Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family
Al and Tipper Gore
Henry Holt, 2002, 417 pages
The family, writes scholar James Q. Wilson, is the foundation of public life. As that foundation weakens, so does every structure built upon it. When the cultural framework sags, the foundation must be strengthened.
Wilson says that a family is the community formed by a monogamous, heterosexual union. Traditional marriage satisfies economic, biological, and social needs in ways that other relationships cannot. The traditional family is the safest place to raise children.
Not true argue Al and Tipper Gore in their recently publish book "Joined at the Heart." "There are all kinds of families - and no one has the right to tell you that yours isn't the right kind." It's one of the very few statements that reveal the premise hidden in this ostensibly pro-family book.
Gore seeks to deconstruct, diminish, and privatize traditional marriage. Families should no longer be constituted by "blood relationship," but by "people who love and care about each other, regardless of blood relation or marital status." Family is created whenever domestic partners are "joined at the heart." It doesn't matter if the couple is heterosexual or homosexual. Society should recognize these domestic partnerships by affirming them as legal marriages.
Gore's premise arises from the real and necessary arrangements that people make as traditional marriages continue to break down. An unconventional family is better than none at all, and even those who fight against the deconstruction of traditional marriage understand that the broken family needs stability and support. This includes everything from material help for single mothers, to eradicating predatory crime especially in poorer neighborhoods, to reconstructing our failing schools, to name some.
Yet Gore offers no real ideas on how to strengthen either the conventional or non-conventional family. Rather, Gore paints the decline in unduly optimistic terms that people with first-hand experience of these hardships might find hard to swallow. "[What] sometimes…seems to be disintegration is really the chaotic start of a new form or phenomenon," writes Gore. Really? What "form" would that be? Gore never says.
"Joined at the Heart" is chock full of anecdotes that are supposed to do the heavy lifting, not by any appeal to facts but by pulling on the heartstrings. Here is where Gore's optimism spreads like an oil slick. Every anecdote has the adequate happy ending. Happy endings ostensibly prove that because people move from breakdown into unconventional but more stable arrangements, traditional marriage is obsolete.
But real life doesn't work this way. Wilson writes that children from traditional families consistently outperform children from broken homes. They have a stronger start in life. Linda Waite and Maggie Ghallagher write that marriage is a contract like no other. Marriage makes you better off because marriage makes you important to someone. When you are married you not only know that someone loves you, but they need and depend on you too. Marriage is something worth saving.
Domestic partnerships are no substitute for traditional marriage, even if some of the marriages break down. Nor is the defense of traditional marriage an indictment of people in broken families. But it's foolish to argue that the deconstruction of traditional marriage will lead to stronger families. Sanctioning inherently unstable partnerships, despite some notable exceptions, can only lead to greater social instability.
Gore's thinking is also contradictory. Gore claims that the received tradition is no longer relevant, yet he implicitly invokes the tradition whenever he argues for the social legitimacy of domestic partnerships. In other words, by claiming that the non-traditional unions are morally legitimate because they replicate traditional unions, he implicitly affirms the authority of the tradition even as he argues that it should be jettisoned.
This contradiction blinds Gore to the inevitable consequences of his own ideas. If society throws out traditional marriage, it also throws out the standard by which a union can be deemed illegitimate. If "joined at the heart" becomes the moral criterion for legal marriage, not only must society sanction homosexual partnerships (the obvious first step and one which Gore affirms in the anecdotes), but every other partnership that lurks behind it such as polygamy, or adult-child sexual relationships.
Gore really believes that by recasting unstable relationships as stable, order will emerge out of the disorder of marriage breakdown. But merely claiming the patient is well doesn't heal his illness. Society needs more than the shallow relativism that Gore offers here.
Why did Gore write the book? Gore is positioning himself as a pro-family candidate. His stories include couples who are homosexual, Hispanic, senior, black (two included for good measure), and white (with handicapped child), all who constitute distinct "families" - and all part of the Democratic party base. Al and Tipper present themselves as the example of the traditional family - clearly an appeal to the more "moderate" middle.
In the end "Joined at the Heart" is vintage Gore. He waits to see which team makes the first touchdown, then argues that because he understands the game better than anyone else, he should quarterback the second half. But it's clear that Gore doesn't understand much at all. This is a book better left on the shelf. Most Americans seem to agree.