Twelve years ago today, I became a father. My son Matthew was born, and so, in a way, was the man I am today. It is a common experience for people to become more conservative (though not necessarily politically conservative!) when they have children. Why is that? The obvious reason is because it gives you a concrete stake in the future. The things you do, and the ideas you embrace (or reject) suddenly have more substance than you may have realized, because they are no longer as abstract as they may have seemed before.
As longtime readers of mine know — and I beg their indulgence in telling this story again; I’m writing to many new people here at the TAC blog — I was a professional film critic once upon a time, but had a sharp and unexpected change in my film-watching habits when my first child was born. I had changed jobs at the paper just prior to the baby’s arrival, so I was no longer watching movies professionally. But I was not prepared for what happened to me one day at home in Brooklyn, about three weeks after Matthew was born. I was at home watching TV when I saw that “Goodfellas” was coming on. It had been my favorite film of the year when it was in theaters years earlier, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to watch it again.
I lasted 40 minutes before the violence sickened me so much I could no longer take it.
This was something very new. I was an observant Catholic and a conservative in every sense prior to the baby’s coming, but I was able to hold film violence at an ironic distance. Suddenly, I felt it in my bones in a way I had never done. Why? I think it was the simple fatherly act of holding my newborn son close every day, and experiencing how unbelievably fragile human life is. Watching its wanton violation, seeing the terrible abuse of the human body and the graphic murder of human beings, was literally intolerable to me. It wasn’t that I became indignant about it; it was that I literally could not watch it.
I quickly came to consider sexually explicit material in the same light. I suppose I should have had a more thoughtful approach to this kind of thing from my prior religious and philosophical convictions, but it took the advent in my life of a child who was entirely dependent on his mother and me for his care and formation to make me think more deeply about the world in which he was to live and to grow into manhood. Six years ago, the liberal writer Jim Sleeper penned an extraordinary essay against what he calls “the pornification of the public square,” (the link takes you to a pdf version, the only one I could find today). In it, Sleeper says that neither liberals nor conservatives take seriously enough the power of Eros to shape public life. Sleeper says liberals are far too naive about what the degradation of sexual morality can mean for civil society, focused as they are on free speech. Conservatives, he argues, are far too naive about the role of market ideology in undermining the very moral values re: sexuality that they espouse. (Sleeper’s argument is more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it).
Along those lines, my conservatism changed in particular ways when Matthew arrived. That’s when I started paying more attention to marketing, and the insidious ways marketers try to turn our children into consumers. That’s when I started paying attention to food, and urban planning, and many of the things that eventually caused me to write “Crunchy Cons.” It’s not that you have to be a parent to arrive at these conclusions, or to have these interests. It’s that in my case, fatherhood made me reconsider so very much that I had taken for granted, or thought I had settled. I didn’t know it 12 years ago, but today was the day when the truth of Russell Kirk’s observation that family is the institution most necessary to conserve became real to me.
In fact, if parenthood doesn’t make you rethink much of what you believe, even if you end up affirming it in the end, then chances are you have not taken it seriously enough.