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Bugpod Clans Won’t Replace the Family

1,422 words

Sleeping area of a PodShare co-living space.

Right-wing Twitter fumed earlier this week over the provocatively-titled essay “The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake [1].”

The Atlantic essay, written by New York Times columnist David Brooks, wasn’t necessarily an attack on traditional families. But that didn’t stop the deluge of anger that Brooks would dare slander the family. Brooks’s argument was less an attack on the nuclear family and more of a call for the extended kin group to return. People are too atomized and lack the necessary resources to raise many kids; Brooks argues big kin groups, which support its members and create a real flesh-and-blood community, are the answer; even if they are only based on choice, not blood. The nuclear family can no longer do this with two income earners and the death of the neighborhood community.

His model is actually more traditional than the nuclear family — but he doesn’t advocate for a return to tradition. His 21st-century clan would force Americans into amorphous, multicultural arrangements. Kinship and similarity are deemphasized and difference is celebrated. Clans encouraged homogeneity and made its members feel like they were around people like themselves. Brooks’s clans are just liberal fantasies.

The New York Times columnist is an Obama-worshipping neocon. He champions a return to traditional families, even though he left his wife a for his much younger assistant [2]. Brooks was born and raised in the U.S., but his son served in the Israeli army [3]. Needless to say, it’s worth taking his advice and analysis with a hefty grain of Dead Sea salt, though he is accurate when he analyzes the collapse of the family:

We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

He attributes these dramatic changes to a convergence of cultural, economic, and institutional causes. The nuclear family’s predominance — one husband, one wife, 2.5 kids — was entirely a result of the unique conditions that arose in the 1950s. People were able to find replacement kin groups through active church membership, closely-knit neighborhoods, and civic associations. The wife was also able to devote her time to raising kids because her husband earned enough to provide for an entire family. He is critical of this latter aspect because it restricted women’s freedom. (Oh no!)

All of these factors are long gone, and now only the wealthy can maintain the ideal nuclear family. Our society no longer supports rooted communities, no matter how much people desire them:

Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible. We’ve seen the wreckage left behind by the collapse of the detached nuclear family. We’ve seen the rise of opioid addiction, of suicide, of depression, of inequality — all products, in part, of a family structure that is too fragile, and a society that is too detached, disconnected, and distrustful. And yet we can’t quite return to a more collective world.

The one exception is immigrant communities, but children from these backgrounds quickly assimilate to America’s atomization. Brooks notes that new arrivals often complain of loneliness in the country, leading one to ask why they didn’t stay at home.

Government policy over the last 50 years was designed to reverse the decline of this family structure, but it failed miserably. Brooks suggests a better alternative is the extended kin model. This suggestion does not require one to reconnect with your actual kin. In Brooks’s vision, you can pick your extended family — and the more diverse it is, the better. He claims that ancient clans and kin groups were usually unrelated and not based on shared blood. They were just random people who came together for protection and support: “We think of kin as those biologically related to us. But throughout most of human history, kinship was something you could create.”

He also negatively compares the “individualism” of European Protestant settlers to the tribalism of Amerindians, saying the newcomers were more likely to embrace the ways of the natives than the other way around. This is both wildly wrong and an obvious dig at the historic American people. Brooks insinuates America’s founding stock are also responsible for Ellis Islanders abandoning their extended kin models.

The idea that kinship can be created empowers Brooks to argue for multicultural clans. He touts urban hipsters starting trendy co-housing communities (a nicer way of saying bugpod) where random people can come together to pretend they’re family. He promotes his own projects to choose an extended family with his “Weave” initiative and by hosting dinners for inner-city youth. “The experience has convinced me that everybody should have membership in a forged family with people completely unlike themselves,” he says.

He omits his abandonment of his own nuclear family.

While the article is accurate as to the family’s cause of decline, Brooks’s solution is unrealistic and asinine. It asks us to move into BugPods and pretend our fellow pod dwellers are family. The pod dwellers will share nothing in common besides a cramped living space, but, somehow, kinship will be created! Trust David Brooks’s plan.

This is civic nationalism on soy.

Brooks particularly likes how these new kinship groups dispense with the reactionary traits of clans. Gender equality and inclusivity are the norms in the groups. But to have a successful kin group, the reactionary traits must be present. If everyone can join your group, then what makes it special? Clans were defined by their exclusivity and hostility to outsiders. It’s how they survived and molded a group identity. It’s unclear how a bugpod will create a group identity that earns the loyalty of bugmen and women. Unlike real families, they can’t call upon blood to stick together. They can’t even call upon a shared faith or background. Only the shared living room connects them.

There’s also Brooks’ strange insistence on families embracing those who are completely different from themselves. Human nature dictates us to find those who are similar and see them as our own kind. A random black kid eating Pizza Hut with your family isn’t going to elicit the same affection a nephew would. Men choose wives and friends based on commonalities, not on sharp differences. Differences lead to distrust and animosity. Integrated schools didn’t turn into loving communities for good reason. The old ethnic enclaves that Brooks longs for cannot be replicated with urban professionals and inner-city youth. An exclusionist culture that upholds reactionary norms is essential for these kin networks to survive.

Brooks desires for the new America to take on the good aspects of the old America. Last July, he argued for a “conservative way to embrace pluralism and diversity.” “We can communicate across difference; the American creed is the right recipe for a thick and respectful pluralism; American structures are basically sound and can be realistically reformed,” he wrote in a New York Times column. This “conservative” multiculturalism would supposedly triumph over the Left’s toxic multiculturalism. Only a fool like Brooks would believe that.

Brooks occasionally admits that contemporary America is riven with tensions and pathologies that threaten to turn us into a dystopia. Yet, he always believes that new Americans can imitate old Americans and uphold our national greatness. His July column understood that demographics will doom the GOP — yet he thinks this just means there needs to be a “conservative” multiculturalism. America’s anomie and economy threaten to destroy the family — yet he thinks we just need to form kin groups with our fellow bugmen. Brooks believes all our issues can be solved if we double down on liberalism and diversity. He is a true conservative: He wants to preserve the status quo at all costs, and refuses to countenance any solutions that may threaten his own respectability.

The family will only come back when freedom of association is respected and homogenous communities are restored. You can’t build a clan out of diversity and shared bunk beds.