Makers of Depopulation Doc Have a Past

Last week The Boston Globe’s conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby discovered the recent “demographic winter” argument of the right-wing profamily movement, and dedicated two columns to promoting the depopulation threat as envisioned by the Utah-based Family First Foundation, makers of the documentary film, Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family (released this April after months of post-premiere editing). In Jacoby’s two pieces, “The Coming Population Bust” and “A World Without Children,” he unquestioningly adopts the premise of the Demographic Winter filmmakers: that humanity is teetering on the edge of vast depopulation because women have stopped having enough children.

As the number of women in the workforce has soared, many have delayed marriage and childbearing, or decided against them altogether. The Sexual Revolution, by making sex readily available without marriage, removed what for many men had been a powerful motive to marry. Skyrocketing rates of divorce have made women less likely to have as many children as in generations past. Years of indoctrination about the perils of “overpopulation” have led many couples to embrace childlessness as a virtue.

This paragraph on the culpability of the women’s movement and liberal attitudes towards sex is an important part of the columns to remember, though it’s the only mention Jacoby makes of the women he wants to start bearing more babies. I wrote about the topic in February for The Nation, and found that a fierce argument for a return to traditional gender roles and against reproductive and gay rights, as well as an “ecumenical” pronatalist religious orthodoxy, was the ideological center of the coalition behind Demographic Winter arguing against the “contraceptive mentality” as acceptance of birth control will lead to abortion; against gay marriage as separating marriage from procreation allows heterosexual couples to marry without intending to have children; and against women working as a critical interference with their “highest calling” as mothers. But that’s an argument that surfaces slowly, at least when the case is made to a mainstream audience rather than the profamily choir.

What’s left is a sea of “scientific” arguments, following the profamily movement’s express desire to craft a social science argument for the “natural family” principles they embrace for religious reasons: endless conservative studies on the social science impact of traditional patriarchal families on children; the harm divorce causes societies, etc.. In its latest incarnation, the doom that family planning and women’s equality spells for the world. Following their lead Jacoby’s interpretation of the demographic winter argument is also a mishmash of misapplied facts, delivered without the context that gives them a less sinister meaning, as when Jacoby writes that:

Even in the United States, where birth rates are still (barely) at replacement level, there are hints of the dislocations to come: In Pittsburgh, reports The New York Times, deaths now outnumber births and hospitals are closing obstetrics wards or converting them to acute care for the elderly.

In fact, as The New York Times wrote in the same piece, the phenomenon is less Children of Men than Roger & Me, with the closing of rustbelt factories as a prime cause of the flight of young families with children, while at the same time senior citizens started returning to Pittsburgh or other small metropolitan areas for their retirement.

In three other areas hurt by vanishing industry, Buffalo-Niagara Falls and Utica-Rome in upstate New York, and Duluth, Minn., deaths exceeded births in at least one year in this decade. …

“It was a very age-selective migration: young, working-age people took away their families and future families, leaving behind a population that aged in place,” he said.

While there certainly is truth the lower fertility rates that Demographic Winter describes, as The New York Times covered in depth this past weekend, there is also a very pointed agenda below what Jacoby calls the “compelling” documentary—the right-wing conception of family hierarchy, gender and individual rights mentioned above—as well as a coalition of supporters behind the documentary with a history of courting allies through coded racial arguments and covert appeals to nationalism. The profamily advocates who supported the film, and everyone on the board of directors for the Family First Foundation, are all tied through participation in the main conservative organ for advancing the depopulation argument, the World Congress of Families. The WCF, a meeting ground for all of America’s top Christian right organizations, as well as a wide range of international groups, has appealed to Europeans anxious not just about falling birthrates, but also about rising Muslim populations, with indelicate comparisons between today’s culturally-shifting continent, and Muslim-Christian holy wars of the Middle Ages through the 1600s. And WCF member organizations, and the WCF itself, have further aligned themselves with deeply nationalistic and xenophobic groups with anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic ties across Eastern Europe, recognizing fertile ground for traditionalistic, pronatalist arguments when they see it.

But even in the documentary itself (review not online), carefully vetted after its initial release in order to remove all mention of religious motivation or explicit ties to its WCF backers, there are echoes of this covert agenda in the line-up of businessmen, conservative scholars and economists talking about the impact of falling fertility on the world—over a backdrop of literally disappearing children’s bodies from the screen; a fade-out of scores of children from playgrounds into the snow flurries of the coming “winter.” One commentator, Harry S. Dent, Jr., seems to embody the undercurrent of the profamily movement’s various demographic winter arguments: making secular- and scientific-sounding arguments to push a blatantly ideological and religious agenda. Dent is the son of the late Harry S. Dent, Sr., a Nixon aide credited with developing the race-baiting “Southern Strategy.” Without meaning to visit the sins of the father on the son, it’s certainly interesting that Dent, Jr. is likewise involved in a project banking on unacknowledged racial and religious tensions in order to carry its conservative, antifeminist and antigay agenda.

Journalists should look more to the example of The New York Times on this issue, which recognizes enough that it’s dealing with a loaded issue to omit the arguments of dedicated culture warriors such as the makers of Demographic Winter, whose alliances and backing are well-documented. Otherwise, they risk appearing as does Jacoby: either knowingly promoting a covert patriarchal agenda, or shilling for a group of ideologues he hasn’t bothered to check up on.