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Culture Change e-Letter #15

U.S. Civilization's Weakness Evident in Family Trends

by Jan Lundberg

Looking at the institution of the family in the U.S., one can see best the weakness of the nation’s future on a personal level. This paper attempts to account for why and how our form of civilization—materialist, individualistic society and the U.S. itself—is headed for extinction.

It was once universal that pride in one's family reflected real wealth that could not be replaced. Even if people had very little money and very few modern conveniences, they were generally happy and had more time for themselves and their family. This is still true in "developing" countries, although less and less so because of urbanization and western, industrialized media-pollution.

The modern human being has been sold a bill of goods that leads only to the grave, with little legacy or honor for the wonderful family institution that used to define a person's character and support group. If we haven’t bought that bill of goods, we still must struggle mightily to live a dignified life free of pain, deprivation and dishonor. For rebels who see another way than modern society’s domination, their fate is likely one of becoming subsumed or crushed.

However, the apparent bleakness of this analysis is offset by the future possibilities, if—and only if—the truth of our economic and ecological health is understood much more widely. First we must identify and connect our common problems as appropriate:

The modern U.S. family is going nowhere, I fear. Picture a multi-generational nuclear family that may become scattered geographically, as the individuals concentrate on their survival strategies and—if they're lucky—pursue their chosen recreation and leisure. This doesn't sound bad if it's what you're used to. But I'm a critic who has been around the world, and I believe in extended families and in strengthening family solidarity.

Picturing again the "normal, successful" modern family, we see a child growing up without the daily interaction with both parents in fifty per cent of U.S. households. (Moreover, a single-person household has also become the norm.) Additionally, parent-child time is quite limited due to public schooling and wage slavery. The young'n finds adulthood and usually goes off to live a rather separate existence, with visits on holidays as is the norm.

What is being passed from generation to generation? Great pride and closeness? Teachings, upbringing, stories and skills? A little of those maybe. But the overriding concern is money and having a whole separate set of material things to buy and consume. People are beset by proliferating, intensifying problems, and understandably have forgotten how to live. So, how can the family line really be going anywhere? The grandchild may barely know the grandparents. The U.S. family is typically leading nowhere. People are lost and alienated, compared to almost all other nations.

Within the borders of the U.S., Navajos are known to keep in touch within families daily by telephone, when long distances separate parents and children. To contrast this traditional kind of culture with the opposite extreme—Anglo-American—we see the only culture that disowns a child (although a South American might disown some child for growing up to be a Pinochet).

The commonplace U.S. family line passes into a pattern of hazy, thinly attached bonds as each consumer—I mean, family member!—is aging virtually alone in more and more instances. Security is less and less defined as living with family and being there for each other. Instead, security is attempted through accumulating money and property if possible. This may or may not work out; some people fall by the wayside and become involuntarily homeless.

Jobs often force or allow people to move away from family, and long-distance relationships then depend on plenty of money for vacations and travel. The military opportunity, taken up by the poor, is another source of family division, even if soldiers are not killed by bullets. Prisons—that burgeoned industry increasingly called slave labor—obviously separate families. (In the eyes of the family patriarch or matriarch, prison would not be so objectionable if victimless crimes were not so frequently prosecuted.)

Johnnie went off to the military and then college, got married, and started a little family away from his parents. It was a neighboring suburb, but the car was essential. Johnnie was told that he must work! Then he could buy stuff. Then save money for his children's college education. That is better than his spending his money on cocaine. But in the best of circumstances, following the formula for family relations in the U.S. and to an extent in other industrialized countries, people have become cattle—dehumanized. As we are further separated from nature, and everything including clean water is commodified, we are cattle (or any term you prefer for economic units to be manipulated for the profit of the few).

If you wish to object and say "No, we love each other in our separate family households and various home towns, and..." Blah blah blah. The fact is that pervasive car dependence, and lack of time to keep in good touch with family and friends, means that we are on a fast treadmill going nowhere. For some, making money is satisfying, and they take pride in offering a good home (materially). But why is hate, dysfunction, abuse, cancer, back-stabbing, etc., so rife in the U.S. family? Add toxicity and radiation as destroying not just our bodies but our minds. Our materialistic culture obviously has very little connection with healthy nature, forcing people to squeeze out a little time for meditation at best. (See Family Cohesion Threatened by Sprawl and Greed, Culture Change magazine late fall 2001, and Sustainability Starts with Family Solidarity, Culture Change e-Letter 13).

Johnnie's daughter Joan follows the common example and tries to achieve happiness and self-reliance. She works hard and probably gives up her dreams. But even if she pursues her dream, say, of becoming a great costume designer, she finds very little time to visit or get to know her fast-aging grandparents and her nieces or cousins. There is no clue offered to Joan that there's anything generally wrong, or that there’s an alternative, if we consider the television shows, newspapers, and songs on the radio. Those media, all corporatized, tell us what to think. Although Joan may or may not support the latest war or police action by the U.S. government, she may or may not smoke medical pot, or make her own clothes, or have her baby born at home instead of in a hospital, she has to subscribe to the value system around her to survive materially. The effect of the culture, and the civilization's march across the last of the wildernesses, are the same almost no matter what Joan tries to do: She can love her old dad Johnnie and her mama, and be sweet to other members of the family—even extended ones—but there's only so much time in a day, only so many days in a year, and so many years in a life. Her life slips by at great speed, rather than meditatively so as to savor many moments each day. She may sense her aloneness and the fact that her family isn't strengthening at all. Her family and the community are weaker and weaker.

Joan may thus feel depressed and confused, even if she is fit and sexy. Where is that love and support from family when she needs them? It is no wonder that eventually she may make the "hard decision" to put her mother and father in a nursing home, after they fell one too many times in their "retirement home" for-profit institution. Whether or not Joan can withstand the common pressures of divorce, job loss and career change, she is too alone and has failed to gather and pass on what her grandparents knew. She can't tell many stories to her children about the great and great-great grandparents. Our culture once was telling us that these people were "great," not just old and dead! But finding out about one's heritage in the U.S. is perhaps even more rare than stamp collecting. Elsewhere, one would not have to try to study one’s ancestry because a child knew it cold before hitting puberty.

Joan is cattle, even more so than her old Dad whom she may or may not love and revere. They have in common that public schooling taught regimentation and conformity to them and 99% of the citizenry. Her feeling or sensing the real impediments to family solidarity and traditions prevents lasting relationships from forming in her life, and contributes to lack of community on the neighborhood and town level. Safe in her box-of-a-home, using her electronic (pollution) devices for communicating and relaxing, Joan is part of a society-wide problem, no matter how "nice" she is, no matter how great Johnnie was at the 100 yard dash.

Happiness as we have come to know it, in the best of terms and circumstances, is an illusion in mainstream materialist culture. The U.S. may have many happy people, but consider that their ignorance is recognized world wide. They would be more happy if they had a sense of their family being so tight in their lives that money was not something to worry about. The sham that is the consumer's life—no matter if one voted for Bush, Gore or Nader—is what sends some people into experimentations such as cohousing and living in communes. However, if those experiments are in the U.S., failure may be built in. So, another country and its tighter family structure would seem to be the ticket. But this is no solution for masses of people in the U.S., so they will first have to see their petroleum gluttony terminated before realizing that they must depend on others for daily mundane accomplishments and long-term survival.

Good luck to Joan and to what should have been her rock-solid, illustrious family and set of neighbor-friends that together, or one-on-one, should have seen each member of the community through the rough years and the tragedies, as well as rejoicing over the births and comings of age. The knowledge that there is continuity and nothing lost over many, many generations, has become an alien concept in the "Land of the free and the home of the brave." Or is it the land of the slave and the home of the shopping spree?

Today we are threatened with discontinuity on all levels, as war of terror spins out of control, and law enforcement intrudes further and further into people's lives. It never used to be this way, and it will not endure. Support your family, neighborhood and your planet, and only then the flag if it honors your values and supports spending all the time you want with your family and friends. Whose life is it, anyhow? As the Jim Page song goes, "Whose world is it?"

We must first understand the problem, with unvarnished truth. In some of our upcoming Culture Change Letters, the positive alternatives to business-as-usual, along with hopeful scenarios, will take center stage. This will temper the “negative analysis” of impending social and ecological upheaval that some decry as doom-and-gloom, that may usher in the transition to establishing universal sustainability.

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Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by copyright; however, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the re-publishing:

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