Family Values

What do places in the developing countries of Asia, South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East have in common?

I suppose that is one of those questions where one could come up with a heck of a lot of commonalities, with varying degrees of extreme rich/poor divides, overpopulated cities, devastated eco-systems, backward hygiene, endemic diseases, over-stressed health care, and the like, along with a tendency to lay a large share of the blame for their problems at the feet of the First World and its colonialism.

These are all perfectly valid commonalities, but not quite what I’m talking about.  They are part of a long list that serves as common fodder for erudite discussions and unworkable solutions.  But what I do want to talk about is something else they share.


Not the rather small groups that we mean when we talk about “extended families” in the developed world.  Still less the “nuclear” family our wealth and technology allowed us to invent.

No.  What I am talking about is the real “traditional” family; one that extends outward to cousins, great aunts and uncles, and further outward to people so distant we ourselves would hardly bother to call them relatives.

Once upon a time, the structures that bound people together were primitive and fairly basic: their governments with its tax men and armies, their religions offering hope against arbitrary forces, and their tribes and clans that supported and defined individual lives.

But for most people, the government was a distant reality to be avoided wherever possible, the priests and shamans to be approached only on ceremonial occasions and at gravest need; while the tribe and clan were matters of everyday life.

In times of disaster, war, flood, or famine, the government and the church could be fairly well depended upon to fail to provide real, physical succor, whereas the clan provided the basis of organized relief and eventual rebuilding.  In short, it was the family groups that supplied the real sinews that connected people and coordinated them in time of need.  Call it clan, tribe, or family, in the last analysis it was only blood connections that offered a reliable support network.

In what we call the West, time, civilization, wealth, and democracy gradually eroded those tribal systems and replaced them with other, more formal and far less personal ones.  In the US, if we suffer war, natural or unnatural disasters, we expect to turn to the Red Cross or the National Guard, or FEMA or whomever.  We expect our local government and our local churches to respond with food, shelter, clothing, blankets, etc.  If the problem arises in some other place in the world, we race to send help via a list of governmental (UN) and non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross, Oxfam, and Medecins sans Frontieres.

The point here is that we expect our impersonal civil organizations to provide the kind of aid that our family and tribal structures used to provide.  We so trust our institutions that we have come to rely on the impersonal above the personal.  Our primary identity today is as citizens.

Along the way, we replaced the family ethos, with its internal loyalties, with a national and even international ethos based on external loyalties.  We built up ideas of civic duty and civic responsibility to supplant the old ties of blood.  It was a new model, and not an easy one for many to learn.  It took a long time for us to erect and it is still one of the hardest things for those who come from more traditional cultures to learn.  But it was and is essential that our new citizens be willing, in time, to give up the old dependence on family in order to integrate with our culture.

There are those who would disagree with me here.  They would say that one can keep the old clan systems and loyalties and simply add the newer resources.

I think this is wrong.

The problem is that I think a good case can be made for the idea that the values of a traditional extended family or clan are actually antithetical to our notions of civic responsibility.  To put it differently, the duties one owes to one family in a traditional society are, in our eyes at least, directly opposed to the duties we owe the state.

We consider nepotism a crime.  In a tribal culture, it is a duty.  To us, to give preferred treatment to a relative’s company is corruption.  To them, it is an essential perk of office.  For us, to ignore or cover up a cousin’s crime is obstruction of justice and a crime in its own right.  In a clan-based society, someone who wouldn’t protect a relative is not a person of honor and is beneath contempt.

The list could go on and on.  But rather than beat the point to death, let me simply suggest that if you look at the developing world with its endemic corruption and the chronic instability of its democracies, you have to conclude that something very basic and gut-level strong is clearly and flatly opposed to the values that seem necessary to build a modern democratic society.

We have tried, over and over, to simply impose or import democracy into societies with strong extended family or tribal systems.  Our failure to achieve any long-term success is just about universal.  Democracy, it seems, cannot be imposed from the top down; it has to be grown from the bottom up.  And to do that, people have to learn to give up the one system they have depended upon to protect them for thousands of years.

There are those who have decried any attempts at “nation building” as wooly-minded, leftist ideas doomed to succeed only in wasting American lives and treasure.  I would suggest that the real basis of our consistent failures in this realm is our ignorance about what truly stands in our way.

And what is it?  Why, it’s good old Traditional Family Values.

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