The front page link to a column by political reporter Melinda Henneberger asks the question, "Do 'family values' still matter?". The title of the piece, appearing in today's on-line edition of The Washington Post is declarative rather than interrogative, yet amounts to the same thing: "‘Family values’ still matter — when it’s the other party’s indiscretions".
I've been actively and intently following American politics for over a quarter century, and of all the meaningless phrases tossed about, this more than any other makes me want to scream. Never defined, beyond vague pledges of fealty to fidelity and what some consider "traditions" related to the institution - with which no one, of whom I'm aware, would argue - the phrase was once repeated so often that I began to wonder if I was the one who was dim. After all, shouldn't a phrase that is on so many lips, a critical attack upon one's political opponents, be clear as day?
Obviously, the phrase is meaningless. It is employed for no reason than to contrast the alleged moral failings of one's political opponents. After all, if they neither practice nor support "family values", they are not to be trusted with political power.
Setting to one side the definition of "family", I think "value" should be examined a bit. "Value" is a word that is relational. We only know what we value when we compare it to other things we value either more or less. Whether these things are moral precepts and ethical perspectives, material goods and services provided in economic exchange, or persons in our lives, what makes them valuable is their relationship to things we value, only in different measure. Being a capitalist society, value becomes a word that, for better or worse, reduces everything to market exchange. The attitude is best summed up by a maxim I learned my freshman year in college: "Money talks. Bullshit walks." The totalitarianism of the market pushes out every other standard of the reckoning of value save the dollar value. If it doesn't have a price tag, it's worthless.
Our current disgusting political rhetoric certainly bears this out. Every discussion of the role and scope of the state in society comes down to the simple matter of cost. You want a social safety net? How much are you willing to spend? You want the largest military in the history of the planet? Pony up the pennies. A moon base? Good deal! Who pays for it?
If the argument concerning "family values" concerns itself with matters upon which no price can be set, then we run in to a problem. If fidelity is a value, yet can reckon no cost one way or another, then how can it be valued? Of course, as many a divorced man can attest, the price of adultery can, indeed, have a hefty price tag. Alimony and child support can be costly. Yet, if we reduce the matter of attentiveness to our marital responsibility to the monetary penalty levied for breaching that part of the marital contract, what, precisely, are we saying about this particular "value"? That it is only worth what the parties are willing or unwilling to risk having to pay should it be set to one side?
As regards Henneberger's column itself, she seems to be rehashing the now well-worn notion that much of the political rhetoric around "family values" is hypocritical and partisan. The examples she cites - the dueling indiscretions of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton - demonstrate the emptiness of the moral posturing on all sides.* This may well demonstrate, even more than any detailed deconstruction of the phrase "family values" could ever do, its meaninglessness. I would heartily beg anyone who might care to please please please stop using this phrase.
*I will admit to taking some pokes at Newt's serial adultery. By and large this is because I remember all too well his singular role in the hunting of Pres. Clinton in the 1990's. I didn't care about Clinton's blow job and I don't care about what Charlie Pierce calls Gingrich's staff-banging. Is that because I don't care about matters of fidelity in marriage? I don't care about the many ways men have abused power over women, exploiting them as sexual objects to satisfy their own desires? If anyone believes either that I am insouciant about fidelity or about male dominance and the dehumanization of women, they need to read this blog from start to finish. I don't care about these matters as they relate to how I evaluate the fitness or lack of fitness any particular individual demonstrates to hold public office. It's that simple. Short version - I couldn't care less.