Home/Rod Dreher/Silicon Valley & America’s Brazilification

Silicon Valley & America’s Brazilification

You hear about the liberal Baptist pastor in Silicon Valley who resigned after his criticism of the area’s wealthy went public? Excerpt from The Guardian:

Silicon Valley pastor has resigned from his church after calling the city of Palo Alto an “elitist shit den of hate” and criticizing the hypocrisy of “social justice” activism in the region.

Gregory Stevens confirmed on Monday that he had stepped down from the First Baptist church of Palo Alto, an LGBT-inclusive congregation, after his personal tweets calling out the contradictions of wealthy liberals in northern California surfaced at a recent council hearing.

In emails to the Guardian, the 28-year-old minister detailed his “exasperation” with Palo Alto, a city in the heart of the technology industry, surrounded by severe income inequality and poverty.

“I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power, and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn’t translate into action,” Stevens wrote, lamenting that it was impossible for low-income people to live in the city. “The insane wealth inequality and the ignorance toward actual social justice is absolutely terrifying.”

He later added: “The tech industry is motivated by endless profit, elite status, rampant greed, and the myth that their technologies are somehow always improving the world.”

In related news — I’ll explain in a second — Bob Hartman can’t grasp why his fellow progressives want to repeal Ireland’s restrictions on abortion. Excerpts:

When you consider, however, that most progressives will join a march against war at the drop of a hat and show no reluctance to holding up signs depicting the horrors that might ensue, it seems just that bit hypocritical, doesn’t it? And think about the photos of torn up foxes that accompanied all those hunting protests. Even wildlife seem to get more sympathy than the unborn child.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire what progressives stand for. I admire their compassion and their concern for justice, which is why I find it so hard to understand why they have mostly fallen on the pro-choice side of this issue. Progressives have long been known for broadening our understanding and appreciation of our fellow human beings. When slave owners saw their slaves as mere possessions and somehow less than human, it was progressives who argued for freedom on the basis of the essential humanity of those slaves. That position is at the heart of progressive ideology and manifests itself in the constant push for equality. But in the area of reproduction, and in that area alone, all of that is abandoned, indeed reversed, so that this unique human being becomes nothing more than a kind of consumer product, a lifestyle accessory – to be treasured, if wanted, and disposed of, if not. That view is absent from every other progressive position. People are not things. People are to be valued. Violence and death are never the answer. Those are the core beliefs I think of when I think of progressivism. So why does that hold true everywhere but in the area of reproductive rights? And what has that one exception done to us as a culture?

Whole thing here. 

Taking both of these stories into account, it seems to me that preserving and advancing sexual autonomy is the linchpin of modern progressivism. That if forced to choose, progressives would throw a lot of standard left-wing causes under the bus to preserve sexual autonomy in its various forms (including LGBT rights). If racial “diversity,” as progressives understand it, ever came in direct conflict with sexual autonomy — say, if pro-life blacks and Hispanics ever insisted on being taken seriously within the left — it would be interesting to see how progressive leaders would respond.

I really enjoy super-rich Silicon Valley liberals being called out by a progressive pastor for their hypocrisy regarding class issues, but both stories compel us to examine the issues raised by them more deeply.

Let’s take the Silicon Valley situation. It is Ground Zero for the Brazilification of America — that is, the process by which our country is being turned into a polity where a tiny minority living behind gates has most of the wealth, and the rest are precariously adrift. Yes, ha-ha, look at those rich libs, so full of virtue, but blind to their own indifference to those not in their economic class.

But what about the rest of us?

Don’t even start with me about relatively trivial issues like whether or not homeless people should be allowed to camp out in Starbucks. That’s a sideshow. A good argument could be made that poor and working class people need order to be maintained in public and semi-public places more than anybody else, because they lack places to go. And forget poverty for a second: if you live in New York City, unless you’re super-rich, you live in a relatively small apartment, and you do a lot of your living out of doors. You need the parks to be safe and clean and orderly. You need to be able to count on your coffee shop to be safe and clean and orderly. These are public goods, meant to be shared and enjoyed by all. Those few of us who, because of mental illness, addiction, etc., find themselves to be hardcore street people, ought to be provided for out of the common funds, as a matter of charity. But I don’t believe charity obliges us to hand over public and semi-public spaces to them.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a massive Silicon Valley private grant establishes the Elon Musk Big Rock Candy Mountain Homes For The Homeless, a constellation of fancy residences in all cities where the chronically homeless can live and have all their needs cared for. Take them out of the equation. We’re still left with the vastly more significant problem of income inequality, and what it portends for our society.

It’s easy to pick on rich Silicon Valley liberals, but I don’t see that any of us, including us on the right, have anything like a solution, or even a way to ameliorate the problem. I was direct-messaging a Silicon Valley friend the other day, and he is really worried about where this is going. As in, he’s bought land in a remote area to which he can retreat if society falls apart worried. A lot of superrich Silicon Valley people (e.g., Peter Thiel) have done that. My friend is five galaxies away from having that kind of money. But he’s using what money he has made in the industry to acquire a safe place to land when the whole thing blows up. He is convinced that the Brazilification of America is unlikely to be stopped. He told me that the upper 10 percent will pull completely away from the rest of America, and that “automation will create a techno-feudalism” — the enserfment of the masses.

Will virtual-reality porn and opiates keep the masses tranquil? Maybe. The culture now is so divided and so hostile along racial and cultural lines that it’s hard to conceive of a politics of solidarity.

I had a long conversation yesterday with my college-bound son, a talk that touched on these things. He’s understandably anxious about his future. I get that. When I was his age, in 1985, the path ahead for kids like me was fairly clear: get a college degree, start a career, work hard, seek a reliable partner, marry, and start a family — and you’ll be on your way. It won’t be easy, but it will be possible.

Now, that has all been disrupted, by economic and cultural forces. We got to talking about a friend of ours I’ll call Rhonda. Rhonda is a kind, generous, hard-working woman in her twenties. She cleans houses for a living, working for a maid service. She makes not a lot more than minimum wage. She lives with her boyfriend, “Robbie” — both are high-school graduates — who works for an employer who hires people on yearly contracts so he doesn’t have to pay health insurance benefits. When Robbie comes home from work, he sits on the couch and plays video games. She’s not happy with him for that, but they’re mostly pleased with each other. Rhonda and Robbie are drifting through life, with no self-direction, and no clear path forward economically.

My son and I were talking about how in his grandparents’ generation, and even in mine, there were career paths that people like Rhonda and her boyfriend could have taken that would have given them a lot more stability than they have now. With de-industrialization and globalization, those seem to have evaporated, or at least been significantly diminished.

Plus, Rhonda and Robbie have been handed no life script. In their grandparents’ generation, when people were significantly worse off than they are now, people married and had kids, because it was the thing you did. This was hard on those who couldn’t find partners, and those marriages weren’t all happy, but the point was that this was considered unquestionably part of everybody’s life. Everybody expected that they would one day marry, and lived toward that goal.

I say “everybody,” but that’s not really true, not in my part of the world. Rhonda and Robbie are a white working-class couple. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the South, poor and working-class black folks were the only ones without that life script. Bearing children out of wedlock was normative. Marriage was not a cultural expectation. Children were raised under conditions of great instability. Poverty as a cultural inheritance was all but guaranteed.

Now, as Charles Murray has shown, and as is clear to observant people who live here, this condition has passed into the white working class.

My son said, rightly, that these economic conditions do not encourage people like Rhonda and Robbie to marry and start families. That’s true, and that’s a problem. On the other hand, people like Rhonda and Robbie need that cultural script more than anybody else does! They are in a far more precarious social and economic position than middle class and upper middle class people, whose social and financial capital can absorb setbacks along the road to stability. Look at this, from Pacific Standard magazine a couple of years ago:

Non-marital childbearing has increased exponentially over the last 50 years. Over 40 percent of American children today are born to unmarried women; among African-American children, the number hovers above 70 percent. Many of these children are born to parents who live together, a type of parenting arrangement that, if stable and long-lasting, has the potential to offer the same benefits as marriage. But that’s a big if; in the United States, these unions often are substantially less stable than marriage—cohabiting parents are three times as likely to break up by their child’s fifth birthday than married parents.

This transformation of the American family has had significant and negative effects on low-income children. Research across the ideological spectrum clearly indicates that kids do best in stable, dual-parent households. Even after controlling for socioeconomic factors, studies show that children who grow up in single-parent households are poorer, less economically mobile, and more prone to a variety of behavioral issues than those raised by married parents.

While researchers on the left and the right have long debated how much of the “marriage” effect is actually the result of a selection effect—parents who choose to get married may be different in ways that researchers can’t control for—it’s clear the increase in non-marital childbearing has contributed to American poverty in a meaningful way.

Some of the benefits of marriage are obvious: Two pooled incomes go farther than one, and two sets of hands generally allow for higher-quality parenting. But a growing body of research suggests that the benefits extend beyond the simple arithmetic of an extra person or income in the house, and beyond even the individual: Recent research by a team of Harvard University economists indicates that family structure is the strongest predictor of economic mobility in a given neighborhood.

“When marriage is weak within a community, there are negative externalities that seem to flow from that,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and director of the University of Virginia’s Marriage Project. “So we know that crime is higher in communities with fewer married fathers, we know that parents are less involved in schools, we know that the ability is lower to support kids.” 

Conservatives have proposed marriage as a tool for fighting poverty before. Just last year, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio all gave speeches on this concept, arguing, in Bush’s words, that a “loving family taking care of their children in a traditional marriage will create the chance to break out of poverty far better, far better than any of the government programs that we can create.” But no one is exactly sure how to go about increasing marriage rates in the real world, particularly in the low-income communities that have so completely retreated from the institution.

Earlier this year, the Future of Children released a report on marriage and child well-being. In it, Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution economist (and fierce marriage advocate) who participated in the poverty report, analyzed the effects of a variety of interventions that are frequently proposed when the question of increasing marriage rates comes up. He found no easy fixes to the problem of declining marriage rates.

Read the whole thing. 

Don’t say, “Rhonda and Robbie need to go to church.” I don’t know about Robbie, but Rhonda is involved with the church in which she was raised — a fairly conservative megachurch. I know more than one churchgoing Millennial who is shacking with her boyfriend, with no intention of marrying. If you think about it, this is to be expected when a religious culture is colonized by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. When Christianity is about nothing more than adding to your sense of personal well being, it can become whatever you want it to be.

Rhonda and Robbie are deeply immersed in their way of life, and they don’t see any other way. I can hear the voice of my late father, whose sensibilities were very 1950s, saying, “Those kids have no direction in life.” But, well, he’s right. I have another working class friend, a very industrious woman to whom things just happen (as she sees it). The sense of fatalism that grips her is overwhelming. I know her pretty well, and she is always in a serious bind, economically and otherwise. She’s older than I am, and has been drifting along all her life. She sees no such thing as cause-and-effect in her life. She thinks she just has bad luck, and all the bad things that keep happening to her and her extended family happen for no reason at all.

Anyway, I told my son that the “script” that his parents, who raised him in the church, have given him will not guarantee that he will be financially successful (but that’s not the point of life). Aside from the spiritual benefits, what it will do is give him a sense of boundaries and of purpose. It will help him weather the storms that are coming for his generation without capsizing his life. The main point, I said, is that there are no external structures, economic or otherwise, that can compensate for the lack of internalized structure.

It is important to fight for a political system that spreads resources more justly (bearing in mind that equality of outcome is not the right standard of justice). But that is only part of the struggle he, and everybody else, faces — and not the most important part. As I’ve written here several times in the past, Sen. Ben Sasse said last year that social science has determined the four things people need to live well are:

  1. A religion or philosophy that explains and reconciles them to suffering and death.
  2. A loving partner and family.
  3. A group of close friends.
  4. Meaningful work — that is, work that one feels is significant, even if not well-compensated.

Sasse said that in the era we have now entered, all of those things are disrupted. He told a group of Christian philanthropists that they should devote their time and treasure to helping people navigate the chaotic world that this disruption is causing.

My point of all this is that economics are only part of the dire picture. The indifference to income disparity that the liberal pastor condemns in Silicon Valley progressives is indeed worthy of criticism — and not just as it manifests itself in rich liberals. What, exactly, are we conservatives, rich or otherwise, saying and doing about this problem? Rich liberals may be particularly hypocritical about it, but pointing out their hypocrisy is not getting us off the hook for our moral responsibility to deal with this problem too. Far too many of us assume that the Market is a just god, allocating resources rightly.

My son brought up Jeff Bezos as an example of injustice. Here’s a guy, he said, richest guy in the world, whose company cities are falling all over themselves to pay to open a facility there. And he treats his workers like crap

My son is a social conservative who is a lot more favorable to the idea of strong unions than most American conservatives of my generation are. We talked about the problem of trade unions, and how they abused power in the past (Reagan and Thatcher came from somewhere). But he pointed out — again, I think rightly — that the power has gone too far to the other side. Figuring out how to deal with that problem is one of the great political challenges of his generation — and mine.

That said, there are no employee unions capable of compensating for the loss of the union of man and wife, in terms of social and financial security. Figuring out how to shore up a culture of marriage is the social challenge of his generation.

The two challenges are related, and they also face long odds because the logic of individualism, which is the dominant cultural script today, works against both. Wealth that is only measured in dollars is not an accurate measure of total wealth — not for individuals, and not for societies.

I have a second, related point to make based on the two quotes that started this post, but I think it’s better made in a separate post. Preview: both the left and the right — secular liberals and religious conservatives, and everyone in between — err politically in separating the body from the soul.

UPDATE: Reader George comments:

Very interesting post. I know that economic success is not everything. I have made decisions in my life that probably hurt me economically (such as having kids) but have made me happier in the long run. The importance of the script is not for financial success but to provide a purpose that so many of us lack. I think the BO can also produce community values that provide the meaning and purpose so many in society lack. That is why if the BO is done right then it will be the best tool of evangelism we can provide in this current generation.

I kinda thought you were going to go in a different direction at first. I thought you were going to criticize more the social progressiveness of the white progressive. I hope you do write a blog on just that in the near future.

If you do let me suggest an observation of mine. Look at the controversy in the NFL. The NFL caved to Trump and the conservatives on the anthem. This is the same NFL that threaten to boycott Texas over transgendered bathrooms. Really shows you where their political priorities are. And for all of their talk it is not on racial injustice. It is on sexuality rights.

Notice that businesses do not engage in boycotts because of racism or sexism or poverty or well you name your favorite form of oppression. But they will leap at an instant to boycott anything the Human Rights Campaign tells the to boycott.

Cultural progressives have taken over all of the major cultural centers in our society – academia, the arts, media. I believe they could change the cultural values on any social issue as fast as they changed it on same-sex marriage if they focused on those issues as much as they did SSM. They could make BLM national heroes, have pushed the MeToo a long time ago or guilt us into greatly reducing income inequality. The reality that they have subjugated all of these other causes to the causes of sexual minorities is one of the unexplored social questions of our lifetime. Perhaps one day I will research it as I have my ideas about why this is the case, but for now I will keep them to myself until I have done some actual research.

UPDATE.2: You know what would be a nice change of pace? If commenters would refrain from saying, in effect, THIS IS WHY THE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT LIKE ME ARE BAD AND CRAZY! I’ve tried to make it clear in this post that this problem belongs to all of us, and few if any of us have the right answers. If all you have to offer is the usual griping about the Other Side, don’t post here.

UPDATE.3: Reader Craig comments:

I grew up in a Generic Midwest College Town and have since moved to one of the poorest areas of the country (where I have a salary that far exceeds anything I reasonably expected growing up).

I grew up as the child of two lower-middle class white parents. Even though my parents were never rich — there was a time in the early 90s where they were on some govt assistance — they gave myself and my siblings certain core values. While we were a deeply religious family, these values did not require religion — my friends who grew up in irreligious homes received similar values from their parents.

1. Absent extraordinary circumstances, you do not quit your job unless you have another job lined up.
2. You can have outside interests and hobbies and even bad habits (like drinking/smoking) to the exact extent that they do not interfere with your ability to work.
3. Do not have children before you get married or before you are financially stable.
4. You do not *need* to get a college degree, but you must find a career field that offers a stable future.
5. What you and your boss owe each other is that your boss must give you an honest day’s wages in a safe environment and you must give him/her an honest day’s work.
6. It is your fundamental duty to provide a safe and stable home life for your family.

Notice how the concept of stability keeps re-occurring. I look at the friends I grew up around who had those basic values instilled in them. They have had their problems: divorce, infidelity, drug use. But they all have stable, long-term jobs (I’ve been at my current job 8 years, which is less than most of them), have lived in the same homes for a while and their families don’t have that amorphous turmoil that you see in people like Rhonda and her boyfriend. That stability has given them a basic personal capital — an ability to live and solve their problems.

Here where I live now, that social capital is in very short supply. I see young people (18-30) all around me that get a job, discover that working is not really fun and makes your feet sore and is stressful, so they quit their job to live with mom and dad. They aren’t quitting because the job is unsafe or their boss is abusing them or because they are going back to school. They quit because “work sucks” and “my boss is so unreasonable.” They think nothing of living in 3 apartments in the space of a year. I’m conservative, but I’m not in the “welfare is for moochers camp.” But all around me, I see people who consider govt assistance as a form of employment rather than a bridge for people in tough times between jobs. The basic skills and outlook needed to stick it through when your job feels awful and make sure your bills are paid and generally live a stable life are totally beyond their grasp. To them, any kind of setback is cosmic proof that they were never meant to be anything more than they already are, a fatalistic hopelessness.

As a society, I have no idea how we overcome that. But until we do, we will end up like Brazil. Our income inequality problems have more to do with the inability of our poor people to build stable lives than it does with the antics of Silicon Valley.

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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