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Something of a debate is afoot: Are nuclear families a good idea? Do they work in 21st Century America?

David Brooks, in a provocatively-titled Atlantic Magazine piece, argues that “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake“. He recognizes the utility of the extended family, which predates the nuclear variety, but points out that “while extended families have strengths, they can also be exhausting and stifling.” Conversely, he observes, “family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmented into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”

Brooks goes on to argue in favor of “forged families” — meaning people who voluntarily adopt the roles of extended family even though they are not biologically related. Brooks’ piece, while a worthy read, raises more questions than answers. For one, it not typically left to conservatives to fret over the state of American families? What would prompt a liberal journalist, however obliquely, to critique the adverse impacts individualism has had on society?

And why now?

While I was mulling this question over, I decided to revisit aspects of history I am not old enough to personally recall but studied in college. I watched the Amazon Prime documentary “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry“.

While there is great value in the first-person recollections of the women who helped raise the nation’s consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, I am struck by a question only a post-baby boomer would likely ask: In an era dominated by Greatest Generation Americans, how did a movement of this kind achieve critical mass — particularly in an era dominated by an FCC-mandated fairness doctrine and devoid of social media? This, of course, begs another question: Are we correct to attribute the second-wave women’s liberation movement to entirely organic (spontaneous) causes? The documentary acknowledges, for example, that J. Edgar Hoover planted informants in women’s consciousness-raising groups. What is less clear is at what stage government involvement occurred. That matters because the “when” and the “why” may very well be informed by a history we have yet to fully account for. (To that end, the documentary scarcely touches upon Gloria Steinem’s pivotal role in the feminist movement or her self-admitted associations with a CIA front group.)

It is said that history is written by the victors. In this case, the victors consist of self-described student radicals, most of whom are well into their Golden Years. But there’s another history this documentary doesn’t touch upon; namely, that of the post-World War II period, the Cold War and the Vietnam era. It’s a glaring omission that that circumscribes this documentary to the anecdotal recollections of long-ago activists. (Although in fairness, this may have been the producer’s intent.)

It cannot be stressed enough that the Cold War, which also encompassed the Vietnam war, was not merely an arms race or a tale of two competing ideologies. The stakes were far higher: freedom vs. tyranny; mutually-assured destruction vs. prosperity; patriotism vs. sedition. However it is remembered, it was also a time of, by and for policymakers — men! — of the era. When President Nixon vetoed a bill in 1971 that would have granted the pro-family policies the women’s liberation movement championed, his explanation reflects Cold War chauvinism as much as it reflects upon stereotypical gender-role expectations of the time. Similarly, the contrasting roles of Soviet and American women, for as genuine as they may have been, appear to have been propagandist ploys as much as anything.

If this kind of bravado occurred in the open, what kind of behind-the-scenes social engineering efforts went into assuring American cooperation on the home front?

In the documentary, a leader of the 1960s women’s movement relates — still with an apparent sense of awe — that women’s consciousness groups arose “spontaneously” around the country. For a country that was still decades removed from social media, is this not curious? Is there any research to suggest that the timeline of government efforts to monitor, if not influence, activist groups occurred well after such movements caught on? Has anyone within the journalism sphere, for that matter, pursued Freedom Of Information Act requests to explore whether the timing of this intrusion into the women’s movement took place well after-the-fact as opposed to serving as a more direct, if not lesser-appreciated, influence?

In my own way of thinking, having come of age during the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic, yuppie culture, latchkey kid debates, urban gang proliferation and the nuclear arms race, my sense is that early second-wave activists who credit themselves with continuing where Suffrage left off seem to miss the fact that, far from being non-beneficiaries of women’s liberation, men — and more specifically the federal government— were working to advance one overarching goal: Proving that the United States, and by extension Capitalism, was superior to that of the U.S.S.R. (Communism).

While political leaders of the era may have continued to pay lip-service to the traditional roles of women, it had become something of an encumbrance. The Soviets actively worked to project cosmopolitan values, in which female labor was a man’s equal (or so the propaganda maintained). Soviet women’s children were supported by collectivist programs even as American women and children were not. Machismo undoubtedly shaped American foreign policy — which dovetailed with some aspects of the women’s liberation movement even as other aspects, such as universal childcare, flounder to this very day. The thinking may very well have been — if not explicitly, tacitly — that while less robust Soviet citizens might require Marxist concessions to secure their cooperation, Capitalists are a tougher, more independent, patriotic and industrious lot. This would explain why aspects of the women’s liberation movement, such as labor force participation, succeeded in changing expectations and norms, whereas efforts to confront domestic inequality and to alleviate burdens that continue to fall disproportionately upon women largely failed.

The support garnered in 2016 and 2020 by a self-professed democratic socialist, presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, reveals not just a desperation to unseat the current president, but a declining belief in the merits of Capitalism. College-age women today still envision for themselves what women of the 1960s and beyond sought: liberation. To a Millennial generation disproportionately raised by single and/or overworked parents, equality may not look like the gender-defined domestic roles one’s grandmother or great grandmother shouldered, a lifetime of student loan debt servitude or the seductive, if not disingenuous, women-can-have-it-all messaging of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s (loving marriage, fulfilling career and quality, if not quantity, time with the kids). If hindsight is 20/20, women’s liberation, particularly in less affluent households, became a woman’s obligation as family breadwinner — not merely by choice but by economic necessity — contrasted to a man’s license to walk away. The result is that women are often left to juggle responsibilities they have been tasked with for hundreds, if not thousands of years, on the one hand, and the added obligation to demonstrate their worth to kin and country, alike, in a monetized manner, on the other.

Is this the “choice” our liberation-minded trailblazers promised?

With the exception of the affluent, who can readily hire the help they need to strike a better work-life balance, middle class and working class women have been sold a bill of goods about “having it all” when, in reality, something was bound give: the career; the marriage; non-work friendships; waning influence over the values of one’s own over-scheduled children; and, in the end, support for the nuclear family — if not Capitalism itself.

Conservatives have long decried the unraveling of the nuclear family, and in some ways their worst fears have been realized over the past 60-some years: By the 1980s, self-medicating yuppies and their latchkey adolescents were fueling a demand for recreational drugs; gangs overtook the inner cities to deal to users — while disproportionately maiming and killing each other in the ensuing turf wars; addicts dropped out of the workforce and/or began to commit crimes in support of their addictions, contributing to a still-proliferating homelessness crisis; violent crime rates hit new highs in the 1980s and 1990s, divorce rates climbed and, in a mea culpa that is just now beginning to make the rounds, Brooks’ assertion that the nuclear family was a mistake. Is this chain of superficially-unrelated events purely a fluke? Or is it possible that Hoover’s FBI was involved not merely in an effort to suppress the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, as is commonly believed, but to exploit aspects of the movement as a means to gain the upper hand in the Cold War?

The fact is, the U.S. was left with a sky-high bill for the cost of rebuilding Europe after WWII, and subsequently for its commitment to NATO. To this we add the Cold War and an even costlier nuclear arms buildup — which was joined by fears of ballooning deficits. In the span of only a few decades, the United States went from an isolationist foreign policy to one of unprecedented global responsibility, which demanded two things: rapid economic growth and an increase in the tax base (meaning more working-age adults in the labor market, both male and female, by which to bankroll our national security interests). Fast forward to the 21st Century, and women and children are still lacking in access to affordable childcare, healthcare and other quality (or equality) of life indicators one might expect to find in a First World country.

Against this backdrop, is it any surprise that the Millennial generation is inclined to believe that the only way to achieve a work-life balance is to renounce the Capitalist system their mothers and grandmothers worked so hard to participate in? Similarly, might falling marriage and birthrates among Millennials, first noted among Generation-X, who were themselves less financially secure than their parents, explain why politicians increasingly condemn efforts to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration? Do our leaders genuinely believe unsecured borders pose no terrorism risk or that limits to immigration carry xenophobic overtones — or is it the case, rather, that our deficit-riddled federal government would rather rely on climate-endangering “pyramid scheme migration” than to implement family-supportive policies similar to those applied by our socialist counterparts to forestall precipitous demographic declines?

If these observations are in any way prescient, they illustrate one of the most ironic, if not tragic, developments in the entirety of our Great Experiment: whereas the Soviet Union disbanded into a quasi-Capitalist Russian state, Americans are increasingly inclined to romanticize the greener grass on the other side of the socialist fence. To bring this full circle, we must ask a fundamental question: How historically certain are we that the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s was entirely grassroots in nature? Is it possible the U.S. government’s effort to win the Cold War were so all-encompassing that it motivated policymakers — who were still largely answerable to traditional values-driven voters — to disavow their role in social engineering efforts that may have been perceived as too radical to endorse outright? Could this explain, in turn, why Steinem — who at the face of it might have been expected to be at odds with a male-dominated, hierarchical government — later said of her relationship to the CIA, “In my experience The Agency was completely different from its image; it was liberal, nonviolent and honorable.”?

To reflect upon Steinem’s own words, perhaps aspects of the radicalism-driven image of civil rights we hold today are completely different from the Cold War-combating cooperation that existed in those days, in defiance of its own apparent contradictions.

While it may not be inaccurate to assert, as some do, that the entire point of the women’s liberation movement was to destroy the nuclear family in order to make Americans increasingly dependent upon government for their welfare, there is no getting around the fact that Cold War posturing backed us into ideological corners from which we are only now beginning to emerge. The question is, what will that emergence look like? Will it take the long-overdue form of a more family-friendly version of Capitalism — or a wholesale exodus to a Socialist future in which economic growth, even more so than our European counterparts, is stifled by the impossible burden of our own over-exuberant corrections, thanks to social benefits we cannot afford to keep?

We now have seen two, if not three, generations of Americans faced with untenable choices: one in which they attain the education, career and financial stability necessary to support a family but are severely delayed if not denied the opportunity by virtue of a prolonged pursuit; the other in which life stages such as marriage and family are realized within traditional time frames, but all too often without the requisite skills and economic mobility to adequately sustain those choices. Our political leaders on the Right and Left, alike, have done so little for so long to address real-world domestic concerns — to include a wholesale failure to shore up the entitlements retiring baby boomers will deplete!  — that their inaction is so ubiquitous that is, paradoxically, rarely questioned. Nonetheless, our leaders should make no mistake: The price their inaction or ineptitude may ultimately extract is public faith in the Great Experiment itself.

A government who’s elected representatives spend their time appearing on Right vs. Left-wing media to point fingers at one another is a government that is actively deflecting from its own public policy failures. As American citizens, do we still believe, as our idealistic counterparts of the 1960s did, in the power of activism and reform? Or will we find ourselves swept up in an ever-more contentious sociopolitical climate — with or without the current president to blame! — in which we are urged to question virtually everything, including our own immutable characteristics, even as we allow an ever-expansive federal government to continue serve every cause but our own?

Much like the 1960s, we are at a crossroads: Do we bog down in the weeds of Conservative/Liberal, Male/Female, Divorced/Married, Black/White, They/Them, Majority/Minority, Child/Childless distinctions — or identify the challenges we largely share in common so as to achieve some semblance of change even if such efforts do not pass the ideological/identity purity tests the less patient among us demand? Alternatively, do we plunge down the rabbit-hole to a post-nuclear family oblivion, once again unappreciative that our passions have been exploited, our energies redirected and our problems unchanged?

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If you get the impression that Americans’ grasp of the news scarcely overlaps, you are not imagining things. Americans have been bemoaning “media bias” for years. Still, it is hard to chalk up today’s level of public polarization to garden variety media bias.

There is so much effort to maintain an overt “narrative” on the part of leading cable, digital and print news sources that some public figures are scrambling to account for the shift. FOX News’ Tucker Carlson suggests that the actions of American intelligence agencies — the so-called Deep State — helps to explain the American divide. Indeed, the frequency with which cable news outlets recruit former FBI officials and intelligence heads, such as former CIA Director John Brennan and former NSA head James Clapper, as paid contributors is unprecedented. Given that a majority of former Obama administration bureaucrats under contract to cable news providers are antagonistic to the current president — shamelessly proclaiming America’s dirty laundry to an Internet-connected world — the impression that a Deep State is at war with the Trump administration is not wholly unjustified. What this theory fails to acknowledge, however, is that Americans in all walks of life, at every level on the income and education spectrum, are under the influence of a national media that is arguably doing as much to divide as to inform.

For cable news anchors and journalists at the national level, contending with the partisan whims of career politicians and DC bureaucrats is nothing new. What is a relative newcomer on the journalism scene, however, is the rising influence of “stakeholder-driven journalism“. That’s journalistic jargon to describe the formation of strategic alliances between journalists, advocacy organizations and nonprofits. And therein, arguably, lies the least appreciated aspect of our highly divisive national climate.
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