Terrific post from Eve Tushnet on how bourgeois respectability is not the answer to the problem of hedonism — and how, despite what many of us social conservatives think, hedonism itself isn’t really our problem. Excerpt:
Conservatives often talk as if we’re combating hedonism and the solution is bourgeois normalcy. This makes our arguments look silly (everybody points out that “blue states” have lower divorce and teen pregnancy rates, or some other statistic indicating that they are winning on the bourgeois-normalcy front) and I think it probably makes our audience resentful. Nobody likes to be told that they’re not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we’re working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we’re just out for our own pleasure.
We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents. And, for the upper classes, don’t have kids too early and don’t have too many. I’ve written about these issues before (here and here) but I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear–primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness–but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.
Eve is making a very Kierkegaardian point about how a bourgeois ethic of duty and responsibility can in fact be just as much a way of escaping ourselves and wholeness in the sight of God than living a life of bohemian self-indulgence. It may make for a more stable society, but that doesn’t make it true, or satisfying to our deepest longings and nature. She suggests a very Kierkegaardian solution: a life of faith. But being a disciple isn’t the same thing as being a good middle-class follower of the rules. (Nor, it should be said, do the “rules” not matter; that is, you don’t get to do whatever you like and say it’s okay because you’re not one of those stiff, moralistic middle-class Christians — and please understand that Eve is not saying this!)
Tell us more about this, Eve. This is a rich post, and I’d love to know more of You should write a book about this. Seriously. These lines are great:
I don’t know that I have “solutions” really. You can’t solve somebody’s heart.
It sounds like you’re saying that bourgeois respectability is a big part of the problem, because what counts as respectable middle-class behavior is structured to incentivize hedonism of a certain kind. That’s a terrific counterintuitive insight, and I’d like to hear more from you on this point.