From an average Joe (score: 61), apparently “having it your way” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The United States has undergone a significant and perhaps unprecedented shift over the last half century. Since 1960, a new upper class has emerged, more isolated than any other in our history, especially from an increasingly desperate lower class. In order to avoid the usual caveats and hesitations about race that accompany discussions of economic inequality, Charles Murray focuses almost exclusively on the recent history of white America in his latest book Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010.
A few of us have shared our thoughts on Murray’s analysis, believing that a discussion about where we are as a culture and how we got here is the first step to redeeming a culture from the alarming conditions highlighted in Coming Apart. We will post a response per day for the rest of the week, so check back!
Jace Yarbrough: Burger King Got it Wrong
The first chapter of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals lays out a common characteristic of that group. According to him, the lives and thinking of men like Rousseau, Percy Shelley, and Sartre were characterized by individualism, the apotheosis of appetite, and a firm belief that satisfaction in life was to be found by looking within oneself. (A recent article by Mr. Brown offers keen insights as to how these ideas are evident in the current behavior of Millennials.) One might describe the approach of such thinkers as an attempt to escape from otherness: no mores established by previous generations to inhibit self-expression, no norms to hamper creative liberty, etc., etc. Though they often presented themselves as warriors for the people, an integral part of Johnson’s thesis is that these public intellectuals cared not a wit for the average man. Coming Apart demonstrates empirically that Johnson isn’t far off the mark.
Charles Murray begins his comparative analysis in the early 1960s, when many of the ideas promulgated by Johnson’s public intellectuals began to spread in every sector of American society. For the first time, as Murray points out, common answers to the big questions of life (e.g. Should I get married? Should I go to church? Is welfare an acceptable alternative to employment? etc.) began to move. Murray captures these changes by focusing on four areas—he terms them virtues—in which measurable behavioral shifts have occurred over the last half-century. As has been previously noted in this symposium, these four areas are marriage, religion, industriousness, and honesty.
Somewhere along this trajectory of shifting societal norms, the white upper class (a.k.a. Belmont), for whatever reason, reversed course, and today they’re leading fairly other-oriented lives. They’re much more likely to be married, work longer hours, trust others, and be regular members of a local congregation. The white lower class (Fishtown), however, has continued down the road of individualism and appetite following. One of the most disheartening statistics cited by Murray identifies the way unemployed, Fishtown males spend the eight or so extra hours per week of leisure time they’ve picked up since 1985—they sleep and watch more TV (pg. 181).
Since the 1960s, a majority of lower-class whites have lived out the ideas of Freud, Hemingway, and Bertrand Russell, and the consequences have been abysmal. Setting aside the harrowing statistics regarding out-of-wedlock births, unemployment, and perceived trustworthiness, there is a huge disparity in self-reported happiness between Belmont and Fishtown. In addition (and perhaps more interestingly), self-reported happiness among lower-class whites has more than halved since 1970 (pg. 268). The really unfortunate fact is that though the upper class isn’t “walking the walk” of individualism, they continue to talk as if all visions of the good life are equally fulfilling.
What struck me most about Coming Apart was the relationship between happiness and the otherness that is part and parcel of the virtues listed above. According to the data, members of the upper class don’t just happen to be happy and behave communally, they are happier because of the otherness inherent in their choices (267). C.S. Lewis wrestled with this reality upon the death of his wife (referred to as H).
“Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet…[t]he rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”
More recently, Christopher Nolan played on our very human fear of being alone (i.e. without an other) in his 2010 philosophy thriller Inception. His characters spend half the movie fighting to avoid limbo, a dream-state in which everything is completely determined by the dreamer’s subconscious. At first, limbo seems like a great deal: if you want something, just think it up. But the eeriness of complete self-determination is always nagging at the audience, and rightly so.
Limbo has some significant parallels in modern, lower-class, white America; where more than a quarter of 29- to 40-year-olds never marry, and 12% of prime-age males are unemployed (155, 173). The statistics continue, but the point is that members of the lower class have removed themselves from the institutions that require us to interact with others, and the result is a dissatisfied life.
Why is the upper class so reluctant to confront this isolation (at times euphemistically termed “privacy”) that is wrecking the lower class? That’s a question that Murray discusses to some extent, and it’s one of the questions that’s still on my mind. But one thing is more than verified by Coming Apart: it is not good for man to be alone.
Jace is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. He is a life-long Texan and is currently a JD candidate at Stanford Law School. Before heading out to California he served in the Air Force, taught AP Calculus in Honduras, studied at the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law (www.johnjayinstitute.org), and earned his B.A. in Government and B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys all things old and dust-covered, and his favorite pastime is reading to his wife, son, and daughter.