Is Family the Greatest Change of Last 40 Years?

  • Share
  • Read Later

George Will asked, "What is the greatest change you have seen in the last 40 years?"

Daniel Patrick Moynihan answered: "The breakdown of the family."

The exchange occurred Sunday on ABC's "This Week," during an interview marking Senator Moynihan's imminent retirement after 40 years in government.

I was startled by Moynihan's answer. The breakdown of the family? Really? If you follow the American trajectory from the election of John Kennedy in November 1960 to the last days of the Clinton administration, do you really conclude that the greatest change has been the breakdown of the family?

Well, you may. Moynihan has a history there; his observations in the '60s on the deterioration of the black American family were controversial and prescient. Of course, it was not only the black family Moynihan was referring to on Sunday.

But think what he left out.

Greatest change? Hmmm:

  • The collapse of the Soviet Empire — and therefore, the end of the Cold War, the defining, nuke-menacing global reality for several generations?
  • The computer? The mapping of the human genome? The revolution in science, communications, technology, medicine, all of which have transformed human life in the years since Moynihan came to work in the New Frontier.
  • Globalization? (Global Americanization?) Triumph of markets, death of ideology, the liberating but culture-killing ascent of money as the planetary measure of worth.
  • The Copernican change in the roles of men and women, because of the pill, the sexual revolution, the women's liberation movement and women's ascent toward power in every field?
  • The immense environmental changes in the planet — population growth, the cancellation of global distances, the extinction of remoteness, the vanishing of species?

Honorable mention would go to the fatuous politicization of absolutely everything (if you order a steak, it's political), the apparent disappearance of world war, the moronization of popular music, the drug saturation, the demonization of tobacco, the legitimization of gay identity and culture, the mass arrival of blacks in the American middle class and positions of real power, the triumph of multiculturalism and politicial correctness as standards that supersede even the U.S. Constitution (the guarantee of freedom of speech, for example)...

And so on. Many of these are connected, in chaotic ways. Moynihan focused on one dramatic strand of an overall pattern.

What is the unifying principle? Most of the social changes began under the heading of the Breakdown of Authority — a vast subversion (liberating or disastrous, depending on your point of view) that started in the '60s, just after Moynihan came to Washington, and altered every American institution, from the presidency to the military, the universities, the churches, the family. A regenerative turbulence, lasting through the '70s, began with lèse-majesté as a way of life but laid the foundations of a society new and different — and in many ways better.

Forgive these truisms, but George Will did bring up the subject — it's hard to dislodge a status quo without leaving a lot of traditions behind in the ruins. And that's what the family is — a tradition.

The family transmits itself vertically through time; the sort of great change we have witnessed occurs on the horizontal — a powerful wave moving on a broad front through time and smashing aside all kinds of sustaining or stultifying precedents (Dad in the office, Mom in the kitchen, gays in the closet...) We have abandoned the vertical (back through time) in favor of the headlong horizontal.

So the greatest change in the last 40 years is that we have come to live in a state of permanent and accelerating change. It's fascinating, overstimulating, and, by definition, continuously destructive — by turns incomparably brilliant and unbelievably stupid.

That the family is doing as well as it does, under the circumstances, gives one refreshed faith in human adaptability and in the inexhaustible hardiness of human love.