Sunday, June 16, 2013

To My Father--and fathers everywhere

Happy Fathers' Day!
Today brings two significant occasions: Fathers’ Day and the first anniversary of this blog’s creation. While both occasions deserve celebration, more celebrate the former, so let us focus on it.

Since 1942, the National Fathers’ Day Council has annually named several men as “Father of the Year.” The recipients are supposed to be “contemporary lifestyle leaders of our culture whose lives are dedicated to family, citizenship, charity, civility, responsibility and reverence,” according to the council’s website. Past winners include Douglas MacArthur, Andy Griffith, Billy Graham, and General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. This year, another esteemed name joins their ranks: former President William Jefferson Clinton.

About this decision, and the man himself, more later. For now, it is enough to say that Bill Clinton’s presidency generated some of my earliest political memories. And the most salient of those was, unsurprisingly, a disapproval of our nation’s 42nd president that I could hardly explain at the time. All I really remember about its cause was that my dad, the Elder Son, did not like him. Indeed, he had a sign of some kind in his work office that said something to the effect of “Bill Clinton-criminal.”

All of this is to say that my father undoubtedly was a profound factor in the development of my political views growing up—what political scientists call “political socialization.” Much has changed in the years since Clinton occupied the Oval Office: My father and I have both aged, and now another Democrat holds the White House. But one thing remains constant: My father and I continue to discuss politics regularly. Thanks to the views he imbued in me and the environment in which he raised me, my views closely mirror his own, but (I like to think) with a degree of thoughtfulness and subtlety that suggests genuine independence. Still, I would not hold the beliefs I do today about politics today without his influence, and for that I owe him many thanks.

 But that is hardly the only thing for which I owe him. My father also instilled in me an appreciation for history—that is, how certain trends and people emerged, what influence they had, what cause generated which effect, and vice versa. From his influence, I became conscious of the fact that, no, history did not begin the day I was born; rather, thousands of years of human interactions preceded my own birth. Our mutual fascination with “what if” scenarios, of which all of the past is replete, relates to this. 

In addition to sharing a love of all of history, my father gave me a particularly acute taste for the history and the culture of our own lifetimes. We like many of the same movies—Apocalypse Now, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Braveheart, The Matrix—and much of the same music—The Beatles, The Who, Emerson, Lake & Palmer—and for many of the same reasons. Without my father’s influence, much, possibly all, of this cultural heritage would be foreign to me; I would never have enjoyed “Silly Love Songs” on drives to and from Dayton, nor would I have found it weird that, for three of the past four years, 92.5 “the FOX” has played this song on the day after the OHSAA cross country meet between 4 and 4:30 p.m. 

Though we share a love of music without either of us having much talent in it (though he could tell you an interesting story of how he almost learned how to play guitar), we do both possess another gift: running. In his day, my father was an excellent runner: 15:15 5k, 25:00 5-miler, and what should have been a marathon time in the low 2:30s or high 2:20s (if not for an overly fast first half). I have both his genes to thank for my own running talents, and his constant encouragement, coaching, and advice over the years to thank for any successes I have had or will have in the future. In all my races, workouts, and runs, he is the man I'm ultimately chasing. Someday, I hope to catch him.

Supposedly, we're related.
Many other specific reasons exist for why I am thankful for my father; I would never finish this post if I were to list them all. But, generally speaking, I am simply glad that I have him. Our relationship has not been completely perfect—what human son’s relation to his father is?—but I have benefited indisputably from his stable presence in my life.

Sadly, more and more children grow up today without such a presence. As W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, explains at National Review Online:
In our public conversation about how best to accommodate today’s family diversity, what usually goes unsaid is that fewer marriages also means fewer fathers in our nation’s homes.

That is because marriage is the institution that binds men to their children. There is no substitute. Cohabiting couples with children are much more likely to end up on the rocks than their married peers (even in Sweden). Divorced and never-married fathers often have difficulty getting or making the time to stay in regular contact with their children once the relationship with the mother of their child is over. By contrast, fathers who are married to the mother of their children are much more likely to enjoy the day-in-day-out relationships with their children that enable them to give their kids the attention, discipline, and affection they need to thrive.
Recent trends away from fatherhood’s importance suggest, even if only slightly, a regression toward the state of nature. For as Daphne Fairbairn notes in the Wall Street Journal this weekend:
…human dads are unusual in their devotion to family, especially when compared with the rest of the animal kingdom. Though most bird fathers help care for their offspring, absentee dads are the rule in 90% of mammal species. Fatherly care is even less common in other animal groups…
Fairbairn goes on to say that most males in nature are smaller than females, and dedicate themselves almost entirely to mating, with many males of species other than human either castrated, dead, or both after reproduction. She concludes that
…human dads aren't required to sacrifice body parts, freedom or life itself to become fathers. Their extraordinary efforts come in the form of devotion to family. This makes them exceptional in the animal kingdom—and it is surely one of the keys to our unique success as a species.
Which brings us back to Bill Clinton. Whatever his virtues as president—and we think he had more than the Oval Office’s current occupant—Clinton’s private character hews closer to the primal than the civilizational. For this reason alone, naming him a “Father of the Year” becomes a dubious award. But Clinton, famous and rich as he is, can easily endure the strain of impropriety; his daughter does not seem to have suffered from it.

But the rest of the country does not earn $17 million in speeches a year. Rather, for the great mass of people, marriage has provided a wealth of social capital that has fostered social stability and economic prosperity. The growing commonality of Clinton-style behavior among social classes lacking his wealth or prestige threatens that unprecedented degree of societal cohesion—as does any sanctioning of such behavior, such as that provided by the award Clinton received this year (a far worthier recipient would have been President Obama, who by all appearances has a great marriage and is raising too beautiful daughters in difficult circumstances). Women know that men are not perfect, but that’s no excuse for letting them indulge their baser instincts.

On this Fathers’ Day, then, thank your father for everything he has done for you. But also hold fathers, and would-be fathers (for most men still claim to aspire to it), across the country to the higher standard that has made not only society as we know it possible, but also perhaps civilization itself. To lose that would truly be a shame.

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