It's been weeks since I first read Caitlin Flanagan's cover story for Time magazine titled "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" The article was incredibly provocative and interesting. In fact, it was downright shocking to read something like this in a mainstream publication. I hadn't realized how much the idea of marital commitment had been under attack in society at large (by Hollywood, the mainstream media, various public leaders, fellow members of society, etc.) until I read a piece defending a traditional understanding of marriage. Here's a sample of the piece:
There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers' financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation's underclass.
The reason for these appeals to lasting unions is simple: on every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households. Longevity, drug abuse, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and incarceration -- if you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.
Few things hamper a child as much as not having a father at home. 'As a feminist, I didn't want to believe it,' says Maria Kefalas, a sociologist who studies marriage and family issues and co-authored a seminal book on low-income mothers called Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. 'Women always tell me, "I can be a mother and a father to a child," but it's not true.' Growing up without a father has a deep psychological effect on a child. 'The mom may not need that man,' Kefalas says, 'but her children still do.'
The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it -- given the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized -- simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in harness.
Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function -- to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood? Think of it this way: the current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can't be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their children's lives -- that's the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old.
Wow. Isn't that just so . . . politically incorrect? And fascinating? It also matches very much what I believe about marriage and its importance in society. I loved this story through and through. I think it's important for people to read, single and married alike. The culture pounds into us this idea that marriage is about personal satisfaction. And romance isn't exactly what has kept marriage as a founding social institution for millennia, you know? Even that last line . . . how often do we read stories about how the breakdown of the traditional family is affecting the care of older generations?
I recently wrote on the topic of caring for one's parents for Christianity Today and was floored by how many people responded with tales of how they didn't want to care for one of their parents on account of divorce or how their own divorce made care for a parent almost impossible. It's obvious that this would be a problem -- and one that previous generations faced less of for a variety of reasons -- but it's too politically incorrect to talk about in the media, apparently.
But here's my problem with the Flanagan piece.
This isn't a cover story so much as a cover essay. Opposing views aren't engaged -- and there are opposing views. The story isn't even labeled as an opinion piece.
I'm wondering if this is the future of journalism? I hope not -- and not just because I know that most of these opiniony essays will more likely be of the Lisa Miller "Jesus Said Everyone Should Be Gay Married" variety than this Flanagan piece. I believe that the underlying data that support Flanagan's thesis would be strengthened by a public review -- and a news piece on any one of the angles she brings up in her piece would serve as a public review. Flanagan will always be an essayist and long-form author. But it would also be nice if other types of journalists would handle these issues on news pages.
And a quibble, nay, a rant for the online version of the story. What in tarnation is up with these horrific hyperlinks? Scattered, seemingly randomly, throughout the piece are the following links: "See pictures of couples married for 50 years," "See the top 10 regrettable e-mails," "See the top 10 mistresses," "Watch a gay-marriage wedding video," "See TIME's Sex Covers," "See pictures of love in the animal kingdom," "See snapshots from a very special wedding," "Watch TIME's video 'Gay Marriage in the Heartland,'" "See pictures of the busiest wedding day in history," "Read an excerpt from Elizabeth Edwards' book on how she survived her husband John's affair," "See the top 10 scandals of 2008," "See TIME's Pictures of the Week," "See the top 10 skanky reality shows," "See pictures of classic weddings on LIFE.com," "See pictures of rock-star weddings on LIFE.com," and "See the world's most influential people in the 2009 TIME 100."
See the top 10 skanky reality shows? Come again? See the top 10 mistresses? Did the hyperlinking staff at Time read the article before they chopped it up with these completely inappropriate links?
Hyperlinking is really helpful in articles. But the ones in this story were completely ridiculous. And incredibly disruptive to the reading experience. Come on, Time. Put an intern on the copy desk or something and teach him the basics of hyperlinking and let him have at it.