Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam is worried about America. He should be. As Charles Murray put it in the title of his important book, we’re coming apart. (I wrote about Coming Apart in the March 2012 issue: “The One Percent.”) Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, tells pretty much the same story, but he slices the American population differently. Putnam divides society into the college-educated over and against those with a high-school diploma or less. This is a rough but useful distinction between today’s haves and have-nots. The evidence of a growing divide is clear. And not just clear, but familiar to anyone who has been paying attention over the past couple of decades.
Money? The less educated make less money and are less wealthy, and they’re much more likely to feel financially stressed. Divorce? It’s twice as frequent among the less educated. Illegitimacy? Nearly seven times as likely. Single parenthood? Same. Rates of imprisonment? Same. Unemployment? Same. Church? The less educated are less likely to attend. He doesn’t give statistics on drug use, alcoholism, diabetes, and other dysfunctions, but, again, they also affect those lower down on the social scale far more than those higher up.
In his widely read book Bowling Alone (2000), Putnam popularized the notion of social capital, meaning the social assets we have that help us navigate through life. In Our Kids, he looks at data on social trust, breadth of social networks, even the number of friends. One does not need a degree in sociology to anticipate that a population more likely to be imprisoned, use drugs, divorce, and have children out of wedlock will lack social capital. And this is in fact what his research shows.
Putnam is too politically correct to state the blunt truth bluntly, but the details of Our Kids say it again and again: College-educated people are largely functional, while less-educated people are increasingly dysfunctional. There are two Americas. We’re coming apart.
Putnam reports on the implications of the Great Divergence for children. It will come as no surprise to readers that the children of dysfunctional people tend to have a hard time in life, while the children of functional people tend to have an advantage. Dysfunctional parents give their children less time and are more likely to neglect and even abuse them. The children live in run-down neighborhoods that have little sense of community. They do more poorly in schools that have less rigorous coursework and more discipline problems. They’re less likely to go on to college and are vastly less likely to graduate. They have more difficulty finding steady employment.
Put simply, and again in a politically incorrect way, the children of dysfunctional people tend to be dysfunctional, which means kids at the bottom of society are only too likely to stay at the bottom.
Our Kids is also full of stories, both of kids fortunate enough to be born to college-educated parents who conform to the neo-bourgeois standards of the upper middle class, and of those born into the increasingly large underclass. The differences are stark. The suffering of those born in bad circumstances anguishes any sensitive reader. It certainly anguished me.
Yet I was also irked, though not for the reasons others have objected to Putnam’s analysis. Some reviewers on the left have attacked Putnam for failing to zero in on the way in which “financial capitalism” and the selfishness of the rich is at the root of all these problems. Where is class politics in this book on class? Those on the right have complained he does not properly blame the deregulation of sex and the general trend to moral relativism that has depleted the social capital of the poor. Still others complain that Putnam paints too rosy a picture of 1950s America, a period of relative middle-class equality from which he thinks we have fallen, downplaying the racism and sexism of that era.
But I did not have these criticisms in mind as I read Our Kids. By and large, Putnam strikes the right balance. It’s absurd to think that the dramatic economic changes wrought by economic globalization (or “financial capitalism,” if you prefer) haven’t eroded working-class culture. Creative destruction may promote economic growth, but it can be hell on actual communities. It’s also ridiculous to deny that feminism and the sexual revolution exploded the social norms that once brought order and dignity to working-class communities. One of the greatest spiritual failures of my lifetime has been the self-righteous refusal of feminists, gay activists, and assorted multiculturalists to acknowledge the heavy price poor and vulnerable people have paid for their cherished freedoms.
No, I was not irked by Putnam’s refusal to identify the “bad guys.” Instead, what troubled me was his implicit view of human flourishing. We read that bad family backgrounds limit “one’s ultimate economic success,” and that the growing dysfunction of the working class threatens the American dream of “upward socioeconomic mobility.” What do the doleful charts about illegitimacy and other pathologies tell us? “More single parents means less upward mobility,” while “affluent neighborhoods boost academic success.” Our biggest problem is an “opportunity gap.”
I’m all for upward mobility. It’s surely a boon for children to advance further in education, make more money, and live in nicer houses than their parents did. It makes the inevitable inequalities of our society (any society) more palatable when the rising tide lifts all boats.
But to speak of “success” and upward mobility in the context of the lives of today’s growing underclass seems almost obscenely narrow and impoverished. Those who live in the dysfunctional world of today’s poor and endure its misery suffer from a moral and spiritual poverty more primitive than a lack of “opportunity.” Economic and academic “success” are upper-middle-class preoccupations. A good college, a rewarding career? That’s what we want for our kids, to be sure. But this sort of focus is largely a luxury. And like so many luxuries, it can seduce and bewitch us.
Many of the subjects interviewed by Putnam’s team see as much. Andrew is an eighteen-year-old in Bend, Oregon, who has every advantage. His father is financially successful. His mom stayed at home during his childhood. He went to a good school. He’s off to college and undoubtedly hopes to be successful. But he senses that climbing the ladder isn’t of first importance, and his life goal isn’t “success.” He gestures toward something more basic: “The first thing that would be good for me would be if I could build a home and have a family. Hopefully I will meet somebody that’s like my best friend, and then give my kids close to the same as what I had.” And what did he get that he wants to give to his children? “My dad always reminds me every day how much my mom and dad love me.” This is something very precious, and it’s not upward mobility.
David is roughly the same age as Andrew. His father is in prison. His mother moved out when he was an infant. Both have revolving-door relationships with alcoholic and drug-addicted partners. Half-brothers and half-sisters are born and neglected. His girlfriend gets pregnant, leaves him, and moves in with a drug addict. He feels he’s reached a dead end. In his darkness he does not think of “success.” Instead, he tries to take care of his neglected half-siblings, and his daughter. “I love being a dad,” he says. Despite having gotten next to nothing from those who brought him into the world, he too wants to give.
Elijah is a young black man in Atlanta. His childhood was brutal, painful. His life has been violent. He says, “I just love beating up somebody.” Yet he does not come across as a monster, because he sees himself clearly, and he does not like what he sees. “I don’t want to go that route now.” He goes to work and to church, “just trying to be a good all-around American citizen.” He seeks decency. Again, this is a precious thing, and it’s not “success.”
I don’t wish to denigrate Putnam’s concern. As its title indicates, Our Kids is a book written to call us—the well-to-do, the upper third—to see the poor as fellow citizens whose burdens we should share. It’s the right call to issue. But utilitarian, individualistic, meritocratic assumptions dominate his analysis.
To a great degree this impoverishment is forced on him by contemporary social science. It can’t see social institutions like marriage, family, neighborliness, and education as goods in themselves. They are goods because they have positive utility functions, which are cashed out in terms of how conducive they are to “success.” Read to your kids at night because it will help their brains develop more fully!
As I read the many gut-wrenching stories in Our Kids of poor young Americans who live without stability, without anything resembling a home life, without adults who are responsible enough to take care of them—without love—it became more and more painful to see Putnam worrying that all this means that, to an ever-greater extent, not everybody has an equal opportunity “to get ahead.”
Being poor at any time and in any place has always been hard. But for many in the past, perhaps most, it could be decent and dignified. Putnam’s own stories of Port Clinton, his hometown, show us as much. He tells of Jesse, a black schoolmate he had growing up. Jesse’s parents had fled the brutal racist system in the South. Neither was educated beyond primary school. Both did menial work. Theirs was a hard life we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet, two generations ago, they gave Jesse what Andrew and David want to give. They embodied the decency Elijah seeks.
Today, self-giving and decency are remote ideals for many poor people in America. Basic human dignity seems out of reach for those on the bottom of society. Raised in an environment of moral chaos, David lacks the discipline and self-possession—lacks the basic context of family stability—to give himself to those whom he loves. This is the great crisis of our time, not the lack of upward mobility.
I don’t want to discount the role of poverty. Being behind on credit-card payments, losing your job because your car breaks down and you can’t get to work on time, feeling as though the world of opportunity has passed you by—all these and more can be hammer blows on the soul. If rich people are more likely to divorce when a spouse loses a job or piles up debt, the relentless financial battering the poor endure is surely a contributing factor to their dysfunctional lives. But we need to be clear about our brother’s burdens if we are to carry them. Today, the poor lack social capital first and foremost, not financial capital. They are spiritually impoverished more than educationally disadvantaged.
Economic and educational reforms may be necessary. But they won’t address the deeper problem. We have to face the dark fact that over the past fifty years we’ve waged a cultural war on the weak. In the 1950s, when Putnam was growing up, a too common racism dogged the life of his classmate Jesse. But the larger culture supported Jesse’s parents in their main goal, which was to raise their son to be a dignified man: sober, law-abiding, honest, hardworking, faithful to his wife, devoted to his children, and God-fearing. That’s no longer true.
Or at least no longer true for those born poor. As Putnam points out, today’s America has become rigorously segregated. The functional people insulate themselves and their children from the dysfunctional people. Imbued with a therapeutic ethos that softens the rigors they impose on themselves and their children (drug use and sexual license are “unhealthy,” not wrong) and cowed by multiculturalism, today’s rich won’t speak up for a common culture. Instead, they quietly and covertly pass on their social capital to their children in gated communities and class-segregated schools that celebrate diversity and “inclusion” while forming the young people into the rigid molds of the meritocracy.
On occasion I’ve spoken up at conferences and meetings, arguing that the preferential option for the poor today means social conservatism (again, not only, but certainly at least). It means policies that punish divorce and reward marriage. It means getting serious about limiting pornography and resisting the temptation to legalize drugs. It means affirming gender roles that encourage men to act like gentlemen and women like ladies. It means having the courage to use the word “sin.” Most of all it means fighting against the One Percent’s almost complete conscription of the cultural conversation to serve its own interests. (What could be more One Percent than gay marriage and efforts to break the “glass ceiling”?)
The reaction is almost always one of horror. I’m “blaming the victim” or “imposing my white male values.” I’ve come to see that it’s not the victims that most progressives care about. The well-to-do like the way the therapeutic, nonjudgmental culture works for them. It keeps the public domain open and flexible and forgiving, which is convenient for those of us who have the social capital that allows us to keep our footing when we screw up. Why should the functional people who succeed today give this up?
The rich almost always want to keep as much of what they have as they can. So perhaps what I need to advocate is a more progressive view of our cultural politics. Just as we have a progressive tax system committed to redistribution, we should have a progressive cultural system in which the meritocracy that now rules has to accept a higher rate of moral rigor so that we can redistribute its benefits to the rest of society.
Marriage, Family, and Government
In early March, David Koch added his name to an amicus brief in DeBoer v. Snyder. This is the case that may serve as the occasion for five Supreme Court justices to discover a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution. The brief Koch signed seeks to encourage that outcome. He’s not a convert like Barack Obama. He’s a thoroughgoing libertarian. Our personal lives should be as free as possible from moral intervention, just as our economic activities should be as free as possible from government intervention. Nice theory. But disconnected from social and political reality. More than any other approach to public life, social libertarianism will guarantee the expansion of government, not just in size but also in control over our lives.
In 1970, 40 percent of American households were constituted by married couples with children. In 2012, that figure had fallen to less than 20 percent. Meanwhile, “other family households” grew, along with men and women living alone. No-fault divorce, cohabitation, single mothers, and individuals living alone reflect and contribute to the weakness of the authority of the institution of marriage over the lives of most people. They also reflect and contribute to the declining influence of distinctly male and female social roles and other traditional norms governing personal behavior. These basic trends indicate what we all know: American society is being atomized by a cultural revolution that is dismantling traditional forms of life, especially the family.
A libertarian is right to say that this means more freedom. Now we can live as we wish rather than in accord with dominant social norms. But this greater freedom means greater scope for bad choices, many of which require government intervention to remediate the consequences (especially for children, as Putnam advocates in Our Kids). The dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births among the general population over the past generation provides the most obvious example. We know the social costs of this trend in the black community: criminality, mass incarceration, low educational attainment, and high unemployment. The more recent collapse of marriage among working-class and middle-class whites may not produce all the problems that the black underclass has, but there are sure to be dysfunctions that will call for ever greater government intervention. There already are.
Moreover, our political culture will change. As traditional forms of life lose authority, demands for redistribution become greater. That’s because a libertarian world is one in which our identities are largely stripped down to private choices. In today’s world, that means our status is measured almost entirely in terms of money.
Under the old system, a man who is a good father achieves something honorable, something superior to that of the man who is divorced or who has fathered a child out of wedlock. Today, not wanting to be judgmental and fearing that we’re “blaming the victim,” we repudiate this moral hierarchy. The same goes for coaching Little League baseball or being a scoutmaster. These are private choices no more valid than watching TV or playing computer games.
Some will say that David Koch and the movement in support of gay marriage have no interest in weakening marriage. The amicus brief he signed claims that it will strengthen marriage. But saying it does not make it so. Gay marriage presumes social libertarianism, the conviction that people ought to have the freedom to make their own life choices, unhindered by traditional moral views. This undermines the authority of the old moral hierarchies, as the gay and feminist theorists recognize and champion. What they don’t recognize is that this freedom strips our social world down to the naked hierarchies of wealth and celebrity. Left with no other forms of status recognized by society, the economic losers are nothing but losers. This in turn leads any fair-minded person to say that we need to give them more money so that they can have a piece of the only currency of dignity and standing recognized in the libertarian world. In short, more redistribution.
All of which is to say that I’m afraid David Koch is misguided. As traditional norms recede, we will not get a libertarian paradise. Instead, government will fill the void. Marriage, strong norms of behavior, and constraining moral communities provide people with a sense of security, identity, and meaning. As they weaken, government must supply those goods. Over the long term, the conservative desire to limit government is impossible without a renewed emphasis on social conservatism.
The Technocratic Empire
I was recently in Ottawa, Canada, a guest of Augustine College, a small, under-the-radar institution that offers a one-year course of instruction that integrates Christian faith with a classical liberal-arts approach. I was there to offer the annual Weston Lecture, delivering a version of a talk I’ve given a couple of times recently, “Against Critical Thinking.” In it I argue that today’s academic culture mistakenly prizes critical thinking as the great goal of education, and that making critical thinking the cardinal virtue of the intellectual life teaches students to shrink from large truths, leaving them only with small ones.
The lecture was followed by an extended question-and-answer session. One listener asked a particularly probing question: “If today’s great consensus favors critical thinking so strongly, why is it committed to the harsh methods of political correctness? Why the rigorous policing of so much of what we think and say?”
We’ve all asked a version of the question at one time or another. Why are liberals so tolerant of intolerance? Why do they claim to be committed to free inquiry and critical thinking while promoting and protecting so many dogmas? How can they square their moral relativism with their spirit of denunciation?
At one level this inconsistency is to be expected. Liberalism is the establishment outlook, and establishments always enforce their outlooks. A tradition based on authoritative doctrine can do this in a forthright manner by defining dissent as heresy. Liberalism is by definition antidogmatic, so it has to do its policing on the sly. In actual use, “critical thinking” really means thinking as liberals think. If a young person gives careful thought to the question of God’s existence and comes to the conclusion that, yes, God does exist, it’s a given that he has not been thinking critically. If, however, he dispenses with religious orthodoxy in a few brief paragraphs in a freshman paper, he has. In this way, today’s liberalism does what all establishments must do, which is to reinforce its hegemony by censuring dissent.
But as I thought about the question asked in Ottawa, I realized there’s something deeper at work in the painful contradiction between liberalism’s free-thinking propaganda and its punitive political correctness. The metaphysical poverty of modern liberalism—its denial of strong, existentially compelling truths—can rule only as an empire, and empires always rely on secret police.
A culture of strong truths is hierarchical. Some truths are more important than others. These higher ones properly organize social life. Moreover, a few people are more intimate with these higher truths than most. They rightly govern—and do so for the sake of the central, strong truths that animate society and make it a commonwealth, a society that holds its treasured higher truths in common. In a commonwealth, the custodians of culture seek to convert everyone to the higher truths. This requires addressing and refuting dissent, as well as suppressing it when it threatens the established truth. But this happens in public. A culture of strong truths is confident about the higher truths that should govern.
Empires can seem more tolerant. They don’t tend to try to convert. They simply require conformity. But a society organized around weak truths will tend not to engage. The right to rule flows to technocrats and bureaucrats who are trusted custodians of the weak truths: to maximize wealth, efficiency, health, and other forms of utility. Whatever threatens the system is simply suppressed, silenced, and destroyed, often with mechanisms designed to hide the exercise of power.
There are no pure empires. But today’s political correctness comes close. Inclusion, tolerance, diversity, and difference are entirely formal concepts, largely empty of any content that could provide a stable definition of justice or virtue. They function as slogans that provide cover for policing. A failure to “affirm” diversity simply means a failure to conform to what-everybody-knows-must-be-done. This transgression is almost never met with argument. Instead, denunciations and threats mass to destroy dissent.
The Empire at Work
The politically correct policing may have been pioneered in the universities, but it’s now part of everyday life. Patricia Jannuzzi was recently suspended by Immaculata High School, a Catholic school run by a religious institute of sisters in Somerville, New Jersey. Her sin? On her Facebook page, Jannuzzi posted critical comments about the sophistry that often characterizes gay activism, concluding with an observation and exhortation. “In other words [advocates of same-sex marriage] want to engineer western civ into slow extinction. We need healthy families with a mother and a father for the sake of children and humanity!!!”
A former student, Scott Lyons, who is married to a man and has adopted a child, read the Facebook posting and circulated a petition denouncing Jannuzzi’s comments as “hate speech” and “homophobic.” His aunt, Susan Sarandon, got into the act, supporting the petition. Another former student, also gay, actor Greg Bennett, asked his 165,000 Twitter followers to sign the petition. He tweeted that Jannuzzi is a “nightmare dumpster human.” Soon, the school was inundated with more than 100,000 emails calling for her to be fired. School officials responded in cowardly fashion. Instead of defending a teacher being cyber-lynched, they asked her to resign and, when she refused, suspended her.
The first thing to say about this affair is that it represents the remarkable aggression of the One Percent. Elites today think nothing of launching assaults on ordinary people who question their worldview, in this case depriving a schoolteacher of her job.
The second thing to say is shame on the Diocese of Metuchen, where Jannuzzi’s school is located. What she expressed on her Facebook page is a demotic version of what various popes have said numerous times over the past few decades. To immediately abandon her to the cyber-crowd calling for blood was Pilate-like.
Again, I say, shame.