[Yet another blog post hammered-out the night before and set-up to auto-publish the next day—jpb]
We’re waking up this morning to the political punditry reading the tea leaves and parsing the results of the anachronistic Iowa caucuses. Pre-caucus polling had Trump and Sanders holding substantial leads, with a snowstorm bearing down on the Hawkeye State Monday night, which may or may not have kept Iowan caucus-goers home and skewering the prognostications. It’s now high political season in America.
Once again, the half of America that pays any attention to the process is getting all huffy about why Bernie’s 1930s labor communism shtick is superior to Trump’s bluster about re-establishing American greatness. Whether you’re “feeling the Bern,” or Trump’s your man for turning America back to some perceived golden age, you’ll be just as disappointed as Obama supporters were back in 2008, falling for his hope and change rhetoric. But that’s exactly what politics has been reduced to in the 21st century.
I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 over the weekend. It’s a book I’d heard about back in 2012 when it came out. As happens a lot with me, I went to Curtis Memorial Library on Saturday looking for another book, came home with Murray’s, and plowed through it Saturday afternoon.
Not that one man has all the answers, but Murray’s explanation about what’s happened to America over my lifetime made some sense. The book resonated with me in much the same way George Packer’s book did, which I also made a big to do about here at the JBE.
Murray’s concern about America has nothing to do with immigration, race, or tax rates for the very wealthy. Instead, he focused in on class—considering both the very top and bottom rungs of our socio-economic ladder. Both of these classes are increasingly ignorant of how the other half lives.
In many ways, Murray’s book looks at America in much the same way that Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort did. Murray’s treatment however adds a layer of depth that Bishop’s is lacking, drawing on five decades of statistics and research.
One aspect really stood out amidst the 350+ pages of Murray’s narrative. It was what he highlighted as America’s “founding virtues.” Murray delineates four of them: honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religiosity.
I realize that to many liberals (and even some conservative types), a list like that is sure to have you rolling your eyes and tuning out. That’s fine. Your solution of wealth redistribution via either Sanders or Clinton won’t stop the cultural rot from eventually causing the whole American enterprise to come crashing down, whether it’s five years out, or even 25, if we can continue stumbling along towards collapse.
Trump supporters think that simply building a wall across the southern border of the U.S. and turning off the spigots of immigration is all that’s necessary in rolling back the clock. Both the left and right prescriptions are doomed to fail.
I’m not saying that America pre-1960, or even going all the way back to 1776—or even further—was a perfect place, or a City on a Hill, either. But it was a better place and functional—something that we aren’t any longer and haven’t been for the past 50 years.
Plenty of observers who came across the pond during our early days as a nation to view the American experiment, pointed out foibles. But there was a remarkable order that men like Francis Grund observed.
Grund, the seventh son of a German baron, spent a year in the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. A decade later, he’d publish his two-volume, The Americans, in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations, his appraisal of America from a European perspective.
He was struck by how the morals of Americans made their system work. Recognizing the simplicity of the American Constitution, he saw that it only functioned in part because Americans were “habitually correct in their actions.” The American experiment only worked given the unique combination of those four values.
Tocqueville observed the same things and wrote extensively about them in Democracy in America.
We live in an age where people don’t read, can’t think, and rely on scriveners and journalistic lackeys to tell them what’s what. I know I’m way over the word count that the average Twitter-addled American can follow so I’ll get to wrapping things up for today. But try to read to the end, okay?
Just for the hell of it, find some older photograph of a group of Americans gathered. Take a 1940s or 1950s baseball crowd for example. Look closely at the people in the stands. Notice the men nattily attired in suits and hats. See the woman dressed to the nines, also. Think about the last time you attended a similar type of sporting event, and the louts all around you, getting up every five minutes, and returning to spill beer on your shoes, or worse.
Or consider this.
Murray drew upon an incident from The Philadelphia Story (on pages 287-288), starring Katherine Hepburn (Tracey) and Jimmy Stewart (Mike). Tracey gets so drunk the night before that she passes out. Mike carries her to her bedroom, deposits her in her bed, and leaves. She can’t recall exactly what happened the following day, but worries why Mike had been so chivalrous and gallant. She asks, “Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding, or something?” Mikes responds, “You were also a little the worse—or better—for wine, and there are rules about that.”
Yes, in 1940, there were rules about how men were to act if their date was too drunk to fight off their advances. In 2016, things are markedly different.
On Friday, I heard something on Democracy Now that made the hair on my neck stand up. The outcome for a young woman who was in a situation similar to Tracey didn’t fare as well. Today, there is no code for men.
From the Friday, January 29 transcript at Democracy Now:
On September 2nd, 2012, Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Saratoga, California, went to a party with a small group of friends. After she got drunk and passed out, three boys, who had been her friends since middle school, undressed her, sexually assaulted her, wrote all over her body with permanent marker. They drew on her breasts. They wrote “anal” above her buttocks with an arrow pointing down. Throughout the assault, they took pictures on their cellphones.
When she woke up, Audrie had no idea why her body was covered in marker. Her Facebook messages in the aftermath show her desperate attempts to piece together what happened. She pleaded with one of the boys to delete the photos. She said, “I now have a reputation I can never get rid of,” she wrote. Her peers taunted and bullied her. “You have no idea what it’s like to be a girl,” Audrie wrote in one of her final messages.
Eight days after the assault, Audrie hanged herself. Her mother, Sheila Pott, found her daughter dangling from a showerhead.
I can’t think of any two more opposite contrasts than between The Philadelphia Story and 1940s America—a place where a premium was placed on honesty, industriousness, and a culture that valued marriage (rather than maligning it), while understanding that there was a role and place for religiosity—and the sickening story of Audrie Pott.
None of the presidential candidates in 2016 have the tools in their toolboxes to fix this kind of moral breakdown that’s been happening for 50 years, or longer. Our foundations are too rotten to fix.