The Tip of an Ideological Iceberg
By Kathryn Joyce
Settling in to watch the counterintuitive “depopulation threat” documentary Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family feels disorientingly like life imitating art, or more specifically, social science imitating apocalypse cinema. Above an ominous, skeletal piano score, telegraphing a claustrophobic sense of impending doom, an assembly of prominent conservative researchers and pundits, including Nobel laureate Gary Becker and academics from conservative think tanks, ruefully predicts a new end-of-days. Everywhere throughout the film, there is a plague of disappearing bodies, particularly children’s bodies, literally vanishing from the screen. The children, classrooms full of them, become translucent and fade from dens, swing sets, teeter-totters, bikes, and shady suburban walkways as flurries of snowflakes start to fly. Over it all, a voice-over read by a female narrator lends the film an eerily automated calm, recalling a familiar science-fiction juxtaposition: humanity rendered impotent beside an un-flappable computerized countdown. The effect is a clear arrow pointing to mankind’s culpability in its downfall, having tampered with the established order to the point of self-destruction—a timeworn morality tale science fiction has lifted from religion.
The same moral is intended in Demographic Winter, but the original sin isn’t the creation of tyrannical artificial intelligence, or the destruction of the environment. Rather it’s the failure of people worldwide to have enough children to replace their old and dying, a cultural shift in family planning and size that has led to falling birthrates globally, but particularly in the affluent, developed nations of the West. The sin that preoccupies the entire documentary—though such morally infused terms are assiduously avoided throughout the film—is birth control and the sexual revolution, and the widespread cultural decision of women to limit their fertility. But you have to listen hard to identify that agenda, because instead of laying that argument out, the movie is a projection of social conservative fears about what changes to traditional family structures will bring, a vivid dystopia illustrated with both futuristic doomsday imagery and a catalogue of historical horrors: the disappearing bodies a gentle rendition of nuclear flash incineration; the snow that replaces them at once evoking atomic and crematorium ashes, as well as emblemizing the frostier demographic death the film-makers envision. Either way, it signals massive dying, and in case the rhetorical stakes for the demographic winter theory aren’t high enough, the filmmakers declared, in a banner at their Heritage Foundation premiere in mid-February, that the film’s topic is “the single most powerful force directing the fate and future of society.”
The argument put forth in Demographic Winter is a familiar one to those who have been watching conservative strategy develop over the past several years: that with birth-rates falling globally over the last half-century, and in most developed nations falling below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman, the ratio of young to old will shift dramatically and wreak havoc upon existing social security and health care systems. The economy at large may also suffer, as the elderly cease spending and a smaller generation of workers is crippled by the taxes needed to support their parents. And the reasons why it’s occurring is a litany of culture-war complaints: women working, the “divorce revolution,” the sexual revolution (including cohabitation and the pill), worries—or what the filmmakers call “inaccurate presumptions”—about overpopulation and limited resources, and an affluence that leads to fewer children. It’s a massive failure to be fruitful and multiply writ large, but again, such religious cues are kept off-screen.
The world this will bring about, according to the filmmakers, is bleak: grandparents left untended and alone in the streets of Europe as intergenerational bonds are shattered; the potential desolation of small countries such as Latvia, and a worldwide depression that will touch even those countries that don’t disappear under the sheath of snow that the film shows blanketing the entire globe. So argues Harry S. Dent, Jr., an economist who specializes in “demographic-based economic forecasting,” and who predicts that the West will follow Japan’s aging population bust.
But there’s a more insidious undercurrent to the “demographic winter” argument as well, one its proponents fiercely deny but that nonetheless permeates nearly all of the current debate on demographic worries: that the concern is not about a general lack of babies, but the cultural shifts that come when some populations, particularly immigrant communities, are feared to be out-procreating others. This has become a standard right-wing argument in Europe and the United States, launching a series of books since 2001 that predict a coming Muslim onslaught that will displace traditional Western populations, from Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West, to George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral and Melanie Phillips’s Londanistan, and fostering anti-immigrant neologisms such as “Eurabia,” a term hinting at a conspiracy to “Islamicize” Europe, and render the continent a Muslim colony. Coupled with cultural tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims from the Netherlands to Switzerland, “demographic winter” rep-resents a potent escalation of rhetoric. The specter of this threat is raised at the close of Demographic Winter, but broached very obliquely, through the sort of dog-whistle code that has come to characterize many conversations about racial anxieties.
“No part of the world stays dominant forever,” Dent says toward the end of the film. “Rome was great, but now, Italy, it’s doing well, but is nowhere near ruling the world.” Another speaker, David Popenoe, of the National Marriage Project, summarizes the moral of the movie in its closing line, “Maybe the time of Western civilization has come and now we’re going into a retreat,” before the screen cuts abruptly to black. It’s a subtle-enough message that it may pass under the radar of many thoughtful viewers unaware of the background of the film and its supporters.
In an interesting happenstance, Dent’s father was the late Harry S. Dent, Sr., a top Nixon aide largely credited for developing the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” broadly criticized as a race-baiting ploy to tap white Southerner’s racial fears for political gain. Without intending to visit the father’s sins on the son, it is a poignant legacy for a film connected to a new global pro-family movement that has taken such marketing savvy to an entirely new level, advancing an ideologically and religiously driven agenda to a global audience with quiet and incisive appeals to the anxieties the Western world feels about its increasingly multicultural societies.
Part of this undercurrent to the film is clarified by its backstory. Demographic Winter was produced by Barry McLerran, executive director of a conservative Utah-based grant-making organization, the Family First Foundation, and Rick Stout (also editor), a Brigham Young University graduate. The film was shot, in substantial part, at the 2007 meeting of the World Congress of Families (WCF), an international, interfaith gathering of conservative and religious right activists and scholars who cross religious and denominational lines to work together on pro-family social issues, uniting all the “Children of Abraham” against gay marriage, abortion and birth control, no-fault divorce, and sex education. If it’s a familiar line-up of issues to American political observers, it should be: the organizers and key sponsors of the Congress are overwhelmingly prominent figures in the U.S. evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon right. When they gathered last year in Warsaw, the filmmakers—tied closely to the Congress, as the board of McLerran’s Family First Foundation is composed entirely of WCF leaders and speakers—were on hand to interview speakers on the conference’s theme, “Beyond Demographic Winter: Springtime for Europe and the World.” The optimistic “springtime” solution to “demographic winter” was promoting aggressive pro-natalist policies that would encourage a traditionalist family structure which they call “the natural family.”
One of the Congress’s slogans argues that Poland, as a devout exception to Europe’s secularist norm, could “save” the continent “again” by leading a religious, pro-family resurgence. The “again” referenced a seventeenth-century battle between Poland’s “Holy Army” and the invading Ottoman Empire: an ancient holy war between Christians and Muslims that, WCF organizers implied, was now being replayed in the maternity ward. It seemed a clear message about Europe’s increasingly visible Muslim populations: that they are, in the words of one WCF speaker, “too many, and too culturally different from their new countries’ populations to assimilate quickly. . . . They are contributing to the cultural suicide of these nations as they commit demographic suicide.”
But that speaker, a leading American Catholic anticontraception activist, is not present in the film. Nor are the conference’s scores of religious right activists. Nor even, following editorial changes to the film made after its February premiere, are a number of leaders who appeared in the film’s trailer, including WCF organizers who spoke of the coming death of Europe, and of a France inhabited entirely by nonnatives. The orthodox religiosity which informs the pro-family movement that gave birth to this film has been made to disappear as summarily as the children vanishing in frame after frame of the movie, leaving a shell of social science arguments and a vague binding of “values” to depict what is, in truth, an argument deeply shaped by conservative Christian politics.
Demographic Winter is one film in a growing canon of pro-family scholarship that seeks to make an ‘airtight case’ for the theological ideas of the ‘natural family.’
There’s a reason for the deletion, be-sides possible responses to or anticipation of criticism. Demographic Winter is an entry in the growing canon of pro-family scholarship that seeks to make an “airtight case” for the theological ideas of the “natural family,” based on social science alone, de-sublimating biblical claims into research-driven theories.
And so research is what makes up the film, interspersing commentary with foot-age of decaying European ruins and dramatizations of failed modern families, and graphics ostensibly explaining those ruined buildings and marriages: charting declining fertility, projected depopulation, economic forecasts, and speculative correlational arguments about divorce and poverty, academic failure, and even environmental waste (due to increased single-parent households). The effect is an onslaught of data, some of which has been criticized by liberal organizations as misleading, often delivered without context besides the invisible rubric of the pro-family agenda: that the traditional family as defined by American religious conservatives is not only desirable, but necessary for the survival of the world.
Yet, here and there, the ghost of ortho-dox theology informing the film reappears. The voice-over explains: “As a society, we don’t like to talk about the causes of fertility decline. We don’t want to possibly offend other people. The really chilling thing about demographic winter is that none of these causes can be easily fixed. It’s who we are, who we have become increasingly in these postmodern times.” Other speakers signal their value-judgments, as a Manhattan Institute researcher derides young adults who postpone marriage until their late 20s as “child-men” incapable of responsibility in the new era of sexual freedom and increased gender equality, and another conservative sociologist lays fertility declines at the door of “value changes . . . attitudes, values, beliefs, characteristics of the individual.”
But there’s hope, the film declares, in academics coming to revalue a “very old institution”—meaning the natural family, in its traditionalist, patriarchal fullness—from expectations of fertility and gender-appropriate roles to difficult divorces and abstinence promotion. It’s a religious right agenda, minus its traditional center, God. But speaker Phillip Longman, a centrist Democrat at the New America Foundation who works with the pro-family movement on demographic issues, summarizes the heart of the matter: “Certain kinds of human beings,” just like the “sterile pagan nobility” of the fading Roman Empire, “are on their way to extinction. People who for lack of faith don’t go forth and multiply.” The only solution, Longman sees, quickly dismissing the progressive “Swedish model” welfare state that subsidizes equitable parenthood, is a “return to traditional values: patriarchy, properly understood.”
For all its academic prestige and sci-fi conceits, this is the thrust of the demo-graphic winter argument and the conservative ideology it quietly promotes. The guiding agenda of the film is almost entirely submerged, iceberg-style, so only the secular veneer of social science shows. While there is certainly room and need to work on the issues raised by demographers concerned about falling fertility, this documentary is no neutral starting point for that discussion. What lies below its surface is immense.
Kathryn Joyce is a freelance journalist based in New York City and the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2009.