For Moral Ambiguity: National Culture and the Politics of the Family

For Moral Ambiguity: National Culture and the Politics of the Family

For Moral Ambiguity: National Culture and the Politics of the Family

For Moral Ambiguity: National Culture and the Politics of the Family

Excerpt

Under the banner of “family values,” a discursive campaign, in the form of a diverse set of closely associated conservative reactions, is being waged. At stake is control over contemporary national culture and the consciousness of succeeding generations. Articulated in political speeches by public personae as well as in trade and academic publications, the family values discourse is aimed at redeeming an imagined past and colonizing the present and future. The aim, specifically, is to install a commitment to the moral and political importance of the traditional family, a regulative ideal that is represented as both contractual and natural: It is centered in a legally and religiously sanctioned marriage; it is heterosexual; it is child-oriented; and, especially in recent decades, it is threatened by non-”family friendly” media representations of extrafamilial attachments, sexualities, and life styles. In pursuit of that aim, many contemporary neoconservatives are judging ideas, artistic genres, and institutions on the basis of a moral imaginary—a mapping of diverse conventions with respect to both family and civic relations within the assumption that those employed by some are more morally worthy than those of others. Indeed, rather than regarding the norms they approve as “conventions,” neoconservatives tend to regard them as “virtues,” as commitments that enjoy transhistorical validity.

In contrast with moralization (and thus dehistoricization) of particular practices and commitments, C. Wright Mills recognized, in a meditation on the history of the judgments applied to motives before the midtwentieth century, that the warrants for motive attribution are historically contingent. Wryly observing that the desire to do evil had seemingly disappeared, he provided a sketchy genealogy of discourses of motive: “Individualistic, sexual, hedonistic and pecuniary vocabularies of motives . . .

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