Artillery Row

Perhaps Black Lives Matter was right about the nuclear family

James Jeffrey explains why he won’t be signing up for a BLM-mandated commune anytime soon

The nuclear family is increasingly radioactive these days. One of the most controversial tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement and manifesto—which has since been removed from their website—is that the traditional family structure presents a major problem for society, and we would be better served by existing in the likes of community villages.

Defenders of the movement’s stance note that BLM never said anything about abolishing the nuclear family. Indeed, one of the deleted lines stated that BLM seeks to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement” by “supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” At first glance it doesn’t sounds as nefarious as some critics portrayed.

No amount of military training prepares you for the onslaught and riddles of the civilian world

My recent experiences hiking the Camino pilgrimage across the Iberian Peninsula have illustrated how BLM might be on to something in promoting extended communal families that go beyond mum, dad and the kids. A number of albergues—the hostels where pilgrims stay—that I encountered turned into mini villages after pilgrims converged and stayed for days, if not longer at the better ones where an eruption of community spirit spontaneously engulfed everyone, Covid-19 restrictions and precautions notwithstanding (in case any Spanish officials might be reading this, I must emphasise that albergue owners, typically supported by stalwart Spanish grandmothers arriving in the morning with mops and brooms, are cleaning and disinfecting dorms and rooms to a standard that would pass the white-gloved inspection of a Royal Military Academy Sandhurst instructor).

On the most western Galician coast in the town of Finisterre, the literal end of the Camino where land meets ocean and toward which many pilgrims continue after reaching the city of Santiago de Compostela—the proclaimed resting place of Saint James—I found myself among a mushrooming community of arriving pilgrims, spread among a number of albergues in close proximity where we existed in a type of latter-day kibbutz for about 10 days.

What a phenomenal existence: the sense of community spirit, the communal meals, the willing sharing and cooperation. In comparison to how most nuclear families function today in atomised competition, the BLM assertion has something to it—there’s so little cooperation throughout modern developed societies as millions of these tiny nuclear family units bash up against each other, sniping and clutching at getting the most for themselves and their children, regardless of the consequences for other families.

Modern life is increasingly fought as a duel—a zero-sum game between pugilistic families. We joke about playground politics and roll our eyes about that parent during the school drop-off, but how did it come to playgrounds and schools becoming crucibles of conflict?

The reason traditional families often appear dysfunctional it is down to current economic forces

After the initial jubilation of escaping the army and the nadir of Afghanistan, my first years in the civilian realm became increasingly characterised by bewilderment at the ways of civilians. So much about how people in the developed West lived in comparison to poorer parts of the world seemed vacuous, tepid and greedy. The lack of any semblance of camaraderie was stunning. “There is enough treachery, hatred, violence, absurdity in the average human being to supply any given army on any given day” wrote the American writer Charles Bukowski. No amount of military training prepares you for the onslaught, caprices and riddles of the civilian world.

But what BLM and many other special interest groups coming out against the nuclear family miss, is that the reason traditional families often appear dysfunctional and are increasingly alienated from – and set against – each other, is not because of any inherent fault in their structure. Rather, it is down to current economic forces—those capricious Gods of the Market Place that Rudyard Kipling wrote about in his poem—and the myriad ways in which most modern societies make life so hard for families today.

In a 2019 New York Times article called “The end of babies”, Anna Louie Sussman, a journalist who writes on gender, reproduction and economics, unpacks declining fertility rates across the Western world. She notes that while this trend typically accompanies the spread of economic development and “at its best” reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, it can also reflect “a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy.”

The resulting economic conditions, she argues,

Generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide.

Modern families are driven to compete against each other amid toxic financial pressures and a dearth of compassionate cooperation. At the same time, much of the current animus against the nuclear family is driven by the trendy anti-patriarchy narrative saturating Western society since the 1950s, while suffocating the accumulated and tried-and-tested wisdom forged over the centuries.

“There’s a general assumption now that every man in a position of power is or will soon be corrupt and oppressive,” the American poet Robert Bly wrote in in his bestselling 1990 book Iron John: Men and Masculinity, in which he dissects how masculinity and manhood have become increasingly maligned in modern society—especially in academia, the media and popular culture—resulting in younger men turning away from the more positive aspects of their XY chromosome birth right. “Yet the Greeks understood and praised a positive male energy that has accepted authority.”

BLM would appear to disagree with those Greeks (as well as with many other learned individuals of yesteryear). Another part of the deleted BLM text read: “We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work ‘double shifts’ so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.” In an episode of The Spectator’s Americano podcast called “Is fatherlessness tearing America apart”, Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, argues that the BLM protests that shook America, and further afield, over the summer were about far more than just concerns about racism.

“The fatherlessness of America has now poured out onto the streets,” Eberstadt says, noting that innumerable studies illustrate how fatherlessness is linked to adverse outcomes for children, ranging from drug use to promiscuity to education failure. “This is probably the best documented fact in sociology in America that no one wants to admit.”

She explains this fatherlessness goes beyond the literal sense to a more abstract level that includes an absence of – and aversion to – institutional patriarchal authority, such as commitment to church and religion, and love of one’s country. This provided the context, she says, for why the iconoclasm that began with the destruction of Confederate statues then, rather bafflingly, expanded to the tearing down of all manner of statues such as the Founding Fathers and even religious figures.

“Anything that looked like a father was the object of animus,” says Eberstadt, adding that she has sympathy for those protesting and who have embraced identify politics so vehemently, while pointing out that conservative critics miss a crucial distinction by simply dismissing Millennial protestors as snowflakes.

“There is a suffering that drives this desire to attach,” Eberstadt says:

People who scream about being victims all the time really are victims, but they don’t understand their victimhood properly. They are not victims of these ‘isms’ or of heteronormativity or the patriarchy [or] the other abstractions they point to, they are the victims in many cases of the radical social changes since the 1960s that have left many human beings, especially young human beings, living in ways that we are not meant to live.

This is because, she explains, humans are social creatures: we learn by watching and imitating, but “the sexual revolution has taken people out of the lives of the young, it has shrunken the family, it has disrupted the family, and so social learning has been impeded in this massive way.” And it was this process that culminated in “the political theatre that poured out into America’s streets,” including, she notes, attacks often aimed at family-occupied public places. In all of that, she says, we witnessed a “great familial discontent and envy of people who have been able to, despite the sexual revolution, continue living in intact families.”

In unpacking the roots of identity politics that go back to black feminists in the late 1970s, Eberstadt notes how, similar to the manifestos of that era, in the deleted BLM text the word or notion of a father is never mentioned. All male figures, including brothers or sons, have been erased. It’s pretty sinister to consider—certainly as a man.

Who doesn’t have Daddy issues or problems with their family?

Are we really that bad, so deserving of enemy status? I was struck by BLM’s use of the word “disrupt”, as it reminded me of my tactics classes while training to be a British Army officer to defend the UK against its foes. We were taught that “disrupt” was a so-called military mission verb that involved a commander integrating direct and indirect fires, terrain and obstacles to upset an enemy’s formation or tempo, interrupt his timetable and decision-making process, or cause his forces to commit prematurely or attack in a piecemeal fashion, all of which would undermine his chances of survival. The army doctrine manual also noted that disruption is never an end; it is the means to an end: defeat of the enemy.

Who doesn’t have Daddy issues or problems with their family: these maddening entities that leave us caught between the allegiance and love we owe them for giving us our existence and the desire to live uninhibited from their judgements and proclivities. But it would be a bit rich of many of us, certainly now, to demean the nuclear family after that was all we had to fall back on when Covid-19 lockdowns swept the carpets from under our feet. It was those much-maligned Baby Boomers, increasingly blamed for ruining the world, to whom many of us had to turn, and whom took us in without question.

Such unconditional love is hard to find, and that challenge shouldn’t be underrated. Furthermore, as I saw in Finisterre, there is always a potential dark side to communes that break away from mainstream, traditional familial structures with the proclaimed promise of enabling the release of your true individuality. The road toward the Finisterre hostel where I stayed savouring its warm communal spirit passed by another hostel that gave off a distinctly different mood. Pilgrims I spoke to around a shared and spirited dinner in my hostel’s kitchen, some of whom had stayed at the other hostel for a night before quickly changing accommodation, spoke of a darker hippy vibe and an unsettling force emanating there that they couldn’t quite explain.

I felt it myself, and though it was never overt and all I saw appeared harmlessly mundane—a man playing a flute, a woman singing out loud to herself as she chopped vegetables at a table in a garden, a woman sitting crossed legged on the pavement in the sun eating her breakfast—I sometime felt my Spider Man sense tingling in warning. As Carl Jung described, we all harbour a shadow, and while he advocated not ignoring it, even embracing elements of that darker side to our personalities, there is always a danger in overindulging it, especially once you add in the heady mix of unrestrained drink, drugs and sex.

Admittedly some who overindulged produced great music and works of literature and art that hold up a necessary mirror to the staid and uninspiring lifestyles we often too readily accept. I found myself playing The Doors via YouTube on my phone while watching the stunning sunsets seen from Finisterre’s Praia do Mar de Fóra, a much-vaunted beach where you get a sense of what the pagan pilgrims of old must have felt when they travelled there to pay homage to what was then viewed as the end of the known world.

Jim Morrison’s singing of “Break on through to the other side” and “Indian Summer” accompanied my thoughts about the familial challenges, and their accompanying decision processes, that we all face—especially now with Covid-19 restrictions inhibiting us—both those in existence and which yet might come into being, and about “our mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness,” as Jung wrote his 1962 autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, due to us understanding less and less about “what our fathers and forefathers sought” and the “guiding instincts” that drove them.

Advertising now reflects a genuine reality as societies become more diverse and accepting

There is one area where the nuclear family remains utterly dominant, for now: in advertising, especially at this time of the year as the salespeople go into overdrive in the run up to Christmas. That is changing, though, with more images of the likes of two female lovers snuggling up in bed together or interracial couples in the kitchen adorning our screens and billboards, and which reflect a genuine reality as societies become more diverse and accepting. But let us not lose sight of the less noble fact that these images are fired at us to extract our money, not because the advertisers and companies of the goods being peddled genuinely believe in or care about any latent quality or advantage in the type of relationships being presented: that is up to us to discern through the loves we forge and types of family units we might create.

Returning to the hostel after those sunsets with Jim Morrison, I encountered a spontaneous community of goodwill, unencumbered by materialism and social one-upmanship, a group of former strangers that was genuinely looking out for each other, and enjoying one another’s company for the sake of it and not because of anything one could gain from the interactions. But as much as I remain impressed by the possibilities, and the need to learn from them, that lie beyond the nuclear family, I won’t be signing up for a BLM-mandated commune—or any other fashionable mandated variant—quite yet.

“The saddest aspect of all this is that there is knowledge out there that something is desperately awry,” Eberstadt says, reflecting on the summer protests, “and the people who suffer in this way are taking it out on people who don’t.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover