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50/50: The 50 Biggest Changes of The Last 50 Years

50/50: The 50 Biggest Changes of The Last 50 Years

Home and Family

With American Heritage approaching its fiftieth birthday in December 2004, we’ve asked five prominent historians and cultural commentators to each pick 10 leading developments in American life during the last half-century. In this issue Paul Berman, a contributing editor to The New Republic and the author of Terror and Liberalism, published by W. W. Norton & Company, selects the 10 biggest changes in the American home and family life. In other issues this year our authorities offer their choices of the half-century’s biggest transformations in politics, popular culture, business, and innovation and technology.

What have been the 10 greatest changes in American home and family life during the last half-century? I think the first of these changes has turned out to be the deepest of all—the change that set into motion all the other changes, the prime mover. This was, oddly enough, the change mandated by the Supreme Court in its 1954 ruling on …

1 Brown v. Board of Education. 
The Brown decision ordered the end of racial segregation in the public schools, on the ground that racial segregation means racial hierarchy, and government-sanctioned racial hierarchy runs counter to the democratic spirit of the Constitution.

You may ask, What has this got to do with families and the home? Everything, oh, everything, in my view. But in order to explain why I think so, I must defer to one of the greatest authorities on family life who ever lived—Honoré de Balzac. In the series of novels and novellas he called The Human Comedy, Balzac catalogued the changes that had overtaken French family life during his own time, the early nineteenth century. These changes were vast. And in Balzac’s judgment, they were horrendous. Daughters became contemptuous of their fathers (Le Père Goriot). Sons were careless of their family’s hard-earned wealth (ibid.). Homosexuals inflicted crime on the rest of society (ibid.). Cousins were monstrous (Cousin Bette). Husbands were indifferent to the material wealth of their own families (ibid.). Wives were unfaithful (practically the entire Human Comedy). And so on. And what was the ultimate source of these many dismaying changes, the moral catastrophe of French family life?

Balzac thought he knew. The ultimate source of the many disasters was the beheading of King Louis XVI in 1793. Until that moment family life in France, as Balzac imagined it, had floated serenely through the waters of a well-ordered society. Fathers and husbands ruled with a firm, just, and loving hand. Wives were obedient, pious, helpful, and ardent. Children loved and obeyed their parents. Cousins were un-monstrous. All society followed the pleasing customs of fidelity and morality, and these excellent customs were aromatized by a delicious feeling of passionate love in correct and Church-sanctioned ways. The social classes upheld the principles of mutual responsibility and honor. And all this, the splendid orderliness of a well-organized society, rested on a single foundation, which was the principle of duly-constituted, legitimate authority. This was the principle of social rank and hierarchy. It was the principle of nobility and of upper nobility—the principle, finally, of monarchy.

Alas! In 1793 the great diabolical crime was committed. The guillotine blade descended, the king’s head was severed from his body, and society was likewise severed from its legitimate governing principle. All hell thereupon broke loose, in Balzac’s view. The sacred bonds of family life disintegrated. Crime triumphed over duty. And Balzac, wide-eyed in astonishment, his curly hair standing on end at the mere thought of how dreadful were the scenes around him, dipped his pen into the inkwell and set out to record the scandalous consequences.

Balzac’s estimation of the French Revolution and its results is not universally shared. Some people have pointed out that monarchy had its shortcomings, feudalism was not everything it was cracked up to be, the Rights of Man was good, and the French Revolution was, all in all, a worthy project. This has always been my own judgment on French history. I take a sans-culotte-ish view of these things. It was a pity about the king and his head. But the ancien régime had to go. Still, I grant that Balzac did notice something important. He correctly understood that the most intimate details of family life rest in mysterious ways on the largest and most public of political principles. He noticed that a change in the foundation of political principles may well wreak considerable changes in the intimate regions of family life.

But enough about the France of long ago. What about America? In our country we never did have much of a feudal past, except here and there, ages ago. Nor was our Revolution anything like the one in France. Nor have we ever had a king of our own. We do have Presidents. But we have never had to behead any of them, though the temptation to do so has sometimes been great. Yet we did in the past have a firmly mandated and legally binding principle of social authority, which somehow or another dominated every phase of social life. This was the principle of racial hierarchy, a principle that descended into modern American life from the slavery of yore, the principle that put white people at the top and black people at the bottom.

In 1954 the Supreme Court decreed an end to that principle. Everyone knows that Brown v. Board of Education did not exactly bring about a revolution in boards of education all over America. Schools remained segregated just as before, and white schools tended to be better, and black schools worse, and the realities of racial hierarchy never did come to an end. Then again, in France beheading the king did not exactly put an end to the realities of social hierarchy either. Even today a surprising number of top figures in French life remain people with a de in their names, signifying aristocracy, as in Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister. Still, beheading the king back in 1793 did bring to an end an important principle—namely, the principle of monarchy, therefore of authority as a whole, taken in its ancient feudal version. Brown v. Board of Education did the same, in an American version. The decision brought an end to the principle of racial hierarchy and therefore to the many other kinds of authority that were somehow linked to the principle of racial hierarchy. And what was the effect on American life?

Balzac figured that all hell broke loose in French families after 1793, and many a commentator has concluded that all hell likewise broke loose in American families after 1954. Divorces increased. Promiscuity blossomed. Single motherhood flourished. People took drugs. Children became disrespectful. Homosexuals became much more visible. Homosexuals got married, which they had always done, but now they began to get married to one another. I could go on with the list of horrors, as seen by those who think the list is horrific. But I should like to argue, instead, that from a sans-culotte point of view, the changes that swept across American life in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education have been by and large salutary. The ancien régime in America may have been the good old days for some people, but not for most. The end of the principle of hierarchy in racial relations brought about a thousand changes in American life, among them five hundred alterations in the American family. And these alterations had their positive aspect.

I will list the best, the most admirable, of the changes, beginning with No. 2 because I have already cited Brown v. Board of Education as change number one. The others, in my view, have been:

2 Women became freer 
to pursue careers outside the home and therefore realize their own talents, and thus advance the whole of society.

3 Men became freer 
to appreciate the full talents of women.

4 Men and Women became freer 
to become better lovers, I am convinced, because of their greater freedom to be themselves.

5 Parents became more sensitive 
to the peculiarities and needs of their children, instead of merely demanding blind obedience.

6 A new sense of honesty arose 
that has permitted modern society to take a firmer line against certain kinds of crime—against child molestation, for instance, and against rape.

7 Marriage: 
Young people were no longer pushed into too-early unions.

8 Homosexuality 
came to be looked on by a great many people as an ordinary sexual orientation, instead of as something shameful, sinful, et cetera.

9 Gay marriage: 
Homosexuals began to be accepted, in a trend that has lately led, through a process that began with Brown v. Board of Education, to the dawn of legal recognition of gay marriage here and there around the country. And, finally …

10 Tolerance: 
The country became a little more tolerant and a little more protective of the right to privacy, as shown by Bill Clinton’s political victory over the many censorious busybodies who tried to have him removed from office in the aftermath of his White House affair.

Freedom, personal growth, sensitivity, amorousness, honesty, tolerance, privacy—these are the salutary changes that have overtaken the family and the home in the years after Brown v. Board of Education. My own guess is that French family life took a turn for the better after the French Revolution, in spite of Balzac. American family life is better, I say, after the civil rights revolution. Let Balzac and the reactionaries beat their nostalgic drums in outraged dismay. Let them count up the numerous downsides. I shall study their books. Some of those books will make a terrific read, I’m sure. Balzac himself is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Even so, progress is a good thing.

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