Elizabeth Wilson's spread for New Humanist, September/October 2008So who’s really to blame for this summer’s spate of knife crimes? Current opinion, from Barack Obama to David Cameron, Daily Mail headlines to anguished church sermons, is pointing the finger squarely at black fathers. They’re being universally denounced for shirking their duty to provide role models for their sons. But beneath this simple verdict lies a panoply of confused assumptions about what we do expect from men. And these assumptions seems to tally neatly with some very traditional notions about masculinity.

“We need fathers to realise that responsibility does not end at conception,” said Obama in one of his many utterances on the subject. “We need them to realise that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – it’s the courage to raise one.”

This new emphasis on the traditional role of men has its roots in the conservative Christian culture of the United States. More recently, it’s been adopted in this country by a cadre of influential black leaders who argue that crime and violence among black youth is the result of the dissolution of the traditional family upheld by Christian values. In 2007, for example, the Reverend Nims Obunge, the chief executive of the Peace Alliance, which works to tackle gun crime among black youth, wrote in the Sunday Times of “the breakdown of family structures and the absence of fathers and [prevalence of] working single mothers”. He argued that the role of the Church must be “recognised and supported”, and advocated street pastors, Sunday schools and (religiously run) youth clubs as alternatives to a life of crime.

More recently Lindsay Johns, a mentor to black youth, writing in the Evening Standard, denounced the “lack of positive black male role models” and “the abrogation of parental responsibility”, which combine with a mass culture to offer a perverted role model of “pimp-roll swaggers” – altogether the wrong kind of masculinity – to black youth.

Somewhat ironically, as it turned out, Johns praised Ray Lewis, the former Anglican priest who served briefly as Boris Johnson’s deputy major before resigning in disgrace in July after allegations of sexual and financial impropriety. He described Lewis as one of a number of ethnic minority social conservatives with a “strong emphasis on the nuclear family, traditional notions of masculinity and respect”, who would “articulate the mindset of the nascent black British middle class, itself weaned on old-fashioned values of discipline, religion and education.”

Such ideas have been enthusiastically adopted by the Conservative Party. Endorsing the views of Obama, Cameron told the Guardian: “I’ve had a number of meetings with black church leaders who make the same point. They are concerned about family breakdown and social breakdown, and want to see what I call a responsibility revolution take place.”

The Tory Social Justice Policy group, run by Iain Duncan Smith (a convert to Roman Catholicism), have been enthusiastically pumping out policy recommendations which draw heavily on this pro-family social agenda, designed to fix “our broken society”. Duncan Smith’s recent proposals on how the tax system can support social cohesion, however, expose a political paradox when translated into policy. He believes single mothers should be in paid work by the time the youngest is seven years old, but at the same time the Conservative party is in favour of tax breaks to make it possible for a married mother not to work. So children already disadvantaged by not having a second parent and “male role model” must also be deprived of the nurture a mother at home would give them.

Most influential members of the black community who have joined in the debate share a religiously inspired concept of masculinity and success. It may seem admirable that they have set up mentoring programmes and alternatives for vulnerable young men. But the underlying ideology – a conservative notion of male comportment and gender relations – is both contradictory and dangerous. It is underpinned by traditionalist Christian and Muslim views of the proper roles of the sexes, under which women and men are equal only according to the age-old rule of equality in difference – in other words, the doctrine of separate spheres or gender apartheid. If a man is to be “head of the family” it follows that his wife is (however willingly) in a subordinate role.

So far, even the most passionate advocates of the traditional nuclear family have not yet quite dared to demand the return of women to the home and the housewife’s role. Women still get paid less than men and there is still resistance to women in positions of authority at the top but, as much for economic as for ideological reasons, no one today openly challenges women’s right to work because it is generally recognised that it’s no longer a choice but a necessity. Yet this stark reality doesn’t prevent traditionalists from harking back to the romanticised nuclear family of the mid-20th-century, nor, more insidiously, from claiming that a return to such a model would solve the problems of gangs, “feral youth” and violence.

Unfortunately for the traditionalists the 1950s were also characterised by troublesome youth, by “problem” families, Teddy Boys and razor gangs. Equally absurd is the notion that the traditional nuclear family was an idyllic haven for women. As Betty Friedan testified so graphically in The Feminine Mystique, the role of the housewife was narrow, restrictive and bounded by domestic drudgery.

So the ideal family has always been a bit of a myth and the traditional gender roles that supported it were neither as universal nor as satisfactory as today’s ideologues seem to assume. The return of the traditional father figure might bring more problems than it would solve, especially since there is such a deafening silence about how this would affect the position of women. No doubt the new black conservatives would say that black men should respect their womenfolk, but the debate is so far a woman-free zone. Girls, it seems, don’t need role models, perhaps because they commit less crime.

Advocates might argue that the traditional masculine figure has authority, but is not necessarily authoritarian. There is, however, a fine line between the two. Freidrich Engels compared the hierarchical family structure to that of capitalism, with the father as owner and the mother merely as the means of production. In the 1930s the German philosopher Theodor Adorno went so far as to argue that the voters who brought Hitler to power in Germany had been nurtured in the authoritarian family which, headed by an authoritarian father, produced the authoritarian personality – conformist, obsequious to those higher up the authority ladder and bullying to those (including wife and children) below.

Many would agree with the new black social conservatives in condemning sexual promiscuity, but the answer is not to retreat into the comfortable certainties of a God-given set of rules and a straitjacketed notion of how the male/female principle is supposed to work. After all, if it’s true that sexual permissiveness has led to single parenthood, absent fathers and the breakdown of society, then why just blame the boys? Instead, we might as well adopt the Victorian remedy – return fallen women to the workhouse and punish uppity wives by incarcerating them in mental asylums.

Social conservatives would not fall into the trap of recommending anything quite so radical, yet they do often characterise liberalism itself as dangerously extreme. They imply, with no evidence at all, that permissive parents operate some form of complete laissez-faire, whereby children are set no boundaries and allowed to do anything they like.

In the meantime, if young men still commit many more crimes than women, this may be not because they’re abandoning traditional masculinity but because they’re embracing it. Rather than unhelpful and outmoded notions of manhood, what they sorely need is properly paid employment, and a decent education. Only very marginal benefits are likely to come from inculcating “traditional” behaviour in the absence of a social system that supports and values working-class men of all ethnicities. Especially if they are roaming around being “traditionally masculine” in a world in which the lives of women have enormously – and we hope irrevocably – changed.