little factual information. Of course there is a growing trend for same-sex marriages, and – very rarely- the wish by those couples to “have” children. But in terms of society overall, they are a minute fraction – a tiny minority. That is contrary to Decter’s words which suggest it is a general trend.
In paragraphs 38-40, Decter mistakenly suggests that trying to “fool Mother Nature” will cause us to “sicken and die.” That would suggest for example that man was never meant to fly, and that flying in an aircraft will kill us. Similarly, her suggestion that women who become liberated cannot find men to marry them is also untrue. What might be true is that the men they are happy with are different to those they might otherwise have chosen.
As for the section entitled “The Swamp of Self” (paragraphs 43-45), describing the San Quentin prison island as comparable to some family types, that is not an appropriate comparison. Similarly, describing the rock of marriage as keeping one “out of the swamps” is rather emotive and an odd comparison to make.
As regards Decter’s paragraph 50, it is a fair interpretation that Decter makes of the situations described. The experience of a new baby coming into the lives of the husband and the wife is in some respects life-changing, and often has far-reaching effects.
In paragraphs 58 and 59, Decter’s view that what she refers to as “an endless shower of goodies” has made it difficult to stay in touch with normality and reality, is inappropriate. Modern advances in society and its benefits are not the cause of that situation – even if it does exist, which is questionable.
Having read and reviewed the transcript of Decter’s talk, the conclusion is that some of the statements she made and the evidence and reasoning on which they were based appear sound and sensible. However, others are distortions of reality, in some instances caused by suggesting that minority views and actions are representative of the majority, when that is not the case. No doubt the overall content of her talk was appealing to what may well have been a receptive audience on the day, but reading the transcript now does reveal its flaws. There may not be actual untruths or factual errors in the piece, but there are exaggerations and distortions where Decter implies that actions and opinions of minorities are generally those of a majority. She claims that they represent the way our society has moved or is becoming, whereas, in fact, that is not the case.
Decter, Midge. (1 September 1998). “The Madness of the American Family.” The Hoover Institution. Web. Accessed 21 February 2014. <http://www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/7333>.