The World We Want Special Issue: In Depth
Karen Rodríguez crosses the border into Colombia for a medical checkup for her baby after spending holidays with family in Venezuela. Rodríguez’s baby was born in September 2019 at a hospital in Cúcuta, Colombia, where births to Venezuelan mothers outnumber those to Colombian mothers 3 to 1.PHOTOS BY MARLON ANDRÉS MOYANO CASTELLANOS
A Country That Welcomes Migration
The way Colombia has responded to the flood of Venezuelans crossing the border makes it a global standout at a time when other countries are closing their doors.
In 2016, as the Venezuelan economy spiraled further into turmoil, Imalay González made a tough decision. Electricity in Valles del Tuy, the region where she lived with her mother and two children, 3 and 6, was sporadic. Water was scarce, and most days they had barely enough to eat. With medical care in the South American country deteriorating, she worried what would happen if she or her children got sick.
González knew of other Venezuelans who had traveled to neighboring Colombia and found work as street vendors or in restaurants or supermarkets. So she packed some belongings, hugged her babies, and boarded a bus for the 865-mile journey to the Colombian capital of Bogotá.
For two years, she searched unsuccessfully for work, eventually returning to Venezuela because, she says, “I did not want to end up sleeping in the streets and starving to death, as with some of my countrymen.”
But after becoming pregnant, she decided that for the future of her family and unborn child, she needed to leave Venezuela again and return to Colombia.
In May 2019, her son, Teylor Jose Carmona, was among the first children born to Venezuelan mothers to be granted Colombian citizenship under a new policy known as Primero la Niñez, or Children First. It is one of the many humanitariangestures Colombia has extended to Venezuelan migrants like González and her family—making the nation a global standout at a time when many other countries are closing their doors to refugees.
“This has been a blessing from God,” González says. “My children are my life, for them I am here, far from my parents and my roots. Today, I have the oldest child in school and little by little I try to rebuild my life.”
Since 2015, more than 4.7 million Venezuelans have fled the social, economic, and political turmoil as well as violence in their home country. Neighboring Colombia, which began its post-colonial history as a single nation with Venezuela, has openly welcomed more refugees than any other country, about 1.6 million people.
They have been accompanied by nearly 300,000 returning Colombian citizenswho, in recent decades, had emigrated to Venezuela, fleeing the effects of Colombia’s half-century of armed conflict and seeking economic opportunity in Venezuela’s once-thriving economy.
This flood of people crossing the border in search of food, shelter, work, and medical care, and fleeing persecution and violence, has overwhelmed the country of 50 million, straining Colombian social services. It brought particular pressure to border regions like Norte de Santander, a department (similar to a U.S. state) on the Colombia/Venezuela border.
Colombia’s generous and welcoming policies have come as many countries in the region, as well as wealthier Western nations—from the United States to Greece—have enacted tough new policies restricting migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. And the country has become an advocate on the international stage to draw global attention to the crisis next door.
“At a time when a lot of countries are closing their doors and either quite literally trying to build walls, or just introducing policies that are very restrictive or impractical to Venezuelans in particular, Colombia has been very generous,” says Daphne Panayotatos, an advocate and program officer with Refugees International who wrote a report calling on the world to bolster Colombia’s response.
“Many Colombians see this as returning the favor,” Panayotatos says. “In fact, many of the people crossing the border to Colombia from Venezuela are themselves returning Colombians, either first generation—who were displaced and are now returning—or second generation—whose parents were Colombian but who were born in Venezuela and are coming back.”
In announcing the new citizenship program for the children of Venezuelan mothers, Colombia’s President Iván Duque had a message for the world, saying, “… to those who want to use xenophobia for political goals: We take the path of fraternity.”
Overnight, children who had been born stateless were eligible to receive all the benefits of Colombian citizenship, making it easier for them to access education and health care.
He and other Colombian leaders are hopeful their country will benefit economically from the influx of professionals, including doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs among the refugees.
“We are working very hard just to help these people to get a formal job or to be entrepreneurs,” says Felipe Muñoz, Duque’s advisor on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. “But this is not easy; there are lots of bottlenecks in our legal system that we need to break just to get them a legal route to more easily get a formal job.”
The generosity of Duque’s right-wing government toward Venezuelans stands in stark contrast to the response by other conservative leaders around the world. And it contradicts Colombians’ views of Duque on other social issues.
In November, for example, thousands of Colombian workers, students, and human rights activists staged one of the largest anti-government demonstrations the country has seen in decades. The protests targeted Duque’s government and the president’s failure to implement the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as economic and corruption reforms.
Help came early
The root of Venezuela’s problems can be traced to more than a decade of mismanagement of the country’s economy—especially its all-important oil industry. Venezuela’s rich oil reserves once made the country the richest in South America, attracting immigrants from neighboring Colombia and elsewhere in the region seeking economic opportunities. But production of oil began to slow in the mid-2000s, and a drop in global oil prices in 2014 hit the country particularly hard.
The recession led to hyperinflation of the Venezuelan Bolívar, which has made the currency nearly worthless today. The economic disaster led to shortages of food and medicine, turning an economic crisis into a humanitarian one. Meanwhile, corruption among the country’s political and military leadership has led the country’s leaders to largely deny the existence of a crisis.
As conditions worsened, relations between Venezuela and Colombia deteriorated. In 2015, Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos responded to Venezuela’s expulsion of thousands of Colombians by constructing tents and living quartersfor those returning home.
Colombia also grants citizenship to returnees’ Venezuelan family members. “We want families to live together, not to break them apart,” Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín said at the time.
Across the country, dozens of institutions, international organizations, government agencies, and volunteers have formed a network to help integrate migrants into Colombian life, providing orientation to incoming refugees as soon as they step onto Colombian soil and guaranteeing food, lodging, and transportation to get people to and from work.
Colombia created a series of work permits known as Permiso Especial de Permanencia, or PEP, to provide legal status to Venezuelans who entered the country without a visa. For those who qualify and are able to obtain the benefit, PEP not only provides permission to work but also access to the public hospital system, and it allows children to attend public schools. As of October, 2019, nearly 600,000 Venezuelans had been granted PEP.
In August, the government created a path to citizenship for more than 24,000 children born in Colombia since August 2015 to Venezuelan mothers, changing the country’s long-standing policy that required at least one parent to be a legal Colombian resident.
Overnight, children who had been born stateless were eligible to receive all the benefits of Colombian citizenship, making it easier for them to access education and health care.
“The Government of Colombia will contribute to prevent this vulnerable population from becoming stateless, representing a very important step to guarantee its integral protection,” said the government in a statement.
A new life for refugees
At Divine Providence House, a soup kitchen operated by the Catholic Diocese of Cúcuta, Colombian and other volunteers have been preparing packed lunches daily for thousands of refugees.
Cúcuta is the capital of Norte de Santander and is about six miles from the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, which connects the two countries across the Táchira River.
It’s an area where many Venezuelans have settled and Providence House’s director, Father David Cañas, says the facility has been serving about 4,500 pounds of food a day. Since it opened in 2017, about 3.3 million have been fed, something Cañas calls “a miracle of love.”
“We have had to persevere in the face of the great migration,” Cañas says. “Our volunteers get tired … because the work never ends, and we receive very little support.”
This kind of generosity helps Venezuelans like González, the mother of three who twice fled Venezuela for Colombia. She qualified for PEP and is now a legal Colombian resident.
Karen Rodríguez, who arrived in Colombia in August with her 3-year-old son, also qualified for PEP. Her husband left ahead of the family and rented a room inside a house in Cúcuta, where he worked as part of a crew that earns Colombian pesos carrying the luggage of people crossing daily between the countries.
Rodríguez, 20, was seven months pregnant when she and their son traveled more than 300 miles from their home in Valencia to join her husband. She wanted to cross the border as soon as possible, because she knew substandard medical conditions in Venezuela put her and her baby’s lives in danger if she gave birth there.
“I saw children dying in hospitals because of medical malpractice. My fear was this would happen to me. I decided to pack my bags and gave birth to my son in Colombia,” Rodríguez says.
Her son, Isaías Pineda, was born in September at a hospital in Cúcuta, where births to Venezuelan mothers outnumber those to Colombian mothers 3 to 1. He received medical attention, which she doesn’t believe he would have in Venezuela. A few days before returning home, Isaías obtained his birth certificate, a document that entitles him to Colombian nationality.
Venezuelans living in Colombia are also working to help one another. One such initiative is Caminantes Tricolor, a foundation whose founder, Alans Ernesto Peralta, is a Venezuelan lawyer who fled to Colombia.
His foundation started out helping Venezuelans traveling by foot across the continent—to Peru, Ecuador and Chile—in search of new opportunities. “But I noticed that this was not easy, and the volunteers got tired,” Peralta says.
Now, at Casa Morada, Caminantes Tricolor’s operation center in Cúcuta, Venezuelans are given orientation and support with immigration paperwork and finding work in industry, farming, and elsewhere. In 2018, the organization says it helped 1,800 people receive assistance with things like food, lodging, and clothes.
Recently, the organization formed an association that employs 40 people on a farm to plant sugar cane, a typical crop of the southern part of the country. “This generates [unity] and sends this message: Venezuelans who are here, we want to work, we want to contribute to this development, because it is our own development,” Peralta says.
“We know that our impacts are small, like a drop in this great ocean of problems,” he says. “But we promote projects that can be replicated in other departments of Colombia. We want to plant an economic model, where Colombians and Venezuelans come together to share knowledge, culture and … progress.”
|GUSTAVO ANDRÉS CASTILLO ARENAS is a journalist living in Cúcuta, Colombia.|
|PATRICK AMMERMAN is a Philadelphia-based journalist and a 2019 Pulitzer Center student fellow.|
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March 13, 2020 (Updated March 14, 2020)
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Today (March 16), we had our first confirmed case of COVID-19 here on Maui – a flight attendant who had been exposed in Germany on March 4. We are an interconnected world.
Planes and ships keep arriving on Maui where we have NO screening and are promised test kits within the next six weeks. I’ve read that we are about 11 days behind Italy. So, we each need to take responsibly for our own health and the health of those around us. Barry and I are both healthy, but “older,” and I especially have interacted with probably 200 or so visitors in the past week. I don’t want to get sick nor pass the virus on to others, so this is the third day that Barry and I are self-isolating.
The following article by Harvard Doctor Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs in Boston, provides excellent advice.
“I know there is some confusion about what to do next in the midst of this unprecedented time of a pandemic, school closures, and widespread social disruption. As a primary care physician and public health leader, I have been asked by a lot of people for my opinion, and I will provide it below based on the best information available to me today. These are my personal views, and my take on the necessary steps ahead.
What I can clearly say is that what we do, or don’t do, over the next week will have a massive impact on the local and perhaps national trajectory of coronavirus. We are only about 11 days behind Italy and generally on track to repeat what is unfortunately happening there and throughout much of the rest of Europe very soon.
At this point, containment through contact tracing and increased testing is only part of the necessary strategy. We must move to pandemic mitigation through widespread, uncomfortable, and comprehensive social distancing. That means not only shutting down schools, work (as much as possible), group gatherings, and public events, but also making daily choices to stay away from each other as much as possible to Flatten The Curve below.
Our health system will not be able to cope with the projected numbers of people who will need acute care should we not muster the fortitude and will to socially distance each other starting now. On a regular day, we have about 45,000 staffed ICU beds nationally, which can be ramped up in a crisis to about 95,000. Even moderate projections suggest that if current infectious trends hold, our capacity (locally and nationally) may be overwhelmed as early as mid-late April. Thus, the only strategies that can get us off this concerning trajectory are those that enable us to work together as a community to maintain public health by staying apart.
The wisdom, and necessity, of this more aggressive, early, and extreme form of social distancing can be found here. I would urge you to take a minute to walk through the interactive graphs – they will drive home the point about what we need to do now to avoid a worse crisis later. Historical lessons and experiences of countries worldwide have shown us that taking these actions early can have a dramatic impact on the magnitude of the outbreak. So what does this enhanced form of social distancing mean on a daily basis, when schools are cancelled?
Here are some steps you can start taking now to keep your family safe and do your part to avoid a worsening crisis:
1. We need to push our local, state, and national leaders to close ALL schools and public spaces and cancel all events and public gatherings now.
A local, town by town response won’t have the adequate needed effect. We need a statewide, nationwide approach in these trying times. Contact your representativeand your governor to urge them to enact statewide closures. As of today, six states have already done so. Your state should be one of them. Also urge leaders to increase funds for emergency preparedness and make widening coronavirus testing capacity an immediate and top priority. We also need legislators to enact better paid sick leave and unemployment benefits to help nudge people to make the right call to stay at home right now.
2. No kid playdates, parties, sleepovers, or families/friends visiting each other’s houses and apartments.
This sounds extreme because it is. We are trying to create distance between family units and between individuals. It may be particularly uncomfortable for families with small children, kids with differential abilities or challenges, and for kids who simply love to play with their friends. But even if you choose only one friend to have over, you are creating new links and possibilities for the type of transmission that all of our school/work/public event closures are trying to prevent. The symptoms of coronavirus take four to five days to manifest themselves. Someone who comes over looking well can transmit the virus. Sharing food is particularly risky – I definitely do not recommend that people do so outside of their family.
We have already taken extreme social measures to address this serious disease – let’s not actively co-opt our efforts by having high levels of social interaction at people’s houses instead of the schools or workplaces. Again – the wisdom of early and aggressive social distancing is that it can flatten the curve above, give our health system a chance to not be overwhelmed, and eventually may reduce the length and need for longer periods of extreme social distancing later (see what has transpired in Italy and Wuhan). We need to all do our part during these times, even if it means some discomfort for a while. This won’t be forever, but we need to be committed and intentional about our actions now.
3. Take care of yourself and your family, but maintain social distance.
Exercise, take walks/runs outside, and stay connected through phone, video, and other social media. But when you go outside, do your best to maintain at least six feet between you and non-family members. If you have kids, try not to use public facilities like playground structures, as coronavirus can live on plastic and metal for up to nine days, and these structures aren’t getting regularly cleaned.
Going outside will be important during these strange times, and the weather is improving. Go outside every day if you are able, but stay physically away from people outside your family or roommates. If you have kids, try playing a family soccer or basketball game instead of having your kids play with other kids, since sports often mean direct physical contact with others. And though we may wish to visit elders in our community in person, I would not visit nursing homes or other areas where large numbers of the elderly reside, as they are at highest risk for complications and mortality from coronavirus.
Social distancing can take a toll (after all, most of us are social creatures). The CDC offers tips and resources to reduce this burden, and other resources offer strategies to cope with the added stress during this time.
We need to find alternate ways to reduce social isolation within our communities through virtual means instead of in-person visits.
4. Reduce the frequency of going to stores, restaurants, and coffee shops for the time being.
Of course trips to the grocery store will be necessary, but try to limit them and go at times when they are less busy. Consider asking grocery stores to queue people at the door in order to limit the number of people inside a store at any one time. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly before and after your trip. And leave the medical masks and gloves for the medical professionals—we need them to care for those who are sick. Maintain distance from others while shopping—and remember that hoarding supplies negatively impacts others so buy what you need and leave some for everyone else. Take-out meals and food are riskier than making food at home given the links between the people who prepare food, transport the food, and you. It is hard to know how much that risk is, but it is certainly higher than making it at home. But you can and should continue to support your local small businesses (especially restaurants and other retailers) during this difficult time by buying gift certificates online that you can use later.
5. If you are sick, isolate yourself, stay home, and contact a medical professional.
If you are sick, you should try to isolate yourself from the rest of your family within your residence as best as you can. If you have questions about whether you qualify or should get a coronavirus test, you can call your primary care team and/or consider calling the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at 617 983 6800 (or your state’s department of health if you are outside of Massachusetts). Don’t just walk into an ambulatory clinic—call first so that they can give you the best advice—which might be to go to a drive-through testing center or a virtual visit on video or phone. Of course, if it is an emergency call 911.
I realize there is a lot built into these suggestions, and that they represent a real burden for many individuals, families, businesses, and communities. Social distancing is hard and may negatively impact many people, especially those who face vulnerabilities in our society. I recognize that there is structural and social inequity built in and around social distancing recommendations. We can and must take steps to bolster our community response to people who face food insecurity, domestic violence, and housing challenges, along with the many other social disadvantages.
I also realize that not everyone can do everything. But we have to try our absolute best as a community, starting today. Enhancing social distancing, even by one day, can make a large difference.
We have a preemptive opportunity to save lives through the actions we take right now that we will not have in a few weeks. It is a public health imperative. It is also our responsibility as a community to act while we still have a choice and while our actions can have the greatest impact
We cannot wait [my emphasis].
Wherever you are – Stay healthy. Stay home. Help one another.
May you and your loved ones we well. Aloha, Renée
I love the ideas in this article. Why aren’t the strengths of each of the U.S. presidential candidates combined? The U.S. and its people have many challenges. We are likely to debate some of Friedman’s suggested placements, but there is strength in unity.
Thomas Friedman: Democrats, here’s the sure-fire way to defeat Donald Trump
If this election turns out to be just between a self-proclaimed socialist and an undiagnosed sociopath, we will be in a terrible, terrible place as a country. How do we prevent that?
That’s all I am thinking about right now. My short answer is that the Democrats have to do something extraordinary — forge a national unity ticket the likes of which they have never forged before. And that’s true even if Democrats nominate someone other than Bernie Sanders.
What would this super ticket look like? Well, I suggest Sanders — and Michael Bloomberg, who seems to be his most viable long-term challenger — lay it out this way:
“I want people to know that if I am the Democratic nominee these will be my Cabinet choices — my team of rivals. I want Amy Klobuchar as my vice president. Her decency, experience and moderation will be greatly appreciated across America and particularly in the Midwest. I want Mike Bloomberg (or Bernie Sanders) as my secretary of the Treasury. Our plans for addressing income inequality are actually not that far apart, and if we can blend them together it will be great for the country and reassure markets. I want Joe Biden as my secretary of state. No one in our party knows the world better or has more credibility with our allies than Joe. I will ask Elizabeth Warren to serve as health and human services secretary. No one could bring more energy and intellect to the task of expanding health care for more Americans than Senator Warren.
“I want Kamala Harris for attorney general. She has the toughness and integrity needed to clean up the corrupt mess Donald Trump has created in our Justice Department. I would like Mayor Pete as homeland security secretary; his intelligence and military background would make him a quick study in that job. I would like Tom Steyer to head a new Cabinet position: secretary of national infrastructure. We’re going to rebuild America, not just build a wall on the border with Mexico. And I am asking Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, to become secretary of housing and urban development. Who would bring more passion to the task of revitalizing our inner cities than Cory?
“I am asking Mitt Romney to be my commerce secretary. He is the best person to promote American business and technology abroad — and it is vital that the public understands that my government will be representing all Americans, including Republicans. I would like Andrew Yang to be energy secretary, overseeing our nuclear stockpile and renewable energy innovation. He’d be awesome.
“I am asking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to serve as our U.N. ambassador. Can you imagine how our international standing would improve with youth worldwide with her representing next-gen America? And I want Sen. Michael Bennet, the former superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, to be my secretary of education. No one understands education reform better than he does. Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna would be an ideal secretary of labor, balancing robots and workers to create “new collar” jobs.
“Finally, I am asking William H. McRaven, the retired Navy admiral who commanded the U.S. Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014 and oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to be my defense secretary. Admiral McRaven, more than any other retired military officer, has had the courage and integrity to speak out against the way President Trump has politicized our intelligence agencies.
Only last week, McRaven wrote an essay in The Washington Post decrying Trump’s firing of Joe Maguire as acting director of national intelligence — the nation’s top intelligence officer — for doing his job when he had an aide brief a bipartisan committee of Congress on Russia’s renewed efforts to tilt our election toward Trump.
“Edmund Burke,” wrote McRaven, “the Irish statesman and philosopher, once said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”
If Bernie or Bloomberg or whoever emerges to head the Democratic ticket brings together such a team of rivals, I am confident it will defeat Trump in a landslide. But if progressives think they can win without the moderates — or the moderates without the progressives — they are crazy. And they’d be taking a huge risk with the future of the country by trying.
And I mean a huge risk. Back in May 2018, the former House speaker John Boehner declared: “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
It’s actually not napping anymore. It’s dead.
And I will tell you the day it died. It was just last week, when Trump sacked Maguire for advancing the truth and replaced him with a loyalist, an incompetent political hack, Richard Grenell. Grenell is the widely disliked U.S. ambassador to Germany, a post for which he is also unfit. Grenell is now purging the intelligence service of Trump critics. How are we going to get unvarnished, nonpolitical intelligence analysis when the message goes out that if your expert conclusions disagree with Trump’s wishes, you’re gone?
I don’t accept, but can vaguely understand, Republicans’ rallying around Trump on impeachment. But when Republicans, the self-proclaimed national security party — folks like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton — don’t lift a finger to stop Trump’s politicization of our first line of defense — the national intelligence directorate set up after 9/11 — then the Republican Party is not asleep. It’s dead and buried.
And that is why a respected, nonpartisan military intelligence professional like Bill McRaven felt compelled to warn what happens when good people are silent in the face of evil. Our retired generals don’t go public like that very often. But he was practically screaming, “This is a four-alarm fire, a category 5 hurricane.” And the GOP response? Silence.
Veteran political analyst E.J. Dionne, in his valuable new book, “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country,” got this exactly right: We have no responsible Republican Party anymore. It is a deformed Trump personality cult. If the country is going to be governed responsibly, that leadership can come only from Democrats and disaffected Republicans courageous enough to stand up to Trump. It is crucial, therefore, argues Dionne, that moderate and progressive Democrats find a way to build a governing coalition together.
Neither can defeat the other. Neither can win without the other. Neither can govern without the other.
If they don’t join together — if the Democrats opt for a circular firing squad — you can kiss the America you grew up in goodbye.”
Thanks for sharing this article, Louis.
What do you think?
The following is an excerpt from Andrew J. Bacevich’s essay. “The Old Normal: Why we can’t beat our addiction to war,” in the March 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I hope you read the entire piece, but here is a excerpt:
“Addressing the graduation cadets at West Point win May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. ‘We are determined, he remarked, ‘that before the sun sets on the terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.’ . . . .
“In our so-called Trump Era, freedom and power aren’t what they used to be. Both are undergoing radical conceptual transformations. Marshall assumed a mutual compatibility between the two. No such assumption can be made today.
Although the strategy of accruing overwhelming military might to advance the cause of liberty persisted throughout the period misleadingly enshrined as the Cold War, it did so in attenuated form. The size and capabilities of the Red Army, exaggerated by both Washington and the Kremlin, along with the danger of nuclear Armageddon, by no means exaggerated, suggested the need for the United States to exercise a modicum of restraint. Even so, Marshall’s pithy statement of intent more accurately represented the overarching intent of U.S. policy from the late 1940s through the 1980s than any number of presidential pronouncements or government-issued manifestos. Even in a divided world, policymakers continued to nurse hopes that the United States could embody freedom while wielding unparalleled power, admitting to no contradictions between the two.
With the end of the Cold War, Marshall’s axiom came roaring back in full force. In Washington, many concluded that it was time to pull out the stops. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1992, General Colin Powell, arguably the nation’s most highly respected soldier since Marshall, anointed America “the sole superpower” and, quoting Lincoln, “the last best hope of earth.” Civilian officials went further, designating the United States as history’s “indispensable nation.” Supposedly uniquely positioned to glimpse the future, America took it upon itself to bring that future into being, using whatever means it deemed necessary. During the ensuing decade, U.S. troops were called upon to make good on such claims in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and East Africa, among other venues. Indispensability imposed obligations, which for the moment at least seemed tolerable.
After 9/11, this post–Cold War posturing reached its apotheosis. Exactly sixty years after Marshall’s West Point address, President George W. Bush took his own turn in speaking to a class of graduating cadets. With splendid symmetry, Bush echoed and expanded on Marshall’s doctrine, declaring, “Wherever we carry it, the American flag will stand not only for our power, but for freedom.” Yet something essential had changed. No longer content merely to defend against threats to freedom—America’s advertised purpose in World War II and during the Cold War—the United States was now going on the offensive. “In the world we have entered,” Bush declared, “the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.” The president thereby embraced a policy of preventive war, as the Japanese and Germans had, and for which they landed in the dock following World War II. It was, in effect, Marshall’s injunction on steroids.
We are today in a position to assess the results of following this “path of action.” Since 2001, the United States has spent approximately $6.5 trillion on several wars, while sustaining some sixty thousand casualties. Post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have also contributed directly or indirectly to an estimated 750,000 “other” deaths. During this same period, attempts to export American values triggered a pronounced backlash, especially among Muslims abroad. Clinging to Marshall’s formula as a basis for policy has allowed the global balance of power to shift in ways unfavorable to the United States.
At the same time, Americans no longer agree among themselves on what freedom requires, excludes, or prohibits. When Marshall spoke at West Point back in 1942, freedom had a fixed definition. The year before, President Franklin Roosevelt had provided that definition when he described “four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. That was it. Freedom did not include equality or individual empowerment or radical autonomy.
As Army chief of staff, Marshall had focused on winning the war, not upending the social and cultural status quo (hence his acceptance of a Jim Crow army). The immediate objective was to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan, not to subvert the white patriarchy, endorse sexual revolutions, or promote diversity.
Further complicating this ever-expanding freedom agenda is another factor just now beginning to intrude into American politics: whether it is possible to preserve the habits of consumption, hypermobility, and self-indulgence that most Americans see as essential to daily existence while simultaneously tackling the threat posed by human-induced climate change. For Americans, freedom always carries with it expectations of more. It did in 1942, and it still does today. Whether more can be reconciled with the preservation of the planet is a looming question with immense implications.
When Marshall headed the U.S. Army, he was oblivious to such concerns in ways that his latter-day successors atop the U.S. military hierarchy cannot afford to be. National security and the well-being of the planet have become inextricably intertwined. In 2010, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that the national debt, the prime expression of American profligacy, had become “the most significant threat to our national security.” In 2017, General Paul Selva, Joint Chiefs vice chair, stated bluntly that “the dynamics that are happening in our climate will drive uncertainty and will drive conflict.”
As for translating objectives into outcomes, Marshall’s “great citizen-army” is long gone, probably for good. The tradition of the citizen-soldier that Marshall considered the foundation of the American military collapsed as a consequence of the Vietnam War. Today the Pentagon relies instead on a relatively small number of overworked regulars reinforced by paid mercenaries, aka contractors. The so-called all-volunteer force (AVF) is volunteer only in the sense that the National Football League is. Terminate the bonuses that the Pentagon offers to induce high school graduates to enlist and serving soldiers to re-up, and the AVF would vanish.
Furthermore, the tasks assigned to these soldiers go well beyond simply forcing our adversaries to submit, which was what we asked of soldiers in World War II. Since 9/11, those tasks include something akin to conversion: bringing our adversaries to embrace our own conception of what freedom entails, endorse liberal democracy, and respect women’s rights. Yet to judge by recent wars in Iraq (originally styled Operation Iraqi Freedom) and Afghanistan (for years called Operation Enduring Freedom), U.S. forces are not equipped to accomplish such demanding work.
This record of non-success testifies to the bind in which the United States finds itself. Saddled with outsized ambitions dating from the end of the Cold War, confronted by dramatic and unanticipated challenges, and stuck with instruments of power ill-suited to existing and emerging requirements, and led by a foreign-policy establishment that suffers from terminal inertia, the United States has lost its strategic bearings.
Deep in denial, that establishment nonetheless has a ready-made explanation for what’s gone wrong: as in the years from 1939 to 1941, so too today a putative penchant for isolationism is crippling U.S. policy. Isolationists are ostensibly preventing the United States from getting on with the business of amassing power to spread freedom, as specified in Marshall’s doctrine. Consider, if you will, the following headlines dating from before Trump took office: “Isolationism Soars Among Americans” (2009); “American isolationism just hit a fifty-year high” (2013); “America’s New Isolationism” (2013, twice) “Our New Isolationism” (2013); “The New American Isolationism” (2014); “American Isolationism Is Destabilizing the World,” (2014); “The Revival of American Isolationism” (2016). And let us not overlook “America’s New Isolationists Are Endangering the West,” penned in 2013 by none other than John Bolton, Trump’s recently cashiered national security adviser.
Note that when these essays appeared U.S. military forces were deployed in well over one hundred countries around the world and were actively engaged in multiple foreign wars. The Pentagon’s budget easily dwarfed that of any plausible combination of rivals. If this fits your definition of isolationism, then you might well believe that President Trump is, as he claims, “the master of the deal.” All the evidence proves otherwise.
Isolationism is a fiction, bandied about to divert attention from other issues. It is a scare word, an egregious form of establishment-sanctioned fake news. It serves as a type of straitjacket, constraining debate on possible alternatives to militarized American globalism, which has long since become a source of self-inflicted wounds.
Only when foreign-policy elites cease to cite isolationism to explain why the “sole superpower” has stumbled of late will they be able to confront the issues that matter. Ranking high among those issues is an egregious misuse of American military power and an equally egregious abuse of American soldiers. Confronting the vast disparity between U.S. military ambitions since 9/11 and the results actually achieved is a necessary first step toward devising a serious response to Donald Trump’s reckless assault on even the possibility of principled statecraft.
Marshall’s 1942 formula has become an impediment to sound policy. My guess is that, faced with the facts at hand, the general would have been the first to agree. He was known to tell subordinates, “Don’t fight the problem, decide it.” Yet before deciding, it’s necessary to see the problem for what it is and, in this instance, perhaps also to see ourselves as we actually are.
For the United States today, the problem turns out to be similar to the one that beset the nation during the period leading up to World War II: not isolationism but overstretch, compounded by indolence. The present-day disparities between our aspirations, commitments, and capacities to act are enormous.
The core questions, submerged today as they were on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, are these: What does freedom require? How much will it cost? And who will pay?”
Banner photo: The Last Flag (Dedicated to Howard Zinn), a charcoal drawing by Robert Longo
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York City in Harper Magazine, March 2020, p. 25.
But we could change. We could admit that waging war on other countries doesn’t seem to be the best way – or a humane way – for other countries or for ourselves for sustainable peace.
|This gleaning comes – not from Barry, but from our wonderful neighbor Mary. Mahalo, Mary.|
Could One Question Uplift and Unite Humanity? | Jon Berghoff | TEDxTraverseCity – YouTube. “For 35 years, we’ve been asking… what causes any human system to come alive, more naturally, effectively, and faster than before? The answer… begins with new questions.” Jon Berghoff
What are your strengths? What do you like to do? Why are you here? What is your purpose? What is your vision?
When our purpose becomes shared, we can make significant changes.
Watch this TedX talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-KxdBun1W8&feature=youtu.be
You will be inspired. Aloha, Renée
Here’s a problem that someone from a hot part of the world might have:
I’ve had a terrible time trying to grow salad greens for the kitchen. The few plants that did survive the onslaught of bugs and pests soon floundered in the heat. I am starting to reconsider if it’s even worth trying or perhaps trying something different, or growing in the wet season? The problem is I don’t know where to start and I am unsure of what to try… any ideas? I would just like to grow some edible plants to supplement my diet as part of a healthy lifestyle that I can eat fresh or cooked. Thanks in advance for any suggestions,” Warren
Dr. Kris, the Garden Doctor, responds:
Growing traditional vegetables suited to a temperate climate in the tropics is more than a challenge – akin to a snow-flakes chance in hell!
During the tropical wet/dry seasons the climate is either too hot, or there’s too much rain and humidity or otherwise there’s not enough. And then if you can somehow successfully navigate the climate there are a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bugs and sap suckers to deal with that love this new exotic food you’ve brought into their environment.
Some plants that we would all like to grow such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, or lettuce for example simply won’t withstand the heat. Even growing these in a temperate summer climate would fail and run to seed on the first hot day, meaning all winter season crops are out of consideration here in the tropics.
So then, what about summer season vegetables? Well the heat certainly won’t be a problem. It is possible to grow many types of what we would consider summer vegetables in temperate climes – but for the most part it is possible only in the dry season. Avoid the wet season as the high humidity causes all sorts of problems usually staring with mildew and ending in fungus. Your options are limited to growing traditional summer crops in the dry season only.
Here are some suggestions.
Tomatoes will grow well during the dry season. Personally, I would opt for cherry/grape tomato varieties only. They seem to be the hardiest, most prolific pest resistant tomatoes that I know of. What’s the point of growing your own if you have to spray fungicide and pesticide poison all over the place.
Eggplants, chillies and pepper/capsicums will all grow well no matter how hot it gets. Snake beans grow well too, the local markets are often overflowing with them. Asian greens such as bok choi, pak choi are possible, as well as Chinese cabbage or wombok but will probably benefit from some protection from the hottest part of the day. Some varieties of kale may struggle due to the heat. Don’t even bother with broccoli or traditional cabbage, and hearting lettuce varieties are out too. If you really must try lettuce grow an open leaf variety such as oak leaf.
Radishes will do well, plant from seed and they will germinate in a matter of days, you could be pulling them up within 3-4 weeks. They love the heat, and they are versatile. Radishes are best picked smaller and sooner rather than larger and later. The larger, the more bland they become – they lose their peppery zing. Yet on the other hand if you let them go you can just keep picking the leaves for use in salads and soups, and just forget about the harvesting the root. The leaves have a peppery flavour much like arugula. After a few months unpicked radishes will flower and run to seed at which point you can harvest the seed pods or ‘radish peas’ as I like to call them. They are green and juicy, eat them raw straight off the plant or add to salads for a peppery crunch – tastes just like root yet the novelty of snacking on juicy bite-sized radish peas never wears off.
Beetroot is another root crop that will also perform well in the dry season and just like the radishes you can pick the leaves and add them to salads. Sprinkle some fluffy dandelion seed around the garden and perhaps grow some nasturtium, both of which which will take care of themselves and you now have a good mix of salad greens including the radish and beetroot. Even better they are all hardy, relatively pest resistant, full of vitamins and minerals and will taste just as good if not better than any traditional leafy vegetable once tossed and dressed. Dandelion and nasturtium are usually considered weeds but they’re the types of plants I want to grow, the ones that grow themselves. If you can change your perspective, you will reap the rewards!
Really, the easiest way to grow your own food in the tropics is by growing tropical fruit and vegetable varieties that are suited to the climate – as they say….when in Rome!
Start with tropical edibles that are at home in the heat and humidity. Lemongrass, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, galangal, Thai basil and Vietnamese mint for starters.
Vegetables will take off once the humidity hits. Sweet potato, bitter melon, kangkong/water spinach, amaranth/mustard greens and rocket/arugula all grow well. Starchy tubers grow well in hot and humid summers, think taro or cassava otherwise known locally as ‘singkong’. I often see cassava thriving on dusty roadsides. The cassava leaf or ‘daun singkong’ is a mainstay of ‘nasi padang’ and other curries, just be careful to cook it properly and never eat it raw as it can be toxic if prepared incorrectly.
Chokos/chayote which grows on a vine is another versatile vegetable that goes down well in a curry, the fresh vine shoots can be added to stir fry’s and curries.
Papaya is a tree that you can grow quickly from seed, potentially bearing fruit within a year of planting. Green papaya is popular as a vegetable in salads, or ‘rujak’. Papaya juice is great, the seeds and leaves have multiple medicinal uses when infused as teas or even cooked and eaten. The seeds can even be dried and used as a pepper substitute.
Edible gardeners in the temperate regions lament the fact that they don’t have the climate for growing exciting exotic edible plants such as ginger, galangal, turmeric, sweet potato or papaya but here in the tropics we have this fantastic opportunity! It really makes tomatoes, cabbages and broccoli seem bland and boring, and that’s without even discussing the possibilities with the plethora of fruits trees and vines available – now that’s a topic for another day!
Whatever you decide on, always plant in a free draining soil for best results, kangkong/water spinach being the only exception. Good Luck.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Kris
You can read all past articles of Garden Doctor at www.BaliAdvertiser.biz
Happy gardening now (or planning your future garden) .
Let’s all work on eating healthy, fresh produce from our local farmers – and growing some of it too. Aloha, R & B
A note to Dr. Kris, the Garden Doctor:
‘Hi, I read about the $289 million court case and the glyphosate Roundup, what are the best ways to kill weeds without weed killer? Seems you just can’t stop the weeds in the tropics, just in the home garden and around the paths. Please help.
Thank you in advance. Lucas, UBUD.’
In August, a US Court ordered global chemical giant Monsanto pay $US 289 million to a former school gardener who is dying of cancer, after a jury in California found Roundup (which contains glyphosate) contributed to his illness. They will be appealing of course.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency, the IARC, stated that glyphosate is likely carcinogenic, yet just last year the European Union decided to renew the licence for the official use of glyphosate. In the aftermath of the US court case, Monsanto has maintained that its product was an “effective and safe tool for farmers and others”. Hmmm?
The result of the recent court case and linkages to glyphosate came as no surprise to many.
I wrote an article on the dangers of gylphosate in 2015, which can be found at – www.baliadvertiser.biz/glyphosate/.
Unfortunately, many are still in the dark to the undeniable dangers. Scientific evidence has shown that glyphosate can cause or accelerate cancer rates. People are spraying it around the environment and it is all over your food. Despite the fact that the dangers of Roundup are gradually becoming well-known, uncovered and exposed by various segments of the community – it still remains in heavy use around the world.
Many are still unaware of the serious health issues attributed to glyphosate, although it has been banned in many places around the world.
Roundup in conjunction with science has given rise to a global industry of genetically modified food. GM food crops like corn and soybean have been designed with glyphosate resistance in mind. Fields are sprayed, weeds controlled and at the same time the crop is left standing. It simplifies farming and weed control in exchange for food covered with Roundup. People are also wholesale spraying it around the garden, and local governments around their parklands and public green spaces too.
Interestingly, after sitting on the data from its glyphosate tests for more than a year, the FDA recently or rather finally made the results public. Tests found glyphosate on 63 percent of corn samples and 67 percent of soybean samples. As a further note of interest there were no oat or wheat samples, the two main crops where glyphosate is used as a pre-harvest drying agent, resulting in glyphosate contamination of foods.
The reported health risks associated with glyphosate exposure has farmers, groundskeepers and gardeners scrambling to find alternatives. Glyphosate is so widely used that traces of the of it have been found in breast milk, beer, wine (even when made with organic grapes), eggs, oatmeal and non-dairy coffee creamer, among other products.
There are also environmental impacts on groundwater, rivers, streams, and oceans, glyphosate has even been detected in rainfall samples. Then there’s the issue of poisons in the food chain.
For the home gardener the best alternatives are to pull the weeds, or if it’s a larger area dig out the entire garden bed, turn the soil and start again. If you spray Roundup everywhere you’ll still have to pull the dead weeds out in the end anyway. Mulch garden beds regularly or grow creeping groundcovers. Mulch with cardboard, newspaper, leaves, straw, wood chips, pebbles, stones etc. Use a sharp hoe, garden fork, or shovel to hand weed, or go for the more permanent solution of installing a weed suppressant membrane.
Manual removal with a shovel, hoe or other tool is an effective spot treatment for most weeds. They may come back and need to be dug out again. When young weeds are caught early and thoroughly dug out, they won’t be able to re-seed and rapidly reproduce.
Experiment with dense ground covers which can naturally prevent weeds from growing underneath. Get creative and use dense low growing flowers or even herbs as ground cover. Culinary herbs such as parsley, mint, thyme or oregano are useful choices which can effectively form a carpet around the base of plants in sparse garden beds. If you’re battling weeds in your lawn, make sure you use grass varieties appropriate for shade, drought or other difficult areas where a conventional lawn might not grow well.
For weeds growing in pavement and cracks, boiling water poured straight from the kettle usually does the job. For any other general weed killing areas using commercial strength vinegar is a proven effective. Commercial grade would normally come with an acetic acid concentration of 20% strength. Normal household vinegar at 5-10% will usually do the job on smaller weeds, but for an effective job on larger hardier ones you’ll need a commercial grade vinegar at around 20% min.
The vinegar will probably be more effective on a hot sunny day. It biodegrades easily, effectively a non-toxic approach to spot killing weeds in opposition to commercial, synthetic and chemical formulas. Vinegar still always needs to be handled with care, so avoid inhaling it or getting it in your eyes. Don’t stand on the wrong side of the wind!
In addition to avoiding toxic sprays, by growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs you will be feeding yourself with the healthiest produce possible free of potential toxins. Buying organic or growing your own is always going to be the best choice when it comes to your food and avoiding toxic chemicals.
Key findings of an Investigative Report into pesticides and produce from EWG (source: www.ewg.org) found that:
- The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
- A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 pesticides.
- Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides a piece.
It was reported in August 2018 that tests commissioned by EWG found glyphosate residues on many popular oat cereals, oatmeal, granola and snack bars. Almost three-fourths of the 45 samples tested had glyphosate levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health within an adequate margin of safety.
All you need to know is that glyphosate has been linked to cancer by California state scientists and the World Health Organization.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Kris
You can read all past articles of Garden Doctor at www.BaliAdvertiser.biz
In a recent New York Times Opinion piece, environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a group seeking to build clean solutions for the world’s energy needs, notes the possibility and importance of California state legislation.
“The State Senate passed a measure last year that would commit California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, to running on 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Now it is up to the Assembly to provide crucial leadership by passing that legislation, S.B. 100. If any place on earth can handle this transition, it’s California, home to some of the planet’s strongest sunshine and many of its finest clean-tech entrepreneurs.
Already, thanks to strong efforts at efficiency and conservation and the falling price of solar power, the average California household spends almost 50 percent less on energy than the average family in, say, Louisiana. But unless the Assembly passes S.B. 100 before the current session ends, much of that momentum will evaporate. After great organizing (including from my colleagues at 350.org chapters across the state), 72 percent of Californians back the bill; it’s now a test of confidence versus cravenness for members of the Assembly.
The governor, Jerry Brown, has been strangely quiet on S.B. 100, which is odd since it should be the no-brainer capstone to his clean-energy endeavors. After the governor’s years of leading efforts to deal with the demand side of the energy equation, activists are now also demanding he show equal attention to the supply side. His administration routinely grants new permits for oil and gas drilling, leading not only to more carbon emissions but also to drill rigs and derricks next to the houses, schools and hospitals of the state’s poorest residents: From rural Kern County to south-central Los Angeles, nearly 70 percent of the people living near wells are minorities. . . “
See the complete article at –
Aloha, Barry (and Renee)
P.S. Thanks, Sue for sending this article to us.
Image by: Mikey Burton
Stephanie Coontz On the Past, Present, and Future of Marriage” by Mark Leviton in The Sun, September 2016.
As our son heads toward marriage, I found this article particularly interesting.
American conservatives look back with affection on a time when the “traditional family” assured stability for everyone, but historian Stephanie Coontz reminds us that, like any dream of a golden age, the traditional family evaporates upon close examination. In her recently revised and updated 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Coontz conveys the complex and rapidly changing nature of the family, marriage, and gender relations. It’s often said that people who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it, but Coontz says, “I’m concerned they think they can repeat the past — which is dangerous.”
Coontz was educated at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington in the 1960s. Instead of pursuing a PhD, she became active in the antiwar and civil-rights movements, serving as a leader in the National Peace Action Coalition. In 1975 she began teaching history and family studies full time at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and has also taught in Hawaii and Japan. She is the author of several books, including Marriage: A History and A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. In the revised and updated version of The Way We Never Were, published this spring, Coontz examines such topics as same-sex marriage and increasing income inequity. Her website is stephaniecoontz.com.
At the age of seventy-one Coontz is semiretired from her teaching post at Evergreen State but still a fierce advocate for “good history and responsible social policy” as Director of Research and Public Education for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited her work in his majority opinion.
I met Coontz for this interview at her organic farm on the outskirts of Olympia, where she lives with her husband, Will Reissner. Her life was in considerable turmoil: she’d only recently recovered from pneumonia, and her son Kris, a third-year medical resident at Tulane Medical Center in Louisiana, had been badly injured in a hit-and-run accident. I’d given Coontz the option of canceling, but she’d said the interview would provide a needed distraction. When I arrived, she told me, “I’ve been crying a lot, so if I need a break, I’ll let you know.”
We talked for three hours at her dining-room table while Reissner tended to the farm animals outside. Halfway through, Coontz made us lunch with produce from her garden. Even when she showed her frustration with those who disagreed with her, she remained calm and witty. “I don’t like to be too harsh,” she said. “I’m always looking for the kindest way to deliver information.”
Leviton: In The Way We Never Were you identify many myths about marriage, family, and society — a sort of false collective memory that Americans have. What do we get wrong?
Coontz: In this country we are particularly prone to myth-building, perhaps because we built our whole nation on the myth that this was an empty continent, just waiting for us; that we weren’t taking it from anybody.
In the nineteenth century, an emerging market society created the myth of self-reliance. Forgetting the actual experience of settling America, people came to believe that everyone, if they had grit, could pull themselves up alone; they didn’t have to rely on others. Self-reliance was initially seen as a male character trait but later was applied to families in general: families are self-reliant because the men go out and get everything and the women provide the care at home, and the rest of the world can go to hell. The self-reliance myth has now begun to influence women as well.
The “family values” myth is a much more recent development. That phrase wasn’t even familiar to most Americans until 1976. It does not at all describe the kind of moral structures and family relationships that our forefathers and foremothers idealized.
Leviton: What does “family values” mean?
Coontz: That you don’t have sex before marriage, and if you do get married, you stay married if at all possible. Also that marriage is the focus of your obligations, and family is the most important thing in life.
I’ve argued that “family values” are actually antisocial in some ways, because they usually don’t involve connections to other families. I’m always struck by the great difference between the early Americans’ religious beliefs and the current Republican notion of values. The early Americans believed you had responsibilities to the larger community. They didn’t talk about a “Christian family,” because it was too narrow and exclusive. They believed in a Christianity that reached out. Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly rejected the notion that we should have any state sponsorship of one religious faith over another. They wanted to be welcoming to Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. The highest value was to make yourself available to the public.
Leviton: So the conservative idea that men should earn the money and women should stay home and raise the kids was never really traditional?
Coontz: For centuries there was no such thing as a male breadwinner the way most people think of it. Look at medieval paintings, and you’ll see couples running businesses together. Sometimes men would go to sea or take jobs some distance away, and while they were gone, their wives would run the farm or business entirely by themselves.
On a farm the man might plow the fields, but the woman churned the butter — which is a hard job. Believe me, I’ve done it! [Laughs.] Men didn’t “bring home the bacon”; men and women together raised and slaughtered the hogs, and the women took the bacon to market to sell. The man might have been the “head” of the house, because male dominance was the norm, but his wife knew how to do most everything associated with the household and the family business. In the American colonies if a couple ran an inn and the wife died, the authorities would revoke the man’s business license until he remarried; it was obvious he couldn’t run the inn without help.
And men were not uninvolved in social life — quite the opposite. Today, if I invite a male friend to dinner, he often jokes, “Let me have you speak to my social secretary,” meaning his wife. The idea is that women organize dinners, holidays, weddings, funerals, baby showers, and so on. But that wasn’t always true. It was originally men who did that, because social gatherings were a huge source of political and economic power. If you read the diaries of men from hundreds of years ago, you’ll see they were just as interested in throwing parties as the women.
Leviton: As you’ve studied the history of marriage and family, have you ever found what you might call a “natural” set of gender roles?
Coontz: I don’t think so. Women are the ones who bear children, and there are a few fairly constant adaptations to that reality. (I use the word adaptationsbecause I don’t believe these roles are hard-wired into us.) Any society that is small and vulnerable is not going to risk sending its pregnant or nursing mothers on hunting expeditions or to war. Plenty of societies gather food and provisions as a group, though, and women do participate. In many Native American societies some women did join the hunt, either because they were past childbearing age or because they had made a decision not to be mothers. Men have been historically assigned the jobs that require the most physical strength, but women are quite strong; they can work the fields and perform strenuous labor when they aren’t pregnant or nursing.
Leviton: In the U.S. right now highly educated people are more likely to view staying single and having children out of wedlock as OK, but they themselves are more likely to get married and less likely to have children before marriage. If they are so open-minded, why is their behavior so conventional?
Coontz: It’s a good example of how people’s values are poor predictors of what they are going to do, which is why changing someone’s values usually doesn’t cause him or her to behave a certain way. More-educated people tend to recognize there are legitimate reasons why an unmarried woman might have a child. For example, maybe she doesn’t trust her partner to be a good father. But these same more-educated people avoid single parenthood themselves. They would rather get a good education, establish a career, and find a supportive partner first, because they feel confident they can have all that and are willing to wait until they do.
Leviton: My daughter once told me she plans to have a child by the time she turns thirty-two, even if she isn’t married.
Coontz: You might want to tell her that the average age of marriage is trending upward. Even if she reaches forty without a husband, she’s still likely to get married during her lifetime. Also, for a woman in her twenties today, every year she postpones marriage reduces her risk of divorce.
The rules are changing quickly. For the first time in the modern era, the majority of couples are living together before getting married. Not only is cohabitation no longer a threat to marriage, but having an out-of-wedlock baby and then going on to marry no longer puts a couple at a higher risk for divorce. Back in 1990 that would have raised the odds of a couple divorcing by 60 percent. Today it doesn’t raise them at all.
One fascinating thing about studying marriage and families is that these rules are in flux: what worked well in one era doesn’t necessarily work well in another.
Leviton: What are some other examples of how marriage has changed?
Coontz: High-school-educated couples used to be the most marrying type of all; now their marriage rates are almost as low as the high-school dropouts’. College-educated and high-earning women used to be the least likely to marry; now they are the most likely. The marriage partnership has shifted to favor people with more resources, education, and emotional maturity and fewer sources of stress.
Marriage has become harder, not because people did it better in the past, but because we have higher expectations of what a marriage should be. It’s more based on negotiation and the principle that both members will contribute to the breadwinning and the child-rearing. Marriage takes more work than it used to. If you have a demanding job or are wondering where your next paycheck will come from, maybe you don’t have room for marriage in your life. That kind of anxiety deteriorates relationships rapidly.
Prior to the 1990s, having an egalitarian division of labor decreased the quality of your marriage. In 2013 one long-term study showed that couples who divided housework evenly reported less marital and sexual satisfaction and less sex. The study used data from the early nineties, however, which meant those marriages had been entered into in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, when sharing housework was a fairly deviant thing to do. Other researchers went back and studied marriages formed in the nineties and found that the couples who share chores equally now report the highest marital satisfaction and the most sex. A complete turnaround.
For centuries people might have dreamt about love, but it wasn’t any reason to get married. It’s no accident that most of the love matches of classic literature end in tragedy.
Leviton: I grew up in a Jewish home, and my parents expected me to marry another Jew. Do couples who share the same religion or spiritual values have a better chance to stay together?
Coontz: It depends on what exactly they are sharing. People who have shared goals that they act upon, whether they are religious or not, tend to have better marriages. My husband and I are completely secular, but we both care about the labor movement and the environment. We find the same reports infuriating when we read the newspaper and the same stories moving when we watch TV. Those shared values are a huge boost for our marriage.
Couples who belong to churches, temples, or mosques that reach beyond the houses of worship do have a better chance of staying together. But religious belief without membership in a faith organization and shared, meaningful activities doesn’t protect people from divorce at all.
Leviton: You’ve referred to increasing gender equality and increasing economic inequality as two “tectonic plates” pushing against each other under the surface of our culture.
Coontz: Since the 1950s there’s been a large increase in the percentage of people who believe it’s wrong to deny others opportunities or rights based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. This equality revolution is incomplete and uneven and still meets furious resistance, but it’s real.
The growth of economic inequality over the same period, however, has been equally striking. The real wages and benefits of less-educated workers have declined. Middle-income workers experience more economic insecurity. Between 1979 and 2012 the income of families in the top 5 percent increased by 75 percent, while for the bottom 60 percent income has fallen or remained flat. The chance that an individual will experience poverty for at least a year has increased dramatically. The risk of being laid off is pervasive, from high-paying and low-paying jobs alike.
These shifts — which I don’t see abating — are not unrelated to the increase in equality in other areas. For example, more gender equality means fewer women need to be rescued economically by men. Women can say no to marriage and carve out their own lives. And when people do marry, they tend to choose a spouse with roughly equal earnings. A man who’s a doctor or an executive is not looking to marry his nurse or secretary anymore. The doctor wants to marry another doctor. This has tended to exacerbate inequality between social classes even as it promotes equality within the marriage.
Leviton: In your new epilogue to the revised edition of The Way We Never Were, you offer statistical evidence that declining marriage rates in black communities, which right-wing politicians often ascribe to the “poor choices” of their inhabitants, are really a result of economic forces.
Coontz: Economics and persistent racism. I especially respect the work of sociologist Jennifer Lundquist, who has shown that in the military, where blacks have actual equality — meaning access to the same income security, the same medical care, the same child care, the same neighborhoods as whites — their marriage rates are higher than whites’ marriage rates.
Leviton: Your work was cited in Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. Let’s talk about that ruling.
Coontz: Kennedy wrote a beautiful and impassioned opinion about how great marriage is, and if you happen to be in a really good one, it will make you swell with pride to read it. But it is not a description of how marriage has alwaysbeen. He claims marriage conferred honor and well-being on couples throughout history. I’m sorry, but at first it conferred those benefits only on men. As late as the 1970s most states defined rape as a man having forcible intercourse with a woman other than his wife. Legally a husband could not be charged with raping his spouse. That hardly confers honor or well-being on her.
Not to knock marriage — I’m in a good one — but as a historian I find it laughable that a Supreme Court justice would reify marriage as universally good. It certainly did not start out that way. People had to work for a long time to make marriage as an institution good. And marriage cannot work well unless people can leave it.
Justice John Roberts, who wrote the dissent, gave an even more ignorant view of what marriage was like in the past. He claimed that for millennia, in all civilizations, the word marriage meant only one thing: a union of a man and a woman that existed to make sure children were raised “in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”
I am always amused when people tell me marriage was invented to give each child a mother and father. Not at all. Every culture with a strong institution of marriage also says that unless a child’s parents are wedded, the child has no claim on the mother or father. Throughout the ages many kids were abandoned because of the institution of marriage, not protected by it.
As for the union of “one man and one woman”: Has Roberts never read the Bible? The first five books are about the historically most preferred form of marriage, which is one man and several women. None of the petitioners challenged him when he claimed there’d never been such a thing as same-sex marriage, but we do know of societies that have it, though it’s rare. There have been many less-common types of marriage in human history. There have been “ghost marriages,” in which two families who have agreed to marry their children also arrange that if one of the intended spouses dies, the remaining partner will marry his or her ghost. There are societies in which there’s no difference between marriage and cohabitation. There are societies like that of the Na, in China’s Yunnan Province, in which marriage is not a significant institution at all. Brothers and sisters live together, jointly raising whatever children the women have. They’ve existed for thousands of years without marriage.
Even when the outward form of marriage might look the same, it’s often different inside. Marriage used to mean a man was the boss of his wife and owned everything she brought to the union. When radicals suggested she be allowed to keep her own jewels or earnings, there was an outcry: “Oh, no! This will destroy marriage!”
Leviton: So if the purpose of marriage isn’t the good of the children or the honor and well-being of the couple, what is it?
Coontz: In many societies it ensures that children will carry on the family name. It has also long been one of the main tools used to make sure that families are not isolated from each other. As I was researching The Way We Never Were, I began to realize that marriage initially had to do with getting in-laws, turning strangers into relatives so you wouldn’t have to fight them, or because it made an advantageous trading alliance. As societies became more stratified, though, marriage became a hotbed of intrigue and scheming. Some kings would kill their spouses when marriages didn’t turn out to be as advantageous as originally thought.
Leviton: Does marriage serve a religious purpose?
Coontz: Marriage was originally a private arrangement between families and not sanctioned by any church. Early Christianity did not put marriage at the center. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.”
For a long time you became married simply by declaring it, or by having your parents agree to the union. Even in early-medieval Europe, when the Catholic Church was beginning to gain authority over many areas of society, weddings were conducted by the bride’s and groom’s fathers. A priest might be asked to give a blessing at the end, but it was really the business of the parents.
As kings and bishops jockeyed for power, however, marriage became a way to legitimize claims on political rule and inheritance, and it had to be clear that a marriage was witnessed and accepted by everyone. Religious authorities assumed the power to decide who was married or not, and whether a marriage would be annulled. If some nobleman was trying to break up a marriage — his own or someone else’s — the Church could come in and say, “No, we consider the couple properly married.”
At the same time, the Christian Church opened the door to the possibility of the “love match.” The Church said that if two people swore they had exchanged “words of consent,” it would accept them as married. I suspect this was one more way of thwarting the political alliances of aristocrats.
Leviton: Some scholars claim that “romantic love” as we know it was invented in the Middle Ages.
Coontz: People certainly had the idea of romantic love before that — they just didn’t accept it as a primary motive for marriage. I’ve heard of a man from the Tatai tribe in Pakistan who had four wives and reportedly married only the fourth “for love.” [Laughs.] For centuries people might have dreamt about love, but it wasn’t any reason to get married. It’s no accident that most of the love matches of classic literature end in tragedy.
The most extreme rejection of married love could be found in the French aristocracy before the 1789 revolution: they held that marriage was a strictly mercenary arrangement, and no true love could exist in it. Only adulterous love was possible.
Even when love in marriage was viewed as a possibility, it was considered more important to make an advantageous match. Seventeenth-century British diarist Samuel Pepys married for love and later lamented his wife’s lack of a dowry and social position. Eventually he disinherited his eldest nephew for making the same type of marriage he had made himself.
Leviton: What about in societies without rigorous class systems and inheritances? Was love considered a reason to get married there?
Coontz: In egalitarian tribal societies the young singles seem to have made connections on their own, even if they were pushed in the right direction by parents. In many villages premarital sex was quite accepted, but if the woman stayed overnight and started cooking a meal in the morning, people would conclude, “Oh, they must be married.” [Laughs.] In European villages, too, you could let somebody fall in love, within reason. But the family was such an important center of production that bakers tended to marry other bakers, and shoemakers other shoemakers. You needed someone to help run your business. Love was more of an add-on.
Whether in an African village or a European peasant community, there was pressure to reject anyone who didn’t have land or local connections. The stakes weren’t as high as in the royal courts, but there was still a strong sense that a marriage had to help the community or the extended family; it had to serve a purpose other than love.
Leviton: How long did it take for the “love match” to become predominant in marriage?
Coontz: It developed at different rates for different social classes and in different countries. Aristocrats were slower to adopt it than the lower classes. Long after it had been accepted elsewhere, France was still shaking its head over this idea of “marriage by mystification.” Shakespeare wrote about love matches that worked and those that didn’t. In his tragedies, to be in love with the wrong person leads to disaster. In his comedies, Shakespeare allows love matches, but they are mostly arranged by friends or through magic. There’s a sense that love is something you can manipulate people into feeling.
Two hundred years before Shakespeare, Chaucer wrote about a love match in “The Franklin’s Tale,” but most couples in his Canterbury Tales do not marry for love. People thought it was good to have love in a marriage, but their definition of it was far from romantic passion. The best love was a sort of trust that allowed you to work well together.
Then came the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the individual. The French and American Revolutions both promoted the rights of the individual and the “pursuit of happiness,” but not everyone agreed. After the American Revolution one man took out an advertisement in a newspaper trying to find his wife, who had run off. It read, “My wife has left me for no better reason than want of love.” [Laughs.] That’s a perfect example of this transitional period: she was leaving because she didn’t love him, and he was thinking, What kind of a reason is that?
Leviton: The 1800s were a time of tremendous change. You’ve said, “In the nineteenth century women turn into strangers to men.” What happened?
Coontz: The love match represented a new kind of freedom for young people, but it was also risky for women. A woman had to worry that if she fell in love, she might end up with someone who couldn’t support her or would abuse her.
Society as a whole was frightened by the emergence of romantic love. If young people married for love, they wouldn’t necessarily marry the “right” people. They might refuse to marry or demand a divorce if the love died.
Afraid that love would undermine marriage, people created the notion that marriage was necessary because men and women were opposites who couldn’t survive without each other. Women were now seen as more sensitive, more nurturing, and more moral than men — but also weaker, less capable of working outside the home, and less sexual. This was contrary to the medieval view of women as the sexier gender. Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” has a big gap between her teeth, which was taken as a sign of lechery. Prior to the late eighteenth century, women were not seen as weaker or less capable than men, just lower in the social hierarchy. There’s a famous sermon Benjamin Wadsworth gave for wives in the American colonies in which he says that even if the wife is smarter, of higher birth, and wealthier than the husband, “God has made him thy head, and set him above thee, and made it thy duty to love and reverence him.”
In the nineteenth century this attitude gave way to the idea that marriage should be based on love, not obedience, and that a woman needed to be protected by her husband. She was no longer seen as a worker who produces goods to be traded in the marketplace; she sustained the family in a moral sense. A woman’s real work was now the work of love.
The Bible says a virtuous woman is one who works all the time. In the early days of the American republic, virtue also referred to people’s work ethic and “valor.” In the late 1800s it became about sex. Women were to be modest, quiet, weak, and in need of teaching. Men were to provide for them and teach them. Men learned to confuse showing off with love, and women learned to confuse intimidation with infatuation. These new ideals became the basis of 150 years of romance novels and are still screwing us up today.
One quality that helps a marriage work is when partners respect each other and are each grateful for what the other brings to the relationship. Relationships run on an economy of gratitude. . . . A belief in the goodwill of the other person is critical.
Leviton: How did women respond to being characterized as retiring, pure, moral, chaste beings?
Coontz: They often tried to turn it into a different source of pride and power. One thing they did was emphasize their moral strength. Men were interested only in the world of bank notes and commerce, they believed, whereas women championed morality. Women became important members of the temperance movement, the Salvation Army, and efforts to protect factory workers.
For many women this change in attitudes represented a step up. If they were middle-class, they could now be exempted from hard labor and become educated. That in turn created higher aspirations, which eventually led to the feminist movement. Many of the same advantages were not available to poor women, however.
Leviton: If women were to be protected, did this cut down on domestic violence?
Coontz: Given how high domestic-violence rates remained until the 1960s, I don’t think we can say there was a profound change in behavior. Domestic violence did become more shameful for men, but it still went on. In a landmark 1874 case in North Carolina, the right of a husband to beat his wife was rescinded, but the ruling also said, “If no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive.” How do you think that worked out for women?
Leviton: There was also an important change to courtship. How did that come about?
Coontz: If women were so precious and incapable of taking care of themselves that they couldn’t venture into the world, then society needed a new way to get men and women together. The solution was to invite the men to “come calling” to the family home. Particularly among the American middle class, this was a well-developed institution. Working-class people met in public places and called it “dating,” but the implication was that it was close to prostitution. Today some people make a similar distinction between dating and “hooking up.”
The girl or her parents had to issue an invitation for a man to come calling. It was considered bad etiquette for a man to invite himself, just as fifty years later it became bad form for a woman to ask for a date. Calling was how people policed this dangerous new idea that men and women should be allowed to make their own choices about marriage: the meetings would be monitored in the family home, and the parents would be sure no dashing rake was invited.
Dating started to replace calling in the 1920s. In her history of dating, From Front Porch to Back Seat, Beth Bailey tells the story, taken from a women’s magazine of the time, of a man who comes to call and finds the woman all dressed up. “No,” she says, “this is a date — we’re going out.” The man is crestfallen because he doesn’t have enough money for a date.
This was a big transition. With dating, the man had to spend money on the woman, which led to the question of how the woman paid him back. One way was sexual favors, but another was to hang on his every word and ask the kind of questions that would make him feel good about himself. Women didn’t even think of this necessarily as flattery; it was reciprocity. This is when women began to think: How can I please him?
Leviton: So it’s not an inherent female characteristic to want to satisfy a man’s needs?
Coontz: An awareness of others’ needs is a human trait. Look at the anxiety men have in tribal societies about what kind of gifts to give and how to maintain trading relationships and negotiate obligations. But it gets deformed under some systems. In the early twentieth century dating created a new kind of pressure on women not to obey men as in the old days but to anticipate their needs.
Leviton: You mentioned scrutiny of female “virtue,” which relates to the matter of out-of-wedlock births. How has the idea of illegitimacy changed over the centuries?
Coontz: There were times and places when it wasn’t such a big deal. In peasant cultures nobody thought twice about it. In fact, showing you were fertile before marriage was probably an advantage.
But with this new middle-class morality, it became dangerous for an unmarried woman to sleep with someone. Today women often get pregnant and later go on to marry, but not back then. In nineteenth-century Germany if a woman slept with her fiancé before marriage, he was entitled to break off the engagement. Children born out of wedlock did not have access to any inheritance. As late as 1968 in the U.S. an out-of-wedlock child could not inherit debts owed to the mother, sue for her wrongful death, nor inherit from her parents.
In the U.S., the response to this nineteenth-century ideology was an increase in premarital chastity. Before the American Revolution, something like a third of all brides were pregnant. That stopped. Women got the message that messing around would ruin lives.
Leviton: Which brings us back to how romantic love was based on the assumption of an essential difference between men and women.
Coontz: The idea that men and women were completely different, and you could not have access to the skills and resources of the other sex unless you wed, put pressure on couples to get married and stay married. But there was now a tremendous strangeness in marriage, a strangeness we have eroticized so much it still serves as the basis for bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey. These books portray women as attracted to powerful men who frighten them. I find this dismaying because it stands in the way of the type of egalitarian relationships that most people now find satisfying in the long run.
This nineteenth-century attempt to make gender differences the basis of marriage wasn’t good for couples. Wives were not supposed to want sex anymore. (When the first sexual-advice book for men came out, men said how glad they were for it, because otherwise they would never have attempted to give their wives pleasure for fear of treating them like mistresses.) Women who suffered sleeplessness, anxiety, and irritability could be diagnosed with “hysteria,” which was viewed as a medical condition of the uterus, the treatment for which was for the doctor to manually stimulate the patient to orgasm — only they didn’t call them orgasms: they were “paroxysms.” The vibrator was invented around that time as a labor-saving device for physicians.
Sigmund Freud came along and redefined hysteria as a mental condition arising from past traumatic experiences, but he reinforced the repressive stereotypes that said a woman could be sexually healthy only if she was passive and wanted to be entered. Freud’s followers claimed that a woman’s sexual fulfillment would be impossible if she had any “masculine” qualities. For a woman to want to have a career was a danger sign. Women were encouraged to renounce all ambition beyond the home and the sexual satisfaction of their husbands. And female psychiatrists were often the strongest advocates of this. Helene Deutsch, who wrote the first book specifically about female psychology in 1923, said that the only way for a woman to fulfill her true being was to celebrate her husband’s achievements. The 1947 bestseller Modern Woman: The Lost Sexaccused career women of symbolically castrating their husbands. In the authors’ view the only thing worse than a married career woman was an unmarried one. This is what women faced in the 1950s. It was pretty awful.
Leviton: Some people see the 1950s as a golden era for the American middle-class family and something we need to get back to.
Coontz: There was a lot of pressure on men and women to marry and start families then. A survey from 1957 found that four out of five Americans believed that anyone who preferred to remain single was either sick, neurotic, or immoral. Same-sex friendship was also declining because of a fear of homosexuality and lesbianism. Affection between women, and especially between men, which had formerly enjoyed widespread acceptance, suddenly became a sign of perversion. There was also an emphasis on cutting the “apron strings” that bound men to their mothers. Historian Rebecca Jo Plant has collected letters from the military publication Stars and Stripes in which enlisted men during World War I talk about how much they miss laying their head on their mother’s breast — totally unselfconscious mother veneration. The Freudians set out to break that connection. Men were told to bond to the nuclear family: leave your mother, stop hanging out with your friends, and find a wife.
Leviton: This places more pressure on the couple’s relationship, which now has to fulfill what used to be fulfilled by other social connections.
Coontz: Yes, it makes marriage a pressure cooker. In the fifties the advice given to women in Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and newspaper columns like “Dear Abby” was to negate every independent aspect of their personality. We’ve got records of psychological counseling in which a woman came in and said she thought her husband might be having an affair, and the counselor’s response was to ask if she’d been keeping up her appearance and figure. Women were told they would be happy and fulfilled only if they gave themselves completely to strong and confident men.
Leviton: During World War II women entered the workforce in large numbers, but in 1946 they were encouraged to go back home and have babies. How did they take this?
Coontz: A lot of them didn’t want to give up their jobs, but they were convinced that the men couldn’t find employment unless the women stepped aside. And there were plenty of carrots luring them to settle down: cheap housing, help with education, and so on. My mother told me she had really liked her wartime job but realized it was time for her to have a child. The drumbeat for women to find themselves through self-sacrifice probably had to do in part with a suspicion that many didn’t want to retreat from the world of work and autonomy. In fact, by the sixties, many women realized that being restricted to homemaking was making them miserable.
Leviton: In your book you refer to one mid-fifties study in which women said they were content with their stay-at-home roles but wanted a different life for their daughters. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Coontz: Although some women in the fifties were desperately unhappy, most were well-off in comparison to what they’d seen their mothers and grandmothers cope with. There were things they didn’t like about their situation, but, by God, they were living in a modern house and didn’t have to chop firewood every day. So they felt guilty when they wanted more for themselves. But they could still envision better lives for their daughters, with more education and opportunities.
Leviton: How were men feeling about marriage in the fifties? Were they, too, enjoying improvements compared to their grandfathers’ lives?
Coontz: Yes, they knew life was better. I think that’s why in the fifties people got married so young. Plenty of men could support a family on a starting salary and depend on it to rise every year.
Leviton: And yet there was an undercurrent of discontent, the suggestion that the breadwinner role was sort of hollow.
Coontz: Yes, particularly in the middle class. For blue-collar workers, who’d never before had a real shot at supporting a family on one income, I think this was a period of increased self-esteem. Even if the tasks in factories were repetitive, the wages were good, and workers were less likely to be killed or hospitalized in an industrial accident. Those showing discontent were in the types of white-collar jobs that women would soon enter. Men had to learn how to get along with other people in the office workplace and be agreeable to bosses. Some men resented this hierarchy, and it made them want to have more power at home. Other men wanted to be free of the pressure to conform. Many fantasized about not having to be breadwinners. Keep in mind, this period also gave us the Beat Generation, which glorified a bohemian lifestyle. But most men were not willing to live like the Beats: they wanted someone to cook their meals.
Leviton: The first issue of Playboy was published in 1953 and represented a kind of protest against puritanism. Its publisher, Hugh Hefner, thought men and women should enjoy sex and not get too attached to each other.
Coontz: Playboy offered a kind of false advocacy for female power. Hefner was a big supporter of abortion rights and birth control, but only because he didn’t want men to be tied down, not because he saw these as tools for women’s liberation.
Leviton: One thing that has changed about marriage since the 1950s is how long people live. Life expectancy has gone way up.
Coontz: “Till death do us part” is a bigger challenge today. Even though we are seeing a decline in divorce rates for people in their prime child-rearing ages, we’ve had a doubling of rates for people over fifty and a tripling for people over sixty-five. Couples have another twenty healthy years of life after the kids have moved out, and some realize that they just don’t want to spend those years with their spouse.
Leviton: What sorts of qualities should men and women look for in partners if they want their marriage to work?
Coontz: I am always leery of giving general advice, because individuals have different temperaments, priorities, and values. What is a great quality in a partner for one person might not be for another. But I can talk about how the predictors of marital success have changed over the decades.
In the 1950s the best predictor of a long marriage was how much each partner adhered to conventional gender roles. Also, because of cultural pressure and economic dependence on men, women tended to do whatever it took to make the marriage work, accommodating themselves to their husbands’ preferences. Today I think you have to know your partner as an individual, not as a gender stereotype, and you have to like him or her in a much more fundamental way. Flexibility is critical in today’s world, where cut-and-dried gender roles, in or out of the home, are no longer desirable to most people and no longer possible in many cases.
One quality that helps a marriage work is when partners respect each other and are each grateful for what the other brings to the relationship. Relationships run on an economy of gratitude. And if your partner needs to change his or her behavior, it’s important to ask for that change without attributing bad motives to the behavior. When you do argue, or when your partner gets angry, look for the soft emotion under the hard one and talk to that. A belief in the goodwill of the other person is critical.
Leviton: Are there any key signs that a long-term relationship is in trouble?
Coontz: Marriage expert John Gottman says contempt, stonewalling, defensiveness, and generalized criticism (as opposed to raising a specific issue you’d like to address) are major relationship killers. But family researchers are also becoming concerned about low-conflict relationships that just run out of steam because the partners have been too involved in work or parenting to renew and strengthen their ties. This may be a key factor in the rising divorce rate of people over fifty — not fighting so much as leading parallel lives without much interaction.
Leviton: Does not having friendships outside of the marriage cause problems?
Coontz: It can. It’s one thing to have a spouse who’s your closest friend, but it’s another to have a spouse who’s your only friend. That can spell trouble. Sometimes you need other perspectives. If you don’t have them, you may find that you actually have less to offer your spouse.
Leviton: What are the main reasons couples divorce nowadays?
Coontz: The majority of divorces are initiated by women, and among their most frequent complaints are their husband’s lack of commitment or attention — or its opposite, trying to exercise too much control — and unfairness in how responsibilities are divided. Both men and women also cite excessive drinking or drug use, financial irresponsibility, too much fighting, and infidelity. Whether an affair signals the end of a relationship, however, depends on the reason for the affair, the way it is resolved, and the dynamic between the couple. Many couples are able to move beyond such events, painful though they may be.
Leviton: Have the advantages of getting married declined?
Coontz: That’s a trick question. If you’re in a good marriage, the advantages have been increasing, but the automatic advantages of getting married have declined. When a marriage is really working today, it improves your health and wealth, but a bad marriage is actually a health risk, and people who marry and divorce are less happy and often worse off financially than those who never marry.
Some people may seek divorce too fast, but others wait too long. Well-intentioned attempts to slow down the process can backfire, leading to prolonged conflict or contempt that is destructive to children and spouses. When unhappy people stay together, bad behaviors such as infidelity and abuse can escalate, making an amicable parting of ways even harder.
Leviton: If women were paid the same as men for the same job and had the same opportunities in the workplace that men have, do you think fewer women would get married?
Coontz: Women’s economic independence, combined with the growing opportunities for singles to thrive outside marriage, suggests that marriage will never again be as widespread as it was in the past. But I would say that, at this point, the expansion of women’s equality and empowerment is the best hope for marriage and committed heterosexual partnerships to survive at all.
When women first started struggling for equality, it disrupted the social order. The men got defensive; divorce rates increased; women had fewer children, because they weren’t getting the support they needed. In Italy men started staying home with Mom, because their girlfriends and wives wouldn’t treat them as gods anymore. But in countries that have gender equality in combination with male participation in child care — because employment policies make it possible for couples to take equal responsibility — we are seeing lower divorce rates for women who work outside the home compared to homemakers. This hasn’t happened in the U.S. because we don’t have those employment policies, but several studies in England and northern Europe show that if men are willing to pitch in with housework, women are more willing to have a second baby. So people concerned about declining fertility rates in Western democracies might want to stop telling women to give up their careers and start telling men to help out.
Leviton: And we need policies like paid parental leave that provide real support for married couples.
Coontz: Absolutely. Our efforts are going in the wrong direction. People don’t get married because you preach at them; they get married because they are in a good relationship and because their lives are stable enough for them to believe this partnership could work. When wages were raised in Wisconsin, Michigan, and other places, marriage rates rose and divorce rates fell — this after hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent promoting marriage as a way to combat poverty and illegitimacy hadn’t made a dent in the divorce rate or the poverty rate.
We’re not going to get everyone to marry — which is a good thing, because some marriages are bad — but if we want to help those who do marry to stay married, paternity leave should be just as high on the agenda as maternity leave. To say it costs too much money is penny-wise, pound-foolish.
Leviton: You have done a lot of myth-busting in your books, but your work is clearly not done.
Coontz: I have a favorite quote from the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal: “Ignorance is never random.” The things we do not bother to learn are the ones we do not want to know or cannot deal with. If you’re reading a history book, you might skim over the part that’s telling you something you’d rather not take into account.
Conservative politicians are quick to tell us what’s wrong with the black family, or teenagers, or gay marriage, but they have made little effort to learn the facts. Listening to today’s political debates, I’ve been stunned by how many myths are still in circulation. Politicians suggest that if you get an education, get a job, and get married, then you won’t be poor anymore. Yeah, right. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. That sequence is a description of what successful people are able to do, not a recipe for becoming a successful person.
Leviton: Do families receive less government support now than they used to?
Coontz: It depends what kind of support you are talking about. There were no supports for working parents prior to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. So we have more than we used to. Unfortunately that act is now inadequate, because 60 percent of children grow up in homes in which all adults are in the labor force. The U.S. has failed to keep up with the growing need for policies that allow people to combine work and family responsibilities. That’s one reason parents in the U.S. report themselves to be considerably less happy than non-parents, in contrast to countries such as Sweden, where parents are happier than nonparents, because the government supports working parents.
Leviton: Are you optimistic that civil rights and gender equality will continue to expand?
Coontz: In some ways I am. Most people today are convinced that it’s wrong to deny rights on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. The problem is that some now want to deny the extent to which discrimination still exists in society. To be “colorblind” or “genderblind” means losing sight of the way that discrimination has been institutionalized and can continue to operate even without specific intent. And in fact, despite progress for middle-class minorities and women, we’ve barely made a dent in the concentrated poverty in which many blacks and Latinos are trapped. We’ve actually seen reproductive rights rolled back for poor people, with some fairly disastrous results. Self-induced abortions are going up in places like Texas. We know that women who are denied abortions are much more likely to become depressed and be victims of domestic violence than comparable women who are able to get them. If we don’t look at what’s happening to low-income women and just keep believing that women already have equality, the situation could get even worse. We can’t be like those people who think that, because we have a black president, racism is over, and any black person who doesn’t climb the economic ladder must have a personal problem.
Leviton: Is there a year in our history you would want to return us to?
Coontz: No, there’s no golden age. You can cherry-pick one aspect of the past you’d like to have back, but, sorry, that’s not the way the world works. You’d have to take the package deal. A return to the late nineteenth century could put a child in the arms of a loving, middle-class mother whose husband didn’t abuse her, or in an abusive home from which there was no escape, or in a sweatshop. They all existed at the same time.
Aloha, Barry & Renee
We know that the income gap is growing in the U.S. More and more people are having to work two or three jobs just to break even each month. If you miss one payment on our credit card, your interest can jump to 23% or more (as young people we know have found out). Before the previous U.S. government regulations stopped it, Wells Fargo, for instance, was allowed to charge 300% interest! Now the the current U.S. administration is proposing to let banks return to giving high interest small loans. We talk about the 1% in the U.S. who have most of the money – and we want them to change, to be compassionate, to be fair.
But what if we (yes, I’m including you – and me – who have time to read this instead of working an extra job) were part of the problem? What if we are in the 9.9% who keep the other 90% down? The article, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy” by Matthew Stewart in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic, makes me reflect on the unearned benefits in my life. Awareness is the first step toward change. Read this article and see what you think – and consider what you can do.
Instead of just blaming the 1%, we could be doing more – much more – to promote justice and equality.