Today, while the religious conservatives and the social libertarians have their culture war flashpoints — how many crÃ¨ches can you fit on the head of a publicly funded pin? — the traditionalists are interested in how to strengthen institutions that breed responsible people. How do you encourage marriage at a time when 70 percent of African-American babies are born out of wedlock? How can you embed young men in American cities, or in Iraq, in the constructive world of work, so they won’t drift into the world of violence? How can you build preschool programs so children from chaotic homes will have at least one stable place to develop self-control? How can you assimilate immigrants so they will internalize the social norms of the United States? How can parents keep cultural garbage out of their homes? ~David Brooks, The New York Times
Let’s take the first one. You might begin to encourage marriage by, well, actively encouraging it and actively stigmatising and punishing all other sexual relationships. That doesn’t mean that the President occasionally gives a speech in which he does the Mom and apple pie routine and says, “Marriage is an important institution.” There has to be a lot more behind it than that, possibly including rewriting laws to remove disincentives to marriage. And by stigmatise the other relationships, I mean really stigmatise, up to and including stigmas against bastardy. Most of this would come in the form of social pressure, but there could be a role for legislation as well. You could give people tax exemptions when they get married; you could tighten divorce laws; you could keep driving home the social upheaval caused by unstable and failed marriages and making it stick that marriage is not always going to be a pleasure cruise or a journey of self-satisfaction, but is hard work done for the sane and successful rearing of the next generation and the integrity of the community (to speak simply in purely secular terms for the moment). You could openly denounce cohabitation and teach your children that it is unacceptable; landlords could refuse to rent to cohabiting couples; businesses could refuse to grant the kind of benefits to “significant others” that could be reserved for spouses. We could stop referring to “cohabitation” by this euphemistic weasel-word, which makes it seem as if we were referring to animals that inhabited the same ecological system, and get back to very old-fashioned, judgemental-as-all-get-out phrases like “living in sin.” Wouldn’t that be a fun throwback?
Of course, all of that would require some kind of understanding of why these alternatives are wrong, which is a large part of the battle. To be a credible alternative to the moral absolutists, Brooksian traditionalism would need to demonstrate that it is not social conservatism’s answer to “compassionate conservatism”: a sell-out of principle done in the name of pragmatic “problem-solving.” One could start, Dave, by not supporting “civil unions” in a bid to cater to the notions of what is acceptable and right-minded in Manhattan. That might be a start to show that Brooksian traditionalism isn’t driven by the “hunger for approval,” but by an interest in reducing the damage of social and moral disorder.