I am told that today is New Zealand’s Father’s Day. I offer this painting by Goya as my opinion of this sort of celebration.
To begin with, we should never reverence anything merely for the accident of sheer proximate existence or genetic relation. We should never revere anything on the basis of sex or age. We should evaluate all things and all people, particularly those things we were taught were our “own”, by critical reason and searching judgment. I value many people intensely, because I value who they are, who they have chosen to be as individuals. If a person with whom I have biological kinship is admirable and just to me, then I would consider it a point of honour to value that person for their values and virtues, and not for a stupid accident of chromosomes. Famialism is merely tribalism and racism on a closer scale.
A shared experience in childhood can nurture deep friendship in ideal cases, but it can just as easily be a numbing memory of forced association with someone with whom one has nothing spiritually in common. The chances that one will find kindred spirits among those physically most near is slight, which is why reason and culture has always flourished in cities and seaports, not in familiar confinement. The closed doors of the family invite control and abuse as do all situations of dependency and closed borders.
We should consider it a point of pride that we are no longer all forced to live under the permanent supervision of our families. That the current Great Recession has made independence unobtainable for many of the current generation should be regarded with horror by anyone concerned with feminism and individual freedom, and yet another reason to demand immediate economic justice. Let us never forget that the family which we sentimentalise is at heart an economic unit (“economics” derives from the Greek oikonomia meaning “the order of the household”); the power of support and dependency within a family was used as a means of control long before capitalism ever existed. The family is not a space of freedom; some of the oldest stories of freedom, such as that of Pyramis and Thisbe, are tragic stories of defiance of families in the face of overwhelming socio-economic power.
But it’s much deeper than economics. The Father as an archetypical figure is an image of everything which we children of the Enlightenment should revolt against to the depths of our souls. The Latin pater is the root of patriarchy, patriotism, paternalism; the veneration of the Father is the veneration of the state, of male supremacy, of age hierarchy, of militarism, of social control. The Father is the heart and soul of the ancien regime, as the first counter-Enlightenment writers such as Robert Filmer and Joseph de Maistre recognised explicitly. The Father is the Lawgiver, the enforcer of authority, the officer of society tasked with racking down the individualities and potentialities of childhood and producing another drone for the social labour force of production and reproduction. In the Abrahamic religions, God if the Father, and every right-wing religious organisation is today busily propping up father with the authority of God.
Until the day before yesterday the position of the father was to own women, beat children, breaks sons into workers and soldiers, hand daughters over to their husbands as property, and mutilate queer people into shells of self-denial. Of course, for most people in the world outside of our islands of recently acquired freedom, it is still that dark day before yesterday. Every day is Father’s Day… in Saudi Arabia.
I have known people who happened to be male and parents who showed great kindness and generosity of spirit to the young people who shared their lives, and what distinguishes such people is precisely that they do not act according to the role of “the father”. These people deserve honour, but cultural celebrations such as Father’s Day do not benefit these people who actually are good teachers and inspirers for children. A gay family with two fathers is not what the politicians and card companies and saccharine preachers have in mind this day. A man who raises a child without the mystique of genetic affiliation is dubiously covered by such celebrations and is likely to be attacked by the legal and social institutions which promote “fatherhood”. Genuine human relations do not need inauthentic rituals pushing stereotyped roles, and it is not those genuine human relations which are primarily honoured today. Good parents who happen to be fathers do not need cults of filial piety; the kind of father who desires the crutch of a socially sanctioned role deserves not honour but our suspicion and fear.
We do not need a world in which adults who wish to voluntarily adopt children are confronted with every obstacle, while children who try to leave their biological families are hunted down and returned like fugitive slaves. In our world compulsory heterosexuality is undergirded by compulsory familialism; fatherhood and parenthood are policed by violence and established by the state. Ask what it means when you encounter a man who feels the need for such establishments, who wants his children to know that they cannot leave and wants the state to prevent anyone else from offering them a voluntary shelter of refuge.
In a world in which reason is respected, in which human potentiality is respected, in which children are encouraged to know themselves and develop their own personalities, there will be no Father’s Day, and no fathers save for an accident of language. Let us honour all people who give support, kindness, and education to children without checking their social position or identity papers. and let us remove honour from the identities and positions themselves. And as long as we have Father’s Day, let’s also have a day of conversation for every independent daughter, every sensitive and intelligent son, every queer person, every young artist and intellectual, every freethinker and runaway and abuse survivor who was victimised by men whose cruelty was publicly blessed and sanctioned by the social institution of fatherhood.
Father’s Day is a celebration of social roles and dumb bondage to necessity. It is a tribute to authority, to convention, to gendered social roles, to the subordination of children and thus the subordination of imagination and self-determination in all of us who were once children. Today is a right-wing day.
To paraphrase Sylvia Plath, today is the day in which every son and daughter adores a fascist.
Needless to say, a parallel critique applies to the veneration of motherhood, save that the Mother is positioned by patriarchy as both ruler and ruled, which requires a more complicated analysis.