Off the Shelf: A Long Way Baby

(Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Reflections on falling fertility rates in the U.S. and the Irish abortion referendum

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

This week I was incapable of the sustained reading that fed me so many history books earlier this year. So I’ve just been thumbing through books, old and new.

There are a huge number of political books from the respectable center that try to examine the suddenly weakened condition of “liberalism” or “globalization” after Brexit and Trump. The only two of this type worth any time are Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Both are useful because they are willing to connect the economic and social politics of the era.

I think the situation is almost worse than they realize. Not that I have come to believe that Liberalism is about to end or be swept away by an authoritarian alternative as some dream, or by a return to Christendom as some hope. It is just that I believe that the elite classes they so skillfully analyze have created a closed system that will not allow in intellectual talent or perspectives from outside itself. And their overweening greed will continue to make our cities engines for destroying the middle class.

I also returned this week to my friend Jonathan V. Last’s book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. The latest and, from my perspective, depressing statistics about America’s lowered fertility came out last week. There’s been no recovery of fertility since the economic recovery. In fact, things are getting worse. There are an estimated 5 million fewer children in America today than there would be if fertility rates had stayed where they were just before the economic slump of the late Bush years.

Last has all sorts of awful things to say about demography, but I like the book most when it makes a particularly “dadly” observation of the way our culture has become hostile to the formation of larger families. Here he is on car seats and regulations:

While the car seat is objectively pro-child, it is also vaguely anti-family. If you had five small children in 1977 — a situation not at all rare back then — few vehicles could accommodate enough car seats to transport the entire brood at the same time. (This was actually one of the chief objections to the Tennessee bill back at the time.) Today it is nearly impossible to fit more than two car seats in most cars. Which means that transporting a family of five — two adults and three children — necessitates either a larger, more expensive vehicle or two cars and drivers. The days of piling a gaggle of five-year-olds into the family station wagon for a jaunt to the park are over.

I’m not particularly hopeful on the fertility front either. As economic growth continues to be concentrated in decidedly family-unfriendly cities, we’re headed for something unpleasant. Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if America’s fertility rates began crashing to the depths seen in Russia and Central Europe after the Cold War. Although the crash in fertility is the result of many interlocking trends, I think the decisive one for most people is just “experience.” Even more than stated religious convictions, even more than a personal desire to have children, I’ve noticed that it is socializing with other larger families that helps reinforce the belief that, despite all the obstacles Last outlines in his book, you can succeed at this. As fewer people know such families, fewer people choose to have larger families themselves.

It could be that I’m just strange, but I believe you can notice relative rates of fertility with simple observation. In my somewhat upwardly mobile American suburb, there just aren’t that many children around. And the ones that are around are mostly kept indoors. Meanwhile, when we last took my children to Ireland to visit their grandfather, the playground near his house in the similarly upwardly mobile Malahide was bursting with children. Also, their playgrounds were gifted with far more interesting things for kids to play on.

This brings me naturally to Ireland, which I’ve been trying to avoid writing about excessively and indulgently in this space until my book comes out next year. Alas, it is in the news, isn’t it? I started but haven’t finished reading John Banville’s new memoir of his life in Dublin, Time Pieces. It is everything you want from a book like this. It’s wistful. Every sentence is rendered in a fine way, the product of Banville’s lifetime of work at the craft. Banville gives little hints of life in Dublin and secrets. He recalls how the widow of W. B. Yeats cared for other writers in Dublin. He confesses to stealing The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas from the library, and in a line that stings me to recall he writes, “Like many another swooningly bookish adolescent, I considered Thomas to be one of the major poets of the age.” It is also stuffed with a great number of Banville’s grievances and reliefs, the grievances and reliefs of his generation, aimed respectively at what Ireland was, and what it is becoming. Like all Irish, including the clergy, he cannot disentangle taboos around Ireland’s poverty, its class politics, and its bourgeois morality, from its Catholicism.

Here’s a typical passage, describing life in the 1960s, that mixes all these up:

In the pubs where women were admitted they were not allowed to order pints. I have just remembered this, and am filled with wonderment. A woman could have two halves simultaneously, in two glasses, but not a pint in a pint glass. Where did this absurd rule come from, and why did we so meekly obey it? Under a tyrannical regime — and the Ireland of those days was a spiritual tyranny — the populace becomes so cowed that it does the state’s work for it voluntarily. And as every tyrant knows, a people’s own self-censorship is the kind that works best. In the 1990s, when revelations of clerical sexual abuse and the Catholic Church’s cover-ups put an end to its hegemony almost overnight, my generation scratched its head and asked, in voices trembling with incredulity, “How could we let them get away with it for so long?” But the question, of course, contained its own answer: We let them get away with it. Power is more often surrendered than seized.

Half pint glasses as spiritual tyranny. How can a man who has read so much about the world be so trivial about the word tyranny? How can one associate the publican’s custom of half-pint glasses with the real criminal abuses by Catholic authorities?

I’ve been distracted this week by the Repeal the Eighth referendum “at home” in Ireland. You might tell me to take some time away from the Internet. An easy getaway. Not so fast. I was greeted this morning in my own suburban apartment building by one of those black T-shirts, with the white word “Repeal” written across it. The Irish, having symbiotic life within the former British Empire, are a global race. Both sides of the debate exist on the same apartment floor here in Westchester, N.Y. Janice Turner wrote the typical editorial on the 8th in the Times, Ireland edition. She describes the “No” side this way:

There are a few elderly folk with rosaries and religious tracts, but plenty of young people combining that mix of youthful self-righteousness and kitten-loving sentimentality along with obliviousness about how messy life can be.

And the Irish Times wrote similarly in its editorial:

The Eighth Amendment describes a world that never existed — a place of moral absolutism, religious certainty, good and evil, black and white — and locks us into that illusion in perpetuity. To remove it is merely to reflect the world we live in: a contingent, uncertain place, full of messiness and ambiguity, where the distances between happiness and despair, public joy and private anguish, are agonisingly small.

Did you notice the word “messy” in both of them? Ireland’s moral and religious changes are connected to its newfound relative wealth in a strange way. How odd, the hidden assumption that “messy” lives require abortion. As if abortion were a matter of tidying up. As if welcoming some children transgressed the cleanliness of a proper, upwardly mobile Irish home. This is perhaps the most sinister bourgeois morality ever inflicted on a nation. And I will have nightmares from seeing it unmasked this week. I dread the idea of returning to Dublin in 25 years, and realizing that it has changed from 2018, and become more like every other European city, emptied of those with Down’s syndrome or other deformities. That will be the predictable result. How dare these people accuse others of inflicting shame! Bring back the half-pints, please.

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