A month ago I read an inspiring obituary of a 93-year-old woman called Freydis Sharland, a pioneer who flew Hurricanes and Spitfires in the war. After 1945 she had continued her extraordinary career, on one occasion taking a 430mph Hawker Tempest V on a 4,000 mile flight to Karachi, where she was denied entrance to the officer’s club on account of her sex.
A remarkable individual, but what was interesting from my point of view was that Mrs Sharland was my father’s first cousin, and yet I had not even heard of her, let alone met her. My father is one of those Englishmen who take very little interest in family, and has numerous very likeable relations he has never bothered to keep up with; it was always left to my Irish mother to maintain contact.
England is perhaps the least family-orientated society on earth, and this partly explains why it often feels unfriendly, atomised even, but there are good historical reasons for why this happened. Indeed the study of family relations is an overlooked area that has huge implications for politics, especially foreign policy.
For example, two months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq there appeared an essay called “the Cousin Marriage Conundrum” by journalist Steve Sailer. In the piece Sailer made an original, and almost eccentric argument, for why democracy in Iraq would fail – its high rates of cousin marriage. Noting that between 46 and 53 per cent of Iraqis married first or second cousins, he suggested: “By fostering intense family loyalties and strong nepotistic urges”, cousin marriage “makes the development of civil society more difficult”. Not only was Iraq split between Kurds in the North, Sunni Arabs in the centre and Shia in the south, but each was sub-divided into “smaller tribes, clans, and inbred extended families – each with their own alliances, rivals, and feuds”.
There are about 150 tribes in Iraq, comprised of some 2,000 clans, among them the al-Bu Nasir of which Saddam Hussein was a member. His political career began under the care of his uncle, who later became his father-in-law, for Saddam also married a first cousin, although he later took a second wife. (At a party thrown by the Egyptian dictator Hosi Mubarak, Saddam’s charming eldest son Uday stabbed to death the president’s food taster because he had introduced his father to his step-mother.)
The cousin marriage question was taken up by American commentator Stanley Kurtz in the National Review in 2007, where he wrote: “Instead of encouraging cultural exchange, forging alliances, and mitigating tensions among competing groups, parallel-cousin marriage tends to wall off groups from one another and to encourage conflict between and among them.” He noted that these were most common in Islamic societies, but rare in Christian ones.
Countries without cousin marriage have far stronger civic institutions while in contrast extended families make civil society, honest government and democracy difficult, since the aim of each individual in attaining power is to help out his clan. Yet according to Kurtz, westerners purposely ignored the tribal nature of Arab society for political reasons, and with “many anthropologists already drawn to Marxism in the 1970s” they concluded that conflict in the region was about resources. In reality Darwin trumps Marx every time.
So why is Europe different? The answer is the Catholic Church. Christianity in our minds is linked to “family values”, as Right-wing politicians used to say before an imminent sex scandal, but from the beginning it was almost anti-family, and Jesus told his disciples to leave theirs. Whereas Judaism had been heavily kinship-based, Christ voiced the view that the noblest thing was to lay down one’s life for a friend – a gigantic moral leap. This universal ideal was spread by St Paul who famously stated that there would be neither Jew nor Greek, “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”.
Although both large Abrahamic faiths are universalist, western Christianity was far more jealous of rival loyalties, such as could be found in the clan, and wanted to weaken them. St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas both encouraged marrying out as a way of widening social ties, and in Summa Theologica Aquinas objected to cousin marriages on the grounds that they “prevent people widening their circle of friends”. He wrote: “When a man takes a wife from another family he is joined in special friendship with her relations; they are to him as his own.”
The influence of the Church caused Europeans to be less clannish and therefore made it easier for large territorial magnates to forge nation-states.
Another consequence was the nuclear family, which developed in the North Sea region around the turn of the millennium. It was influenced by the western European manor system of agriculture, under which peasants managed their own farms let out to them by the lord of the manor, owing him obligations of work. This encouraged adult children to move out of the family home, whereas in most cultures three generations lived together under a paterfamilias.
With the nuclear family came a move away from group identity and towards the western concept of individual rights and liberalism. It was a revolutionary idea and in parts of the world where the clan still rules it is still an alien one.
Furthermore, once an adult son was no longer considered the property of his father the next logical step was that he would have the power to choose whom to marry, leading to another huge social change, what Samuel Huntington called the “Romeo and Juliet revolution” – marriage for romantic love.
None of this would have happened without the Catholic Church, although there are still variations across Europe. England is perhaps the least clannish, and at the other end southern Italy the most; all the things we love about Italy – the effortless civility and warmth that hail from strong families – are tied in to the things ex-pats complain about most, corruption. Italy is one of the five most corrupt states in the EU, as measured by Transparency International, all of them in south-east Europe (where nuclear families arose much later), with the least corrupt (and least clannish) all in north-west Europe.
But while in the Common British Imagination most people link this corruption/familiarity with Catholicism, and northern European individualism with Protestantism and/or secularism, the opposite is in fact true. The Church brought us out of our families, for which we should be grateful.
I’m personally a non-believer, but I do appreciate these sorts of commentaries. It’s very true that collective religions had a huge impact on cultural and technological advances, and for this we must all be, at least, partially appreciative.