Wednesday, March 11, 2015

American Anomie

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.

He writes:

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. 


Ares Olympus said...

Really, why does everything have to be partisan? I don't understand.

But maybe we can get back to Brooks and Robert Putnam?

Like Brooks says: 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.

In this regard there's a local nonprofit to Minneapolis called "Search Institute" which looked a "community values" 20 years ago, and had open meetings and each city picked their core values. I remember going to those meetings aroud 1995, although the only visible effect was my sitting put up "Values" signs with our 7 core values listed, with a pretty rainbow!

Maybe the schools were more active, and they found 40 "assets" that helped kids succeed:

On a different front for young parents, there's ECFE (Early child and Family Education) in Minnesota where they'd have free daycare for parents, and classes, although its probably 90% women attending. Perhaps it has helped keep Minnesota near top in the nation in many measures?
Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) is a program for all Minnesota families with children between the ages of birth to kindergarten entrance. The program is offered through Minnesota public school districts. ECFE is based on the idea that the family provides a child's first and most significant learning environment and parents are a child's first and most important teachers. ECFE works to strengthen families. ECFE's goal is to enhance the ability of all parents and other family members to provide the best possible environment for their child's learning and growth.

But what if all these efforts are only half-way there because they help mothers and not fathers?

And how do we help people who slide through high school and get some income, and a girlfriend, and poof a family is born?

How do we reduce unmarried couples from having kids too young?

How do we prevent people from going onto the "easy credit for everything" debt escalator which guarantees short term pleasure for long term pain?

Can we dare set limits on access to high interest credit cards to poor people?

Can we dare eliminate pay day loan companies that exploit poor people?

Can we dare set limits on the size of our softdrinks without the libertarians crying out against tyrany?

Can we dare support mass transit so not every person over the age of 16 needs their own car to survive modern life?

Can we dare declare Sunday as a day of rest, and allow employees the freedom to refuse to work on Sundays?

There's lots of ideas, but with every single one of them, someone is going to say "But I want my freedom" and once you allow all the loopholes for personal freedom, we're back to a free-for-all where discipline is a daily chore of willpower for every citizen, and the devil shouting in every ear "Oh, you deserve it." and on and on...

Sam L. said...

Is Brooks renouncing progressivism? Kinda sorrta sounds that way.

Ares Olympus said...

Sam L, David Brooks has long been writing against the limits of moral relativism, for at least the last 10 years, at least looking for some sort of balancing tensions to avoid all fundamentalisms...
The central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste.

You are saying, as liberals do say, that society should be neutral and allow people to make their own choices. You are saying, as liberals do say, that we should be tolerant and nonjudgmental toward people who make different choices.

What begins as an appealing notion - that life and death are joined by a continuum - becomes vapid mush, because we are all invited to punt when it comes time to do the hard job of standing up for common principles, arguing right and wrong, and judging those who make bad decisions.

You end up exactly where many liberals ended up this week, trying to shift arguments away from morality and on to process.
Then, if social conservatives tried to push their moral claims, you'd find liberals accusing them of turning this country into a theocracy - which is an effort to cast all moral arguments beyond the realm of polite conversation.

Once moral argument is abandoned, there are no ethical checks, no universal standards, and everything is left to the convenience and sentiments of the individual survivors.

What I'm describing here is the clash of two serious but flawed arguments. The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral force, but doesn't accord with the reality we see when we walk through a hospice. The socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral force.

Dennis said...

I have to admit that I revel in Ares "digging rhetorical holes" for himself. If politics was not a major factor then a significant part of his commentary lacks any reason to be stated. "Ergo it does not follow."

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Dennis, there's a difference between partisanship and politics. Partisanship is spin and posturing to distort the facts. Politics is honest discussions in the facts where you assume not all virtue is on "your side", and all vice, on the other side.

Here's a related commentary, a book by Isabel V. Sawhill called "Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex & Parenthood without Marriage" and a related talk.

I suppose family planning is a liberal plot to destroy America, but if it isn't there's probably something worth talking about here.
Over half of all births to young adults in the United States now occur outside of marriage, and many are unplanned. The result is increased poverty and inequality for children. The left argues for more social support for unmarried parents; the right argues for a return to traditional marriage.

In Generation Unbound, Isabel V. Sawhill offers a third approach: change "drifters" into "planners." In a well-written and accessible survey of the impact of family structure on child well-being, Sawhill contrasts "planners," who are delaying parenthood until after they marry, with "drifters," who are having unplanned children early and outside of marriage. These two distinct patterns are contributing to an emerging class divide and threatening social mobility in the United States.

Sam L. said...

"Politics is honest discussions in the facts where you assume not all virtue is on "your side", and all vice, on the other side." I'm not seeing that from the Dems.

Sam L. said...

And especially not from The Won.

Anonymous said...

Breaking things is easy. Building (or re-building) them is hard.

The old ways (40s & 50s) were cruel for many (blacks, gays, vulnerable children). But we could have fixed, not broken them.

And just who is "we" kemo sabe? Not most of us. 97% of us drafted in VN era, reported for duty. We don't rule, legislate, or make laws or change social mores or destroy millions of jobs or guard the border.

I talked to an old teacher at Grayslake High. She's retired, but volunteers. Good school, good teachers when I graduated in 64.

She said, "You kids wanted to learn. Most kids now don't".

How do you re-build that? I'm getting v pessimistic.

Stuart! I'm shocked! "discrete"??? -- Rich Lara