In Defense of Fathers
Why Men Are Essential to Postliberal Order
I must apologize for being somewhat scarce from the illustrious pages of Postliberal Order as I’ve been immersed in the very roots of right order, namely the generation, protection and care of new human life: specifically two identically adorable female babies who bear God’s image. We’re not quite sleepless in Alexandria, but let’s say we’re experimenting with how little sleep is actually needed to live and move, and have our wits about us. One great disadvantage to all the unspeakable, sleep-deprived joys of being the father of tiny twin baby girls is that I have little time to read, and thus even less time to write. But one essay by Nina Power lifted up my tired eyes: Why We Need the Patriarchy.
Like all men educated over the last four decades, I was taught that patriarchy was a very bad thing, and that I must do everything in my power to, well, not wield “patriarchal power.” To be a good progressive, I needed to recognize the power of a whole new range of protected classes, but the one class which was absolutely not protected was the one I now occupy most fully: fatherhood. Nina Power notes that despite the decades of moaning about the patriarchy, the evidence tells us a different story. Whatever judgments we make about what it is, and isn’t, we don’t live in a patriarchy, and haven’t for a long time. Power points to the very inconvenient and tragic fact that one in four children are fatherless — which is not to say that any child exists without a father, but that the father has vanished. They are not sleepless due to the night time feeding regime, they are just entirely absent, and wherever they are present, their role as father is seen as something expendable and unnecessary, or at least secondary, and auxiliary. Fathers are rarely portrayed or recognized as essential to our social and political flourishing.
Nina Power is an English philosopher who has most recently written a tour de force defense of patriarchy in What Do Men Want? Masculinity and Its Discontents (2022). Her critics claim that she exaggerates the crisis that faces men, but the extraordinary response of men to the basic cri de coeur of Jordan Peterson — that men aren’t just important but necessary and essential to society — suggests that the problem can’t be overstated. Of course, Power is no conservative, but a radical thinker of the Left transgressing the very pieties of progressive gender fluidity. It’s part of the strange horseshoe dynamic that a new-left thinker with an impeccable pedigree of postmodern training would harken back to themes that once would have been heard on the lips of Phyllis Schlafly. This is also why she’s joined the most talked about new “horseshoe” of a magazine, Compact, which unites the new left and new right against both libertine and libertarian iterations of liberal power —and of course, boasts two Postliberal Order writers, Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, in an eclectic stable of contributing editors.
In her essay for Compact, Power smartly observes that the modern liberal order arose not from a recognition of the importance of the father, but that of the brother. The watchword of the French Revolution was fraternity not paternity. Though Power does not observe the theological dimensions of the appeal to fraternity, they only strengthen her argument, for the French political appeal to “fraternity” is theologically incoherent as the Religion of Man recognizes no Father under whose paternal gaze we could even become brothers. And this incoherence is manifest in the way that the “Regime of the Brother,” as Juliet Flower MacCannell named the original enlightenment critique of patriarchy, essentially dissolves sexual difference. Men are supposed to act like women, and women are to act like men. “The Regime of the Brother” thus erases fatherhood and motherhood, and replaces the father with a “hedonistic brother” who is emblazoned in material culture as the irresponsible, feckless “frat boy” who is riddled with vices to a degree that the libertinism becomes the central image for male “fraternity” utterly detached and disconnected from the paternity which is essential to men, and without which, fraternity stands as a grotesque parody of Christian sodality, patriarchy turned upside-down. The “porn-addled young man” is in some respects the very core of the critique of “patriarchal privilege,” and yet it’s precisely the absence of the father we see in the iconic “frat boy” - always a “bro” and never a “dad,” never a father with responsibilities, with watchfulness, with something valuable to watch over even if it means personal sacrifices of self greater than even sleeplessness.
The “fraternity” of liberal order disorders us and leaves us defenseless. Is it any surprise that late liberal orders love to fight foreign wars, but invariably chooses only the ones which require none of them to fight? Even the so-called “martial virtues,” once praised by liberal political theorists, become reducible to men dressing up as women, running headlong into conflicts that could actually destroy us. As Power notes, “men are no longer encouraged to be protective of themselves, of women and children, or of their communities.” She concludes:
By dismantling patriarchy, we have lost some things of value: the protective father, the responsible man, the paternalistic attitude that exhibits care and compassion, rather than simply placing constraints on freedom. This has resulted in a horizontal, competitive society that suits consumer capitalism very well, one in which there is no power outside the market and state. Those who oppose injustice should think twice before denouncing patriarchy.
St. Augustine, that object of anti-patriarchal scorn, that Church Father who was most likely to be pilloried for his views on sex and domestic order, would mostly likely agree with Nina Power here. In fact, in the much-discussed Book XIX of The City of God Against the Pagans, he says that order itself is intelligible because it is ordered by the Eternal Father, and so the paterfamilias is essentially intelligible only on analogy to the divine direction that God gives to the whole created order. The Eternal Father directs the created order by Love Itself, and so a man, as essentially an image, a copy of fatherhood, must also order things according to this love of God and neighbor – to be a man, he must love, and order things according to what is to be loved, and guard against those destructive and disordered things which are to be hated. “Man has a responsibility for his own household,” Augustine writes in De civitate Dei 19.14 — not only in his family, but in human society as well, since society is also a kind of household of households, an oikonomia that is cognizant of the order of nature and the divine governance of it.
Human fatherhood is thus essential to the social and political common good as an image of the directive and protective care God gives in directing the universe itself. Whatever emerges out of the ashes of liberal order — and I fervently pray that liberal order will not literally reduce us to ashes in its senescence — will require something like Nina Powers’ call to recover the “protective father, the responsible man.” As someone immersed in the very real world dimensions of the sacrifices this will require of men, I can also attest that it’s infinitely better for us if we embrace the essential fatherhood of a man than the pathetic bro-regime that exists as a parody of right order.