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Once Again: It’s Culture, Stupid

George F. Will says the Left’s bleating (“Racism!” “Blaming the victim!”) about Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent remarks about culture and the persistence of poverty are “simultaneously shrill and boring.”  In 1965, when the Moynihan Report came out, warning about a culture that accepted out-of-wedlock childbearing as being at the heart of inner-city social pathologies and dysfunction, the Left said the same thing. And today? Here’s Will:

Forty-nine years later, 41 percent of allAmerican children are born out of wedlock;almost half of all first births are to unmarried women, as are 54 percent and 72 percent of all Hispanic and black births, respectively. Is there anyone not blinkered by ideology or invincibly ignorant of social science who disagrees with this:

The family is the primary transmitter of social capital — the values and character traits that enable people to seize opportunities. Family structure is a primary predictor of an individual’s life chances, and family disintegration is the principal cause of the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

In the 1960s, as the civil rights movementdismantled barriers to opportunity, there began a social regression driven by the explosive growth of the number of children in single-parent families. This meant a continually renewed cohort of adolescent males from homes without fathers; this produced turbulent neighborhoods and schools where the task of maintaining discipline eclipsed that of instruction.

A professor with whom I spoke this week teaches in a college that is almost entirely white. Yet he said some of his students come from families so broken that he worries about their ability to form and maintain stable marital bonds within which to raise their own families — this, because they haven’t seen what a strong family looks like from within.

This week, in our examination of Canto XIV of Dante’s Purgatorio, we examined the devastation private sin may wreak on public morals across the generations. The sin of Envy, in Dante’s view, had corrupted the people of his homeland. Within two or three generations, they had lost the capacity to recognize good and evil, and had gone from being led by noble men to being dominated by venal cretins. The idea of the common good had been completely forgotten. Now, every man was out for himself, and the quality of public life had become degenerate. To me, the great lesson of that canto is that there is no such thing as a wholly private sin. Some of the sins we commit today, if unrepented of, will dramatically effect children not yet born; like the public debt we Americans have run up at a potentially catastrophic rate, future generations will be born into a debt burden that they didn’t ask for and didn’t deserve, but will have to carry anyway because their forebears — that’s you and me, and our parents’ generation — were wasters, that is, people who spent prodigally on themselves, with no thought to the future, and their responsibility to those yet born.

It’s like that with other sins too. Through sloth — that is, a lack of personal self-discipline and responsibility — we may cause our children and their children to fall into a hole they will find it extremely difficult to crawl out of. I mentioned the other day how reading the statistics on the falling-away of American young people from the Christian faith shocked me into an awareness that I wasn’t doing enough to teach my kids the basics of the faith. No parent can fully control the adults their children become, but we can nurture them in a culture that gives them a better chance of staying on the straight path. If raising the next generation to thrive is the great Mission of the family — and it is (read Kay Hymowitz on this) — then everything we do must be subordinate to that goal. If not, our kids and their kids will reap the harvest of our neglect.

George F. Will again:

Next March, serious people will be wondering why the problem Moynihan articulated half a century earlier has become so much worse while so much else — including the astonishingly rapid receding of racism and discrimination — has become so much better. One reason is what Moynihan called “the leakage of reality from American life.” Judging by the blend of malice, ignorance and intellectual sloth in the left’s reaction to Ryan’s unexceptionable remarks, the leak has become, among some factions, a cataract.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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