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The Political Importance of 'Family Values': An Interview with Riane Eisler (First Round)

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Not long ago I posted here for discussion the question, "What should be our sacred values and principles?" It was the premise of my question that the progressive side of the American body politic needs, if it is to be empowered, to ground its vision and its presentation in a deeper sense of meaning. That deeper sense --not any specifically religious notions-- is what I intended to denote by the word "sacred."

It is in the context of that large inquiry into what should be the deeper connection with meaning and value on the part of progressives that I decided to explore some ideas that the noted social thinker, Riane Eisler, has been promoting in her own work. These ideas concern the domain of "family values" --i.e., ideas of what is important and of positive value in how families are constituted and how they function-- and they concern also her perception of how progressives have made a grave error in relinquishing the issue of family values to the right wing or, as she terms them, the "regressives."

I requested of Ms. Eisler that she join me in a written process to discuss these ideas of hers in a public interview, and she has graciously consented. This interview, like the previous interview I conducted of Mr. Bruce Fein --the conservative jurist who has had the clear-sightedness and courage to denounce the Bushite dismantling of the Constitution-- will be published here in regular installments, as each round of our exchange is completed.

Now to introduce Riane Eisler.

She is an eminent social scientist, attorney, and social activist best known as author of the international bestseller, The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, which has been translated into 22 languages. She keynotes conferences worldwide and is president of the Center for Partnership Studies,(, dedicated to research and education on applications of the partnership model introduced in her work. Her newest book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (to be published by Berrett-Koehler in April 2007) proposes a new approach to economics that gives visibility and value to the most essential human work: the work of caring for people and for the planet .

First round:

Question from Schmookler:

In your recent writing, you have said that it has been "disastrous" for those on the progressive side of the American body politic to relinquish to the conservatives -to the "regressives," as you term them-the work of defining "family values" in our political discourse.

Could you explain, please, what you think is disastrous about leaving this matter of "family values" to the conservatives?

Response from Eisler:

Families are the primary transmitters of values. It is in families that new members of society – children – receive their primary education about what is normal and moral. This fact lies behind the findings from my cross-cultural and historical research showing that the structure of families has direct implications for politics and public policy.

Whether Khomeini in Iran, Hitler in Germany, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or some fundamentalists in the United States, dictatorial leaders always give top priority to "getting women back into their traditional place" in a "traditional family" – a code phrase for a punitive, authoritarian family where women are subordinate and economically dependent, and children learn their parents' (usually father's) will is law.

Even in nations where there are elections, unless exposed to alternatives, people tend to vote in ways that unconsciously replicate their early family experiences. Thus, studies show that men raised in highly punitive families tend to vote for "strong-man" leaders and support punitive rather than caring social policies.

Sadly, progressives have failed to recognize these connections – and this failure has been a major factor in the current political regression. Using slogans like "traditional values," U.S. fundamentalists stress the "headship" of the father in a punitive family where women and children are subordinate to the will of the father – the kind of family that prepares people to defer to "strong" leaders who brook no dissent and use force to impose their will.

So successful have efforts been to establish this family model that social values research indicates that in spite of the success of the women's movement, support for this type of authoritarian family has been on the rise. In 1992 when Americans were asked if the "father of the family is master of the house," 42% said yes. By 2004 the percentage had risen to 52%. (Comparable data demonstrated that only 20% of Western Europeans agreed with this "traditional value").

If we look at social and economic policies in the Untied States during this same period, we see that they too have by and large followed a regressive course. This is not coincidental. It again verifies the correlation I wrote about in my 1995 book, Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body: that a caring or nurturing parent (stereotypically, the mother) is the model for progressive social and political systems, whereas a punitive parent (stereotypically the harsh father) is replicated in regressive regimes..

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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