A review of “The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies,” by Scott Yenor (Baylor University Press, 368 pages, $49.95) 

The American Family on the Precipice

In any political community, at any given moment, there exists a range of acceptable opinions. One transgresses the boundaries of that range at one’s hazard. In our political community, at this moment, that range is both hopelessly amorphous and viciously policed. Any wrongthink and one could be sent to Facebook jail, bullied into a humiliating apology, or have one’s career and reputation ruined.

Under the circumstances, then, it is that much more to Scott Yenor’s credit that he has written a book that not only transgresses those boundaries, it smashes through them to run riot in the green fields beyond, where reason and sanity prevail. Such is the nature of Yenor’s newest book, The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies. In so doing he has produced an important and thoughtful study of “where we are, and whither we are tending.”

Yenor describes our current cultural situation as a “rolling revolution”: a continuous, and continuously-evolving, attempt to remake American society. It is continuously evolving, because what constitutes enlightened opinion is constantly changing. With each step toward social justice and the end of privilege and oppression, the next step becomes a moral imperative. Like a treadmill, one must keep moving to stay in one place, or else fall off the back. The ultimate goal is perfect “autonomy”—the ability of the atomistic individual to define his own existence, to “live his own truth” free from any external constraints, but particularly those of patriarchal, repressive American culture, Western civilization, and Christian morality.

Yenor recognizes the family is disintegrating and that this is the result of a conscious and intentional project of the radical Left, which sees the family as central to sustaining the system of privilege and oppression they would deconstruct. He wants to understand that project, its consequences, and what we can do to salvage meaningful family life and its inestimable blessings of community, trust, mental and emotional health, and living for more than oneself and one’s own pleasures.

The strongest part of the book is Yenor’s description and critique of three theoretically distinct, yet practically inseparable doctrines of our modern politics and culture, which have combined to facilitate the rolling revolution. 

First, feminism, particularly the second-wave variety, seeks the creation of a “50-50” world where sex distinctions are meaningless. It treats any differences between men and women as the products of sexism and discrimination and seeks to annihilate them. 

Second, contemporary liberalism seeks to strip all the values out of the law, to create a morally neutral system that allows people genuine freedom to choose. The ideal is the “pure relationship,” based on continuous consent, where people invent their own happiness and then pursue it, forming and dissolving relationships as they see fit. 

Finally, the doctrine of sexual liberation maintains that all the moral evils of our culture are the product of sexual repression. By legalizing and normalizing all practices, subject only to the restrictions of consent and the safety of the parties involved, the pathologies that result from our sexually repressive society will disappear. 

Each one of these ideologies, Yenor proceeds to show, is fatally flawed. Radical feminism founders on the shoals of human nature. Try though we might try to eradicate them, the differences between men and women are at some level indestructible. These differences may express themselves in various ways across time and space, but the differences persist. 

The problem for contemporary liberalism is that all laws and legal systems embody moral judgments. It is impossible to create a “value-free” legal system, and the value judgments embedded in liberal legal reforms cannot help but influence the culture. Like feminism, sexual liberation is blocked by the durability of human nature. We have not yet been able to eradicate the natural sense that sex is something different, something special. We treat rape as different from other kinds of assault. We keep sex mostly private. We understand that it ought to be kept away from children.

In the second half of the book, Yenor explores a variety of ways that we might preserve as much of family life as is possible under the circumstances of liberal society. Yenor is both realistic and reasonable: he acknowledges that the pre-modern world isn’t coming back and that such a retrenchment isn’t even necessarily desirable. He seeks a modus vivendi with the Left, under which all can agree to live in a pluralistic society. He makes too many proposals to cover here, but they merit serious consideration.

The difficulty lies not with Yenor’s proposals but with the nature of the radical Left. They are neo-Marxist revolutionaries, and their project is the destruction of American civil society. They are not orthodox Marxists in the sense they are not focused on economic class struggle and the contradictions of bourgeois capitalism. Their Marxism is that of Shulamith Firestone (whom Yenor quotes at length), which applies the Marxist framework of privilege and oppression to the moral norms and cultural institutions of western and American society. They have learned from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci that the strength of Western societies lies in their institutions and culture, so they systematically look to subvert these from within, in order to lay the groundwork for revolutionary transformation.

These revolutionaries are completely uninterested in negotiation or compromise. They are certain they are “on the right side of history,” completely convinced of their own rectitude, and they recognize no morality except what serves their revolutionary goals. 

How does one reach a modus vivendi with such people? How can one compromise with people who believe themselves morally justified in destroying everyone and everything that does not share their ideology? Yenor should perhaps understand this better than anyone, having personally survived one of their hate campaigns already.

The reality is, until these revolutionary radicals are totally defeated, American society in general, and marriage and family in particular, will continue to stand on the precipice. How to accomplish this is beyond the scope of Yenor’s project in The Recovery of Family Life, but it will have to be done. When we have summoned the prudence and the courage to do it, Yenor’s proposals will be waiting for us.

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About Kevin Portteus

Kevin Portteus is the Lawrence Fertig Professor of Politics and Director of American Studies at Hillsdale College.

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