Magazine article The American Conservative

Four Men and No Babies: Is "Fortress Astoria" the End of the Family?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Four Men and No Babies: Is "Fortress Astoria" the End of the Family?

Article excerpt

In a large Queens apartment its inhabitants have dubbed "Fortress Astoria," four middle-aged bachelors are making a what-me-worry? last stand against marriage and the conventional trappings of manhood.

The men, all college buddies, all heterosexual, have been living together since their university days. According to a recent profile in The New York Times, they choose to live together be cause they enjoy each other's company and because doing so makes it ffinancially viable for each to pursue his artistic calling.

Now, as the "man-children" (as one calls himself and his housemates) approach 40, without wives and children, without a steady career path, and without savings in the bank, are they rethinking their choices? No.

"The freedom this has allowed me to have--to figure out my own quirks and foibles--has been much more important than investing in things that might have tied me down to something that would have kept me from figuring those other things out," says one.

"I think the secret to our success is that we don't think too much about the future," says another. "We live together because we live together. That is all."

It's hard to get too upset about the Fortress Astorians. They all seem like nice guys who pay their bills with money earned from respectable jobs. Besides, not everybody is cut out for marriage and family life. If these fellows have found a way to support themselves and do happy, productive work, what's the big deal? It's not the end of the world, is it?

Well, it might be. The Fortress Astoria man-children, says the Times, are part of a growing trend in American life, in which traditional family structures and patterns break down and are replaced by "fluid networks and bonds not dependent on blood ties." In Fortress Astoria, the dudes have no sense of mission in life beyond making themselves happy in the moment, which requires keeping their options open--with jobs and with their girlfriends.

What becomes of a society that considers marriage and family to be only one choice among many, with no expectation that one ought to commit to one over another? Readers of the sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman know the answer: it may well disappear.

In his unjustly neglected 1947 work of sociological history, Family and Civilization, republished by ISI Books in 2008, the late Harvard social scientist tracked developments in family formation in three great civilizations: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the modern West. It is always a mistake to blame a civilization's decline on a single cause, but Zimmerman makes the case that the fall of both ancient civilizations had much to do with the long, slow collapse of family life--a collapse that was already well underway in the West at the time of Zimmerman's writing.

It is impossible to do justice to Zimmerman's argument here, but the gist of it is this: when a civilization quits believing in familism--the conviction that a key purpose of society is to support and advance the family--it falls apart. And when people think of marriage and family as a choice, not as an obligation or (less onerously) simply something one does, it becomes hard to stop the unraveling.

"Familism has to be motivated by the acceptance of ideals of behavior based upon a way of life and not upon the usual systems of rewards and punishment in nonfamily society," Zimmerman writes (emphasis in the original). …

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