Our Cultural Divide

Our Cultural Divide January 26, 2012

Charles Murray, in his WSJonline piece, observes the new cultural divides. (But I have to say that basing one’s report on de Tocqueville, no matter how much the intelligentsia read him, is spurious. There was nothing but impressions at work in that man’s work.) Still, some interesting numbers are at work today and Murray presses us to see his claim:

People are starting to notice the great divide. The tea party sees the aloofness in a political elite that thinks it knows best and orders the rest of America to fall in line. The Occupy movement sees it in an economic elite that lives in mansions and flies on private jets. Each is right about an aspect of the problem, but that problem is more pervasive than either political or economic inequality. What we now face is a problem of cultural inequality.

When Americans used to brag about “the American way of life”—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions….

As I’ve argued in much of my previous work, I think that the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration. Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of….

The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it. That “something” has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.

The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices….

One family at a time. For their own sakes. That’s the American way.



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  • So the antidote to “conservative social engineering” is … libertarian social engineering? Yes, life was great in the 1940s-60s – if you were white, male and hated commies. Thankfully, society has changed, and we are a more inclusive and compassionate people. That isn’t the problem.

    The problem is that the massive upheavals caused by the rise of postmodernism are leading to huge gaps in the way significant portions of the country perceive reality. That’s why conservatives, including this author, seem to increasingly drop hints these days about returning America to “the way things were.” The society they knew has disappeared, and that’s a scary prospect, so in response we see these concocted solutions to misidentified problems.

  • Steph

    I think what the author is driving at is to avoid hypocrisy (haven’t looked at the link, just the excerpt). In other words, if we recognize that a stable marriage, education, hard work, and conscientious parenting have proven to be a benefit and an advantage to us, there’s no use in trying to pretend it “ain’t so” in the interest of “being nice.” We need to praise the value of those things in our lives.

    But I don’t like the way he turns this impulse *against* others.

    At first read, I hated this excerpt and was prepared to argue against it (as I go on to do here). What exactly is the new upper class he writes about in the last paragraph? He says it is not about poverty, not only a story about the economic elite and political elite, but then he focuses on the problems of the working-class (usually delineated by income level and education level) in the last paragraph. And he conflates marriage and education with hard work and conscientious parenting, as if conscientious parenting did not exist among single parents or among the least educated. Besides, it is entirely too easy to judge others as not conscientious parents when it is those of us who are economically well-off who make it harder for them to parent as they wish by insisting those in service professions, in retail and restaurants, be at our beck and call at nearly all hours and on nearly all days….. It does not take much imagination for me to realize how difficult it would be for me to parent as I wish, both in terms of involvement and providing safety and enrichment and discipline, if I went from upper middle class to struggling working class, if I were suddenly single and working the odd hours many in the working class have to work. Being “conscientious” would not be the issue I’d be butting my head up against. At what point does one break off into someone towards whom judgment should be directed? Can one be conscientious as a parent and hardworking but be single and avoid censure? Not clear. Being a single parent is obviously such a blemish on one’s character to him. It’d be a little hard as a single parent to hear such judgment and consider myself outside of it just because I happened to also be a conscientious parent and hard-working.

    If the solution that will lead us to a better society is “voicing disapproval of those [people] who defy these norms,” I say no, thank you. To be a society that constantly speaks judgment, particulary of those who “defy norms” doesn’t sound like the ultimate good we’re after.

    So, in which reaction do I best understand what he is driving at? In my initial negative reaction, or in my eventual qualified positive one?

  • Tim

    Wow, Steph! Great insights!

    I read the article and both your positive and negative assessments are right on. Good parenting does matter, and being against people does not work.

  • DRT
  • Brian C

    @#1 – Paul, judgmental much? If yours isn’t a twisted one-sided analysis of the problem our nation faces not sure I’ve seen one. All you’ve done in your response is cry “it’s not my fault – it’s the other guy” which is tragically typical of too many Liberals. Nothing is ever their fault, or so they claim, it’s those nasty Conversatives who have messed everything up. The problem is that Conservatives too often use the same logic to denounce “Liberal social engineering” and in the same manner.

    The problem is not with political ideology per say but with people who are living outside the will of God. Social engineering is never going to fix what’s wrong with America. Only obedience to God’s plans and Jesus way are going to set right what’s broken. What we need is another Great Awakening and much repentance.

    And, while professing to be a more compassionate person, I think what you mean is tolerant as you define it, you certainly didn’t demonstrate it your response. Grow up dude.

  • Diane

    We could look back to the greater income equality of circa 1960 and the way it allowed for a single income to support a family at some level of comfort. As Steph points out, economics matter. And every family for itself is not a Christian ethic as I understand Christianity.