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Commentary Last Updated: Aug 3rd, 2006 - 22:28:40

American family
By Michael Hasty
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 4, 2006, 00:03

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One of the unique qualities of Americans is that, being a nation of immigrants, we bring a mixed ancestry to our sense of nationhood. Most humans base their understanding of their nations on their perception of their families and ancestors. The word �patriotism� stems from the Latin word for �father�: pater. The patria is the �fatherland.�

But even though people all over the world see their respective nations as families, what makes America unique is that the �family� we perceive America to be is something that we collectively create, rather than something we inherit from our genes.

The linguist and communications scholar, George Lakoff, wrote about Americans� perception of our nation as a family in his 1996 book, �Moral Politics.� He attributes the current divide between conservatives and liberals in American politics, and their predictable consistency in their opinions on various issues, to their different models of the family.

The conservative model of the family is what Lakoff calls the �Strict Father� model. In this model, the father is the leader of the family, enforces his will with strict discipline, and considers it his highest duty in life to protect his family, with arms if necessary.

Lakoff calls the liberal model of the family the �Nurturing Parent� model. In contrast to the Strict Father, the NP looks on the rest of the family as equal human beings, with equal rights to respect and personal autonomy. Child rearing is practiced more as guidance than as coercion, and problems are solved by seeking consensus among the affected parties.

Being the eldest of 12 children, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to see both models of the family at work, and to see how both models can interact within the larger family in a beneficial way. It is a process that our polarized national political system desperately needs.

There is a growing consensus among political scientists that our nation is more divided now than at any point since the Civil War. When I�m feeling optimistic, I view this historical moment as something akin to the biological process of mitosis, where the chromosomes in a cell divide into two and separate, in order to grow a new cell. America could be having growing pains.

On the other hand, it�s also possible that America could break apart, or surrender its liberty for a false sense of security, and that the present moment is a prelude to something terrible: fascism at one end, or chaos at the other.

It is the choices we make along the way that will determine our final destination.

Last week, my family had its annual reunion at the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina. We�ve been doing this for more than a quarter century. I now have over 30 nieces and nephews, and some of them have kids of their own, so we always have a big crowd.

We rent a bunch of cottages in the immediate vicinity of each other, and create our own little village for the week. With my brothers and nephews fishing in the ocean each morning, it�s easy to pretend that we�re prehistoric hunter-gatherers -- who only had to labor 20 hours a week to meet their needs. We play music together and do family sing-alongs, instilling in our youngest nieces and nephews the deepest rituals of our middle-class tribal culture.

We feel very blessed to have the experience of singing together as a family, a phenomenon becoming increasingly rare in America. It is pure joy to watch the latest generations carrying on our family musical traditions, which date back to ancient Scotland, where my family served as the pipers in the Graham clan. (My preteen nephews have a band together, called Mibz, and post videos of their performances on their website.)

Being a pseudo-village, we have village/family politics, which includes both the traditional gender roles and their associated activities, and the inevitable tensions and dynamics that naturally occur within a growing family. Any arguments are usually quickly settled, because we all share the sentiment that the welfare and well-being of the family take precedence over our individual interests or desires.

Two of my brothers-in-law and I, being all about the same age, form a kind of council of male elders. There is also a council of female elders, but they have their own business that we try to stay out of, unless we�re dragged into it to perform some manual task. Just as in society at large, women are the organizers of our family social order.

What is unique about my relationship with these two brothers-in-law is that both of them were my friends before they met my sisters -- one was my roommate in the Air Force; the other was my co-worker at a California mental hospital -- and I in fact introduced them to their future wives.

Also, we were closer in our political beliefs when we were younger than we are today: I�m more radical, and they�re more conservative. One is a mining engineer and former CEO of a major coal company, and still an industry consultant. The other is a defense contractor, and a leader in his state Knights of Columbus organization. As you can imagine, our discussions about issues like global warming, defense spending and abortion are passionately and personally argued.

I don�t recall how we got there, but the topic we debated this year is perhaps the central issue in American politics, and the major sticking point in drafting the US Constitution: race. I took the position that paying reparations to the descendants of slaves would help remedy a historic injustice; they opposed reparations, though one took the middle ground of supporting affirmative action. The debate ended when we reached a point where we no longer agreed on the facts, which is a prerequisite for any argument based in logic, not emotion.

Our debate was a little edgier than usual this year because, earlier, I had launched a preemptive rhetorical strike on George W. Bush that hit home by going to the �character� issue, which is particularly important for conservative Catholics. I said the reason I would never support Bush is that, based on his childhood cruelty to animals (the only characteristic common to all serial killers); his compulsive arson until the age of 14; his habit, at the age of 16, of shooting his BB gun point blank at his younger brothers and sister; his public defense of using hot wire coat hangers as branding irons at his Yale fraternity; his record as Texas governor, where he oversaw more executions than any other governor in US history; his cruel public mockery of a woman he executed; his approval of torture in American prison camps; and his unrelenting lust for war, Bush gives every indication of being a dangerous psychopath, unfit for the presidency.

Following our discussion, and after we drank a toast to freedom of speech, we talked about the reactions of the group of young male relatives in their teens and early twenties who had been sitting there in silence, carefully watching our argument. We regretted that there are so few opportunities these days for young people to see a partisan political debate between people who actually respect each other.

Later, I couldn�t help but reflect on the sad contrast between my debate with my brothers-in-law, and a recent exchange of letters, including my own, in my local West Virginia newspaper, the Hampshire Review, where I was a columnist for seven years.

I wrote last month to challenge Review columnist Bob Flanagan�s opinion that the US should �stay the course� in Iraq, no matter how �wrong� or �deceitful� (his words) that course may be. Aside from defending the majority opinion among both the American and Iraqi publics -- that US troops should be withdrawn -- my principal reason for writing was to answer, in kind, Mr. Flanagan�s gratuitous personal attacks on Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

It�s probably safe to say that there are few people in Hampshire County who have been called more names in public than I have. Nevertheless, although the reactions to my letter in the paper�s letters column were about as expected, the disproportionate hostility in the response was not. The funny thing is, I know both of the people who responded, and both are too polite to ever say anything like that to me in person. But it reminded me of why I quit writing my Review column in 2003: it was the only option I had at that time to personally escape the relentless mutually-assured-destruction of our hyperpartisan age. I was sick of it.

Perhaps our degraded national dialogue is a symptom of imperial decline. Or perhaps we really are dividing into opposite poles as a necessary and organic prelude to becoming a stronger and more united nation, capable of transcending the deep divisions of both past and present. But if we keep forgetting that we are all, liberal and conservative, members of the same American family, and that we have common goals and purposes that are ultimately more important than our partisan differences, then American democracy � already in critical condition � will die.

We owe it to our ancestors, and to our descendants, to avoid that fate.

Michael Hasty is a former columnist at Online Journal. His writing has appeared in many periodicals and websites. He is currently in a group of plaintiffs suing the West Virginia Legislature for a referendum on changing their county government.

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