Violence In America


What has happened in the inner city may be a harbinger of worsening social-order problems everywhere. Changing labor-market realities and the eroticization of the media-based consumer culture have undermined family stability throughout the United States. Indeed, measures of white family disruption and illegitimacy three decades into the sexual revolution almost exactly match those for black Americans when Daniel Patrick Moynihan pulled his famous fire alarm back in 1965.

Seen in perspective, these events are a continuation, possibly the culmination, of a momentous historical trend, the decline of the family as the basic social unit and the appropriation of its functions by the state, professions, and corporations. Two centuries ago America’s families were its society, or at any rate its centers of desire, conception, labor, production, consumption, authority, discipline, training, credit, and care for the sick, aged, and dying. But during the nineteenth century, families began losing power and authority. The usual suspects are the commercial and industrial revolutions; urbanization; the rise of public schools, factories, asylums, prisons, and hospitals; and the creeping intrusions of bureaucracies and professions into the domain of the home. Over the course of the twentieth century (with a pause for the temporary and, some say, anomalous marriage boom of the 1940s and 1950s), the nuclear family itself began to break up. More and more of the family’s socializing and punishing functions devolved upon the professions, private enterprise, and the state, the parent of last resort.

State parenting is neither cheap nor satisfactory for maintaining social order. The voice of family-instilled conscience is always more cost-effective than that of a police officer, especially if the officer is part of a criminal justice system that has become irrelevant to all but serious offenses and then not guaranteed to produce results. Voters obviously have become frustrated over this failure, which has contributed heavily to the conservative gains in state and national politics.

Some of this anger might be better directed into a mirror. While politicians have made inroads against violence, they have usually done so at the margins. Lives gained or lost at the margins are still lives gained or lost, and laws and law enforcement do matter. But the key to controlling youthful male violence lies not in legislation or police or prisons but in society’s basic familial arrangements. And that means it lies in all of us.

Americans on Violence: A 150-Year Anthology