America has always promoted marriage as the ideal living arrangement, even as many people use its restrictions as an excuse to stage messy divorces, cheat on loutish spouses or belt the wife when she burns the Sunday roast.
The self-appointed forces of decency, usually with more sanctimony than tolerance, are obsessed with the decline of marriage. This decline has long been reflected in the growing number of brazen females who chose to procreate under other circumstance but it is more recently reflected in 2000 census figures.
These show a 62 percent increase in the number of single-father households. No divorced man ever dared run for president until 1952 (Adlai Stevenson). The Ozzie and Harriet marriage model insipid parents bringing up insipid children persists to this day in the minds of people like William Bennett, the former secretary of education.
Bennett functions as America's unofficial common scold and went so far recently as to suggest bringing back the shotgun wedding. Younger readers must be told that before abortion became available this was an arrangement by which marriage was imposed, often with the persuasion of a real shotgun, by the outraged father of a pregnant girl.
"One of the things that's disparaged in our day is the shotgun wedding," says Bennett.
It's unclear whether he's arguing for more coerced marriages, has a bad attitude about the use of firearms or is suggesting that teenagers sleep around so long as they get married. Chris Matthews, Bennett's interviewer, suggested these were marriages more likely to be punctuated by flying dishes. "Most dishes are not fatal," Bennett said.
Better, he suggests, that kids spend a childhood watching mommy and daddy throw dishes, even harder and sharper objects, while bellowing oaths and insults, than risk being raised in peaceful households with a single parent. And if plate-throwing violence becomes more prevalent, we can guess which of the sexes will get more black eyes and split lips the one that tends to be smaller and have a less developed throwing arm.
With the return of moralistic ritual to Washington, how long can it be before George W. Bush argues that his tax cut will discourage divorce, that Ronald Perelman and Patricia Duff would still be lovey-dovey if only they'd had more money to squander on their princely lifestyles? Next, I suppose, either Rudy Giuliani or Donna Hanover will claim it was the marriage penalty not the mayor's inability to keep his trousers fastened that drove them to a divorce so nasty that plates at 10 paces, even bowls of spaghetti, flying meat loafs, and vats of steaming polenta, would seem more civilized.
Intelligent people know why marriage is less prevalent and divorce more common. Women are being liberated from second-class workplace status to a degree that having plates thrown at you is less attractive as the price of a meal ticket. And if enough of them weren't still choosing to have children the birthrate would be in danger of collapsing to a point where mass immigration would be necessary to maintain a vigorous labor force. This can't be what a right-wing old biddy like Bennett has in mind.