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establishment of the People's Democratic Republic in China in the late 1940's, the Chinese Communist Party actively re-engineered society to curb birthrates and bring the country's population down to manageable levels. Part of this idea was a process that would re-imagine the family, a concept first found in the work of Plato. However, this invention of an 'ideal family' as being a paradigmatic national goal of social reformers that has its origins in British Malthusianism and gave birth to the practice of eugenics in the United States. It complemented a long tradition of periodic moral reforms and religious revivals that have existed in the United States since the Great Awakening.
The modern American concept of 'family values' owes its existence to the progressives of the late 19th century, whose principal manifestation was in organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Society for the Prevention of Vice. The first of these groups was responsible for making alcohol and prostitution criminal offences. The second was a vigilante organization whose ideas were institutionalized by the national government and formed a large part of the basis for modern censorship.
In the city of New York in the 1800's, the municipal government had periodically tried to ban prostitution, but was never powerful enough to vanquish it. Various medical practitioners had pushed for legalization so as to be able to identify and treat sexually transmitted diseases, which were seen as its most dangerous side-effect. However, in the 1880's, Anthony Comstock became the charismatic leader of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. His group would raid brothels and burlesque shows, smashing furniture and demanding that the occupants be arrested. The mayor of New York deputized Comstock and his volunteers in a political move designed to appease the nascent Christian middle class, who turned to vice as a new shibboleth after the abolition of slavery made their role as abolitionists obsolete. Their organization became legend, and the United States Congress made Comstock a postal inspector so that he might eliminate the transmission of pornographic materials through the mail. This practice lasted well into the 20th century.
The first perceived 'threat' to the American family came in the form of a hoax in 1863 when a Democrat posing as a Republican created a false threat of intermarriage between blacks and whites that he called "miscegenation." This pamphlet cost a quarter and was titled "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro." The author claimed that if races intermarried, their progeny could come to possess the favorable physical and personal traits of each race. The pamphlet went on to win the endorsement of several prominent Republican and abolitionist leaders. It polarized abolitionist egalitarian-minded Republicans from the electorate and provoked a wide-scale scare that Republicans wished to destroy the white race alongside the institution of slavery. Democratic opponents to miscegenation presented the alternate hypothesis that it was the natural order for black people to be subject to white people.
It was partly due to sensitivity about miscegenation that lead states to start enforcing miscegenation laws in the early 1900's. This was complemented by the movement for Eugenics; the purification of the human race through selective breeding. Margaret Sanger, an early champion of birth control and the founder of Planned Parenthood, was one of the key proponents of the early eugenics movement. Although some of Sanger's ideas were intuitive, such as her promotion of the use of condoms and other forms of birth control, she also wanted to promote the creation of 'ideal' families through the active management of society.
The word 'eugenics' can be used to describe China's one-child policy, as it is an active attempt to change the nature of the Chinese family through government incentives. It shares the positive characteristics of American eugenics: if people have a natural predilection to produce children as long as they are economically capable, they will produce children to the perceived point of subsistence. In Africa and rural India, this is the case because children are seen as a sign of prosperity. Like all totalitarian initiatives, it is predicated on the notion that the government is a better arbiter of proper conduct than the individual.
The discipline of eugenics can be split into two categories: "positive" eugenics, which entails promoting white middle and upper-class people to breed, and "negative" eugenics, which sought to limit the reproduction of those considered unfit: non-white races, the mentally feeble, and the poor. Starting in around 1907, states began to pass anti-miscegenation legislation, in addition to ones that promoted compulsory sterilization, marriage licensing, and institutionalization. Other anti-miscegenation laws that had been passed during colonial days were revived and carried the full weight of the law. Over thirty states were pursuing policies that attempted to actively limit the sexual reproduction of non-whites, which included involuntary sterilization. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that a ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. The law was overturned there and in 15 other states (14 had already repealed similar laws). A dozen other states had the ban on interracial marriages on their books into the 1970s, though the laws were legally unenforceable.
After the world witnessed the horrors of Nazi Germany, the pseudo-science of eugenics began to give way to a more modern manifestation of Comstockery that was promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission. This replaced the active policy of selective breeding with a more passive policy of influencing American behavior through radio and television. It was believed in the 50's, as the eugenics movement was dying, that Communists had tried to exert an active influence in American culture so as to promote world socialist revolution. Although this was understandable given the popularity of communism in Hollywood during the 30's in response to the rise in Nazism in Europe, its effect was to cauterize the American right against rock n' roll, pictures of married people sleeping in the same bed on television, and other perceived vices. Fortunately, the courts overturned Comstockery, and since the 60's have used the first amendment to the constitution to strike down other attempts at moral prohibition. Most modern attempts to 'socially engineer' a perfect family in America since the 70's have been passive: the 401k, income tax deductions for children, Stafford loans, and the like.
The 'ideal' family was a manifestation of the "American Dream"; that of a two-parent family living in a house with two or three children that eventually attended college. In many respects, this family structure is not a-typical among Americans. Perceived threats to this family structure included pregnancy, drugs, and ideologies other than Christianity. However, social imperatives are typically stronger in Asian families than in white American families; Asian-American families are often marked by a compulsion to see the family succeed that results in Asian children often excelling in school.
I believe that the ideal family is an aesthetic maintained by a group of people that relies on symbolic representations of value to maintain a sense of stability. The quality of life in the United States has improved markedly in the 20th century, but the people in our society have been able to audit new ideas for merit effectively enough so that new manifestations of American life, such as consumerism and racial equality, complement old ones. When immigrants come to the United States, we see them rapidly assimilate to our culture because it is predicated on rational principles rather than a blind faith in culturally specific modes of conduct. In that such modes of conduct are particular to the United States, there is a simple logic to them that underscores dogmatic tradition. According to David Hume and others, it isn't tradition that renders the two-parent household superior to the one-parent household, but economics. America started out…[continue]
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