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By Lesley Howard @adropex

30th January 2014

Cory Bernardi opens the third chapter of his book, The Conservative Revolution, by stating the obvious: that children learn from their home environment and the people directly around them, generally through observation and participation; the better the environment and the role models, the better the lessons the child will carry through to adulthood.

However, Bernardi is adamant that the most favourable environment to be that of the “traditional” family, comprised of the biological father and the biological mother, who are both the moral teachers and role models to their children. Interestingly, Bernardi makes no mention of the traditional role of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a child’s development.

Bernardi argues that no matter the differences in “our interests or personalities or geography, we all have one thing in common – we were created through the unity of male and female, and thus all have a mother and father.”

This commonality is the basis of his argument against “the creation of life outside of the familial norm.”

Furthermore, he implies there is an economic and social value, or perhaps cost, of children relative to the method by which their conception occurred.

“Children come into families as gifts, not commodities and not trophies,” he writes.

Given that he defines the “familial norm” to be one in which a child is the product of sexual intercourse between its married biological parents, it is reasonable to conclude Bernardi considers a child born as a result of in vitro fertilization or surrogacy is “a commodity or a trophy” and hence a consequence of trade or perhaps sport.

Whilst titled “The Second Pillar: Family”, this chapter could be more aptly described as a case for “traditional marriage”.

Bernardi quotes a convoluted logic that argues if we didn’t sexually reproduce dependent, helpless offspring requiring lots of nurturing, marriage would not have been invented, but since the public institution of marriage does exist, this is proof that human offspring require their biological parents to be married in order for them to flourish.

The author of this argument is David Blankenhorn, an American social historian. Bernardi includes a quote from Blankenhorn’s book The Future of Marriage.

In 2008, Blankenhorn was called as an expert witness for proponents of a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to the union of opposite-sex couples in the US state of California.

Under cross examination, however, he conceded that polygamy did not violate the understanding of marriage as a union of two people, and that same-sex marriage would benefit homosexual households and their children leading to greater stability and hence be of benefit to society as a whole.

The presiding judge found that Blankenhorn’s testimony was unreliable, of little regard and that he did not meet the requirements of an expert witness.

Perhaps more significant is Blankenhorn’s about-face in 2012, announcing support of legalising same-sex marriage and acknowledging the right of same-sex couples to equality, dignity and respect.

Bernardi provides the link that allows him to move from a discussion about family to a discussion about marriage when he says, “no children means no future” for people who believe in more than “mere self-gratification”.

For Bernardi, marriage is about production and nurture of children and through this process the preservation of our culture. and he repeatedly defines “traditional marriage” as the union of a man and a woman: “Both of whom love each other”.

The requirement of love as the basis of marriage is a very important one in Bernardi’s argument.

Marriage has always been about relationships, but as far as tradition goes, in Britain, it wasn’t until the Victorian era (1837-1901) that love was considered a primary basis for marriage.

Prior to this period, marriage was about forming strategic alliances to secure trade, property rights and to protect bloodlines. Neither the wishes, nor even the consent of the bride or groom were of account in the forming of these relationships.

In colonial Australia, the only escape from internment a female convict had was through marriage, and given the shortage of woman in the fledgling colony, such marriages of convenience were common.

Frequently the impetus for marriage had a purely economic imperative as unmarried men were not granted land leases.

The Victorian era saw the rise of the middle class and an influx of ‘new’ money, and the basis for marriage was challenged. Not only were the wishes of the matrimonial pair of consideration, but also the need for their consent to the marriage required. Love and companionship became a firm basis for marriage.

Bernardi’s repeated references to “traditional” marriage, as being the union of a man and a woman who love each other is, therefore, a relatively recent “tradition”.

Given that Bernardi states that this “familial norm” has been undermined since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, marriage based upon love appears to have had a very short-lived ascendancy.

Certainly marriage was not about equality until about 50 years ago. In many states of the US, marital rape was legal until the 1970s and women could not open credit accounts in their own name. Australia and most Western European countries did not legislate against marital rape until the 1980s and, in Australia, credit discrimination was widespread up to the 1990s.

It is therefore unclear what Bernardi means when he says: “There are many benefits afforded through traditional marriage, some codified by the state and others a product of centuries of observation”.

His constant use of “traditional” to imply a centuries-long history of marriage as a static institution based upon love and choice is inaccurate. Whilst he does not define those benefits codified by the state, it is interesting to note that the decline he sees in the “traditional” mores of marriage appears to run parallel to the rise in equal opportunity legislation for women.

Bernardi goes on to cherry-pick statistics in support of his thesis on marriage. Nowhere does he actually source his figures from a primary study. Most of his figures come from a single reference 21 Reasons Why Marriage Matters, a social science report which attempts to summarise a vast body of scientific research into a practical format

Whilst at the beginning of the report the authors identify a view consistent with Bernardi’s, they are clear in stating the inherent limitations of their research. They correctly caution the reader that whilst they can identify associations between certain social factors and hypothesize about those associations, this does not necessarily prove a causal relationship between those social factors.

Unfortunately, the authors don’t appear to have adhered to their original caution and Bernardi selectively uses this to full effect and bases his entire argument on the points raised in the report.

For example, studies report a strong statistical association between criminal behavior in males and single-parent families. Bernardi seems to imply that the single parent family is the singular cause of the criminal behavior. Could it be, however, that single-parent families are highly associated with, for instance, divorce, unemployment or low income?

Could it be that the issues arising from unemployment and low income resulted in a less them optimum environment for a child and eventually contributed to the dissolution of the marriage?

Could it be that domestic and emotional violence more often than not leads to divorce and negatively impacts upon a child’s emotional wellbeing?

Could it be that parents who no longer love each other tend now to divorce?

Whilst some people choose to have children without a spouse or a partner, or a parent dies, the majority of single-parent families occur because of a breakdown in the relationship between the parents.

It is meaningless to look at the relationship between single-parent families and the criminality or promiscuity of young adults in isolation and to infer a causal relationship. Similarly, it should not be assumed that “traditional” marriage is the cause of emotionally well-adjusted children.

Bernardi continues, citing various statistics on social issues and family structure and concludes: “Science itself supports the contention that traditional marriage provides the best environment in which a functional citizenry of the future can be mentored”.

I do not believe that Bernardi has demonstrated he has the expertise to review and report on the available data or to draw such a conclusion.

Bernardi moves to a discussion of the “distinct but complementary roles” each gender contributes in providing a child with an understanding of themselves and others.

Having associated step-families with negative social outcomes as he did with single-parent families, Bernardi moves to counter the argument that same-sex couples can provide both gender role models from their wider families and friends.

He begins by quoting the words of a homosexual man who expressed his personal decision not to have children because he could not provide them with a mother.

No indication was given as to whether the author of this decision was in a long-term relationship or what his wider family and friendship situation was.

Bernardi then refers, once again, to “the levels of criminality among boys and promiscuity among girls who are brought up in single parent families, more often than not headed by a single mother.”

It is not immediately clear how this reference has a bearing upon the discussion about same-sex parents and gender role substitutes. It would seem that Bernardi is saying that criminal boys and promiscuous girls must at some point have come into contact with people of the same gender as the missing parent, but since they still ended up being criminal or promiscuous, no-one other than a biological parent can successfully provide the gender role model.

Bernardi refers to a news article, which cited a comment by adolescence psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, in which he believes the declining number of male teachers has had an impact on how boys learn about masculinity.

The news article, not Michael Carr-Gregg, speculates whether there is a causal link between the lack of male teachers and the increase in youth violence. However, the journalist’s speculation is sufficient for Bernardi to conclude that: “Declining male teacher numbers can be linked to a rise in antisocial behavior” of boys and hence “one can scarcely overstate the catastrophic social cost of children being raised without fathers.”

Regardless of the validity or not of Bernardi’s conclusion, the lack of male teachers has not been linked to the apparent promiscuity in girls raised by single mothers or single fathers.

Bernardi sees the problems that apparently result from the lack of male teachers and absentee fathers can be redressed by a return to “traditional” marriage.

I am not sure how Bernardi can explain a greater adherence to the institution of marriage will result in an increase in the number of male teachers. Perhaps too, there are other avenues that could be explored in relation to the obligations of an absentee father rather than advising he remain married when clearly there was a reason why his marriage ended.

Throughout the chapter, Bernardi has continued to place responsibility for all social problems firmly at the doorstep of “leftist ideologues” and their “anything goes family agenda.”

Bernardi goes further and claims that these “leftist ideologues” have custom-made government programs “designed to supplant the traditional family responsibilities [which consequently] have also undermined the family structure”. Bernardi directs his attack at government welfare programs and claims that to provide even well-meaning support to families in need relegates responsibility away from the parents.

“If government is prepared to reduce the instance of hardship associated with family breakdown, then less importance is place on maintaining a relationship by those involved in it,” he writes.

Bernardi is advocating that government policy should not provide welfare if the welfare is required as a consequence of a marriage collapse. Even programs designed to support children serve only to allow the child’s parents to abdicate their responsibilities and take advantage of the state.

He cites the ‘school breakfast program’ as a case in point. I can only assume the logic here is: if children’s welfare is not supported by government programs, the parents will have to look after their children’s welfare and consequently will think twice before they decide to succumb to a breakdown in their marriage.

Of course if they stay married they will love each other, it will cost the taxpayer’s less and all will be right with them and the future of our society.

I am not sure what Bernardi proposes for the hungry child whose world turns out to be not so rosy!