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Shouting the Blues

A color-coded breakdown of the American family.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Red Families is frustratingly vague on how this interweaving and flexibility could actually work—and the authors have a depressingly unimaginative tendency to answer every question with “Let the government do it,” as if the regulatory state has been the expert advocate for the needs and interests of the poor—but the book’s willingness to call the basic structure of the American economy into question is deeply necessary. Cahn/Carbone point out the places where our economic and governmental structures have not caught up with the needs of contemporary American couples and their children. 

But the many good things in Red Families are obscured by the authors’ relentless, unsubtle framing of every question from within a blue-family mindset so deeply internalized that perhaps the authors themselves don’t realize what they’re doing. They don’t want to come across as if they’re telling Mississippians to abort more kids so they write this sentence, which opens the sixth chapter: “Contraception is the indispensable element of the blue family paradigm; abortion, in contrast, is the regrettable but necessary fallback.” If you can tell the difference between “indispensable” and “necessary,” you are a subtler thinker than I am. 

And while they don’t want to come across as if they’re telling Alabamans what to value, they fail to articulate a worldview in which early childbearing is an accomplishment, a form of contributing to society, and abortion is a tragedy rather than a solution. Coerced and regretted abortions are entirely absent from their discussion, and again, no actual low-income men and women get a chance to describe their reasoning, and their hopes and fears and loves. 

Meanwhile, the authors waste time and page count on simplistic psychologizing of traditionalists vs. modernists and conservatives vs. liberals, in which the righties lack the “flexible” morality, attuned to “context,” of their lefty counterparts. I wonder whether self-proclaimed conservatives or liberals are most likely to be nuanced and attuned to context on the issues of torture, the death penalty, and spanking? These pop science descriptions of why people disagree with us are often comforting but rarely illuminating.

Class is the intersection of economic status and culture. It doesn’t describe merely income level or purchasing power or “net worth.” Cahn/Carbone are trying—genuinely, poignantly trying—to offer solutions to our country’s family crises which respect the diversity of our beliefs. But they consistently view poor or nonelite Americans as simply elite Americans without the resources to act on the values they obviously share with the authors. And so they ignore the most important fact about class: It changes the definition of words. “Responsibility,” a Red Families motif, is always used to mean postponing childbearing—and not, as it means to many nonelite women, accepting early childbearing and rejecting abortion.

There’s a telling aside in the final chapter. Cahn/Carbone describe the 2008 Republican platform on work/family integration and add a sardonic parenthetical remark: “So long as [new regulations have] no negative impact on productivity.” This might be the book’s sole acknowledgment—and it’s a dismissive one—that there may be trade-offs in life. For the rest, we are meant to believe that not merely in the long term, but even in the short, a massive expansion of government regulation and a campaign to get “red staters” to embrace the Pill, will have no adverse consequences. We are asked to believe that there is no tension between the economic and the spiritual. In Red Families the rich man always passes through the needle’s eye.

Our family structures are shaped largely by economic pressures—but also, and importantly, by what we find beautiful. How do we recognize love? How do we corral desire, honoring some forms of its expression and restricting others? Our marriage traditions, along with our extended kinship networks, used to offer models beautiful enough to inspire sacrifice. An approach which focuses solely on the economics of sex and procreation can do some good, but—as Red Families unfortunately proves—it can’t comprehend the full range of human motives.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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