As many have noted, America is beset with sociocultural inequality. Income inequality aside, Americans who have graduated from college have far more stable and orderly lives than do those who only finished high school.
David Brooks summarizes Robert Putnam’s analysis from his new book, Kids:
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. High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.
Brooks says that it is anarchic. I would describe it as a form of social anomie: children do not know who they are, whom they are related to or where they belong.
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.
Evidently, we are seeing the results of the countercultural revolution, begun during the Vietnam War, sustained by second-wave feminism and the therapy culture. Since these changes date to the 1970s, we are within our rights to see them as resulting from the war.
Strangely enough, the people who promoted the counterculture found ways to immunize themselves from its deleterious effects while those less educated and more easily led by the media lived the countercultural dream, fully.
For several decades now, America has been under attack. Most especially, it has been under attack from those who abhor societal norms. They have insisted that those who do not conform should not be judged ill.
It all began when large segments of the American public decided to attack the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. After all, it was easier to deride the troops than to blame the Kennedy-Johnson administration for the debacle it had unleashed.
And yet, once you systematically disrespect those who fight for the country, you undermine the values that they embody—among them, courage, honor, duty, patriotism….
I argued the point at length in my book, Saving Face.
Brooks defines the problem clearly. He does not use the word “anomie,” but the word means normlessness or rulelessness:
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.
One understands that the “plague of nonjudgmentalism” was foisted upon us by the therapy culture. One recalls that when Freud came to America a century ago he confided: “They don’t know that we are bringing them the plague.”
By now, of course, most therapists happily ignore Freud. They should not be ignoring his cultural influence.
One notes that Brooks does not name those who have led the assault on the concept of fatherhood.
In Brooks’s words:
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.
If I may demur, ideas can only influence society through the behavior of real people who enact bad values. People imitate what they can envision.
In a culture that values celebrity, that insists that people should be free to do as they please, when they please, with whom they please and that reserves its most vicious assaults for those who would dare say that some choices are better than others one is not shocked to see normlessness running amok.
Beyond the ideas, we must note the influence of major public figures who behaved irresponsibly and who set a notably bad example. High on the list must be John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
Admittedly, Kennedy was far more discreet than Clinton, but the Kennedy family has certainly not set a sterling example of good behavior.
In recent days Democrats and Republicans have been horrified to see that Hillary Clinton does not believe that she should be playing by the same rules as everyone else.
And, Hillary Clinton, an adored and lionized public figure, a woman many girls emulate, influences the behavior of the masses in ways that even the editorial page of the New York Times will never be able to.
Brooks defines the ethical guidelines that determine social harmony and cooperation.
While reading them, ask yourself with the Clintons live these principles:
Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?
And he adds that we must start holding people responsible for their actions, beginning, in my view with politicians and public figures, but also including celebrities:
Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: 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.
One would question whether the impulse to self-segregate is self-indulgence or self-protection. In New York City, for example, those who can afford to do so will send their children to overpriced private schools. Are they self-segregating or are they doing what is best for their children?
And it would also help advance America’s moral revival if our president played by the rules that govern all presidents. It would help if we had a president who did not believe in governing by executive fiat and who did not attempt to exempt large groups of people from the rules that govern American life and American citizenship.