March 1, 2006

Aren't vast extended family households as American as apple pie?

asks Christopher Caldwell in the NY Times Magazine.

No, they are not.

Caldwell tries to concoct a facile talking point against immigration restriction in "A Family or a Crowd?"

It wasn't surprising when, a couple of months ago, the city of Manassas, Va., set off a debate over how government should define "family." The Virginia suburbs of Washington are a relatively liberal part of a conservative state. If there were a corner of Virginia ready to do battle over whether the American family is an outdated myth, this would be it. But that was not what the city authorities were talking about.

Manassas has seen a rapid influx of immigrants over the last decade. As in suburbs and smaller cities elsewhere, this has created quality-of-life complaints. Sometimes the outrage is over the jornaleros who gather at Home Depots to solicit daywork. Elsewhere, the gripe concerns overcrowding. One 23-year-old Mexican told The Palm Beach Post a couple of years ago that he, too, thought 10 unrelated workers living in a two-bedroom apartment was too much. "Eight people — three in each bedroom and two in the living room — that should be the maximum," he said...

For decades, the family has been at the center of America's culture wars. Often, the quarrelers break into predictable camps. The traditionalist side takes the family for something natural, self-evident and unchanging, with certain absolute rights that no government can violate. The reformist side holds that the family is a "social construct" that is destined to change as individuals make choices and governments pass laws that reflect new mores.

But look now. The traditionalists are hoist with their own petard. When the real desiderata of American life — convenient parking and garbage-free sidewalks — are at stake, Joe Sixpack is as willing to meddle with the traditional family as are Heather's Two Mommies. And sheltering distant relatives in various kinds of trouble — the laid-off, the dropped-out, the pregnant — is what American (extended) families have always been for.

Actually, it's more realistic to say that what America has always been for is to have high enough wages and cheap enough land so American citizens can afford to have their own homes just for their own nuclear families. That's the American Dream. Having to live with your distant relatives in an extended family household is the Old World Nightmare.

American culture (and Northwestern European culture in general going back 700 or so years) has been ever increasingly anti-extended family and pro-nuclear family.

There are good reasons for the American prejudice against extended families. In the parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Latin America, the Balkans, and Africa, where the extended family reigns supreme, citizenship, civil society, big business, honesty, and democracy are in short supply. There's a chicken and egg interrelationship between people belonging to extended family mafias and governments that aren't good at providing individual justice and liberty.

This extended v. nuclear family distinction is one of the most important concepts for understanding the current world, and not one that should be smudged to provide spurious spin in the immigration debate. Caldwell is smart enough to know this. But, as I recently pointed out in "Americans First," this kind of intellectual shallowness is au courant when it comes to dismissing concerns about immigration:

" The more profound sort of intellect, the fashionable imply, displays an insouciant heedlessness about the long-term impact of immigration."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

No comments: