Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Coming Apart," Original Sin, and Queen Victoria

This week, I picked up Charles Murray's book Coming Apart due to the flurry of excitement surrounding it in the blogosphere and because sections of it were assigned in one of my classes. I expected it to be a slog, but finished it within two days and very much enjoyed it, even if it did stoke the flames of self-immolation theory.

Subsubtitle: "It gets worse, America"
Like all good books, Murray's is a declinist tale. He pins the downward slope of the American project in the past 50 years on deterioration of four virtues valued preeminently at the founding: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. The book progresses from a profile of the new upper-middle meritocratic class, "Belmont," strongly concentrated in wealthy areas called "SuperZips" and isolated from the rougher stuff of life by geography as well as culture, to a bleak picture of the uneducated white lower class, or "Fishtown." While Belmont seems to be going strong in the four areas he identifies as essential - maybe even too strong, evidenced by phenomena like "helicopter parenting" - Fishtown is disintegrating. With the decline of these four virtues in the white lower class, he predicts the government will have to grow to fulfill the roles that are usually natural to communities with strong social cohesion created by healthy marriages, active religious life, industrious workers, and honest neighbors. In his final chapter, "Alternative Futures," Murray looks to Western Europe as an example of what happens when "democratic despotism" lulls citizens into a pleasant, consumerist stupor. He writes:
But the view of life that has taken root in [the advanced welfare states of western Europe] is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible - the Europe Syndrome.
Pass the Soma please. Seeing the Europe Syndrome spread in "real life," British journalist Charles Moore indirectly points to Murray's four virtues in this interview with The European. Most interesting to me was his view of original sin as "comforting" and something that could help Europe out of its doldrums:
The European: You earlier invoked Gramsci. Are you an optimist of the heart?

Moore: Yes, because of a Christian belief in original sin. It is a very comforting doctrine. If you know that you are bad, there is a sense that we are all in this together. The people who think that human nature is intrinsically good have to wonder why the world is so bad. But if you embrace your badness, you can review it and improve as a result. Free societies do that, and it is particularly strong in the Anglo-Saxon world. I have always been bothered by the tendency of contemporary European culture to sweep things under the carpet. One thing that European nations don’t want to do right now is analyze why they are in this economic mess.
Murray does not approach the decline in virtue with an anthropology in mind, Murray retells some field notes from a PhD student at UPenn who wrote her dissertation on the real Fishtown, PA that may require further contemplation about human nature's role in the decline and possible revitalization of American virtue. This student observed that the unemployed white men who would hang out all day on the proverbial "corner" had some perverse pride in their inability to provide for their dependents. She heard a story from a Fishtown resident that at one time, the out-of-work men receiving unemployment named themselves the "Sunshine Club" and printed t-shirts to memorialize their delinquency. Another Fishtown native recounts an incident of a mother who refused to acknowledge her son's misbehavior. On one occasion, she saw her son throw a baseball bat through the window of the car, but kept up her refrain of "Not my son" to 25 eyewitnesses and a police officer. If these anecdotes are reflective of the larger milieu, we are far from "embracing our badness."

And even though Belmont is held up as the functioning - if isolated - segment of the American population, I doubt there is any sense of "badness" among shiny happy Bethesda-dwellers holding hands, sipping lattes, appearing on the New York Times wedding page, and recycling.

Queen Victoria: the picture of industry
To save the American project, Murray invokes both the transition of Regency England to the Victorian Era and the Great Awakenings in the past 200 years of American history. While he dismisses Victorian England as a product of "propagandizing" and tempers a new Great Awakening with the assertion that Belmont-dwellers should not sacrifice their self-interest, I think these two historical examples can give even my fellow skeptics of progress some hope.

Herbert Schlossberg of the Ethics & Public Policy Center published a book in 2000 entitled The Silent Revolution & the Making of Victorian England that traces the intellectual strains leading to the revival of virtue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Setting the scene with the decadence of Georgian England and following up with the revivalist moment lead by Charles Simeon and the Wesleys, Schlossberg places the locus of improvement as beginning with the church. His discussion of the literature of the pre-Victorian literature brings up a common theme. "Poetry [in the eighteenth century] tended to a sentimentality that was the opposite of the Christian thinking that, as we have seen, lost ground early in the century. It was tied to a non-Christian anthropology that saw man as fundamentally good rather than fundamentally flawed." (Emphasis mine.)

Georgian England, Schlossberg argues, was marked by a decline in orthodox Christianity (Murray's religiosity), an increase in crime (honesty) and drunkenness among men that left them unemployed (industriousness) and uninterested in fidelity to their families (marriage). The following decades, however, saw a revival in the languid Anglican church, more believing ministers, and the rise of public Christians like William Wilberforce who championed virtue. Of course, England's state-church relationship is vastly different than the American situation (thankfully, for both church and state) but the revival happened with a few individual believers troubled by their surroundings, some of whom labored for many years without seeing much fruit. This revival was not primarily a "culture war," but an example of the fruits of individual faithfulness and God's grace.

In his prescriptive sections, Murray advocates reviving American religiosity to mirror the founders' view of religion: useful and necessary for a virtuous democratic citizenry, regardless of content. This obviously makes me uncomfortable and I think it is inconsistent with the nature of past revivals in the West. A knowledge of the "badness" of human nature is not induced by civil religion. We see this failure in our de facto civil religion - moral therapeutic deism - and in the particularly insidious and American brand of prosperity gospel. 

Moreover, perhaps due to my latent meritocratic noblesse oblige, I read Murray's book as a call to the Christian residents of the SuperZips (read: me) to reevaluate where our hope is. Do I truly understand my utter dependence on God for true righteousness in a bubble wherein, as David Brooks writes, the educated class expects to meet God at the pearly gates where He "totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in"? Even more practically, where do I want to live when I graduate and cannot afford my SuperZip apartment? Would I even consider moving to Fishtown and trust that God makes "beautiful feet"?

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