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I have been invited to examine the relationship between American culture and American family law at the end of the century. No doubt I was foolish to accept the invitation, since the topic can hardly be sketched, much less discussed, within the compass of even a lengthy article. On the other hand, that happy fault forces me to accept the luxury of writing a speculative essay and of eschewing the footnotes that are the misery (and majesty) of the academic lawyer. But even thus set free I am still enchained. Family law is shaped by more cultural forces than I am allowed pages. I might consider, for example, how the triumph of American individualism continues to mold family law. I might try to remedy the unaccountable failure to analyze the way feminism has transformed family law. I might reexamine the argument I made elsewhere that family law has decreasingly deployed overtly moral language in its work. I have, however, chosen a road less traveled. I propose a hypothesis: We live in an age of distrust, an age in which we feel less able than before to anticipate how people will behave and to be confident they will not injure us. We trust social institutions, and particularly government, less than we ever have. We seem less certain that we can count on our neighbors, friends, and families. This distrust is less pervasive and less intense than in many other countries. And distrust is hardly the only factor shaping fin de siecle family law, nor even the most powerful. Nevertheless, it is potent enough that numerous changes in family law over the last few decades can be understood as accommodating it.


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