The Broken Social Contract
There’s a bracing David Brooks column out today, based on a new book by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Before I get to the Brooks column, here’s a bit from the Amazon.com description of the Putnam book:
A groundbreaking examination of the growing inequality gap from the bestselling author of Bowling Alone: why fewer Americans today have the opportunity for upward mobility.
It’s the American dream: get a good education, work hard, buy a house, and achieve prosperity and success. This is the America we believe in—a nation of opportunity, constrained only by ability and effort. But during the last twenty-five years we have seen a disturbing “opportunity gap” emerge. Americans have always believed in equality of opportunity, the idea that all kids, regardless of their family background, should have a decent chance to improve their lot in life. Now, this central tenet of the American dream seems no longer true or at the least, much less true than it was.
About the book, Brooks writes:
Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. There are a bunch of charts that look like open scissors. In the 1960s or 1970s, college-educated and noncollege-educated families behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged.
The first two lines of that paragraph stopped me cold. Think about it for a second. Think about how many social science studies over the years have shown a definitive link between growing up in a single-parent household and diminished life prospects. According to Brooks, the Putnam book presents evidence, both statistical and anecdotal (e.g., profiles of subjects) showing people adrift in chaotic lives — and children raised by adults who do not give them the stability they need to develop. More Brooks:
The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.
But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Brooks goes on to say it is not the case that America’s college-educated are “beacons of virtue,” but rather that the vices besetting the educated are part of the problem: ” the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.”
About that self-segregation, this column speaks to the heart of what I mean by the Benedict Option, which calls for, yes, a degree of self-segregation. Why? Not to keep Our Precious Children untainted by contact with the children of the Great Unwashed. Rather, it’s to maintain a culture in which the relativism and permissiveness that has led to such chaos and destruction in society at large is opposed, and kids can grow up in what Alasdair MacIntyre called “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” The philosopher’s language is highly charged and dramatic, but the chaos and darkness that has enveloped so many of America’s families is precisely the thing that we must resist.
I may have mentioned the other day in this space a conversation I had with teachers recently, in which they discussed how hard it is to educate kids who have such chaotic home lives, and in which the parents — or more often than not, the parent — is checked out, and doesn’t consider herself to be part of the mission of educating their child. Personally, I don’t like thinking of society as a contractual entity, but for the purposes of this post, let’s say that the social contract is broken. The public schools are being asked to raise kids, and to provide them with the sense of structure, purpose, and values that they are not getting at home. It’s too much to expect of our schools, and it’s too much to expect of these children, who are being failed not by their teachers, but by the adults in their lives outside the classroom.
I should say here that the moneyed, educated classes are closer to this chaos than they might think. A friend who helps administrate a high-tuition Christian school — not, I hasten to say, The Covenant School, at which I just spoke — says that so many of the parents who send their children there expect the tuition check to buy them moral formation of their kids. The school does what it can, but money can only insulate a kid from moral chaos to a certain degree. A lot of these students are in despair for the same reasons kids further down the class spectrum are, but it’s harder to see because money hides a lot, and rescues them (for now) from the consequences that would be potentially devastating to someone from the working classes.
I remember when I was a kid, growing up in a small Southern town, there was a strong sense, widely held among people here, that there was a Right and there was a Wrong, and that Right and Wrong could be known. One was expected to Do the Right Thing, and to raise one’s kids to do the same. Was Right and Wrong as decreed by these norms always just? Of course not. Were people hypocrites? Absolutely. The point was not that this way of life produced saints. The point was that this way of life created a moral structure in which children could be nurtured by the community, and given the wherewithal to build stable, productive, dare I say good lives.
One reason I don’t like to use the word “contract” to describe social relations is because this relationship of parents to children, and families to community, was organic, or at least it felt so. There was no question of any of this being transactional, e.g., “We will agree to live by these rules for the sake gaining from them.” No, these rules were never really questioned. The idea was that there was a moral order independent of ourselves, and we had to conform our lives to that moral order.
When you win the culture, you win the extraordinary power to say what things mean — you get to declare the angle of vision that assigns the “correct” meaning. When I was a boy growing up under segregation, racism was not seen as evil by most whites. It was simply recognition of a natural law: that some races were inferior to others and that people needed and wanted to be with “their own kind.” Most whites were quite polite about this — blacks were in their place and it was not proper to humiliate them for their lowly position. Racism was not meant to be menacing; it was only a kind of fatalism, an acceptance of God’s will. And so most whites could claim they held no animus toward blacks. Their prejudice, if it was prejudice at all, was perfectly impersonal. It left them free to feel compassion and sometimes even deep affection for those inferiors who cleaned their houses, or served them at table, or suckled their babies. And this was the meaning of things.
He’s right about this. I don’t know that I have ever read a more succinct description of how a great evil was experienced by whites within the culture as something either good, or at worst a tragic concession to reality. The subordination of blacks in that moral order was a given for most whites. It was an evil. Yet Steele is talking about how that particular failure of the old order discredited it entirely in our popular culture. In order to be more just to African Americans, many thought, the entire hierarchical moral order had to be revolutionized.
Here’s a thing I can’t quite figure out, but that haunts me, and has for a long time. When I was a kid growing up here in the 1970s, the main cultural difference between blacks and whites was in sexual mores. In general, blacks — who were our neighbors; half the parish was African American when I was a kid — had a far more permissive sexual ethic than whites (again, I generalize). Beginning in seventh grade, one could see one’s black female classmates turning up pregnant. It is hard to express how shocking this was to white kids back then. It was a violation of the moral order — and even more shocking, the adults within the black community accepted this as normal. We knew even back then that most of our black classmates did not have fathers in the home — that this was a norm in their community. The extent of our moral reflection on this fact was: That is what they do; it is not what we do. It was easy to see that the persistence of poverty among our black neighbors had a lot to do with single parenthood, and the absence of a taboo against teenage sex and unmarried childbearing.
That has changed to an amazing degree. This permissive ethic has taken over many in the white working class, as Charles Murray documented in his book Coming Apart. The destructive chaos that used to be confined mostly to the black community is much more general now; African Americans were only the first to experience it. Many readers puzzle over why orthodox Christians spend so much time focusing on sex and sexuality. Leaving aside the sacred dimension of sexual relations, you’d have to be willfully blind to reality not to see the deleterious effects of the permissive post-1960s sexual ethic, especially on the poor and working class.
A black friend of mine last year let me watch a videotape in which his elderly aunt, now deceased, told a story about how harshly her parents punished her in the 1930s when they thought (wrongly) that she was pregnant. They threw her out of the house. They accepted her back when a doctor’s exam showed that not only was she not pregnant, but that she was still a virgin. It was a cruel thing her Catholic parents did, but within the context of the time and place, the taboo against premarital sex protected black women and their children from great suffering. The old aunt said that neither she nor her sisters strayed from the path, because they feared and respected their parents’ moral code.
I heard that story and thought about older members of my own family who suffered under the same code, and I was grateful for the more compassionate mores we have today. On the other hand, rather than temper the old code for the sake of greater mercy, we more or less threw it out entirely. And we did it not just for mercy to women and their children, but — and this is the fatal error — because we, as a society, came to believe that fulfilling sexual desire was a fundamental good.
As I observed in this essay:
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.
You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the
Yale-Harvard-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.
It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.
What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.
Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.
It is not the case that having sex outside of marriage is the worst of all possible sins. It is not. It is the case, however, that to “liberate” the sexual instinct means the overturning of the broader Christian order, with predictable results: the chaos and suffering that Robert Putnam documents in his new book. In fact, one might well live a prudent and chaste life personally, but if one believes that there is no unseen moral order to which we must align our personal and communal lives, it will do no good for those individuals and communities that lack the inner strength to control their passions and subjugate them to a higher good.
So, when Brooks says that elites are wrong to self-segregate, I question that position. It depends on why they are self-segregating. The Benedict Option is not a head-for-the-hills utopian scheme, but a general disposition towards creating communities in which the moral life can be lived and upheld, and passed on to our kids, in a post-Christian culture that celebrates the chaos of expressive individualism. Benedict Option people have lost faith in the power of the broader community to uphold and pass on these basic values. MacIntyre again:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.
We may be — I think we are — at a crucial turning point in the history of our country in which men and women of good will are compelled to turn aside from the task of shoring up the American status quo, and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that status quo.
This did not happen overnight, but it happened. One has to consider whether raising one’s children in the commons will help them hold on to the Good and the True — and, if one is a Christian, to the faith — or will work powerfully to undermine the virtues parents teach at home. These teachers with whom I was speaking recently said that it’s so hard to teach the kids from intact and healthy families because they (the teachers) have to work so hard to reach the large number of kids who do not. The real class differences turn out to have to do with marriage — and that, I contend, ultimately has to do with a belief in a sacred order, whether or not you are religious. That the divorce rate among Christians is no better than among anybody else shows just how consumed by contemporary culture Christians today are.
Ultimately, the great divide is between those who believe in a transcendent moral order to which they — and we — must align our thoughts and actions, and those who believe that we can do what we like. Many people who think they are part of the former group are in fact part of the latter — and the fact that they cannot see this has a lot to do with their dilemma. If you are in a church that practices the kind of relativism called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, you are embedded in the problem, not the solution.
I am pessimistic about the ability to turn this culture around in the short term. It will require religious revival; of that I am certain. And it will require families and communities of like-minded families seeing themselves and their collective institutions — their churches, their religious schools — as consciously and joyfully countercultural institutions. These institutions have to be open to any who wish to join them and live by their life-giving moral vision of a sacred order higher than the Self. This is how society will eventually be renewed, though none of us alive today may be alive to see it.
I don’t at all mean that this problem is solely religious. It is economic as well. The libertarian idea that the common good is the sum of all individual goods is morally deficient. Still, the economic world will never be completely fair, and all the money in the world will not, in the end, save a family or a community that is morally disordered. Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post about Putnam’s new book says:
Half an hour into his Swarthmore lecture, Putnam winds into the voice of what an associate calls an “Old Testament prophet with charts.” He starts throwing graphs on the screen behind him that reflect national trends mirrored in Port Clinton: rising income inequality, growing class segregation, the breakdown of the working-class family.
They all look ominously similar. Each graph shows two lines diverging over the past several decades in the experiences of American kids at the top and bottom: in the share born to single mothers, in the chances that they’ll eat family dinners, in the time parents spend reading to them, in the money families invest in their clubs and lessons.
“Every summer camp you went to or every piano lesson you got or every time you went to soccer club, you were getting some advantage,” Putnam says, “that somebody else out there — Mary Sue — was not.”
It’s not an accusation, but a rallying cry, a call to come to the altar and help save someone else’s children.
“If we can begin to think of these poor kids as our kids,” he says, “we would not sleep for a second before we figured out how to help them.”
Their view of the world around [poor children] is a deeply lonely one. And it exposes an inverse reality among the privileged that Putnam admits he did not previously see even in the lives of his own children: Take away the parents who drive you to soccer, the peers you know who went off to college, the neighbor who happens to need a summer intern — and childhood is bewildering. A task as simple as picking the right math class becomes another trapdoor to failure.
The privileged kids don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.
Meanwhile, for a child like Sofia, “she’s just completely directionless, because life happens to her,” Putnam says. “What she’s learned her whole life is that life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”
Policy — especially economic policy — has a role to play in addressing this problem, but ultimately, it is a moral problem, and more, a religious problem. A problem of sacred order. Until and unless we get that, nothing will change.
I really, really look forward to reading Bob Putnam’s book.
UPDATE: Reader Carlo:
Once again, the problem is that the liberation of sexual instincts is not just a question of morality, but reflects a world view. Civilization has gone before through variations in public morality. If read European history there were time of appalling violence and immorality, but the fundamental “narrative” about what it means to be human being was left unscathed. That provided the moral and cultural resources to start again.
Today the Greek-Roman-Christian-Romantic “narrative” is completely gone. The replacement is the scientistic-positivistic narrative of liberation (from superstition, from repression etc), which has proven completely unable to provide common people with reasons to live, to have a family etc.
And in fact it cannot provide such reasons, since it implicitly denies that the universe has any objective meaning, and it explicitly affirms that human being are JUST highly evolved animals.