The Illegitimacy Rate and Us

Bill Murchison

2/21/2012 12:01:00 AM - Bill Murchison
Oh, have we got problems as a country and as a people -- not all of them connected with Iranian nuclear ambitions, the eurozone crisis and Mitt Romney's inner feelings about family dogs on the family station wagon roof.

News that the U.S. illegitimacy rate is 51 percent for births to women aged 20 to 30 stuns less by means of the trend's sheer novelty than through the implications -- none desirable -- for a whole lot of things.

When you're old enough to remember Bel-Air Chevys and the Lawrence Welk Show, you come to expect ridicule for the offense -- a misdemeanor at least -- of preferring the old days to the new. Go on, snicker. I can't think of anything else funny concerning a phenomenon sure to produce heartache and social disruption. There is nothing good about illegitimacy. It happens, always has. Some of history's luminaries have been, as we used to say, before newfound sensitivities intervened, bastards. Alexander Hamilton may be, in some sense, the most valuable bastard in U.S. history.

That the name used to be a common reproach shows how times have changed. In the 21st century, we pretty much affirm everybody's right to do as he or she wants -- no advice, no lectures or finger-pointing, just do it! It shows. An above 50 percent bastardy rate for under-30s is more than a scandal; it's a social crime.

What do I mean, "crime"? So you want (I hear the reproaches already) to ride these upstanding bastards out of town on a rail, do you? We know your kind -- meaning, of course, my kind: cruel and merciless, someone who would burn witches for fun, if allowed.

Well, not really. The point 21st century culture seems incapable of ingesting is that the old cultural, social and religious "rules," so to call them, worked and still work -- when followed -- infinitely better than the non-rules now in effect. Rules in general work. They create expectations, obligations, responsibilities and structures.

Let's talk about structures -- a hard concept possibly to grasp in the age of shackin' up, not to mention gay-whatever-it-is. The marriage structure -- one man, one woman, children of differing number -- is a society all its own. It binds and in binding, liberates by enabling.

Hear me out, between gasps of derision. A man and woman who make a covenant of lifelong union -- "in the sight of God, and in the face of this company," as the Book of Common Prayer would have it -- have a structure within which to live, and I don't mean a house. I mean something bigger: an undertaking within which sorrow and joys are to be duly enacted and -- the present point -- children to be conceived and raised. The joy of children, every parent knows, is not uniformly joyous. It's rigorous, draining work. But the kids are yours. You'll love and care for them, normally speaking, because that's part of the undertaking.

Forgive me, or rather, don't forgive me -- I'll say it anyway: Illegitimacy strips children of rights and dignity and exposes them to insecurities and anxieties (not least concerning who they really are) that they would less commonly encounter as members of the ordinary family tribe. A child who isn't your own, save in the biological sense -- a child your society lets you reject or neglect just as you like -- starts out far, far behind in the game of life.

Let's not make Alexander Hamilton the archetype of the illegitimate child. The social statistics say poor and ethnic minority partners account for most illegitimate births. The prosperous and college-educated form and maintain families, making sure their kids get what they need and deserve.

Do we ever think we're smart in the 21st century -- so smart that we can let go of rules and institutions, doing just what we like and no more? Ultimately, because human needs and nature never really change, a lot of people are going to end up sorry their parents, maybe grandparents, adopted that banal line. In the meantime, here we'll be, stuck as usual, with the consequences of stupidity.