LIVING OUT OF SYNC
William J. Bennett, a prominent conservative, has written a book called The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which uses statistics and quotes to document the decline in America values and the breakdown of public order. It's easy to see how this book could terrify anyone with a stake in the New World Order (a euphemism for the American World Order).
In the real New World, technology, perceptions, and social relationships are all changing rapidly and radically. But our values and institutions are changing very slowly.
Many of Bennett's examples of "decline" are the result of a vacuum left by the dissolution of the old social system. Because we insist on clinging to antiquated structures as if they were still viable, we have not allowed more relevant values to evolve.
Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. Too many of our values have become broken, hollow shells that no longer relate to our real lives. We need to annihilate the remnants of these outdated beliefs because they contribute to our alienation and subjugation.
People will not stop seeking pleasure. People will not stop having babies outside the family. People will not stop trying to chemically alter their perceptions. People will not stop resisting pre-fabricated social roles. People will not stop individuating and searching for their true selves.
These are social facts. Yet curiously, all these practices are frowned upon, not only by "moral leaders," but by the general public as well. If our lives seem false, empty, unreal, it is because what we believe is in conflict with the way we live. We are living out of sync.
At times we are all frightened by the increase in crime, the dissolution of the nuclear family, vague feelings of disorientation, desperation and dread. But we must understand that we are living through a transitional period. We are drifting in the interstices of historical eras. Chaos reigns because we cling desperately to meaningless, obsolete beliefs that no longer address our present needs; yet we are still too confused and terrified to embrace a new vision.
What follows are some quotations from Bennett's book and my comments suggesting how a misplaced faith in archaic social structures is contributing to our present crisis. Obviously, these are complex issues and no one can offer a single explanation for the diverse social problems Bennett illustrates. Nevertheless, it seems clear that much of the suffering, disruption and dislocation we feel in our lives today results from values and institutions that are totally out of step with conditions of real life.
"Since 1960, total crimes have increased by more than 300 percent."
Greed, selfishness, competition, aggression, survival of the fittest, preservation of vital interests, domination by force: these are the traditional values central to our capitalistic/militaristic worldview. Capitalism is built on the premise that society works best when everyone competes to grab all they can, as long as they stay within the rules.
But it has increasingly come to our attention that the rules are stacked against us, that in fact the rules were written by the wealthy to benefit the wealthy and to keep the rest of us in subservient roles. When we apply the capitalist's values, but break the capitalist's self-serving rules, the result is crime.
"While population has increased only 41 percent since 1960, the number of violent crimes has increased more than 550 percent."
Violence is a traditional value in our society. "Legitimate" state violence (police and military) is the glue that ultimately holds the system together. When that same value is adopted by folks who have nothing, and people with money feel threatened and unsafe, it becomes a national crisis.
War deserves special mention as a widely accepted institution that has far-reaching destructive social impact on winners as well as losers, non-combatants as well as soldiers. If the government wishes to discourage violence in our streets, it sets a poor example by dropping bombs on women and children in Panama or Iraq.
"In 1991, in Los Angeles, there was a greater chance that a citizen would die from a bullet wound than from a traffic accident."
Gun worship is a clear example of a cultural custom that is out of step with reality. When the gun fetishism of nineteenth-century rural America is imported into today's tense, overcrowded cities, the result is mayhem.
"The fastest growing segment of the criminal population is our nation's children."
"One child out of every five in the nation lives in poverty, and of all age groups, children are the most likely to be poor."
Concern for the poor is contrary to the basic premises of capitalism. Years of selfish neglect of our children and the poor (and especially poor children) have created, lets face it, a generation of monsters.
To a kid on the street with no money, no job, no skills, no future and no hope, white middle class values have no meaning—and either does anything else. Frustration, desperation, and despair breed nihilism—the lack of any values at all.
Even if we had the will, it would take decades to undo the damage we have inflicted on our city kids. Black leaders talk of writing off a whole generation and starting over. No matter what we do at this point, these young desperadoes will be paying us back with a vengeance for a very long time.
"The rate at which people are getting married is more than 25 percent lower than in 1960."
"At present rates, approximately half of all U.S. marriages can be expected to end in divorce."
Marriage and the nuclear family are two of our most cherished institutions, but too often they no longer fit our lifestyles. Although they may have served a useful purpose at one time, today they have become a source of much suffering and social disruption.
In the old days, when patriarchy went unquestioned, kids learned their roles well and performed them obediently. Most girls made the transition from second-class members of their father's family to second-class members of their husband's family without missing a beat. Boys too knew their duty: as soon as possible find a woman who can bear your children and keep your house, marry her, and live happily ever after. If things didn't work out (which was more than likely), partners would stoically accept their fate (with maybe a few discreet affairs on the side) rather than splitting up and violating the sacrosanct institution of marriage.
These days, people increasingly feel the need to break out of roles assigned to them. They often discover this urge later in life, after they have consummated the adolescent mating ritual—hence the high divorce rate. This is not to say that marriage is wrong for everyone, or that it might not be right for someone at a particular stage in their life. The point is there are thousands of different ways that two people of the opposite sex (or the same sex) can relate to each other, besides the three or four models we have institutionalized. Kids should be taught to discover their own personalities at an early age so they can choose their own roles and lifestyles, without social and parental pressure to conform to outdated institutions.
"I know of few other bodies of data in which the weight of evidence is so decisively on one side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are preferable."
This point is valid as far as it goes: two parents are better than one. Yet if stability is what we want for children, why not three or four or ten potential adult role models per family? There are many alternative family configurations that are healthier for children than the nuclear family, including communal organizations and multi-generational groups of kinfolk (the old-fashioned extended family). Perhaps no one paradigm is right for a given society. Rather, there might be a mix of models so people can choose the type of grouping that best suits their needs.
Capitalism thrives on the modern nuclear family. The family is the perfect consuming unit. Each member has their primary role: the husband earns money, the wife spends it, and the children consume.
When two people get married they need to buy a lot of new stuff. When they buy a house, they have to buy more stuff to go inside it. When they have babies, they have to buy even more stuff.
The fact that the nuclear family is a consuming machine is one reason why wealthy conservatives spend so much energy defending it. Large communal or extended families are too efficient in their use of resources to drive a consumption-based economy.
"Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents."
Kids sense more acutely the hypocrisy of the society their parents have created. Trying to live within a social system that claims to represent the pinnacle of human existence, kids find nothing in the adult world but crooked politicians, lecherous preachers, ignorant teachers, greedy lawyers, broken marriage vows, dishonest business deals, shoddy consumer goods, cardboard food, rip offs, scams, and television lies.
Idealist by nature, kids find themselves torn between what they have been taught to believe and how they must live to survive. This estrangement from life can easily breed anger, frustration and resentment. With the world in shambles, their parent's lives in turmoil, and their own lives a swirl of meaningless confusion and chaos, is it any wonder some of them choose to opt out?
Kids see life drained of significance by values that should point to meaning, but in fact point nowhere. If there seems to be no future, it is because the present has been sucked dry of authenticity by phony ideals like consumerism, conformity, and competition.
"The social regression of the last 30 years is due in large part to the enfeebled state of our social institutions and their failure to carry out a critical and time-honored task: the moral education of the young. We desperately need to recover a sense of the fundamental purpose of education, which is to engage in the architecture of souls. When a self-governing society ignores this responsibility, then, as this book demonstrates, it does so at its peril."
The goal of education in our society is to produce skilled, disciplined workers and citizens through indoctrination ("architecture of souls"). But many kids today are no longer interested in being cogs in the wheels of the industrial machine, and find the present educational system irrelevant to their needs and concerns.
Students should be allowed to explore their own interests. The end result of education should be thinking, feeling, concerned human beings who are skilled in pursuing personal fulfillment. If this means we might have people walking around who can't read or solve algebraic equations, so be it.
If we wish to have a human-centered society, we must allow human qualities to grow in our children. Of course, citizens who are humans rather than efficient, obedient machines might make poor workers and consumers. This is a possibility that the capitalists may find disturbing, since it conflicts with their most dearly held values—ever-expanding production and profits.
The average household spends over 7 hours a day watching television. The average teenager spends 3 hours a day in front of the tube.
TV is the ultimate instrument of alienation. Nothing else imposes the false values of the dominant culture and separates us from real life with such efficiency. I see no prospect of the necessary social changes taking place as long as we continue to allow ourselves to be packaged, bought and sold by this corporate propaganda machine. But maybe that's just my limited imagination. (Too much TV watching.)
"America's mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopal) have lost between one-fifth and one-third of the membership that they claimed in 1965, and the proportion of the population of Americans affiliated with them has reached a twentieth-century low."
Organized religion ensures social stability by promoting obedience, submission and conformity. For some today, these values have been superseded by a drive for greater freedom and individuality.
Yet despite of the decline in church membership and the growth in personal autonomy, Christian values seem to be increasingly regarded with unquestioned reverence. Once again we see the gap between culture and reality.
"Meanwhile, 'Biblically conservative' denominations and other conservative Christian fellowships are among the fastest growing churches."
Fear is the root of all religion. The more the world changes, the more fearful some people become, and the more these people wish to return to the safety of the past. Historically, we find this same nostalgic clamoring for "traditional values" during most periods of major social change.
LINKS TO RELATED PAGES ON THIS SITE
LINKS TO RELATED PAGES ON OTHER SITES
Culture War is Hell
A critical review of Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism by William J. Bennett.
Mr. Virtue Dabbles in Phony Statistics
Not all Mr. Bennett's "facts" are reliable.