Monday, December 6

Jesus Christ

Ross Douthat, "The Changing Culture War". December 6

IT'S curious to me, in a The Dog That Didn't Bark sense, that the slow-motion disintegration of The America at the Center of the American Century seems to've been predicted not by the cutting edge of Art, as Modernism declined fifty years ago, but by the GM board of directors in the 1970s.

Nicholas von Hoffman once called GM management "an Affirmative Action program for well-born idiots". And it's one which has never been challenged in court, or renounced as Bothersome Old News by Andrew Sullivan.

Consider Ross Douthat. Consider it a personal favor. Every Douthat column reads like an 800-word memo from a junior legacy hire just out of pre-law at Michigan State to his uncle, the VP of Dealer Relations, who's spearheading the drive to get the 1969 Emission Standards Act rolled back, if not repealed outright.

There came a time in the still-fairly-recent past--let's call it, for want of a better term, The Nixon administration--when the Right, having clearly lost its battle with the 19th Century (though, like the Sons of the Confederacy--but I repeat myself!--not necessarily having conceded) decided if it couldn't win arguments intellectually, or ethically, it would try the time-tested gambit of Knee to the Corner of the Board! The Silent Majority! We're dead wrong, but millions of Americans who don't know what they're talking about and are racist into the bargain agree with us!

Now, needless to say, this wasn't exactly explained that way, in Nixon's famous speech, and it's been explicitly, if unconvincingly, denied ever since by a generation of Burkeans. But that's what it was, and the repercussions, both for the country and for the internal organs of the American Right, are still screwing up everybody's bowel movements.

So it is that in 2010 Ross Douthat can pretty much say whatever he wants to without the slightest consideration for intellectual consistency, intellectual honesty, or, well, intellect, at the cost of every utterance having any meaning whatsoever. Douthat can pretend that he's not a culture warrior, merely a puditological observer with a taste for Catholic ritual and medieval notions of conception. He can frame an argument over nothing any way he thinks will benefit his Superiors, Roman or Republican, based on nothing at all, and declare himself the winner. He can say this:
Decades of punditry, pop sociology and prejudice have been premised on this neat division — from the religious right’s Reagan-era claim to be a “Moral Majority” oppressed by a secular elite, to Barack Obama’s unfortunate description of heartland America “clinging” to religion. Like any binary, it oversimplified a complicated picture.

Which not only equates a decades-long, tax-deductible scheme to fund and fuel the party of corporate interests with the tithes and backwoods moral opprobrium of the Southern Baptist Church, Convention of 1845, with a choice of words the current President used, once, but pretends that Douthat himself has not made a career surfing the wake of that "oversimplification".

Ross, boy-o: without Oversimplification you'd be stamping cafeteria-worker's time sheets at some Mid-Atlantic seminary.
That may no longer be the case. This week, the National Marriage Project is releasing a study charting the decline of the two-parent family among what it calls the “moderately educated middle” — the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.

This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising. We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.

Let's put this in theological terms. There's a distinction between being all-powerful and omnipotent. God, so far as we know, is reduced to contriving historians since he can't alter the Past. You guys gamed the system, and when you still didn't get the results you wanted you decided to change how it's scored, retroactively. You're fast approaching middle age, Ross. You're Pious, and you're professionally obligated to pretend to be concerned. One would think that such matters would churn you enough that you'd spit out something other than oleo once in a while. The Great Unwashed aren't "having a hard time" living up to your sexual mores. They don't have any sexual mores, your's, Christianity's in general, or Time-Warner's. Or at least none that they apply to themselves. They're Catholics without the obligation of Confession. Take a gander at the skin-color range of African-Americans, Ross. Then tell me about how sexually upright everybody was in the Golden Age.
That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing. In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was “always wrong.” Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.

There has been a similar change in religious practice. In the 1970s, college- educated Americans were slightly less likely to attend church than high school graduates. Today, piety increasingly correlates with education: college graduates are America’s most faithful churchgoers, while religious observance has dropped precipitously among the less-educated.

It's curious how these tectonic shifts don't affect your perception of what's Good and what Depressing. I've got no idea whether those poll results are accurate, or what they might mean if they are; a lot of churches today are less like religious institutions and more like permanent personal growth seminars. I'm not sure what it means when someone tells the other end of the phone he believes "divorce should be harder to get"; as a lapsed Protestant, albeit of 20th century vintage, I'm a long way from convinced that Divorce is even a moral issue at all. Maybe married couples with college educations get divorced less often these days because they don't have to marry for sex. Maybe their condemnation of easy divorce simply means that White American Reagantots succumbed to the Moral Majority blather of their youth, just as today's youth will no doubt be permanently warped because the President once said "cling to". Maybe it's time you tried being smart, or consistent, or thoughtful, Ross. Or maybe it's time you asked well-to-do Americans to give up internet porn. That'd be a poll I'd believe in.


bjkeefe said...

Sometimes I like to torment myself by wondering what other ideas Ross set aside this past week so he could write a column like that.

Augustus Mulliner said...

Or he could just be working from Brooks' remnants pile. Waste not, want not, think not, etc.

jackd said...

Divorce, abortion, and re-electing incumbents: There's always a sizable portion of the citizenry who are strongly in favor of making them more difficult for other people.

Rugosa said...

A recent NPR piece of fluff on this topic - the less educated are less likely to marry - spotlighted a couple who are happily living together and raising a child without benefit of clergy. How is this model of a family "broken down" compared to families in those halcyon pre-easy-divorce days, when dysfunctional people felt compelled to stay together no matter how miserable they were?

StringonaStick said...

Yes, the NPR piece made it clear that said couple wasn't married yet because (1) the woman wanted a big marriage and they couldn't afford it, and (2) hmm, this divorce stuff when a kids' involved is a bit sticky. Id' say they were just making appropriate cost/benefit calculations.