[...]The "artifice" of the traditional family isn't just an artifice, and the values that social conservatives hold so dear - monogamy, marriage vows, the idea that every kid deserves a mother and a father in his life - don't just exist to make people in non-traditional families feel bad about themselves. In the aggregate, Dan Quayle was right. In the aggregate, marriage is better for kids than single parenthood. In the aggregate, marriage is better for men and women than long-term cohabitation. In the aggregate, divorce is bad news - for your finances, your health, and your children's long-term prospects. And in the aggregate, if you're concerned about income inequality or social mobility or the crime rate or just about any area of socioeconomic concern, then you should be at least moderately fretful about the long, slow decline of the American two-parent family - among blacks, whites, and Hispanics alike. These aggregates don't capture the lived reality of millions of American lives, and they can easily become rote and hollow pieties. But they capture a pretty important reality nonetheless.Under the polite vagueness, Douthat is really saying this: I do not trust myself, so nobody can be trusted. I do not believe I am a good person, so I need someone to force me to be good. Other people who seem to be good but don't follow my rules are special exceptions and therefore don't count. If you don't follow my rules you should be punished by society, for your rule breaking will harm me and others.
There's serious truth here - but again, it's not the only truth. Yes, the best relationships shouldn't need institutional hedges against infidelity and/or abandonment. But an awful lot of relationships worth fighting for do end up benefiting from being hedged around with institutional supports - because life is long, people are complicated, and you don't always know when you're starting out what you'll need to reach the end of the road together. Yes, relationships are about the two people involved far more than they're about anybody else. But that doesn't mean that they aren't also about the community, particularly when kids are involved. The private is central and essential, but it still spills over into the public; your relationship is about you and your partner, but it's also, inevitably, about your friends and neighbors as well
And these two points go hand in hand. When people don't do the right thing, whether by their partner or more importantly by their kids, it's by definition a problem for the community, because it's the community that's left to pick up the pieces. Which is why it makes sense for your community to ask you for a public commitment when you set out to rear a family, whether you think that you and the mother/father of your child needs such a thing or not. You may be sure that you're in the kind of relationship that won't benefit from an institutional commitment, but the community doesn't know that: It just knows that in the aggregate, public commitments tend to be stronger than private ones - and thus better for parents, for children, and for society writ large. So a community that asks for public commitments isn't disrespecting your potential exceptionalism; it's just asking you to respect the aggregate, and to set an example for the people who might not be as exceptional as you.
And the truth, as anyone who's read his blog or his book knows full well, is that Ta-Nehisi is exceptional - the exceptional son of an exceptional father and family. But most people aren't exceptional. Most American families in which a single man fathers seven kids by four mothers don't produce engineers, Pixar programmers, and writers for the Atlantic. And that's why norms matter, why institutions matter - and sometimes why stigmas matter as well. Not for the sake of Ta-Nehisi's partner and child - I think things are going to turn out pretty well for the family Coates no matter what - but for the sake of all those people who won't be as lucky in their mate and in their parents..
Douthat wants to eliminate any alternate lifestyles, for they force him to doubt his choice, as well as acknowledge that his lifestyle is a choice, not a command from God. Wanting what is good for one's children is a social conservative value, he says, and then states that monogamy and marriage are what is good for children, although he has just stated that that is not necessarily so. By stating that wanting what is best for one's children is a conservative value, he is also able to say that his other conservative beliefs are what is best for children. However, exceptional people can be exceptions to the rules, the Get Out Of Jail Free card that has resulted in so many hysterical Republican arrests for the very behaviors they condemn in public. But we all know that it's different for the Chosen Ones.
Yes, the best relationships shouldn't need institutional hedges against infidelity and/or abandonment. But an awful lot of relationships worth fighting for do end up benefiting from being hedged around with institutional supports - because life is long, people are complicated, and you don't always know when you're starting out what you'll need to reach the end of the road together. Yes, relationships are about the two people involved far more than they're about anybody else. But that doesn't mean that they aren't also about the community, particularly when kids are involved. The private is central and essential, but it still spills over into the public; your relationship is about you and your partner, but it's also, inevitably, about your friends and neighbors as well.Again, Douthat says you need an institution to force you to conform to traditional beliefs, because "people are complicated" and "life is long." In other words, some people will not stay with their partner. Yet being married doesn't guarantee couples will stay together; over half of all couples divorce despite their vows before God, witnessed by family and community. Douthat has to present an imaginary view of traditional marriage to make his condemnation of non-traditional lifestyles work.
In the end it isn't the institution that keeps two people together, it's the personal, private commitment people make in their hearts.