To be fair, The Dadly Virtues: Adventures From the Worst Job You’ll Ever Love, edited by Jonathan V. Last, is a humor book as much as it is a parenting book. It’s a series of essays about how to be a good father, written by prominent conservative pundits, including P.J. O’Rourke, Joe Queenan, Tucker Carlson, James Lileks, Joseph Epstein, Jonah Goldberg, and Toby Young (who back in ’97 included me in a roundup called “Horny Co-Ed Sluts Talk Dirty,” about sexy young female Harvard grads who got undeserved book deals by writing first-person tell-alls with come-hither pictures of themselves on the jacket, only my book was a non-autobiographical parody of the Audubon Guide to North American Birds with no author photo on it, but so close).
Predictably, I want to punch this book in the face.
It’s fine to joke about parenting. Lots of us people with vaginas do it regularly! What’s not fine is to make lazy, stereotypical, homophobic, dick-waving, mean-spirited jokes about folks less powerful than you, while reducing fatherhood to essentially what it was for privileged white dudes in the 1950s: a subject for pontificating and homily-spewing while not actually tangling honestly with the challenges of raising children. God’s truth, I’d love to read a book that talks honestly but with humor about how a straight, white, comfy-bubble-raised dad (as far as I can tell, all 17 authors in this book are white and identify publicly as straight) can raise kids in an increasingly diverse and complex world where lip service, at least, is paid to fairness and tolerance. This is not that book.
“At a time when 40% of children are born out of wedlock with no father committed to raising them and when manliness—and one of its central components, fatherhood—often seems under assault in the popular culture, The Dadly Virtues is a hilarious rallying cry in defense of dads everywhere,” the intro, by Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last, tells us. But the book doesn’t make exactly clear what dads bring to the table.
Let me just take you on a quick spin through the book and some of what I found so objectionable about it. (I am aware that for a goodly percentage of Tablet’s readers, my dis-imprimatur will serve as one big ADD TO CART button on Amazon.)
Last starts the book by telling us, “I began to realize that the primary effect of children is that they take things from you. It begins with sleep, time, and dignity and then expands over the years to include sanity, serenity, and a great deal of money. This is an observation, not a complaint. It’s just what they do. In that way, children are like the aging process itself: an exercise in letting go of the ancillary parts of your existence until you are stripped bare, and what remains is your most elemental core. Your soul. Jews celebrate this in the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah. Christians refer to it as the Way of the Cross. A consultant from McKinsey would call it addition by subtraction.”
Ha ha. Actually, Jon (may I call you Jon?), we Jews don’t use the term “Suffering Servant songs.” That’s what you goyim call the section of Isaiah (chapter 53, for those playing along at home) that you think refers to a prophesy of Jesus, and our sage Rashi thought was a metaphor for Israel. But thanks for playing. In any case, we Jews don’t really do suffering and loss as a metaphor for parenting. Our Bible is full of stories of women who desperately craved children (Sarah, Rachel, Hannah) and men who desperately mourned missing or dead children (Jacob, David, Job). To us, parenthood is precious—though our forefathers were certainly known to screw it up royally—and we tend not to think of it as a burden.
Last goes on to quote Harvard philosopher and noted fedora-wearer Harvey C. Mansfield (I took a class with him at Harvard, where I made all my big fat publishing contacts!), who wrote a book about manliness—called, of course, Manliness. “Manliness brings change or restores order at moments when routine is not enough, when the plan fails, when the whole idea of rational control by modern science develops leaks,” Mansfield wrote in that book. “Manliness is the next-to-last resort, before resignation and prayer.” (I guess we unfortunate non-men have no other option than the whole resigning and praying thing.) Mansfield also wrote, “Masculinity must prove itself, and do so before an audience.” Me, I’d rather have men in my life whose ethics stay the same whether there is an audience for them or not. And Dear Lord, save me from Last’s beloved chivalry: “the impulse to seek honor by protecting the weak and the innocent.” That, he says, is “the essence of fatherhood.” The book does seem pretty obsessed with protecting daughters’ virginity, which I’ll talk more about in a bit, but is protecting the weak and innocent really what fatherhood boils down to? I’m pretty sure moms can also protect the weak and innocent. And I’m pretty sure that if we define chivalry as being brave, honorable, courteous, just and helpful toward those less powerful than ourselves, people without children and grandparents and Girl Scouts and service dogs can also fit the bill. If, however, we are talking about an easily fetishized medieval knightly system involving laying your cloak across a puddle for a gentle lady and getting annoyed if women hold doors for you instead of vice versa even if they are closer to the door, yeah, that’s a dude thing. (Later, Last compares fatherhood to going to the dentist. “Everyone dreads the dentist. And it’s no fun. But when you’re seventy and still have your teeth, you’ll be grateful you went.” Even if that’s supposed to be a joke, it just made me sad. If parenting really is, to you, the “worst job you’ll ever love,” you’re doing it wrong.)
I should save my dismay for the entire book, though, right? P.J. O’Rourke is one of the many dudes in it harrumphing about having a gun and wanting to shoot anyone who comes to date his daughters. Jonah Goldberg talks about how “God did ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but barring an explicit and personal request from the Almighty, few of us would put religion ahead of our children’s well-being.” Which makes me think, uh, some of us feel that religion is an essential part of our children’s well-being. It’s not an either/or. Maybe the notion that religion and well-being are inherently separate states is a (small-c) conservative dad problem? I’m reminded of that Rolling Stone story about the Ramaz grad who headed the Bear Stearns mortgage-backed securities division and helped cause the sub-prime mortgage housing crisis and also had an over-the-top bat mitzvah for his kid; apparently, like Goldberg, he saw the well-being of his child as something distinct and more vital than following Jewish ethical teachings in business.
In other essays, Tucker Carlson talks about buying a BB gun and some blowguns. Matt Labash talks about sex ed in such a heterosexist, homophobic, ageist way (calling Dr. Ruth “America’s favorite sex gnome” is just adorable), I can barely make jokes about it. (He mocks “gay sex educator” Al Vernacchio’s TED talk, which is brilliant, and is perfectly happy when his own 12-year-old son recaps Labash’s sex-ed talk as “Yeah, dad—the hot dog goes in the bagel.” Oh, Matt, hon, if that’s what you taught your kid about sex, I feel terrible for his future sex partners.
Joe Queenan proves himself the helicopter parent from hell as he talks about how he “has to” keep intervening in his daughter’s education because her teachers are “incompetent clowns” and “her peer group was so weak” and the lesson plans are all “politically correct twaddle” but hey, his daughter got into Harvard (where along with her diploma she’ll apparently get a book deal and seductive author photo—just ask Toby Young!), and c’mon, says Queenan, we all know school is “an almost universally unpleasant experience. You can try to sugarcoat it, yes, but you know from personal experience that school is horrid.” Actually, no, I don’t. And Judaism’s perspective is that it shouldn’t be. The tradition of giving a child honey on his first day of school, and the philosophy that learning should be associated with joy, permeates our faith. And from the way Queenan writes about education, I suspect, shall we say, that the problems were not with his daughter’s school.
Then we have my ol’ pal Toby Young, who decides to use Machiavelli’s The Prince as a parenting guide. (I studied Machiavelli with Harvey Mansfield, thus bringing this review full circle!) Inspired by The Prince’s teachings, Young tells his little daughter that the red light on the house’s burglar alarm is Santa’s closed-circuit TV and Santa is constantly monitoring her so she’d better eat her broccoli. This is horrid, but like much of this book, it’s also performance art heh-heh “I’m so outrageous” writing that’s not, in fact, about parenting at all. It’s about being naughty. Which, from middle-aged white dudes, is just kind of tiresome. And then we come to Michael Graham, who talks about his daughter’s first date and his feelings toward the dude taking her out. “The dad part of our brain screams ‘Touch my daughter and I’ll kill you,’ ” he writes, “but the guy part of our brain is whispering ‘Dude, that’s kind of awesome.’ When we see a teenage boy knock on the door across the street, our primeval, Cro-Magnon brain sends out a high-five. But if that same boy realizes he’s at the wrong house, crosses the street, and knocks on our door, we start contemplating the finer points of chemical castration.” Charming. Graham concludes, “I have two sons, but when the topic is dads and dating, honestly, who cares about them? Has any father lost sleep over his son’s dating decisions?” Graham doesn’t seem to get that if what he’s saying is true, his sons won’t understand why it’s wrong to date-rape someone else’s daughter.
Ironically, the least-jokey, most-sincere piece in the collection is by Larry Miller, who also happens to be the only professional comedian in the bunch. It’s also the most Jewish. Miller talks about growing up in a new congregation on Long Island, watching his parents pitch in to create this new community. “The whole neighborhood was new itself and still being built, and the trees were thin and little, but so were we. I guess I didn’t know much at the time, but it seemed to me it was just the right place to build a temple as we were building ourselves.” He loves watching his own father pray in this humble little shul. He writes, “Showing your children what you look like with prayer on your lips and building a home that reflects your beliefs are very important things to do. This is how you teach.” The heartfelt writing here feels almost unbearably intimate after the snicker-y, self-satisfied smarm of every other essay.
But then Miller goes on to say that teaching kids to pray is a father’s biggest job, along with, if you’re Jewish, making your kids go to Israel. I don’t necessarily agree. For me, communal action and tikkun olam and teaching kids Jewish history and culture are more important than prayer. And what’s joyful about prayer, for me and my kids, is not talking to an anthropomorphized, all-knowing God, as Miller believes, but in lifting your voice along with other people. But you know what? I respect Miller for taking this assignment seriously and wrestling with the role a father should play in his son’s religious life.
So, as you can tell, the whole book grossed me out. Daughters are princesses; sons are horndogs. There are so many references to shotguns, rifles, handguns, and potato cannons, I wondered what the authors were compensating for. And so much emphasis is put on female virginity, I got the creeps.
I am not a dad, and am unlikely to become one. But if you ask me, the dadly virtues would not involve making rules for TV-watching, letting your daughters date (or not), insisting that children get a dog, or living vicariously through your kid’s sports participation. They would involve teaching children to be kind (What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow), encouraging them to perform acts of gemilut chasadim, nurturing their geekiness and creativity, letting them see you read a lot, and making sure they don’t take life too seriously. But what do I know. I have cats.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.