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America as a cultural Third World

Charles Murray is troubled by the increasing class divide in the US.  [1] Excerpt:

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.

This is a long post, so I’m putting most of it below the jump. Read on.

Murray then takes a tour through the various ways that elite white American culture has diverged from working-class white American culture. He does this by comparing the white elite Boston suburb of Belmont with the white working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown. Here is an especially notable point of comparison:

Religiosity: Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

For example, suppose we define “de facto secular” as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006 to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.

Murray says that the cultural difference between the uppers and the rest of America was not nearly as marked as recently as 1960. There were differences, obviously, but there was still recognizably a common culture. Now, the elites have clustered around what he calls “SuperZIPs” — towns and areas where the elites live in isolation:

Similarly large clusters of SuperZIPs can be found around New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco-San Jose corridor, Boston and a few of the nation’s other largest cities. Because running major institutions in this country usually means living near one of these cities, it works out that the nation’s power elite does in fact live in a world that is far more culturally rarefied and isolated than the world of the power elite in 1960.

And the isolation is only going to get worse. Increasingly, the people who run the country were born into that world. Unlike the typical member of the elite in 1960, they have never known anything but the new upper-class culture. We are now seeing more and more third-generation members of the elite. Not even their grandparents have been able to give them a window into life in the rest of America.

Murray says that purely economic explanations for this state of affairs are insufficient. The breakdown of social norms is a more plausible explanation. Plus, economically successful people will always marry within their own class, he says. Yet he clearly sees that there’s something troubling about a broadly democratic America turning into a Third World model, where a superrich cultural elite rules the teeming masses from behind gated communities.

So, what’s his solution? For elites to start moving to Fishtown, pretty much. That’s it. Seriously:

Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.

Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.

I get what he’s saying here, but Daniel Larison has put his finger on what is so naive about this [2]:

So Murray’s solution appears to be telling members of the “new upper class” to change quite a few of the cultural habits that he has just described as part of what distinguishes them from everyone else. If he explained why they should or would do this, I must have missed it. … Murray clearly believes that the “new upper class” ought to engage “in the rest of America” to reduce cultural inequality, and he wants it to be strictly voluntary, but he gives no clear reason why anyone should volunteer.

Exactly right. Why should Mr. and Mrs. Belmont send their kids to school at Fishtown High, which is likely to be a place where the education won’t be nearly as good as what’s on offer at Belmont Prep, and — more crucially to Murray’s main point — the mainstream culture is likely to be inimical to the values that they prize. There may be a moral case for doing this, but Murray doesn’t make it. Moreover, he doesn’t stop to think that the working-class people of Fishtown may not particularly want to adopt the moral and cultural values of the Belmontese. There is a certain sense of noblesse oblige informing Murray’s prescription. What if the people of Fishtown don’t give a rat’s ass about the cultural preferences and values of the elites who deign to live among them? Where is the guarantee that the Fishtownians will be improved by the presence of the Belmontese? The assumption is that if people have a better example set for them, particularly an example of people who prosper by living according to a certain set of bourgeois norms, then they will all want to be like the bourgeois. How do we know that’s true, especially in a popular culture that constantly and powerfully agitates against bourgeois values of self-discipline and stability? If you’re a Belmontese, you’re being asked to risk your kids losing the values that are likely to advance their economic condition, and maintain their social stability, for the sake of … what, exactly?

Understand, I’m not saying that Murray is wrong to diagnose a problem for our country in this cultural divergence. I’m simply agreeing with Larison that his solution is no solution at all. If you’re going to ask people of means to take that kind of risk, you’re going to have to appeal to something a lot more potent than telling them that life in the upper-class suburbs is sterile, and that they’re vaguely missing out if they only stay around their own kind.

This state of affairs is a lot more complicated than most people prefer to think. For one thing, it’s normal for people to want to live around those who share their values. The kind of people who bang on about the value of “diversity” are usually left-wing cultural egalitarians who also — Sailerbait! — extol the “vibrancy” of “diverse” neighborhoods. As the liberal political scientist Bob Putnam found, neighborhood diversity actually diminishes social capital [3]. Why? Look:

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes.

In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the “contact” theory and the “conflict” theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.

Putnam’s findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.

“Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”

My guess is that this has as much to do with different cultural values, which include moral values, as it does with ethnic and racial differences. As Murray points out in his essay, cultural differences among whites — that is, people who share the same race — have become far more distinct and divergent in the past 50 years, as we have become a society in which consumer and lifestyle choices have become not only more available, but more prized. Indeed, it is the libertarian instinct, in both its left-wing and right-wing versions, that has brought about the state of affairs that the libertarian Charles Murray finds so problematic. If maximizing and exercising freedom of choice is the telos of American life, as libertarianism in both its forms holds, then why should any American choose to live among people who don’t share the moral beliefs and practices he valorizes? And if an upper-middle class family did decide to leave Belmont for Fishtown, why should the blue-collar people of Fishtown choose to risk the scorn and rejection of their tribe by choosing to live by the values of the outsiders? The cultural pressure brought to bear upon black students who study hard and make good grades — Stuart Buck’s great book “Acting White” [4]is the thing to read on this topic — as well as the persistence of poverty and dysfunction among black folks who reject bourgeois values, undermines the idea that all we need to change the behavior of increasingly dysfunctional working-class whites is for well-off white people to live among them and teach them a thing or two about how to live.

To refresh: the problem Charles Murray diagnoses is real. He offers no real solution. I can’t see that its possible within libertarian philosophy to come up with an effective solution. Murray needs to read Alasdair MacIntyre [5], who doesn’t have much of a solution either, but who at least understands the profundity of our cultural brokenness. This cultural Third World to which America is descending — by which I mean a society in which the ultrarich live radically segregated from the masses — seems to me to be an outworking of ideas and trends that have been at work for a very long time.


64 Comments (Open | Close)

64 Comments To "America as a cultural Third World"

#1 Comment By cecelia On January 24, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

alcogito – I think that there are many decent families living in poor run down areas who truly want a better life and who try very hard to instill values like a strong work ethic in their kids.
Those kids who go to St A;’s and other schools like it are an example of poor kids from poor families who still value education and a work ethic and who – when given the chance at a good education – take advantage of that opportunity. But when the decent middle class jobs leave and you lack the ability to follow them – since they are going to India etc. and the school system collapses then you end up in low wage jobs with all the attendant social problems. So if jobs are available – some people will still be on welfare etc but there are still a lot of families who would seize that opportunity.

#2 Comment By William Dalton On January 25, 2012 @ 1:09 am

I think the problem of a decline in American religiosity has been addressed in terms of a consequential decline in the ethical and social mores of American society – particularly in the working class, where Sundays which used to spent in church are now spent with friends at a NASCAR race or an NFL football game. As was noted in one of Rod’s earlier articles, loosened sexual morals may have been a phenomenon discovered in England to coincide with the 18th Century flow of people into large cities. In America that same trend occurred for the backbone middle class in the late 20th Century.

But something even more significant than loosened morals concerning sexual and other indulgences has occurred. The increasing secularity of America, in both the owner and worker classes, means fewer of these men and women are filing their lives with the activities of the church – a life in which people of great diversity have a history of interacting as equals, and more than, that interacting as joint participants in common ventures, from filling plates in soup kitchens to washing the cups for communion to preparing for a horde of kids coming to Vacation Bible School. Church life in America was the place where, if black and white didn’t often come together, yet the business owners, the corporate managers, the lawyers and doctors, served side by side with clerks, plumbers, factory hands, maids and school teachers. They’re diverse experiences and varied gifts informed one another in the deliberations of church sessions and diaconates. Their children studied their bible lessons together, took their retreats together, built their scout huts and carried packages to the poor together, serenaded shut-ins together, put on plays together, as equals. They did this because each Sunday they heard sermons that affirmed their common humanity, their common sinfulness, and their common need for the grace of God in Jesus Christ. When that message was exiled from public schools it only took a generation for the balkanization of American culture to set in and for public schools to be abandoned. But worse than that, those who left the public schools (as well as those left behind) also left going to church. The result is that there are far fewer occasions in which Americans from diverse walks of life have to reflect together, rejoice and mourn together, work and pray together, and discover why what they hold in common is far more significant than what sets them apart.

If you want the answer to Charles Murray’s dilemma, I don’t think you will find a path that will take America where he wants us to go, unless that path leads us, together, back to church.

#3 Comment By JonF On January 25, 2012 @ 5:48 am

Who says that raising kids in Belmont immunizes them against bad behavior? Some years back in Michigan there was a notoroious case where the “best” senior boys in Grosse Pointe (exclusive old money suburb) were hauled off to jail for having wild pot parties in one boy’s parent’s mansion– he had a whole wing to himself- where they were getting underage girls wasted and having forcible sex with them. Of course the parents were crying the usual malarky– “He’s such a good boy– he doesn’t derserve to be in jail!”

#4 Comment By seaoctopus On January 25, 2012 @ 11:37 am

“I cannot imagine that a logger in the Pacific Northwest would have had any knowledge of African American blues 70 years ago. ”

You need to read up on the thriving African American music scene in Seattle at that time

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 26, 2012 @ 1:00 am

Murray clearly believes that the “new upper class” ought to engage “in the rest of America” to reduce cultural inequality, and he wants it to be strictly voluntary, but he gives no clear reason why anyone should volunteer.

Well, to start at the most morbid… the more these two societies separate, the more likelier it is that eventually the inhabitants of all the Fishtowns will surround the gated Belmonts with pitchforks and torches and AR-15s and wipe them out. Phil Ochs wrote a song about that — The Ringing of Revolution. He introduced it “everyone on the inside, spiritually resembles Charles Lawton, and everyone on the outside physically resembles Lee Marvin.” So, before we get to the Eloi and the Morlocks (a somewhat different cinematic paradigm), anyone in Belmont who sees a real future for their grandchildren ought to get out.

In fact, it is only when we deal in groupthink that mixing is so difficult. Inhabitants of Belmont will look down their noses at “those people” in Fishtown, and Fishtown will return the favor. But when individuals live next door to each other, it is an entirely different story. My father taught chemistry all his life. I can’t recall another university professor who lived within two miles of us. The kids I played with, and went to school with, had fathers who worked in paper mills and the wire works, owned home heating businesses, drove delivery trucks… Of course in the days before Sputnik, the working stiffs made more money than professors did, and flaunted it.

Hey, that’s it! We need powerful unions winning substantial wage concessions so the people in Fishtown can afford to move to Belmont! And then the inhabitants of Belmont will rehab old Victorians in Fishtown!

#6 Comment By Ed Brenegar On January 26, 2012 @ 6:28 am

This is more than a cultural brokenness. It is also an ideological one. The ideas of progressives and conservatives no longer create cultures that sustain the common good. They are antithetical to them because they are ultimately about the “me” at the center of all these cultures.

Just consider, not the poltiics, but the “cultural revival” that would come from either Newt, Romney, Santorum or Paul. Is there any? There is no cultural ethos upon which to build a society with any of them. I attribute that to the exhaustion of modern conservative ideology.

And I believe the same can be said for Obama and progressive ideology. It too is backrupt and exhausted, and like conservatism is essentially destructive, rather than constructive.

#7 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 26, 2012 @ 10:20 am

And then the inhabitants of Belmont will rehab old Victorians in Fishtown!

Except for the specific labels, Siarlys, that is precisely what has happened and is happening in Fishtown, Northern Liberties, the various neighboring sections of University City (Penn and Drexel) in west Philly, and many sections in the northwest quadrant such as Germantown and Mt. Airy. I have long lusted after some Victorian twins in west Philly, having had a teasing taste when renting an apartment in one for a couple of years in the late 70s. I’d be living in one right now if my wife hadn’t vetoed anything west of the Schuylkill.

#8 Comment By Greg Richey On January 26, 2012 @ 10:54 am

As a former tax lawyer and tax policy analyst, I am making an effort to correct the near complete lack of broad understanding of our tax system wherever I can find it (this lack of understanding itself is a huge problem because it encourages class envy and demagoguery). One of the most fundamental errors is confusing tax rates with taxes actually paid. No one ever paid 91% in income taxes, however much liberals may wistfully, and mistakenly, recall such times. The tax code then contained far more opportunities to avoid taxes than it does now (yes, even now).

In fact, the portion of the total federal income taxes paid by the top 1% and 5% have increased steadily for decades. The tax cuts for the rich that liberals so deplore did not shift the actual tax burden down to the middle or lower classes. Our system has become increasingly more progressive, more so than France and Sweden, for example.

In my home state of California, the state income tax is now so heavily dependent on top earners that it is dangerously vulnerable to economic downturns, which, like our current recession, tend to reduce the income of the top 1% far more on average than lower income groups. And so income tax receipts fall much more quickly, and are much harder to predict than they were when the tax burden was shared more broadly.

I end with my usual plea for a much simpler, nearly flat tax with next to no deductions, preferably based on consumption rather than income (that is another debate), but above all one that can be understood by the average taxpayer and that is perceived as fair. Might as well believe in the tooth fairy however.

The tax increases on the rich that seem to be the primary desire of liberal Democrats, if enacted, would increase the tax burden by upper income earners to the highest in US history, would move the total tax take to well over the long-term average of 19-20% of GDP, would never take in as much revenue as predicted (tax increases ALWAY result in lower revenue than predicted) and would in any event not come close to closing the exploding deficit.

There never was some golden age when the rich paid their “fair share.” The rich pay more now than ever, and increasing those taxes further is not going to fix the deficit, much less improve the economy.

#9 Comment By J On January 26, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

The tax increases on the rich that seem to be the primary desire of liberal Democrats, if enacted, would increase the tax burden by upper income earners to the highest in US history,

The equivocation in “highest” (percentage in one place, total dollars in another, perhaps constant dollars in others) is a problem.

would move the total tax take to well over the long-term average of 19-20% of GDP,

And the non-imaginary problem with this is what, precisely?

would never take in as much revenue as predicted (tax increases ALWAY result in lower revenue than predicted) and would in any event not come close to closing the exploding deficit.

If we choose to identify and punish offshoring aggressively, perhaps not so much.

There never was some golden age when the rich paid their “fair share.” The rich pay more now than ever, and increasing those taxes further is not going to fix the deficit, much less improve the economy.

The people we’re talking about captured practically every penny of the doubling of per capita productivity in the USA of the past 30 years. As a cohort they’ve delivered little or nothing of compensatory social value in return. If anything they’ve mostly stuck the money into socially nonproductive sectors, creating an economy of a rapid succession of bubbles in e.g. luxury goods, low quality goods, and engineered shortages of necessities.

The historical social justification of the continued existence of the super-rich was their service as sources/concentrators of capital and economic organization after calamities (wars, natural disasters, depressions/recessions). In the West they lost this role to Central Banks and economic experts in the 1980s or so. As you point out, they’re not going to recover this role nor do they desire to, nor are they as a cohort in any hurry to take any other socially responsible role.

Arguably, as a cohort the American super-rich currently serve largely as a variety of economic scavenger, clearing away the pre-Modern low productivity forms of industry. This task nearing completion, the question arises as to what we as a society really need them for as a class if they refuse to render any more relevant service to society. That is the issue at the bottom of the Gingrich-Romney dispute. Personally, I think a Romney nomination and perhaps Presidency is desirable precisely because it makes the issue unavoidable and undeniable and in-your-face. It will force all sides to come to serious conclusions.

#10 Comment By Stef On January 26, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

Murray should have also mentioned the lack of social mobility through marriage. Back in 1960, the nice young Fishtown secretary could get on the streetcar and go to work in the office of the upcoming young Belmont executive – and very likely “hook” him. Instant ramp-up in social status, for her at least. IF she was socially skilled and pretty, that is.

Now, like marries like to a degree not seen since the days of the old pre-World War I aristocracies. Doctors don’t marry their nurses; they marry other doctors. (And you did not become a nurse by going to college then; nursing was learned hands-on through hospital / clinical programs.) Secretaries married executives. Teachers married principals. Legal assistants married lawyers.

This made it way easier for at least some lower-class people to move into situations of more wealth (as well as more “culture,” if you want to get parochial about it.)

#11 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On January 26, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

Greg Richey, How dare you inject actual expertise into this rarefied space. Out with you!

#12 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 27, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

Um, Stef, you make a good point but your timeline is a bit off. Back in the 60s Fishtown’s name was as precise to its residents and businesses therein as the nearby Brewerytown. Young women found jobs gutting and cleaning fish (if their fathers and brothers left any for the taking), and some might have dreamed about riding a bus or trolley downtown to watch the high-society types strut their stuff on Broad Street. 😉

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#14 Comment By Douglas Johnson On January 31, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

If it’s as bad as all that, then here’s a possible solution: elites who own and run businesses must go to church. And then start hiring employees with a demonstrated concern for their church or synagogue, and a record of attendance. Seriously.