I take my text this week from the Book of Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Chapter 17, “Alternative Futures,” page 286, where he invokes the great historian Arnold Toynbee in analyzing the decline of civilizations.
Murray, as you may know by now, thinks we are in big trouble because the “single-mother” culture that has so dominated and handicapped African Americans over the last several decades is now spreading to the white working class, where marriage is no longer the norm and up to 50 percent of children are now being born out of wedlock. (I review this book in the upcoming April issue of The American Spectator.)
After laying out his case from social statistics in appallingly complete detail, Murray pauses toward the end of his book to make a few broader observations. The puzzle he poses is this. If anybody in American society is good at preaching “cultural relativism,” a lack of standards and the idea that if anybody wants to do anything we should just go ahead and let them do it. Thus it’s a rare person in the educated upper middle class who’ll be willing to tell anyone in the lower middle class that their best route to prosperity would be to stay in school, get a job, and wait until they’re married before having children. Yet the amazing thing is that upper-middle-class people do these things themselves. The first third of his book is dedicated to showing how people in communities where almost everyone has a college education are working harder than they did twenty years ago, getting married later, divorcing far less than the rest of society, and living practically free of crime. So why won’t they preach this road to success to everyone else?
In his last chapter, Murray believes he finds the answer in Arnold Toynbee’s great work of the 1930s, A Study of History. Particularly from Chapter 18, “A Schism in the Soul,” Murray summarizes Toynbee as follows:
The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue and purpose. The uncreative minority follows along. Then, at some point in every civilization’s journey, the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority. Its members still run the show but they are no longer confident and no longer set an example. Among other reactions are a “lapse into truancy” — a rejection of the obligations of citizenship — and “surrender to a sense of promiscuity” — vulgarization of manners, the arts, and language — that “are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of proletariatization.
That’s certainly not a bad description of what is happening to American culture right now.
Perhaps the most notable trend in the arts over the last 20 years has been the rise of pointless vulgarity. We haven’t quite gotten to the point of full frontal nudity or open sexual intercourse on daytime television yet, but we’re getting awfully close. And if and when it happens, you can be sure there will arise a chorus from the liberal intelligentsia saying it’s just “freedom of speech” and anyone who is opposed to it is either “prudish” at one extreme or “fascist” at the other.
I’ve heard things chanted on rap radio stations that I would be embarrassed to read on bathroom walls. And this is music that can be recited line-for-line by 13-year-olds. Now anybody who ever hung around a black neighborhood or a working-class neighborhood knows that there has always been a level of vulgarity that was not native to middle-class neighborhoods — at least not 20 years ago. American culture had a level of decorum that was expressed on television and in newspaper headlines and in political speech. What happened was that upper middle-class people decided that they weren’t tough enough or didn’t sound black enough or hip enough and so the way to sound real and authentic was to adopt the vulgarity of people poorer than themselves. And it was often people poorer than themselves who were embarrassed by all this, but nevertheless it has all now been done.
Unfortunately, I think Rush Limbaugh succumbed to this himself in his recent outburst with the Georgetown law student. It certainly is ridiculous that she wants the college to subsidize her sexual adventures and Rush is right for calling her down on it. But it’s not an excuse for vulgarity. And of course in calling her a “slut” and so forth, he only defeated his own cause and embarrassed the Republican Party as well. And it should be noted that Limbaugh is not alone in making this mistake. The New York Post is probably the worst offender in the land. Sometimes it seems it is impossible for them to write a headline without making a juvenile allusion to some swearword or body part.
But does all this really make any difference? Is it really necessary to risk being prudish in order to restore American values? Does public vulgarity really have an impact in fostering the culture of welfarism and social irresponsibility?
I think it does and for this it is only necessary to invoke a dear departed member of the pantheon who died only last week, the great James Q. Wilson. It was Wilson and his colleague Richard Herrnstein, you will recall, who finally broke through the liberal smokescreen about “victimless crimes” and the supposed uselessness of “wasting police time” on activities such as prostitution and drug dealing that ultimately led to the end of America’s long crime wave, initiated in the 1960s by the fatuous morals imposed on the country by the U.S. Supreme Court. Wilson and Herrnstein made a simple observation: public perceptions matter. If people sense an atmosphere of lawlessness in “broken windows,” to use their apt metaphor, or graffiti or public drunkenness or generally antisocial behavior that goes unchecked, then they are tempted to lawlessness themselves. Who would have ever been able to persuade an academic — particularly of the tribe of criminologist, who all believe that punishment has no deterrence and that crime waves are controlled by demographic patterns alone — that cracking down on turnstile jumpers or squeegee men could be the first step in lowering crime rates in New York City and ultimately the entire country by more than half?
So it is with public vulgarity and the constant open discussion of sex and pregnancy and abortion and what have you on soap operas and daytime television eventually leads young people to believe that there is nothing private about sex and no act of moral omission that can’t be talked out with Dr. Phil or argued before Judge Judy. And so if you get your girlfriend pregnant and decide you don’t want to marry her or she doesn’t want to marry you, how does that differ from any of the tawdriness and indecencies that parade before you on the screen every afternoon and evening anyway?
The reason I say all this is because it appears the Republicans are about to nominate a candidate for President who is going to be hectored and ridiculed throughout the campaign as a “straight arrow.” And indeed he is. And there isn’t anything to be embarrassed about in that. When countries like ours find themselves in such straits, it is very common to reach back to some fundamentalist group that has maintained standards no longer supported by the mainstream. The Mormons are such a subculture. Ever since giving up their detour into polygamy in the 19th century, they have reformed themselves into a highly moral and family oriented religious denomination that is a bastion of traditional values. (If you want to trace your own genealogy, ask the Mormons.) As someone said on a blog the other day, “Mitt Romney doesn’t preach traditional morality. He’s lived it.”
And that’s going to be part of this election. Economics and gas prices are going to be an issue but moral values are going to play a part as well. Liberals will hate it. Janeane Garofalo will spew every known obscenity over the radio and produce positive proof that all Mormons are secret pederasts or libertines — just like us! It’s going to be important not to stoop to their level. There’s going to be a lot at stake.