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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Where’s My Parade?

The right-wing meanies of the ’90s predicted correctly—the self-esteem movement destroyed society.

Judge,Gavel,Deciding,On,Marriage,Divorce
(Burdun Iliya/Shutterstock)

A Monday article in the Wall Street Journal announces a new fad for parties celebrating divorces. A cottage industry of divorce-party decorations has sprung up. Gold foil balloons spelling out bad puns, fake rose petals, parlor games—they’re about as tasteless as you’d expect. They are tasteless the way all parties thrown by lonely professional women are tasteless. 

Adamson had friends from Los Angeles fly to New York and they booked the hotel suite where she had stayed when she got married. “It felt like closure in a really beautiful way to be in the same hotel with the same view,” she says.

The four of them burned sage in the suite, to rid it of negative vibes, filled the place with balloons, dined out and then had a sleepover.

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Light witchcraft and overpriced charcuterie and explicit performances of the regression into childhood. That kind of thing. 

“Divorce used to be something to be ashamed of due to societal pressures and stereotypes,” commented the aptly named Nicole Sodoma, a divorce lawyer who has written about how people should in fact celebrate the fruits of her sorry trade. “But today people have really decided to nip that societal shame and instead embrace being divorced as another stage of life that some of us experience.”

(To her credit, the etiquette maven Liz Post, guardian of the Emily Post Institute, told the Journal that “divorce parties” as such were not, in her book, very cash money. Who doesn’t dread the future in which bourgeois prejudice is finally swept away?)

The divorce rate has been declining for years, which is on the face of it a good thing. It seems, however, that this is downstream of the decline in the marriage rate. (It is worth noting that, for the over-50 set, divorce rates are climbing.) Yet a massive portion of the American public—upwards of 70 percent—sees little or no moral problem with divorce. (By contrast, in 1968, 60 percent of Americans believed that divorce laws should be made stricter.) So the parties with the depressing decor sporting sassy slogans shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The progress from acceptance to celebration is the defining dynamic of our era.

Our own Micah Meadowcroft wrote recently about how we live in a “negative world”—a society where the opposites of traditional and Christian morality are valorized. You made a decision of enormous consequence, both public and private, and you were incapable of following through on it? Congratulations! Don the “Finally Divorced” sash. Celebrating objects of shame is the fashionable thing. It is a point worth making that this valorization of perversion and error, the “negative world,” is just the mature stage of a classic 1990s bugbear for conservatives—the so-called self-esteem movement. 

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Low self-esteem was thought to be the root of every social dysfunction, from teenage pregnancy to carjackings; it is little surprise that the California legislature established a task force on bringing the good news of I’m-okay-you’re-okay to the people. (Needless to say, John Vasconcellos, the state senator responsible, also supported legal dope.) “I Love Me” lessons were introduced in the schools

It is not terribly surprising that the children formed by the era of the participation trophy have come to expect that every aspect of their lives, no matter how repulsive, get the cake and balloons treatment. “Adulting.” “Shout your abortion.” The public promotion of previously unnamed sexual vices. Body positivity. The insistence that the mentally ill have a right to express their mental illness unimpeded. It is all of a piece. Rilke, not the straightest arrow in the quiver, wrote about something like the call to repentance: “Here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” This is a sentiment as foreign to modern sensibilities as Cato’s suicide or the gruesome deaths of the Roman martyrs.

Yet the divorce celebrations still cut deeper in some way. Something has gone badly wrong. Curiously, none of the divorced people interviewed for the Journal article seems to have had children; that straightens the road on the way to the sage-burning and the rest, but is a historical oddity. It raises the question of what people think this is all about, anyway. It is difficult to unring the bell on stable, monogamous family formation, which has proven time and again to be the foundation on which public life stands. 

In the early principate, Augustus attempted to cajole the leading families of Rome to have more children with a variety of carrots—subsidies—and sticks—crackdowns on divorce. (Against the modish argument disputing the late Republic’s decadence blows the chill morning air of birth rate statistics.) Briefly, he failed. By the second century A.D., all but a handful of these families had fallen from the rolls of history and been replaced by enterprising Spaniards and Narbonensians. 

And that canny old Roman didn’t even have to deal with the divorce party industry. If footmen tire you, what will horses do?