Is Conservative Scholarship a Contradiction in Terms?
The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies, Scott Yenor, 368 pages.
With “cancel culture” peering over all our shoulders these days, books by university-employed conservatives are few and far between. Ones treating public policy are even rarer. But family and sexual politics is especially hazardous turf, when even conservative Christian colleges are purging faculty for fear of feminist wrath. Most conservative and Christian academics respond simply by hiding under the table.
So it is especially encouraging to find a scholar in a state university, with a book on family policy, published by a university press (financed with a federal government grant, no less), that takes on feminist ideology directly. Scott Yenor may be the only academically employed scholar remaining in the western world who writes mainly about sexual ideology from any standpoint other than enthusiastic advocacy. (K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College and Bryce Christensen at Southern Utah University are possible others.) Further, he is a political scientist, where disciplines like psychology, sociology, and law studiously avoid political dynamics and explain family breakdown through nebulous impersonal forces like “culture.” Yenor’s field is political theory, and the book’s merit is its main theme: in explaining today’s family crisis, we must stop neglecting radical political ideologies like feminism for whom such deterioration is, after all, their principal objective. Conservatives especially will bend over backward (including dismissing professors) to avoid offending sexual ideologues, and lament and bemoan apolitical forces they cannot control. Yenor’s focus on political ideology offers the only constructive response and hope of restoring family integrity.
He might have pushed the insight further. The same dexterity with political ideas that renders Yenor sensitive to the power of ideology seems to prevent him from showing how that power operates. Here as elsewhere, philosophical ruminations are both the strength of conservative scholarship and its paralysis. Anyone who has waded through the tedious, self-important theorizing of leftist ideologists will find scant relief in the equally indulgent philosophizing and moralizing of their conservative counterparts, even when one agrees. Applying all that erudition to political realities so as to extract some constructive remedy is another matter.
Yenor puts it to better use than many, because he engages with radicals’ ideas. Chapters outlining feminist and liberal ideology are extensive, perhaps to a fault because leftists hardly lack their own outlets, and in any case it is not clear how much polemic even sympathetic readers can endure. I am not sure we need more demonstrations, replete with tables, of men’s superior athletic prowess or aggressiveness and women’s advantages in nurturing.
The book’s purpose is “to show where the Sexual Revolution is heading”: namely, feminist ideology aims at “abolition of marriage and the family.” But we know this already, and moreover, it has already been accomplished. Maggie Gallagher showed in The Abolition of Marriage (1996) that no-fault divorce already abolished marriage as an enforceable contract, and others have elaborated on the far-reaching consequences for the larger society. We also know from Judy Parejko that no-fault divorce was the brainchild of feminist ideology. As a political scientist, Yenor should have a handle on the status of marriage with the state. Moreover, the relationship between theory (feminist ideology aims to abolish marriage) and reality (the law has abolished it) is something worth exploring.
This is only one example of how Yenor neglects the larger dynamics of sexual politics. In some ways, this is less scholarship than an extended manifesto of principles for the converted. Conservatives seem to thrive on hearing what already sits safely within their comfort zone. Yenor gives them this in profusion.
Yet while he presents radical sexual ideologies in detail, qualified with his own views of what is wrong with them, he appears oblivious to important critiques already provided by other non-feminist scholars. It is as if he, alone in academic employment, must slay the ideological dragons single-handedly. Yet others have elucidated larger dynamics Yenor misses.
While targeting the Sexual Revolution, he says nothing about Gabriele Kuby’s, The Global Sexual Revolution (2015), with its theme of “destruction of freedom in the name of freedom.” Though Yenor’s approach is partly literary, he ignores E. Michael Jones’ Libido Dominandi (2000), arguing that “Sexual revolution is a form of political control.” I tried to build on their insights into both the ideology and practical politics in The New Politics of Sex (2017). He wonders if “the rise of female-initiated divorce [could] be a reason men are less interested in entering marriage,” but Helen Smith’s Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream (2013) would have told him.
If he finds fault with these works, we need to know why. They elucidate the politics, including the larger threat to civil freedom. Why is a political scientist, claiming expertise in the Sexual Revolution, ignoring them altogether?
Though his principal focus is the connection between political ideology and family deterioration, nothing treats the politics of the state’s divorce or welfare machineries. Parejko discovered that feminist lawyers devised “no-fault” divorce as early as the 1940s. Passing reference to Jennifer Roback-Morse’s work on divorce (e.g., The Sexual State, 2018) is also meager. Indeed, an important 2010 article by mainstream political scientist Mark Smith, asking why conservative family advocates conspicuously avoid confronting divorce as a political issue is not only ignored, but validated. Typical of conservatives, Yenor’s treatment prioritizes therapeutic dynamics over political ones. Apparently the only worthy literature consists of apolitical academic works tinged by the very ideologies he claims to be refuting.
A political scientist says nothing about the welfare state (also created by feminist ideology) undermining families and proliferating single-parent homes. Social work was radicalized by feminists like Jane Addams and is now actively indoctrinated politically by “women’s studies” and “gender studies” programs, but Yenor ignores exposés by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge and others. Investigations going back decades, documenting how radicalized social workers confiscate children from legally innocent parents on unproven abuse accusations, are ignored. Instead, abstract musings on parental rights (ignoring constitutional issues raised by scholars like Mike Donnelly) and spanking, must suffice. Vague wishes for “a humble policy” substitute for effective proposals, like eliminating the “best interest of the child” doctrine, which transfers control of children from parents to state officials, or criminalizing child abuse so accused parents enjoy due process protections.
The section on rape likewise offers extended reflections on the word “consent,” but nothing on the distorted politics and manifest injustices of the feminist rape industry, documented by K.C. Johnson and Stuart Taylor, The Campus Rape Frenzy (2017), Wendy McElroy in Rape Culture Hysteria (2016), and others.
All this matters. First, genuine scholarship requires acknowledging the relevant literature. Baylor University Press should know this. Yes, any graduate student recalls tedious requirements to print-out voluminous citations of secondary literature, whether or not one has read it. That Yenor does not cite more radical monographs is not only excusable but merciful.
But in this case, incorporating the small but growing body of non-radical (mostly non-academic) literature illuminating the family crisis is both manageable and essential. It also determines whether these works (including Yenor’s) will have any impact.
If scholars like Yenor will not acknowledge the dissenters who precede them, who will? Why risk one’s career writing politically heterodox books on family policy, if other politically heterodox scholars ignore them and insisting on being one-man shows? Why should anyone else pay any attention – the media, other scholars, the public? (If academic snobbery is the culprit, it would be especially pernicious, because some of the above-cited authors were driven from academia for their forthrightness.) And in turn one can ask the same questions about Yenor’s book. The media will have no inkling that it is part of a trend of countervailing scholarship to which they should pay attention.They will not see that others have also identified serious abuses in the radical agenda, different from but connected to problems highlighted by Yenor, that deserve public attention.
Scholars likewise will have no idea how Yenor’s critique of feminism fits with their own or others. (And few will wade through 300+ pages of fine print to figure it out.) A graduate student hoping to build upon this work will have no guidance where to begin.
So this will likely be dismissed as one more conservative Christian lamenting trends he cannot change. Even BUP’s promotional hype is unlikely to overcome this.
Especially peculiar is that a university press, presumably providing an alternative outlet for non-radical books, seems to feel that the path to respectability lies in following their mainstream counterparts with books so long and verbose that even specialists are challenged to read them. What is needed is succinct, closely-argued studies documenting specific problems, critiquing them intelligibly for lay readers, and connecting them with parallel and larger trends – precisely the kind of books that Yenor seems to find contemptible or embarrassing, or perhaps dangerous.
In the end, Yenor endeavors to refute a series of liberal-feminist clichés. The problem is, he has ignored how the Sexual Revolution hideously violates liberal principles themselves. So he cannot refute them on their own turf using their own or shared principles and must rely on what he freely calls his own “new clichés.” Having ignored game-changers like legally innocent parents finding their children confiscated, being evicted from their homes, expropriated for all they possess, incarcerated without trial, and turned out on the streets, he has no moral high ground from which to criticize effectively. Patently innocent citizens summarily punished for unproven domestic violence (usually to get control of their children), rape, or sexual something-or-other make his wistful longings for “human community” and “fulfillment that human beings strive for and thrive in” seem maudlin and trivial. The result is stalemate: their platitudes against his.
In short, Yenor conspicuously sidesteps all the most devastating consequences of sexual ideology, including serious violations of constitutional rights and civil liberties, and instead belabors the politically safe. If the worst thing to be said about feminism is that it erodes “human community” and “fulfillment,” not many readers will bother plowing through this book. It is as if author and publisher hope to ingratiate themselves with those they claim to refute and distance themselves from others who really do refute them. With friends like this…
And this reflects the tragedy of conservative scholarship today. As leftist ideology compromises institutions and squeezes out dissenters, conservatives continue playing the game they have lost: clinging to the ideological and power structure that has rejected them, allowing radicals to set the terms of debate, and so anxious to be accepted that they pull their punches, retreat from their principles, and – unwittingly or obsequiously – become the instruments of what they deplore.
Stephen Baskerville, PhD (government), is author of The New Politics of Sex: The Sexual Revolution, Civil Liberties, and the Growth of Governmental Power (Angelico, 2017), Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family (Cumberland House, 2007), and peer-reviewed articles about the politics of the family and sexuality.