RD is proud to present this excerpt from Jeffrey Feldman’s new book: Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy (Ig Publishing, May 2008). Feldman is a member of RD’s Advisory Council.
On August 23, 2004, James Dobson appeared on Hannity and Colmes to discuss his controversial book about training young children The New Strong-Willed Child. Pro forma for his interviews on FOX, Dobson started off with a compliment to his hosts. Colmes then cut immediately to the question of violence as a “tool” in childcare, which was Dobson’s defining issue as a professional giver of advice on parenting:
COLMES: So under what conditions would you then use corporal punishment?
DOBSON: In those circumstances, usually between about 2 and 10, where a child knows what you want, and not because he’s made a mistake or he spilled his milk, or he’s, you know, lost something. That’s childish irresponsibility. But when that child looks you in the eye and says, “I know what you want and I’m not going to give it to you. I don’t think you’re tough enough to make me.”
COLMES: But are you then teaching a child, this is the way you deal with conflict resolution, with the hand, with the paddle? This is how you resolve—is that a lesson you want to teach kids?
DOBSON: Absolutely. That’s yielding to authority. You know, all of life is like this. I mean, a child crawls out over the edge of a high chair. He learns all about gravity in one lesson. He pulls a dog’s tail, and he gets a little row of teeth marks. He touches a hot stove, and he gets burned. A child learns from that little bit of pain. Now, you don’t want to take it to the extremes. You must not abuse a child.
While Dobson is well known as a right-wing commentator and community leader, many Americans are unaware of his long history as an author of advice books on the discipline of children. Nonetheless, he is one of the most influential parenting authors of all time. Since he first began writing in the early 1970s, his Christian-centered books on parenting have boasted millions of readers. Despite his central place as a parenting expert, Dobson is far better known as head of Focus on the Family, and for his daily radio show of the same name which reaches hundreds of millions of listeners worldwide and has served to define his public image in the past decade as a leading advocate of radical conservative social policy.
Even if it is not apparent at first glance, Dobson’s views on seemingly divergent political issues find a common ground in the language and logic through which he locates and defends the place of violence in the American family. In this respect, Dobson’s use of violence in his writing and speaking is one of the most subtle and far-reaching in contemporary America. He exemplifies the difference between political language that calls for violence and political language that defines issues in terms of violence. Distinguishing between these two categories of political speech—violent prescriptions and violent logic—is the key to reading and understanding the deep and troubling impact that Dobson has had on American political debate over the past decade. For example, during an appearance on Hannity and Colmes in 2003, one year prior to the previous example, Dobson commented on the importance for children of hitting back when picked on at school. Dobson’s exchange with Sean Hannity reveals a remarkable ability to redefine issues through a logic of violence:
HANNITY: … And I said, well, I tell my son that if anyone hits him it would be OK to hit back. And my—actually, the teacher at my son’s school heard it and called my wife at home, was very upset that I said that. Is that what you mean in what we were discussing with Pat?
DOBSON: Well, it is part of what I mean and I agree completely with you, Sean. Kids can be brutal to each other. If you haven’t hung around kids very long, you may not know that. But they can be…
HANNITY: They can be mean to each other.
DOBSON: … they can brutalize each other. And bully each other. And to leave a kid absolutely helpless, to stand there while that’s going on is a mistake. You can teach him to turn the other cheek later. But not when he’s in elementary school.
HANNITY: If somebody puts their hand on a child then it’s appropriate. And I told—my wife agrees with me. She thinks—but she goes, you’ve got to make certain that he understands only if force is brought to him.
DOBSON: Right. Right, you shouldn’t be the aggressor. You must not be the aggressor but if somebody is hitting you…
HANNITY: You’ve got the right to punch him back.
DOBSON: You’ve got to defend yourself.
HANNITY: But in this day and age you’ll be thrown out of every school in the country.
DOBSON: Well, that may be but there are some things that are right.
In this exchange, Hannity offers a very basic opening pitch for the value of teaching one’s children to hit back at school—a point that he claims is highly controversial. Dobson then uses this starting point to introduce a hitherto unheard of distinction in Christ’s famous “turn the other cheek” lesson. Since childhood is brutal, according to Dobson, the key for children is to learn first to fight back, and only then, after they are old enough to understand that fighting back against aggression is the right thing to do, should they learn to turn the other cheek. Dobson then goes even further to suggest that American public schools themselves violate this basic rule of early childhood development by hindering the ability of young boys to respond to schoolyard violence with more violence. In the process, Dobson blames “feminists and others” for trying to make boys more like girls. In Dobson’s hands, concepts as fundamental to politics as school and education become redefined through a logic of violence—in this case gender, Christianity and violence. While Dobson never says that boys should be taught to fight in schools, he does say that children are “brutal” to each other and that all children should defend themselves from “aggression,” thereby implying that all children must learn to defend themselves from the violence that awaits them at the hands of their peers in school.
Dobson’s many appearances on Hannity and Colmes spoke to a convergence of factors in American politics and media that made him a star in both realms. Although historians at some future date will clarify the true impact of the Religious Right on the 2000 and 2004 presidential election outcomes, conventional wisdom declared it the X factor that delivered and kept George W. Bush in power. As always, the conventional wisdom masks a more complicated story. Dobson’s rise was not just about religious voters, but the sign of a changing of the public voice of Christians who made up a particularly strident base of the Republican Party. In the 1980s, the Christian leaders who dominated Republican Party politics called themselves a “moral majority” and brought an old version of evangelical Baptism to bear on the media. The power of men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson was their ability to turn the TV into the greatest collection plate in history, thereby amassing enough financial and political capital to build new institutions, including mega-churches and universities. And yet, as important as the rise of the Moral Majority was in delivering victory to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the leadership never fully achieved the strong cultural position that their political achievements would suggest.
With their southern drawls, tin smiles, and constant pitch for donations, the public distrusted the early leaders of the Religious Right even as their political influence and achievements grew. Falwell and Robertson were both seen as preachers from Virginia who had made it big on TV. As such, neither ever fully shook off the image of the pastor who came to town preaching miracles and turned millionaire in the process.
Dobson was different. He was an evangelical, not a Southern Baptist. Born, raised and educated in California, Dobson built a foothold for his movement in the American West. More importantly, Dobson was not a preacher, but a licensed clinical professional. Before his rise to national political and media prominence during the Bush administration, the biggest feather in Dobson’s cap had been serving as one of nine experts on the controversial Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography assembled by President Reagan. Dobson’s biography in the 1986 final report is as impressive for its listing of professional accomplishments as for the expert way it frames Dobson’s career in strictly neutral, non-religious terms:
Dr. James Dobson received a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Pasadena College in 1958. He was awarded a Master of Science degree from the University of Southern California in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. from U.S.C. in 1967 in Child Development and Research Design. Dr. Dobson served for fourteen years as Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and simultaneously, for seventeen years on the Attending Staff of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, in the Division of Medical Genetics. He was also Director of Behavioral Research in the Division of Child Development during a portion of this time. More recently, Dr. Dobson has been President of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.
The biography goes on to mention recognition by President Carter and previous appointments by President Reagan. Were it not for the vague labeling of Focus on the Family as a “non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home,” the biography could be the description of any of a dozen senior-level university academics with crossover careers in public service. Lurking behind the phrasing, however, was Dobson’s obsession with turning his version of a Christian-inspired, patriarchal family into the DNA of a new authoritarian America—an America where parents use pain aversion to train their children to respect the moral order of the family hierarchy. To “preserve the home” means, for Dobson, to rebuild America one family at a time, transforming society and culture in the process.
Much of Dobson’s focus in the past few years has been on the violence that he believes homosexuality commits against the institution of marriage. In his most recent book, Marriage Under Fire: Why We Must Win This Battle, Dobson frames marriage in violent terms and takes the metaphor of political debate as warfare to an alarmist level. Elaborating on a purported forty-year “master plan” by homosexual activists to “utterly destroy the family,” Dobson compares the push for equal marriage rights in America to Hitler’s military conquest of Europe:
Like Adolf Hitler, who overran his European neighbors, those who favor homosexual marriage are determined to make it legal, regardless of the democratic processes that stand in the way.
Rather than saying explicitly that equal rights activists are violent, Dobson relies on his reader to remember that Hitler rose to power by burning down the Reichstag, building concentration camps, and carrying out the industrial genocide of European Jewry. Thus, Marriage Under Fire gives voice to Dobson’s signature style of social and cultural arguments. First he names the policies he opposes, then claims that the policy will lead to the downfall of civilization:
Admittedly, there have been periods in history when homosexuality has flourished, as in the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire. None of these civilizations survived.
Of course, civilizations do not die because of one social factor, be it sexual practices or any other single variable. Dobson’s argument in Marriage Under Fire is such a simplistic, political just-so story that it would earn him a failing grade in most middle school history classes. As a means of political debate, however, the book’s strength is Dobson’s relentless use of violent metaphors through which the words “marriage” and “homosexuality” become historic foes engaged in an epic battle for survival. The theme is carried through even at the visual level of book design, as a stylized image of rifle cross-hairs recur throughout the book to remind the reader that the “homosexual agenda” will not just destroy marriage, it will also shoot to kill. As a result, saving America from total destruction of fascist and Biblical proportions will require a political commitment equal to an armed defense of the nation.
It is his ultimate, far-reaching utopian goal to save America—marriage by marriage, child by child, home by home—that renders even the most seemingly trivial matters in Dobson’s work highly political. When writing about homosexuality, he describes how it will destroy everything of concern to the contemporary reader, thus resulting in collapse of healthcare, Social Security, education, religion and, most notably, the widespread suffering of children. This logic is not new. Dobson’s first and most famous book Dare To Discipline, first published in 1970 and reissued multiple times, is not only a key to his thinking in his later books and polemics, but a Rosetta Stone for most of his authoritarian logic. Dare to Discipline is a book about the careful use of violence and pain by parents to train their children in the context of a loving family. However, when read in the context of the past two Presidential terms, Dare To Discipline can be seen as a foreshadowing of much of the rhetoric used by the Bush-Cheney administration to sell the “War on Terror.”
Of all the examples of right-wing pundits who write and speak about politics in a violent idiom, Dobson’s Dare To Discipline is perhaps the most startling because it uses violence to describe the non-violent behavior of preschool children. For Dobson, a child who misbehaves is not just naughty, but a “tyrant and dictator” whose behavior threatens not only the peace and quiet of his parents, but the viability of the family and the nation. In other words, the solution to the “potent weapon” of a child’s defiance is loving discipline, by which Dobson means the “deliberate, premeditated application of minor pain to a small child.” Simply beating a child is wrong and a point Dobson makes repeatedly in Dare to Discipline. The goal of loving discipline is not simply to show that the parent is superior to the child, but to “win decisively” when a toddler knowingly defies a parent’s authority. To illustrate this distinction, Dobson recounts an instance from his own childhood where his mother thrashed him with her girdle:
The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of sassing her when I was about four feet away. I knew I had crossed the line and wondered what she would do about it. It didn’t take long to find out. Mom wheeled around to grab something with which to express her displeasure, and her hand landed on a girdle.
Those were the days when a girdle was lined with rivets and mysterious panels. She drew back and swung the abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my midsection. She gave me an entire thrashing with one blow! But from that day forward, I measured my words carefully when addressing my mother. I never spoke disrespectfully to her again, even when she was seventy-five years old.
It is an astounding story, but Dobson uses it to define a core concept in childrearing that subsequently translates into his politics: children can be trained to respect authority through the sudden and swift application of sharp pain. Disciplining a child with pain in these moments is not just about dealing with a specific moment of sassiness, but is the first step in “disarming the teenage time bomb… twelve years before it arrives.” For Dobson, discipline is a pre-emptive strike against the enemy, or as he put it, “If discipline begins on the second day of life, you’re one day late.”
Given that Dobson believes life begins at conception, the conclusion is that the discipline of children by pain is not merely a way to remedy bad behavior, but an opportunity to express love. According to Dobson, the best chance to communicate comes after an episode where the parent has physically hurt the child: For this reason, parents should not dread or shrink back from confrontations with their children. These occasions should be anticipated as important events, because they provide the opportunity to convey verbal and nonverbal messages to the boy or girl that cannot be expressed at other times.
To bring a toddler to tears by hitting them on the legs with a wooden switch or squeezing their trapezius muscle gives parents to an “opportunity” to express their love. While the child recovers from the pain, parents then tell them about “the importance of obedience.” In stark contrast to other parenting methods, Dobson argues that parents must first “win decisively” a “nose-to-nose” confrontation with a child. Only after such victories should a parent talk about the virtues of obedience, but never before. The results are a child who learns that a failure to obey authority results in immediate, temporary pain, and a quiet and orderly household. In other words, violence that a parent lovingly anticipates and dishes out on a toddler is the proper response to the child’s “weapon” of choice: insolence. Failure to win decisively in these moments has disastrous consequences when the child reaches adolescence and adulthood.
Dobson’s discussion of pain as a parenting technique, thus, gives rise to a catalogue of contemporary social problems that emerge when a parent fails to train a toddler to yield to their authority. In particular, when faced with criticism that the pain techniques advocated in Dare To Discipline will actually teach children to use violence to dominate others, Dobson responds that a parent’s failure to use loving violent discipline on a child will actually lead the child to become violent toward the parent. In a description of a child he names “Becky,” the parents’ failure to use physical pain to enforce their authority results in an adolescent public enemy whose violent outbursts turn directly on the permissive mother. Violent tantrums, thus, give rise to a household ruled by fear of the child’s anger and potential to engage in domestic battering.
In an effort to correct their mistakes, the parents who failed to discipline Becky with pain when she was a toddler try in vain to satisfy her adolescent rebelliousness with gifts and parties:
They thought a party might make her happy, and Mrs. Holloway worked very hard to decorate the house and prepare refreshments. On the appointed evening, a mob of dirty, profane teens swarmed into the house, breaking and destroying the furnishings. During the course of the evening, Mrs. Holloway said something that angered Becky. The girl struck her mother and left her lying in a pool of blood in the bathroom.
Discipline by pain, or lack thereof in the case of Becky and the Holloways, becomes a nexus between parenting and politics. Dobson tells parents to either pre-empt the adolescent violence of their children by hurting the toddler, or to suffer the consequences of their “parental failures” later on as they lie face down in a pool of their own blood. If this discipline by pain does not happen, the violence of the adolescent will eventually rise up to rule the parents’ lives.
Moreover, warns Dobson, the rein of fear caused by the undisciplined child will spread damage to property and to civil society. When violent discipline of the child is successful, however, the parent trains the child to forever yield to authority, thereby controlling their destructive urges. The household that emerges from this dynamic that Dobson sets up is not ruled by the fear of adolescent children, but balanced by a counterweight fear of pain from the parents. Society benefits from such homes, according to Dobson, because in his view the proper balance of childhood obedience and parental authority imbues the home with the “God-fearing” quality necessary for the family to serve as the divine building block of society, as well as the nation, as Christ intended. A parent’s use of pain to train a child thereby demonstrates a boundary between the sacred and the profane.
Discipline is the dividend of violence used correctly, sparingly and lovingly. To the extent that Americans have a position on the responsible use of pain as an incentive in parenting, most would see no problem with a quick spank on a child’s bottom to scurry them out of playing in busy street or a slap on a child’s hand to stop them from grabbing a hot stove. Spanking as a quick tactic for protecting children from danger, however, is a far cry from a broad cultural, social and governmental program that begins with the use of pain to train children to obey parental authority. The distinction is not difficult to grasp, but it is one that Dobson often tries to blur, claiming that liberals oppose his approach to discipline because they are against all instances of spanking and against teaching children any form of respect for authority. Despite the fact that Dobson, too, believes that a quick slap on the bottom can be a useful tool for spontaneously protecting kids from danger, his view of spanking is strategic, which he describes in specific terms in Dare to Discipline:
My point is that the principles in this book are not designed to produce perfect little robots who can sit with their hands folded in the parlor thinking patriotic and noble thoughts! Even if we could pull that off, it wouldn’t be wise to try. The objective, as I see it, is to take the raw material with which our babies arrive on this earth, and then gradually mold it into mature, responsible, and God-fearing adults. It is a twenty-year process that will bring progress, setbacks, success, and failures.
Spanking, thus, is not intended merely to eliminate behavior in children that may bother an adult, but instead creates parent-child relationships that mimic Dobson’s conception of the relationship between people and God. That is, spanking produces adults who are “God-fearing.” The threat and use of pain by a parent on their child brings fear into the home and gives it a central place in the formation of the child’s personality. When that fear vanishes from the home, according to Dobson, it is a parenting failure that results in a breakdown of both a child’s personality and society as a whole. This breakdown leads to delinquency, crime, abortion and worst of all: gender identity disorder.
The connection between the painful disciplining of toddlers and Dobson’s views on homosexuality are often overlooked. According to Dobson, homosexuality is not an inherited trait, but a disorder that begins with a condition called “pre-homosexuality.” This condition first begins to manifest itself at about thirty months of age, which is the exact time in a young boy’s life that Dobson claims painful discipline is necessary. During this period, if the parents fail to notice a child’s pre-homosexuality, or allow it to go untreated, the condition can develop into full-blown “gender identity disorder”—a term borrowed from clinical psychologist Joseph Nicolosi and a Dobsonism for gay. The most important sign of pre-homosexuality is pronounced and repeated “feminine behavior” in male toddlers. Dobson references this quote from Nicolosi:
The fact is, there is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality. There are telltale signs of discomfort with . . . Boys and deep-seated and disturbing feelings that they [are] different and somehow inferior. And yet parents often miss the warning signs and wait too long to seek help for their children. One reason for this is that they are not being told the truth about their children’s gender confusion, and they have no idea what to do about it.
Homosexuality, in other words, has origins not just in the behavior of a child, but the failure of the parents to manage the child correctly. It is a disorder that results, Dobson claims, not so much from sex, but from a parenting failure exacerbated by the so-called political agenda of gays and lesbians. Ultimately, while Dobson thinks homosexuality is wrong based on scriptural grounds, that claim alone masks both the violence and politics of his viewpoint. It is the use of pain in child rearing that leads to the creation of God-fearing families, which in turn leads to happy and productive American citizens. To give in to the supposed liberal ideology of permissiveness results in failure as a parent, departure from God’s ways, unhappiness and ultimately a painful life for the individual. Bringing pain into the parenting process keeps pain away later in life.
If the parenting is successful, parents will be in a position to recognize “pre-homosexuality” should it emerge in their child, and then see to it that the child makes the proper “choice” about their sexuality. For boys in particular, this process leads Dobson to suggest some fathering techniques that at first glance seem out of place with the common stereotype of Evangelical sexual mores:
Meanwhile, the boy’s father has to do his part. He needs to mirror and affirm his son’s maleness. He can play rough-and-tumble games with his son, in ways that are decidedly different from the games he would play with a little girl. He can help his son learn to throw and catch a ball. He can teach him to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger.
The scene of a two-year old boy looking at his father’s penis in the shower may seem at first glance to have nothing to do with corporal punishment. Moreover, it raises a fascinating question that reveals how central Dobson’s authoritarian parenting techniques are to every other aspect of his politics. In other words, put a naked father and his naked son in a shower—the younger looking at the penis of the elder—and that situation may not be homosexual, per se, but it is certainly a homosocial moment about gender and sex. So what leads this moment to produce a heterosexual boy with the right impulses, according to Dobson, as opposed to a homosexual male with the wrong desires?
The answer to that question is parents who dared to discipline their children. For this “notice-that-dad-has-a-penis” shower moment to be effective, Dobson explains that it must be performed by a father who has previously used painful discipline on his son to establish authority. Such a father has presumably begun to build up in his son the beginnings of God-fearing adulthood. In the absence of responsibly violent disciplinary parenting, the father-son shower scene would just become another form of liberal lewdness. Parenting that does not include corporal discipline results in the “choice” a young boy makes to transform his pre-homosexuality into gender identity disorder.
The issue nudged off the table by the violent language in the parenting debate is “community.” The debate is about the optimism of healthy communities, versus the pessimism of extreme individualism.
Dobson’s political rhetoric—whether he is talking about homosexuality, tax policy or foreign wars—ultimately returns to the idea that a strong and moral America depends entirely on families where heterosexual parents use pain to establish authority over their children. The obedient child—specifically the obedient son, as Dobson is much less concerned about women—becomes the essential building block of a God-fearing America. Critics who focus too much attention on Dobson’s descriptions of how to use pain in parenting fail to understand his corrosive influence on American political debate. His rhetoric follows a strong internal logic that leads people to a false conclusion about American society in general via a specific common experience with unruly children. Even those Americans who do not yet have children can understand the claim that children who do not respect authority in the home will grow up to not respect authority out of the home. And like all good political arguments, whether or not Dobson’s argument is actually true is not necessarily as important as whether or not it is persuasive.
As a result, Dobson’s view of the disciplined, God-fearing child who has made the correct gender choices undermines political discussions in ways that are far more pervasive than the initial discussion of spanking toddlers implies. Nowhere is this more explicit than in his political pronouncements on foreign policy. When considered in light of Dobson’s writings on parenting and homosexuality, his descriptions of the national security problems America faces take on an entirely new level of meaning.
For example, several months prior to the 2006 midterm elections, Dobson delivered a speech at the Values Voter Summit. His core argument in the speech was that fighting the “War on Terror” was equivalent to fighting against a “family crisis” in America. The speech was infused with descriptions of failed policy that echoed Dobson’s critiques of failed, overly permissive parenting: Would you favor turning the leadership of this nation over to those who believe we can negotiate with extremists and talk them into being “nice”? And can we avoid a showdown simply by packing up and running away? Diplomacy has its place, of course, but trying to negotiate with those who want to kill us is ridiculous.
According to Dobson, foreign policy, like raising children, is about using discipline to establish authority. Just like dealing with a defiant child who acts like a “tyrant” or “dictator,” dealing with an actual tyrant or dictator on the world stage demands a nose-to-nose confrontation, not a head-to-head talk. This kind of foreign policy ideology would have had strong resonance with anyone who had raised their children according to Dobson’s principles. In addition to mirroring his own parenting logic, Dobson also brings the consequences of failed parenting and his anti-homosexual agenda to foreign policy, particularly in his description of US elected officials who failed to speak up in the wake of Hugo Chavez’s public critiques of President Bush:
What should infuriate every American is that hardly any congressmen or senators stepped forward to condemn this outrage with the passion it warranted. What kind of wimps have we become when the elected leader of this great nation can be assaulted in our own country and no one has the guts to condemn it vehemently? I heard a former ambassador talking on Fox News after the Chavez statement. His limp-wristed response was that America should work harder to make friends around the world. It made me sick.
According to Dobson, the entire Congress seems to have come down with a bad case of pre-homosexuality. And, as we know from his writings, homosexuality flourishes in society as a result of failed authoritarian parenting.
Even if most Americans do not agree with Dobson, what might be a good starting point for getting past the rhetoric and logic he relentlessly pumps into the debate? First, it is important to consider the gaping flaw in Dobson theory—and it is a theory, not a fact—which is that the authoritarian family is the building block of a strong America. There is no question that the authoritarian family is a building block for authoritarian organizations like Focus on the Family, or even for an authoritarian America. But a strong America? Doubtful. In general, social theories that pin all their hopes to one variable are not true. Dobson’s is not true either. The problem in his theory is that strong societies depend on wide array of factors working together, not a single dynamic, be it parental, disciplinary or otherwise. Families are important to American society, but Dobson would have us see the family unit in isolation. Yet, progressives, liberals and conservatives alike generally view the building blocks of a strong society as much larger than the single household. The more common view is that a strong America is built from thriving communities, which have many components working together. Each family contributes in its own way to a community and the ways in which those communities may flourish vary. Thus, there are many kinds of thriving communities that make up a strong America.
No matter what the community, however, the key has always been for individuals and individual families to stand together and look out for the well-being of one other. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote famously of America in the 1830s, the great secret of American progress is the ability of its citizens to form associations that work together towards a common goal that are greater than the sum of their parts:
Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. . . In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.
After “associations,” the most important word in the quote from Tocqueville is “progress.” In Dobson’s lament about the harmful impact parents effect when they fail to spank their children, one hardly notices that he fails to talk about progress, a core principle of American society. This is because Dobson’s vision for society does not focus on progress, but on obedience, which his why he so often repeats the term “God-fearing” as an ideal. Belief in God and progress should not be at odds with each other, but it is difficult to see them as compliments in Dobson’s fear and punishment rhetoric.
Forming associations with an eye towards a common goal is an original feature of American society that began on the boat ride from England. The Mayflower Compact , written at sea and signed upon landing, mentions “God” and “Christian faith” many times. However, the purpose of the Mayflower Compact was not to establish a religious organization but a “civil Body Politick” to guarantee “better ordering and preservation and furtherance.” As Hannah Arendt describes in her masterful analysis of the history of American political philosophy On Revolution, the centrality of the Mayflower Compact in American culture emerged not just from its ability to bring people together, but from its role in establishing a tradition of voluntary covenants aimed at overcoming fear:
The really astounding fact in the whole story is that their obvious fear of one another was accompanied by the no less obvious confidence they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a “civil Body Politick” which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise “in the Presence of God and one another,” supposedly was powerful enough to “enact, constitute, and frame” all necessary laws and instruments of government. This deed quickly became a precedent.
It is that strength of mutual promise—without violence—on which thriving and lasting communities emerge and on which America depends. As Arendt points out so eloquently, the decision to enter into mutual compacts was the political ground on which the framing of constitutions took place. The decision of these strangers on a boat was to look at each other and see that their ability to overcome fear and survive nature would depend on their forming a body larger than themselves, greater than the family or the home—a body politic.
The next question was how to establish enduring forms and rules for running that body. The answer was a period of constitutional framing that served as the imperfect but as yet unrivaled launch of the American states and subsequent national union. Thus, in the time even before the beginning of the United States, it was not discipline or Christianity or narrow focus on the family that kept the Pilgrims strong: it was faith in each other.
Recently, the American tradition of faith in each other has been taken up by a progressive interest in the “common good,” a fundamentally American principle that has been buried beneath decades of aggressive right-wing talk about the necessity of separating individual citizens from government. In Dobson’s discussion about corporal punishment, it is difficult to see that an overly insular focus on the family can be detrimental to raising children who are happy, productive, disciplined, and who go on to lead lives full of meaning. It is easier, perhaps, to start at a distance from the family and with a topic that involves the common good in a more obvious way.
During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson spoke frequently about the environment as a shared “national heritage.” In a speech he gave on the occasion of signing the “Water Quality Act of 1965,” for example, Johnson exemplified this view of America rooted in the notion of community, rather than isolated individualism: The clear, fresh waters that were our national heritage have become dumping grounds for garbage and filth. They poison our fish; they breed disease; they despoil our landscapes. No one has a right to use America’s rivers and America’s waterways that belong to all the people as a sewer. The banks of a river may belong to one man or even one industry or one State, but the waters which flow between those banks should belong to all the people.
In moments of national crisis, Americans seek balance between the individual and the commons, between families and community. Indeed, the Constitution of the United States was itself written with this complex sense of balance in mind. The foundation of our system of government is coequal branches, as well as a balance between individual states and the collective union of the republic.
We passionately defend individual liberties, but we balance them with the well-being of families and communities. Former Vice President Al Gore, the most prominent voice in the movement to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, extended this theme of the common good to a global conception of shared responsibility and shared interests. Speaking about the urgency of individuals working in concert to reduce the causes of global warming, Gore wrote, “There is only one Earth, and all of us who live on it share a common future.” The discussion of the environment is a good place to start to see how the “common good” frame defines discussion because the logic of the environmental debate is familiar to most of us. Within the debate about the environment, individual are encouraged to see their behavior as effecting more than just their own lives or even the lives of their families. To conserve the environment and clean up pollution in the atmosphere, the key is for individuals to see their actions as helping or harming the community. In the 1970s, the environmentalism debate focused on the individual act of throwing trash in a garbage can instead of throwing it on the ground. The purpose of that discussion was to focus individuals on the consequences that their actions had for the entire country. Every American kid who lived through the 1970s remembers the famous television commercial where Iron Eyes Cody, in Native American dress, rides his horse through a riverbed strewn with garbage, whereupon the camera shows a tear rolling down his cheek. The public service announcements for the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign reframed how millions of American children came to understand that their personal actions affected the community as a whole.
Thirty years later, we have gone through a similar learning experience with regard to separating our garbage out into various types. We learned that throwing all of our trash into one can was also harmful to the environment, and that it was an individual’s responsibility to the common good to place recyclable garbage in the proper canister. In time, Americans will learn how to manage the disposal of carbon emissions in a similar manner. While that campaign has yet to fully begin, the “common good” frame will again help us to see that how our individual behavior results in carbon emissions. With innovations in technology and public service narratives to help us understand the best way to act in the interest of the common good, we will learn to manage this newest aspect of pollution. As we can see, the “common good” frame informs the entire environmental discussion—past, present, and future. What is so fascinating about framing the environmental debate, however, is that the “common good” frame extends far beyond the issue of managing pollution. Ultimately, environmentalism is as much a moral debate about American citizenship as it is a debate about throwing away trash. Through the conversation about the environment, we teach our children a basic Jeffersonian lesson about the privilege and responsibility of adulthood in American democracy. In Thomas Jefferson’s view, this balance was the essence of a new political system whereby each person would play a role not just as an individual in private life, but as “participators” in the public realm. The goal of Jefferson’s democratic system was not to quash the individual or subsume the family within some broader collective concept, but to orient each citizen towards the dual role of individual and public happiness. The result of this vision has been a political system capable of accomplishing great tasks over time. This enduring success has always asked of its citizens that the look beyond the individual and the individual family to dedicate themselves to the community at large or, as what Jefferson called the “sacred” principle” of “the common good.”
We can now see more clearly how such a conception of the “common good” brings us to a radically different notion of what it means for children to behave than the corporal punishment views of James Dobson. Strict obedience to parents may be the tradition of a given family, but obedience to parents cannot be the full range of factors that make up a healthy transition from childhood to adulthood because it lacks dedication to the common good. In this respect, the vast, practical challenges of repairing and sustaining the nation depends on a balance between respect for oneself, one’s family, one’s community and the common good.