‘Family values’ is comfortable slogan that denies reality

I must confess that I lose patience with groups who try to cure ills in life and in movies with holl

I must confess that I lose patience with groups who try to cure ills in life and in movies with hollow slogans. I lose patience with those who utter or give credence to clever, nice-sounding ideas or concepts while patting themselves on the back for residing on the side of the angels. I am especially wary when the attempt is to camouflage larger issues through verbal manipulation.

“No Child Left Behind” comes to mind. So does the famous (or infamous) Nancy Reagan plea to “Just say no” to drugs. Those kinds of slogans only serve to remind us that in times of crisis, empty words replace or obfuscate real panaceas, most of which take millions that an administration is not willing to spend.

How easy it is, for instance, to declare new test standards. How much more difficult to demand that by 2010 no class in American schools shall hold more than 20 students. Or that all secondary school teachers have advanced degrees in their subject matter.

Sometimes simple, pleasant-sounding slogans sound so much more humane, so much more benevolent than a truthful utterance when they are, in essence, empty.

Take that beautiful concept politicians and two-penny moralists refer to as “family values.” Declare this virtue from the pulpit or from the podium and you can at once envision the masses joyfully clasping their hands, as they bow compliantly to the call of Rockwellesque harmony. Listen to chirping birds, hark to the Polaroid smiles glittering and sparkling around the dining room table where Ma, Pa, Sis and Bro pass the potatoes and dumplings.

Famous line

Contrast this “family value” sentiment to the first line of what many, even Oprah, acknowledge to be one of the greatest novels ever written:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It’s from “Anna Karenina,” and I dare say, it’s a line quoted at least as much as “family values.” Read and ponder the narrator’s first line in Tolstoy’s novel, and the implication is clear. Happy families either do not exist or they are boring. Unhappy families are all unique. They are also the norm.

Alas, in America, where we are by nature committed to a standard of artificial cheerfulness, we bring down so much pain on ourselves by assuming that the family across the street or in the Disney movie is so gosh-darn happy, while we suffer with an unpleasant secret. (As a kid, I thought all normal American families resembled the one headed by Robert Young in “Father Knows Best.”)

Please do not misunderstand my intent here. “Family” is a beautiful thing. I love my family and without the aid of rose-colored glasses, I can say we share a deep sense of that love. But to say we have been without conflict or an occasional crisis is to present you with a lie.

Familiar crises

If we think about our own families and others we know, it does not take long to acknowledge or recall a serious problem:

A divorce, an affair, an addiction problem, a break caused by jealousy, money or in-laws.

Those inevitable conflicts between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters which often arise during a child’s adolescence.

Those hurts inflicted not so much by lack of love but by a parent’s carelessness.

The failure to show up at a school play because of imagined stress at work.

The unfair demands placed by a “loving” father on his son.

A husband’s refusal to stick up for his wife when she has been maligned in some way by his mother.

The problems that arise when a family member announces he or she is gay.

Dear reader, I know you can add to the list, substantiating the notion that “every family is unhappy in its own way,” even as within the unit, we all strive for and need constant, loving harmony. That even if we are lucky enough to feel and share love, there is always some kind of impediment that creates a nasty moment which may fester for a week or months, during which time we intentionally fail to make contact.

We also know deep down that if anyone informs us that they are members of “an eternally happy family” that they are either lying, delusional or eternally boring. We may also sense that people who demand movies promoting family values often talk in platitudes; that more often than not, they want entertainment that preaches rather than reflects human behavior. That does not mean I am averse to movies that uphold or promote positive virtues we all admire and strive for. I choke up as much as the next guy in the presence of positive sentiments as they are presented in movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Inevitable conflict

But as thousands of family dramas reveal, one other constant family value is conflict that stems from unhappiness. Or to put it another way: the collision of love with inevitable disillusionment.

The bumper sticker “Hate Is Not a Family Value” may be stating a universal ideal, but it is not a family reality. Indeed, temporary hate is quite a common emotion in many families, and I hasten to add that there are countless situations in which “hate” is a necessary path to a deeper, more lasting, and more valuable kind of love.

The next time you hear a preacher or politician extol family values, you may want to cast a weary and wary eye in his direction. Too often, the words are as hollow-sounding as they are manipulative.

Categories: Life and Arts

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