»  National Review

June 11th, 2001

  Situation Normal


The latest batch of data to be released from the 2000 census covered our household arrangements. There are a tad more than 105 million households ("houses, apartments, or rooms occupied as separate living quarters") in the U.S.A., of which 72 million are families ("two or more people related by birth, marriage or adoption and living together"). The statistic that jumped out at everyone was the number of female-headed families with children under 18: nearly 11 per cent of all families, up from 9.3 per cent in 1990, and from 3.3 per cent in 1950. To put it another way: of families with children, one in nine is now headed by a single mom, up from one in thirty a half-century ago. And in 1950 there was, of course, a higher death rate, with many more widows left with small children, including thousands widowed in WW2.

It will not be any news to the reader that our society has changed in a great many ways this past few decades, and that what was once unusual or unfortunate is now commonplace. The fine details, for those who don't feel like trawling through census data, are well presented in Francis Fukuyama's book The Great Disruption. My only aim here is to ask, and then try to answer, the following questions: Have these changes left us with any useful concept of what is normal? Outside its obvious applications in biology, pathology, meteorology, and so on, does the word "normal" have any acceptable usage in talking about our society and culture? With one in nine of our families headed by a single mom, is single motherhood now normal? What else is normal? With gay-themed movies, plays, TV sitcoms and high school student societies, is homosexuality now normal? Is it normal to be a Wiccan? A practicing sado-masochist? A libertarian? An enthusiast for Falun Gong? Is everything now normal? Is the word "normal" itself now de trop, except as a joke word, one of those mock-irregular verbs: "I am normal, you are conformist, he is a slave to convention"? If the concept of normality has passed from the world, is that to be regretted, or not?

Certainly both the word "normal" and the thing, normality, were for a long time seriously out of favor on the political left. In the mind of a boomer liberal, appeals to normality conjured up the conformism and Babbitry of traditional small-town American culture, which, as is well-known, suffocated creativity, perpetuated all sorts of obnoxious -isms, repressed all authentic human bonds and supported the Vietnam War. Gopher Prairie was normal; Willy Loman was normal; Ozzie and Harriet were normal. Good riddance to normality! Bring on the gorgeous mosaic of human variety! Groups outside the pale of respectable society have always poked fun at normal people. In Mart Crowley's 1968 play about homosexuals, The Boys in the Band, the partygoers at one point break into an exaggerated simulation of normal-guy conversation: "Ya tink da Giants a gonna win da pennant dis year?" "Effin' A, Mac!" Then they all fall about laughing. Those normals are so weird! As the great cultural revolution picked up speed thirty years ago, the delights of scoffing at normality — or at least the subversive thrill of watching others do so — became available to all.

Liberal hostility to the notion that there might be any such thing as a normal lifestyle was reinforced by a remark of Newt Gingrich's — remember Newt Gingrich? — a month before the 1994 mid-term elections that gave the Republican Party control of Congress. Newt was describing GOP strategy to a group of lobbyists. The Clinton Democrats, he declared, should be portrayed as "the enemy of normal Americans." Of Ira Magaziner, principal architect of the grandiose Clinton health plan, Newt further observed that: "Normal Americans do not want government to take over every aspect of their health care." This raised a flurry of scorn from the nation's liberal pundits. "If you are not white, churchgoing and fundamentalist, English-speaking and legally documented, anti-regulation, pro-military, heterosexual, in favor of school prayer and contribute to Republican PACs, your normality is suspect," sneered Colman McCarthy in the Washington Post. "How 'normal' is Newt?" wondered Newsweek magazine. (Their answer: "As normal as many Americans — at least the ones who see their marriages fail, change their views and don't always practice their professed beliefs.")

Yet though a lot of people in these non-judgmental times would hesitate to use the word, all of us, even liberals, carry around some concept of social normality in our heads. Asked to rank Ward Cleaver, Bill Clinton and Pee Wee Herman from most to least normal, most people would come up with 1, 2, 3. And does anyone — Rosie O'Donnell, Anthony Lewis — think it is normal to have 5 wives and 29 children, like the fellow currently on trial for polygamy in Utah? In fact, though liberals eschew the word "normal," normality has made a comeback of sorts since the ebbing of the revolutionary tide. Much of the liberal project in recent years has been characterized by a striving for accreditation as normal on the part of all behavior that is not coercive or inspired by "hate" (for the current definition of which, see below). Witches are no longer malodorous, straggle-haired old crones, living in huts in the woods and concocting potions from bat's blood; they are your neighbor, your bank teller, your kid's teacher. Homosexuals wish it to be known that they are not prancing, shrieking queens and crop-haired viragos on motor-bikes, but good bourgeois folk with mortgages, golf club memberships and responsible jobs. Snake-handlers, wife-swappers, body-piercers, coprophiliacs and worshippers of Odin all clamor for the mantle of normality. This thing I do is just a harmless hobby. In all the important ways, I'm just like you. I'm normal, see?

Because everyone wishes to be seen as normal, imputations of abnormality are bitterly resented. A colleague recently asserted, in the pages of this magazine, that: "Mothers who choose to work full-time jobs and routinely leave their young children with others for much of the day are not normal: They are a historical aberration; they represent a minority preference among women; and they run exactly counter to the standard of motherhood that should be encouraged by society … Maybe a little stigma is what they deserve." ("Nasty, Brutish and Short" by Rich Lowry, NR 5/28/01). This brought down on his head the wrath of Maggie Gallagher, a working-mom newspaper columnist, who thought this use of "normal" much too judgmental. "When I hear the word 'stigma', I want to reach for my revolver," snapped Ms. Gallagher, who is far from being a reflexive liberal. Yet what is more normal than maternal affection? Having chosen to give birth to a child, what is more normal than the desire to nurse and nurture it full-time until it is of school age?

You see here, too, the princess-and-the-pea sensitivities we now display in speaking of normality and its variations. Would it really be such a bad thing if some degree of social disapproval were to descend on the mother who leaves her toddler with twenty others in the hands of strangers while she pursues her career ambitions? But "stigma" is, according to Ms. Gallagher, a synonym for "ostracization": "being unwilling to associate with a human being because they are so bad ." [Her italics.] Put your tot in day care, get sent to Coventry: that, apparently, was our colleague's proposal. It seems that we can no longer keep our imaginations in check when discussing certain topics. The merest criticism of this or that favored group is taken to reveal a lurking wish to ostracize! to segregate! to hunt down with dogs! to enslave! to massacre! We have lost all sense of proportion. The key word here is "hate." Deliver the most trivial slight to, or express the most glancing disapproval of, any favored group — blacks, immigrants, homosexuals, working moms — and we are supposed to deduce that your heart is seething with hatred, with the wish to ostracize, beat and kill. Wonder aloud whether the limitless immigration of uneducated, unskilled people from nations to our south is really a good idea, and you must be a person who "hates" foreigners. Venture to suggest that it might not be wise to encourage high-school students to experiment with homosexuality, and you are "hate-filled," a "gay-basher" who keeps a two by four close at hand in case a homosexual should wander by. Mention the nation's appalling and disgraceful rates of black crime and illegitimacy, and you at once fall under suspicion of being a cross-burning night-rider. I do not say that Ms. Gallagher subscribes to this point of view — she has always seemed to me to be one of our more level-headed commentators — but the contagion is in the air all around us, and plainly she is not altogether immune.

Perhaps it is time to re-state some obvious truths. Such as: that no society can remain stable without the ballast of huge numbers of citizens living their lives all in much the same way; and, further, that not just any old way will do. The traditional American desire to assert our own individuality is a very fine thing, but it does not follow that every kind of eccentricity, of abnormality, is equally to be treasured. The little spat about working moms shows that we are, by historical standards, living in a looking-glass world, in which behavior that was considered outré for thousands of years, in all places and cultures, demands to be treated as normal, while the most elementary, most fundamental human attitudes are looked at askance. Anthropologist Donald E. Brown, combing through archives of ethnography, has tried to list those beliefs and activities that are common to all human societies — that define what he calls "the Universal People." Among these traits are: "families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men." Here is normality at the most basic level, recognized as such by Lapp reindeer herders, Roman senators, Turkish peasants, Chinese warlords, fishermen on Lake Chad, stallholders in the bazaars of Persia and aborigines in the Australian bush … by all human beings that have ever lived, except our enlightened selves.

Time, too, to acknowledge that some fixed concept of normality is not only socially, but also psychologically desirable. Abnormality — at least abnormality of the elevated sort, Superman-abnormality — is very fine food for fantasy; but by definition, most of us must rest our hopes for a fulfilled and happy life in the well-worn ruts of human experience. The elevated-abnormal is probably essential to the progress of civilization, but his prospects for contentment are not high. The distress and persecution suffered by the abnormal, the étranger, has been a staple of literature since the Romantic Age, and in our own time is seen at its most highly-colored in the imaginative excesses of science fiction, where the abnormality can be either bizarre in a mundane society, or mundane in a bizarre one: telepathy in A.E. Van Vogt's Slan; invisibility, of course, in H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man, but heterosexuality in Charles Beaumont's The Crooked Man and mere literacy in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. In Damon Knight's short story "The Country of the Kind," the world has become a utopia of normality, built around universal benevolence and harmony. To prevent it all from sinking into a suffocating hell of boredom and conformity, the authorities have licensed one man to go around breaking into people's houses and trashing them, just to introduce some uncertainty into things. To make sure this lone eccentric does not lapse into normality, the authorities, when operating on his brain, have also given him an intolerable smell so that no-one wants to get close to him. He is, of course, wretchedly unhappy.

The ancient equivalent of science fiction was mythology, and the abnormal attribute most desired, immortality. Tennyson's wonderful poem "Tithonus" is spoken in the first person by Tithonus himself, a beautiful youth who caught the eye of Eos, goddess of the dawn in the mythology of the Greeks. Eos abducted the youth, along with Ganymede, and took them off to her palace in the east, from which she rides out every morning to herald the sun. When Zeus robbed her of Ganymede, Eos begged him to grant Tithonus immortality, and Zeus agreed. Unfortunately Eos forgot to request perpetual youth for her lover, so Tithonus became older, grayer and more shrunken, and his voice more high-pitched, until Eos tired of nursing him and locked him in her bedroom, where he eventually turned into a cicada. Tennyson's poem is the lament of Tithonus, partly for the lost affections of Eos, but much more for his lost normality. The opening lines are a veritable hymn to normality, to the ordinary cycles of the world:

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes …

Tithonus longs to be able to die, as other human beings do. "Let me go," he begs the goddess, "Take back thy gift."

Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men … ?

I doubt there has ever been so eccentric an eccentric, so transgressive a transgressor, that he has not at some time or other felt the yearning that Tennyson (a strikingly normal man, other than that he was a poetic genius of the first rank) put into the mouth of Tithonus: the yearning to be normal. We are a deeply social species, and the gravitational pull of our fellows, and of their customary ways and observances — of a human nature rooted firm in Nature herself — is very strong. Let us give human nature its due, and raise high the banner of normality.