Raising the Standard.

Marshall Mathers Grows Up

Parental advisory. (Photo courtesy Lâm HUA)

THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE, unlike other campus publications I could mention, does not devote much attention to rap music. As editor, I don’t lose sleep about the omission.

Popular culture is undeniably important, however. It is “popular” — “of the people” —, so its trends signify real changes in the way Americans think, and think about themselves.

THE EDITORS: Apologies to Voltaire.

Rap music has a lot to say about culture, and not much of it is pretty. Marshall Mathers, or Eminem, has served as rap music’s Voltaire since the 1990s. His tone is confrontational. His lyrics are bitingly sarcastic. His output is voluminous.

In his younger days, Eminem’s songs were the anthem of defiant youth. But Mr. Mathers is not young anymore. 41, to be exact. With custody of kids. The graying effects of parenthood seem to be taking their toll, because now Eminem is apologizing for some of his earlier work, particularly “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” with its mocking swipes at his mother.

In February, Eminem released the song “Headlights,” in which he describes his troubled upbringing and apologizes to his now-ailing mother. The message is no longer defiant, but remorseful.

‘Cause to this day we remain estranged and I hate it though
‘Cause you ain’t even get to witness your grand babies grow
But I’m sorry, Mama, for “Cleaning Out My Closet”, at the time I was angry
Rightfully maybe so, never meant that far to take it though,
’cause now I know it’s not your fault, and I’m not making jokes

But, Ma, I forgive you, so does Nathan, yo
All you did, all you said, you did your best to raise us both
Foster care, that cross you bear, few may be as heavy as yours
But I love you, Debbie Mathers, what a tangled web we have

When I heard the song for the first time last week, I was profoundly saddened by it. As always, Eminem barks the verses and names the evil men (the target this time is his deadbeat father), but simmering beneath the surface is bewilderment — the bewilderment of a boy, now over the hill, who realizes parenting ain’t as easy as it looks from the cheap seats. Who suspects, perhaps, that he missed out on something very important during adolescence.

Marshall Mathers is not alone, and increasingly so. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his report on the family in 1965, 23.6 percent of black children were born to single women. It was a scandalous finding. He was decried for it, in part for suggesting a “tangle” of cultural pathologies played a dominant role in the disintegration of the family. Today, as Rep. Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] is decried for much the same thing, 72 percent of black children and 41 percent of all American children are born out of wedlock. In other words, the figure that shocked in 1965 has tripled in the past fifty years.

Illegitimacy numbers are highest in low-income populations, regardless of race. This is alarming because single-parent homes lead to unambiguously worse outcomes, on average, for the children who reside in them. If they are born into poverty, they are more likely to remain in poverty; if they are not born into poverty, they are more likely to lose ground relative their peers. A host of other indicators, including emotional well-being, health outcomes and educational attainment, are negatively impacted by family breakdown. And broken homes beget broken homes, as the snowballing illegitimacy figure indicates: those who are raised in divorced households are more likely to divorce later in life.

So Marshall Mathers is not alone. Just like before, he is speaking on behalf of a bewildered cohort — this time, of wannabe rebels and wannabe parents alike.

The challenge we face now is how to respond to the brave new world of the broken family. Conservatives argue that the answer is more marriage, but how do we go about rebuilding a culture that respects the institution? Government is a blunt instrument to that end, so it will have to be one community at a time. Liberals argue that government largesse (à la Life of Julia) is the answer. As local support networks like the church and charitable organizations retreat to the background of American life, they may have a point. But so do critics who contend that the welfare state creates more broken homes by subsidizing divorce. As the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz said, “Even if you believe that enlarging the infrastructure of support for single-parent families shows compassion for today’s children, it’s not at all obvious that it shows much concern for tomorrow’s.”

So policymakers are left with a conundrum. Marshall Mathers and millions like him are left to pick up the pieces.

M. Blake Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE

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