In the August/September issue of First Things, I wrote briefly about New York’s Nanny-in-chief, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and his proposal to regulate the size of sugary drinks for sale in Gotham. Many commentators chortled. I’ve found myself thinking his efforts serious, and a sign of our times. Our neo-bourgeois elites feel the need to impose their order on the lower classes.
Over the last fifty or so years, our common culture has decayed. Inane reality TV has replaced anodyne shows like “Leave it to Beaver.” Sex, profanity, and violence course through fiber-optic wires. Pornography dominates the internet. All of this has taken place against the background of a dramatic weakening of moral confidence. Today we find it very hard to pronounce behavior bad or wrong. We prefer softer, therapeutic statements: it’s unhealthy or self-destructive. Or we focus on utility: certain behaviors have high social costs. Or we step back: “Who I am to judge?”
Pope Benedict XVI has referred to this weakened moral confidence as a dictatorship of relativism. It’s an arresting image, one that correctly highlights the way in which elite culture polices what we say and think. The way in which objections to same-sex marriage are denounced as simple bigotry and ignorance provides an obvious example. But to my mind it’s more accurate to say that our age is dominated by a moral diffidence, not a strict relativism.
Very few people imagine that there are no moral truths, but many believe these truths are soft and plastic, not infinitely malleable (murder is a firm no-no) but nonetheless mobile and adjustable (“mercy killing” isn’t murder). The firm voice of the social consensus only intervenes when you or I speak up and say that aborting Down Syndrome children and killing patients with advanced dementia is evil. It is forbidden to be morally outspoken about things that our elite culture thinks morally ambiguous.
The social consequences of this plastic and diffident moral consensus have been complex. But one thing has become clear in the last decade or so. Elite Americans have found ways to survive and even thrive. The rest? Everybody else struggles to find firm footing.
As Charles Murray documents in Coming Apart, his study of white Americans over the last fifty years, the top 20% has undergone a neo-bourgeois revival of sorts. Marriage is common, divorce much less so. Children are overwhelmingly likely to be raised by both biological parents. People are engaged in their communities, raising money for the local schools and so forth.
Meanwhile, the bottom has fallen out from underneath the bottom 30%. Marriage is less and less common, while illegitimate children are more and more likely. Less than half of children born to poor white Americans live with both biological parents. The poor are unlikely to be married, and they’re increasingly unlikely to work full time. They are more likely to be in prison. And they don’t participate in softball leagues, PTA, or other community-building activities.
Put simply, the bottom third of white America—which if we add African Americans and Hispanics the percentage of Americans very likely comes to more than half—is characterized by dysfunctional communities and disordered lives. It’s an antinomian environment, and over the last few decades, order has been imposed by shrewd policing, the threat of (and a great deal of actual) imprisonment, enticements of consumption, and the bread and circus of the popular media.
Meanwhile, although our elite society affirms Heather’s choice to have a child by artificial insemination when she is single and forty, the majority quietly organize their lives around tried and true patterns: careers are well-prepared for, mates carefully chosen. Moreover, marriage provides a stable context for children who are tortured with tremendous pressure to succeed in school—and who are exhorted to eat healthy foods and stay slim. It’s not the 1950s, but elite Americans are leading a neo-bourgeois revival largely organized around health and wealth. It’s a disciplinary culture that is utilitarian and therapeutic rather than moral and metaphysical.
In any event, the divide between the neo-bourgeois elite and the rest is clear to see when it comes to obesity. It has many causes, but epidemiologists know that it is strongly correlated to income and education. The weak social norms that characterize the bottom of society tend to leave people at the mercy of their own undisciplined desires and appetites, which of course includes what and how much they eat. Meanwhile, in the much more functional upper reaches of society, strong social pressures operate that motivate sedentary lawyers and investment bankers to strap themselves to elliptical trainers and other modern instruments of physical discipline. The same pressures encourage dieting. Woe unto him who eateth the French fry.
This is where Mayor Bloomberg comes in. In a functional society, elites set the tone, not only because it’s pleasant to rule, but also because of a genuine noblesse oblige. The impulse is made all the stronger by the aesthetic and cultural sentiments of our neo-bourgeois elite culture, which regards obesity as a taboo and source of shame. Shouldn’t the great and the good do their best to raise up the lowly? And then there are the health care costs. Doesn’t good stewardship require intervention?
Just this way of thinking encourages Mayor Bloomberg to intervene with regulations limiting the sizes of sugary drinks. He’s guiding people toward “healthy choices” with regulations. That’s what he did with smoking. It fits quite well with the usual role of elites, which is to impose their vision of the good life on the lower orders of society. This can be done prudently or imprudently, with haughty disdain or a modicum of sympathy. But unless elite culture lacks self-confidence, it gets done. In the two or three decades after the cultural upheavals of the 1960s elite culture was disoriented and unsure. Not so today, as Bloomberg’s confident interventions show.
Bloomberg the billionaire is in touch with elite opinion. The top 20% may have a diffident and plastic view of moral truth, but they are quite firmly committed to the supreme importance of health and fitness. Over the last decade elite culture has been very explicit in shoveling a great deal of mockery and shame on the fast-food eating and overweight post-industrial proletariat (especially if they are white and live in Texas). Regulating their behavior follows naturally.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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