Does anyone else recall the "Murphy Brown" brouhaha? Does anyone else recall the way the pundits all laughed and pretended that Vice President Quayle thought Murphy Brown was a real person? Or else laughed at him for taking fiction too seriously? And do any of those laughing pundits look back and realize that Quayle was completely right and Murphy Brown's pregnancy was just a portent of the societal decay which was to come?
I know of late I have been writing on a number of topics which most would characterize as "libertarian", such as removing the state from marriage or eliminating medical licensing and prescription requirements, and that most think it no accident that "libertarian" and "libertine" sound so much alike, but I am, in my heart, quite a conservative fellow. Yes, I believe the government should stay out of our lives, but I also think those lives are much better when we follow some traditional rules. Life is just much easier and better for all concerned if we get married, wait until marriage to have children, remain married to the parent of our children, and so on. There are good reasons that those rules have stood the test of millenia, and I see no reason to dispose of them just because I believe in minimal government.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I am quite distressed by the current state of our society. Between out of wedlock births and teenage pregnancy, we seem to be setting our children up to fail right from the moment they enter the world. If you spend your first year of life in day care while your mother is finishing 9th grade, not sure of who your father is, there seems little likelihood you will make it very far in life. There are exceptions, but far too few. It takes a truly exceptional individual to overcome such odds, and, as the word suggests, exceptional individuals are rare. The average child just cannot overcome having the odds stacked so heavily against him.
So, what brought us to this state? It has obviously been building for some time, as Vice President Quayle's warning was almost two decades ago, so this is not a new phenomenon. We may have reached a new low in the collapse of societal norms, but we have been slowly crumbling for some time. How did we get here?
To begin, perhaps it would be best to go all the way back to the 1950's. Now, as those on the left so often remind us, the 1950's was not the idyllic era of peaceful normalcy we like to think, but considering it from the degraded society in which we live, it does look pretty peaceful and normal. Yes, there was still illegitimacy, especially among the poor, but it was lower among the poor than it is today for any socio-economic bracket1
. Among the poor illegitimacy was not the companion of poverty that it was to become in the 1970's and 1980's. There were problems in the 50's, and the lot of blacks in many states was far from ideal, but in terms of social norms concerning marriage and procreation, as well as general standards of behavior, the 1950's really were idyllic.
Enter The Great Society. With Johnson's implementation of his grand vision of a welfare state, everything began to change. By the end of the 1960's we can see among the poor the pattern which would continue to today. Illegitimacy soared2
, marriages became the exception rather than the rule, social norms in general began to break down. Why? That is easy to answer. Not only did the welfare state remove all consequences from bad decisions, it also actively encouraged certain ones. As babies were subsidized by welfare, we ended up with more babies. As marriage was discouraged by welfare, we had fewer marriages. In short, the perverse incentives of welfare produced the obvious outcomes. Rather than providing a safety net for a few charity cases, welfare created its own way of life, and changed the poor from generally responsible people into irresponsible child factories.
Of course, none of this explains why the rest of society started to follow the same path sometime in the 1980's. Welfare explains why social values collapsed among the poor, but why would everyone else follow suit?
To understand the spread of this collapse one must recall the social environment of the 1980's. This was the first era when poverty became actively "cool". Yes, the 1960's had venerated criminals, the impoverished and the "outsider", but in a condescending way. None of the trust fund baby revolutionaries of the 1960's really wanted to become the poor people they said they admired. They might have slummed for a while in a commune, but when all was said and done, they wanted to still summer in the Hamptons. Just look at where they are today and you can see the truth of this. How many of those "revolutionaries" of the 1960's sit on the board of the NYSE? How many have full tenure? How many are full partners in law firms? The revolutionaries of the 1960's were dilettantes dabbling in poverty.
The 1980's were different. With the first gasps of what would become gangsta rap, along with lesser influences such as punk rock and the late 80's hippy revival3
, the image of poverty, especially urban black poverty, became cool.4
The 1980's saw the birth of a new phenomenon, middle and upper class children who not only aped the poor kids, but really meant it. It took another decade before they had fully integrated the entire social mores of the poor, for example out of wedlock births didn't take off among the middle class until the 1990's, but it began in the 1980's.
Of course, other influences also helped this along. The feminist ideal of the professional woman who did not need a man was behind the Murphy Brown episodes that VP Quayle attacked, for example. There was also the general "avant garde" veneration of anything "transgressive", anything which broke with societal norms, that also helped to push us away from those things that our ancestors considered important, and pushed us towards a worship of the least admirable. Then there was the semi-Marxist view that the "working man" represented the ideal, which the left somehow perverted into a cult of victimhood, making heroes of the least admirable, and turning any tale of woe into a badge of honor, which also paved the way to turning the poor into role models.
The last two were probably precursors to the whole "poverty chic" movement of the 80's, and the avant garde worship of criminals and other "transgressives" definitely played a role in turning pimps and drug dealers into icons, but it was the "poverty chic" movement itself, the simple worship of the traits of the lower class, the belief that anything arising from the lower classes was inherently "cool", which was the greatest influence in the decay of our culture.
One need only look around to see the ways it has changed our society. Besides the collapse of marriage and the explosion of illegitimate children and teenage parenthood, the other signs are unmistakable. The easy way we accept cursing, the way that pop music has been largely replaced with rap, hip hop, etc. The acceptance of provocative clothing on not just adult women but even young girls. Even the easy acceptance of pornography and casual sex in society at large5
. All of these would have once been considered offensive and "lower class", but today they pass almost without notice. We have completely integrated the mores of the multi-generational welfare class into mainstream America.
I am sure at this point some will have started to write comments in their head, many of which probably contain the word "racist", so I should probably take a moment to explain. This has nothing to do with race. It is an unfortunate reality that at the time the Great Society locked the poor into a cycle of dependence a high percentage of black families were poor, creating a disproportionate number of poor families among black Americans. It is also unfortunate that many of those who claimed to help black Americans actually forced them more deeply into dependence on the government and allowed them fewer opportunities to better themselves. All of this means that when one speaks of poverty, especially urban poverty, black Americans will be frequently mentioned. Still, I think my readers would be mistaken to think that what I decry as "welfare mores" is entirely drawn from blacks. For example, the excessively revealing clothing I decried above may be common among certain black teens today, but I would argue it actually originated more in the white "redneck" tradition of poverty than among blacks. In the 1980's, while "white trash" girls were in hot pants and tube tops, black girls were covered in Starter jackets, jeans and K-Swiss6
. So, while black influences may be strong in this poverty ethos, the influences come from all over the spectrum of races.
Regardless of which group originated which specific feature, it is easy to see that we now live in a culture we would have deplored only 20 years ago. Can anyone imagine watching television in 1988 and hearing the obscenities one hears today? Or seeing the amount of flesh one does? Can you imagine anyone in 1988 accepting illegitimate children as blandly as they do today? Or viewing the revelation of a celebrity sex tape with the boredom we do now?7
In short, if someone from 1988 were to be transported to the world of today, would he be just as shocked by our culture as someone from several centuries ago? And would his awe at the changes in technology be anywhere close to his revulsion at the decay of our culture?
I am not arguing for a return of censorship, or even a voluntary return to greater decency (though I would not object to the latter), instead I am using this to make a point, we have completely adopted the standards of the welfare class as the norms of our culture as a whole. We have so lowered the bar that Bono saying "f***" can pass with little notice and songs about pimps and drug dealing win our highest honors. We treat the birth of illegitimate children to celebrities, and even to our friends and neighbors, as unimportant, and many enter into marriages almost anticipating that divorce will follow. We have turned our culture into the culture of the slums circa 1975, complete with teenage girls expecting their third child, unwed mothers chasing support payments from three or four fathers, and shiftless men doing their best to avoid the women they have been with and impregnate the ones they have not. We accept nudity, cursing, violence, everything shocking and grotesque and demeaning as the normal state of affairs.
In terms of cultural standards, personal ethics, and general demeanor, we have become a crass, callous, degraded society. And I ask myself: Is this middle-class adoption of the poverty ethos really the best our society can do? Is there not something more?
I continue to hope that this is just a fad, that poverty chic will vanish one day and our culture will aim a bit higher once more. But after 20 years, I am starting to lose hope.
rose from 4.0% in 1950 to 10.7% in 1970. . In addition, teen pregnancy
rose from 13% in 1950 to nearly 30% in 1970
2. Illegitimacy rates
rose from 4% in 1950 to 10% in 1969, reaching 20.3% in 1983, and 30.1% in 1992. It has not dropped significantly since.
3. It is easy to see why punk rock, with its adoration of squalor, would feed into the pro-poverty culture. The hippy revival is a bit less obvious, as the first iteration of the hippy movement did not bring about a similar change. The difference being that, unlike their predecessors in the 1960's, the neo-hippies of the 1980's took their rhetoric seriously, and really did admire the poor people, rather than adopting the earlier hippies' condescending attitude.
4. Though the "cool" nature of poverty first started with black cultural trends such as rap, there have been other influences as well, white and hispanic poverty culture have both had a turn at driving society as well. In some ways the recent fondness for "redneck" culture is a white variation on this.
5. This is usually blamed on the internet, but I don't think the internet alone would explain it. If we had a different culture, even with the internet, I do not see the same easy acceptance of pornography. There is definitely a cultural factor behind it, technology alone did not drive us to our obsession with pornography.
6. I worked at an athletic goods store in the late 1980's, hence all the brand names. I am not normally interested in what young girls wear, I just happen to have sold it during the time in question.(To be honest, I am not sure when the Starter jacket trend started, I think it was in the late 1980's, but I could be guilty of anachronism here.)
7. Before you dismiss me as exaggerating the difference only 20 years
make, think about the shock people felt in the 1990's having to explain
Bill Clinton's testimony to their children. Today we dismiss as
commonplace stories about the prevalence of oral sex among quite young
teenagers. Similarly, think about how shocking the testimony in the
Clarence Thomas hearing seemed then, and how tame it would sound today.
Postscript: After writing this, I realized I have officially become an old man, telling all the youngsters about how their culture has declined from the one I once knew. I also realized that I don't care that I have become an old man. It is much better to admit that "being on the cutting edge" often means destroying some very important things and there really are very good reasons behind a lot of those traditions that the young and "hip" mock. It is just a shame that most people (including myself) need to become old men and women before they appreciate how precious those traditions are.