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Egalitarian Hedonism & The Working Class

Matt K. Lewis, who grew up white and working-class, reflects on the Tabitha Rouzzo story we talked about here last week. While he concedes that economic change plays a role in the demoralization of the white working class, insufficient attention is paid to how moral breakdown has contributed to their economic immiseration. Lewis cites a recent story in Vanity Fair quoting a veteran journalist’s recollection of covering Haight-Ashbury in the late Sixties, and seeing the descent of middle-class kids into hedonistic squalor. From the VF piece:

Some of the older reporters were not amused. Nicholas von Hoffman, of The Washington Post,who covered the Haight in a suit and tie, was, he says now, “appalled” by what he saw. It wasn’t that he didn’t like a lot of the people—he was fond of Joplin, for one—or wasn’t impressed by the numbers. In fact, this was, he says, “the same tactic that Gandhi used; he had 100 million people with no money, no guns, no nothing—these were his troops.” The Haight troops were, likewise, “this mass of young people who had no political knowledge, were not particularly well educated, but the thing you could get them to do was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” and that bait, von Hoffman felt, was enough to achieve “enormously political” ends.

The overnight change in the attitude toward drugs was what alarmed von Hoffman. “A generation and a half before, you could back a dump truck full of cocaine into a Jesuit schoolyard and none of those boys would get near it.” Now, suddenly, he continues, “middle- and working-class kids were doing ‘vice tours,’ like American businessmen in Thailand: coming to the Haight for a few weeks, then, when the dirt between their toes got too encrusted, going home. This was when American blue-collar and middle-class kids became drug users. This was the beginning of the Rust Belt rusting.”

When two Russian diplomats requested a personal tour of the Haight, von Hoffman obliged them. (They ran into his son, who’d grown his hair and joined in the merriment.) Then von Hoffman persuaded Ben Bradlee, the Post’s managing editor, to come to San Francisco and see “all the shit that’s happening” for himself. By that time, recalls Stanley Mouse, “if a tour bus’s air-conditioning broke down, the tourists would be afraid to get out, even in 95-degree heat.” Von Hoffman ended Bradlee’s tour by taking him to a drug lab. “Then Ben flew back in a state of shock,” says von Hoffman, who, soon after, fled back east himself.

(If you haven’t read Joan Didion’s essays about this culture, collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, you should.)

Anyway, Matt K. Lewis, reflecting on Von Hoffman’s observations, says:

This, I suppose, is an argument for the “no guardrails” theory — a theory that basically says the rich and famous can afford to live a bacchanalian existence, while those who emulate them pay the price.

A lifestyle of addiction, promiscuity, and chaos comes with a hefty price tag. Sadly, our elites are exporting those values to the people least capable of sustaining them. If you don’t believe me, just watch MTV.

Aside from the money in their bank accounts, the spoiled kids featured on My Super Sweet Sixteen aren’t terribly different from those featured in the trailer for MTV’s upcoming reality series Buckwild. The difference, of course, is that the West Virginia kids being glamorized inBuckwild will grow old before their time — if they live long enough to grow old, that is. Most will likely spend the rest of their lives paying for the sins of their youth. The rich kids, on the other hand — well, they will likely land on their feet.

Hull’s column demonstrates how bad moral decisions impacted Tabitha Rouzzo’s family. For example, of Rouzzo’s mom, Hull writes: “In her face and spirit were traces of the cheerleader who got pregnant in the eighth grade… They had two daughters and Tabi on the way when they split.”

Rick Santorum has popularized the notion that being married before having kids — and then staying married — is good for the pocketbook. When we mock social conservatives for their “family values,” we ought to remember the practical reason these values caught on.

Many people hate to consider this, because they think it’s about holding the working class to a stricter, double standard. What these people fail to understand is the truth of Robert Heinlein’s maxim holding that civilizations have the morality they can afford. The working class in this country cannot afford to have the morality of suburban middle and upper-middle class libertines. Of course these libertines can’t, in a spiritual and emotional sense, afford this morality either (see “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” for documentary evidence of how blasted-out these well-off white kids are by this moral bankruptcy), and if they don’t recover, they’ll find themselves poor too. The point is that they have resources to recover, resources that the working class does not.

We Americans have become egalitarian in our hedonism, and are willing to believe any lies that tell us we can live exactly as we want to, without consequences.

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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