In a speech about urban gun violence, Obama targeted truant fathers for being the impetus in causing a raft of social problems, as Quayle proclaimed two decades ago. "There's no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood," Obama said to the applause of the predominantly young, black audience. If anyone knows what he meant, it was his audience, which has seen firsthand the ruination caused by absent fathers.
When Quayle did much the same, liberals and feminists vilified him for being "anti-woman" and other denunciations. Obama must have had that in mind when he continued: "Don't get me wrong — as the son of a single mom, who gave everything she had to raise me with the help of my grandparents, I turned out OK." Single moms, he said, are "heroic in what they're doing and we are so proud of them. But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved."
How interesting it was to watch some liberal MSNBC commentators after the president's speech sound as if Obama had gone over to the evil side by emphasizing how important the presence of a father is to deter violence, family instability and community disintegration. That liberals seemed startled by Obama's point only demonstrated how badly they are out of touch.
Back in 1992 and 1993, fatherhood was one of the culture war's biggest battles. Quayle had criticized a TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, for having a child out of wedlock. That was after media and liberals widely praised the TV character's courage and virtue, as if not having a father around didn't matter much at all.
But their rapture was popped by an even more daring woman, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, whose article in The Atlantic magazine ("Dan Quayle was right") assembled the overwhelming social science evidence in support of fatherhood.
She said: "No one would claim that two-parent families are free from conflict, violence or abuse. However, the attempt to discredit the two-parent family can be understood as part of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a prominent sociologist and later a Democratic U.S. senator) has described as a larger effort to accommodate higher levels of social deviance. " 'The amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can afford to recognize,' " Moynihan argues. One response has been to normalize what was once considered deviant behavior, such as out-of-wedlock birth. An accompanying response has been to detect deviance in what once stood as a social norm, such as the married-couple family. Together these responses reduce the acknowledged levels of deviance by eroding earlier distinctions between the normal and the deviant."
Moynihan, Whitehead and others were arguing that the components of culture, such as norms, values and language affect behavior, and that a culture that demeans the presence of fathers seeds social pathologies. Other studies confirmed that the link between fatherlessness and violence was not just correlative but causal. (Sadly, deniers of the evidence continue ad hominem attacks on their authors, insisting that the studies are ginned up by "fathers rights organizations ... to denigrate single and divorced mothers.")
Obama didn't claim (neither do I) that fatherlessness is the only cause of Chicago's high murder rate. "It is not just a gun issue," he said. He mentioned poverty, joblessness, failed schools and the convergence of other factors. Significantly, Obama said that while government can do some things to reduce the violence — e.g. encouraging marriage by removing financial disincentives for marriage and reforming child support laws to encourage stronger parenting by fathers — it can't do it alone. One hopes that Obama's emphasis on the critical importance of fatherhood finally signals the rejection of the far-left and extremist social agenda that has dominated the Democratic Party for too long.
More hopefully, it will signal a change in the culture that has led to the murderous conditions on the streets of Chicago.
View a transcript of President Obama's speech here.
This column first appeared in the Chicago Tribune