Has the American Family Court System Become Totalitarian?
- Post by: Jennifer Roback Morse
- September 15, 2009
A Promise to Ourselves:
A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce
- Alec Baldwin
- St. Martin’s Press, 2008; 240 pages, $24.95
Taken into Custody:
The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family
- Stephen Baskerville
- Cumberland House, 2007; 368 pages, $24.95
In 2007, the media had a feeding frenzy around a voice-mail message actor Alec Baldwin left his daughter. He screamed at her for not answering her phone. The public was shocked: many assumed that he was yet another self-absorbed celebrity, with neither control over himself nor regard for his daughter. But in fact, Baldwin had been caught in the web of the totalitarian nightmare known as the American family court system. His book, A Promise to Ourselves, tells his particular story, while Stephen Baskerville’s book, Taken Into Custody, presents the general problem of which Baldwin’s story is a particular case.
Alec Baldwin is a divorced father, who had been fighting for six years to have some semblance of a normal relationship with his child. Baldwin’s estranged wife, actress Kim Basinger, had been using the family court system to prevent him from doing what most fathers take for granted: seeing his child, talking with his child, and watching her grow up. A Promise to Ourselves chronicles in sickening detail how the court system serves the most vindictive and ruthless parent.
Even without the book, astute observers of this case realized that something was slightly strange about the claims that Baldwin should be denied access to his child. For instance, who released the tape of the call to the public? None other than Basinger and her attorney, in an attempt to smear Baldwin. What kind of mother would use her daughter as a pawn in a spiteful power game with the child’s father? And, what was the “back story” to this particular phone call? Despite having court authorization for phone contact with his daughter, her cell phone would be turned off for long periods of time. On this particular occasion, she was on spring break with her mother and her phone had been turned off for ten days. Moreover, isn’t this odd all by itself that a father who has committed no crime has to have court permission to speak to his own child?
Now, what the media made Baldwin out to be is conceivable: an abusive, out-of-control father who has inflicted irreparable harm on his daughter through verbal abuse. Yet even if the worst about Baldwin were true (by the way, he offers no excuses for yelling at his daughter), his portrait of the Los Angeles County Family Court remains imminently valuable, as it reveals the extent of power that family courts wield over ordinary citizens. His account cannot be easily dismissed, given the extent of detail that he provides and the fact that it accords with too many other reports of family courts. As he tells his story, the leading character and the true villain is the Los Angeles Family Court system, Lady Macbeth, Iago, and Shylock all rolled into one. Even from the viewpoint of a wealthy and famous man, Baldwin generates plenty of sympathy for the obscure and the less wealthy of both sexes who are caught in the grip of the family court.
He first noticed the financial intrusion. During “financial settlement conferences,” both husbands and wives must reveal all their assets. While Baldwin accepts the necessity of preventing people from hiding their true net worth, he noticed this side effect: “The lawyers on both sides now know, inarguably, how much money you have and, therefore, how deeply into this hole you can go. And they do not hesitate to throw you down as deeply as they possibly can.” Throughout the rest of the story, the lawyers extract as much money as possible from him.
But money isn’t the half of it. Baldwin had to continually look over his shoulder at the court and its representatives to ensure that he did not run afoul of their requirements. He tells of the menagerie of minions appointed by the court to manage the divorcing process and the inevitable post-divorce conflict: forensic accountants, custody evaluators, therapists, visitation supervisors, parenting class instructors, anger management instructors. These are all professionals that most people normally never see, but who have abnormally large impacts on the lives of divorcing families. Think of this: the courts and their appointees are controlling the day-to-day lives of a man innocent of any wrongdoing. A negative report from any one of these professionals can jeopardize a father’s chances of having more time with his own child.
Baldwin does not discuss the ease of divorce ushered by the no-fault divorce revolution. Like most Americans, Baldwin has probably made peace with no-fault divorce, believing easy divorce to be an enhancement of individual liberty. But Baldwin’s story of his life after Basinger decided she had no use for him illustrates that the opposite is more true. Easy divorce opens the door for an unprecedented amount of government intrusion into ordinary people’s lives. This unacknowledged reality is the subject of Taken Into Custody, by Stephen Baskerville. With penetrating insight, the political scientist exposes the truly breathtaking consequences of no-fault divorce for the expansion of state power and the decline of personal autonomy.
First, no-fault divorce frequently means unilateral divorce: one party wants a divorce against the wishes of the other, who wants to stay married. Kim Basinger dumped Baldwin for no particular reason, unleashed the power of the Los Angeles Family Court system to inflict pain on him and, in the process, inflicted untold damage on their child. Second, the fact that one party wants to remain married means that the divorce has to be enforced. Baldwin wanted to stay married and to continue to be a husband and father. Yet, the coercive and intrusive machinery of the state must be wheeled into action to separate the reluctantly divorced party from the joint assets of the marriage, typically the home and the children.
Third, enforcing the divorce means an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries between public and private life. People under the jurisdiction of family courts can have virtually all of their private lives subject to its scrutiny. If the courts are influenced by feminist ideology, that ideology can extend its reach into every bedroom and kitchen in America. Baldwin ran the gauntlet of divorce industry professionals who have been deeply influenced by the feminist presumptions that the man is always at fault and the woman is always a victim. Thus, the social experiment of no-fault divorce, which most Americans thought was supposed to increase personal liberty, has had the consequence of empowering the state.
Some might think the legacy of no-fault divorce is an example of the law of unintended consequences in operation. That assumes its architects did not intend for unilateral divorce to result in the expansion of the state. But Baskerville makes the case in this book—as well as his 2008 monograph, “The Dangerous Rise of Sexual Politics,” in The Family in America—that at least some of the advocates of changes in family law certainly have intended to expand the power of the state over the private lives of law-abiding citizens.
Who are these people? They are the Marxists, who call themselves advocates of women: the feminists. Unbeknownst to the general public, the Marxists have had marriage in their cross-hairs from the very beginning. Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, dreams of the mythic, pre-historical, pre-capitalist time in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Not only was there primitive communism in which property was owned in common, but there was also group marriage, in which the collective raised the children. Men and women lived together in harmony in groups, having sex without becoming possessive and without caring about the biological relationship between parents and children. Sin entered this Garden of Eden, not through a serpent and an apple, but through the rise of private property and capitalism, monogamous marriage, and patriarchy.
This background ideology explains why the Left—whether the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 or the Socialist government of Spain in 2005, both of which placed the liberalization of divorce law among their first items of business—has spent so much effort attacking the family in general and marriage in particular. The goal is to return women into “social production” outside the home, where they can be completely independent of the oppression of men. This of course, requires the collective rearing of children. It also requires the obliteration of the distinction between the private sphere of the home and the public reach of the law. Many conservatives, who otherwise are very alert to Leftist ideology, have no idea about this entire effort at centralizing power and insinuating the control of the state into the lives of ordinary people.
Baldwin closes his book with an interview with Jeannie Suk, author of an important 2006 Yale Law Journal article, entitled, “Criminal Law Comes Home.” In this article, Suk expresses second thoughts about some consequences of feminist jurisprudence. For this reason, Baldwin thought the young Harvard law professor would have some sympathy for his situation. Nonetheless, even this relatively sensible law professor has drunk deeply from the feminist fountains. As Baldwin comments after his discussion with her family law class of eighty students:
I was surprised to hear a number of women and men—many more than I would have expected—say that women generally are at risk of male violence. A few students, male and female, even thought the law should view the sex act as subordinating of someone and should assume that sex is rape unless women explicitly and verbally give their consent.
Note the Marxist undercurrent here: the sexual act is a special case of class conflict, with the man as the presumed oppressor and the woman the presumed victim.
More troubling is what Professor Suk admits in her interview with Baldwin:
- Governance feminism is the idea that feminism, which once criticized the law from the outside, is today actually in charge in many places in the law—among police, prosecutors, lawmakers, judges and other legal actors. The feminism that often ‘governs’ today is that strand developed by legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and that focuses on the subordination of women by men, particularly in intimate and sexual relationships. Her influence on our legal system’s understandings of men and women cannot be overstated.
- The overwhelming majority of domestic violence arrests are for misdemeanor crimes, which, by definition, do not involve serious injury. . . . The definition of violence itself has expanded to include a lot of conduct that is not physical violence.
- Family law is an area where we’ve seen feminist developments that prefer wives over husbands and mothers over fathers. . . . The legal vision of the home has increasingly become that of a man being violent toward his wife.
- The legal system has little means to distinguish (protective) orders that actually protect endangered women from those sought for strategic reasons.
Suk doesn’t seem to realize how indicting these statements sound to someone outside the Feminist Legal Theory Game Preserve. In fact, her Yale Law Journal article reveals that feminists specifically attack the lines between public and private in the interests of protecting women from domestic violence.
She at least recognizes that the law has gone too far. But her principle complaint is that women’s autonomy interests are compromised. Once the Domestic Violence Machinery has been set into motion, even the victim herself cannot stop it. She reports that approximately 80 percent of domestic violence victims recant or refuse to cooperate after initially filing criminal charges. But she can’t bring herself to point out the injustice to men of being excluded from their own homes, often with minimal evidence. She has absolutely nothing to say about the harms done to children from being pawns in their parents’ quarrels with each other and with the state. The inertia of forty years worthy of Marxism posing as champions of women is so strong that even someone like Professor Suk cannot bear to distance herself from the term “feminism.”
Likewise, despite the explicit ideological position of the Harvard law students, Baldwin cannot bring himself to be angry:
I was fascinated to hear some of these law students talk about the world as though men inevitably have the upper hand in relationships and women’s fear of sexual violence is prevalent and normal, not unusual. This picture was so interesting and so foreign to me. In my own experience, women have lots of power of various kinds, and sexual power works both ways.
Baldwin seems reluctant to conclude that the feminist worldview is not based upon verifiable facts or empirical evidence. The strongest description Baldwin can conjure against the law students is “fascination” and “interesting.” So mesmerized by the terminology of “feminism” that he cannot see that the attitudes of Suk’s students are the very toxins that poisoned his life.
Fortunately, we have Professor Baskerville as the great theorist of the feminist influence within the divorce-industrial complex. He sees Marxist feminism for what it is: a totalitarian movement that seeks power and control over every aspect of people’s personal lives. The claim of its foot soldiers to be the sole authentic advocates for women has been questionable for some time. But until Americans see that the goal of modern feminism is raw power, even its victims like Alec Baldwin will have trouble freeing themselves from its iron hand.
Dr. Morse, a former professor of economics at Yale and George Mason University, is founder and president of the Ruth Institute, a project of the National Organization for Marriage, in San Marcos, California.