Maybe a lot of people just want to earn a living, spending some time with their families on the weekends, trying to live decent lives in decent towns.
Despite a profound American idealism arguably calling Americans away from such a life and towards something higher at various times (an idealism I’d argue which manifests across the political spectrum), perhaps many people simply can’t tolerate such a vision being at the center of American civic and political life.
‘Something happens in the 1990s. The elites of Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles meld together. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington and Wall Street all come together, and for the first time you have something like the British establishment. The British establishment could organise itself more easily because it was centred on London. For decades the American elite was divided among different coastal cities, plus the ‘third coast’ of Chicago, and it wasn’t until space collapses due to technology that you have the creation of this unified American elite. That unified elite is overwhelmingly liberal. Three hundred people who work for Google were part of the Obama administration at one time or another.’
He puts forth the idea that the German influence has eroded something significant about American popular thought, leading to his analysis of our current politics:
Obama was ‘post-Constitutional,’ and Trump is the post Tea-Party, post Anglo-egalitarian populist response:
‘The Germans have won: Mencken and the Frankfurt School each in their own way have displaced civic egalitarianism. Their disdain has become commonplace among upper-middle- class liberals. This might not have produced the current nausea if the pretensions of our professionals were matched by their managerial competence. It isn’t, and the German victory is moving us towards a soft civil war.’
Perhaps, as Charles Murray noted in Coming Apart, we can’t go back to 1963, nor should we invest too heavily in the nostalgia that compels us to do so.
‘Today’s suburban families, it should be stressed, are hardly replicas of 1950s normality; as Stephanie Coontz has noted, that period was itself an anomaly.’
Perhaps, at least economically we can’t return to 1950’s or 60’s America. However, there has been a rise of the Crunchy Cons, and a return-to-roots conservatism lately. The glue of tradition and custom that can hold small-town life together is enjoying a bit of a revival. This might include churches, civic clubs and a concept of home and place as a response to other forces at work in our society.
Good money is still on the suburbs.
‘So, rather than the “back to the cities” movement that’s been heralded for decades but never arrived, we’ve gone “back to the future,” as people age and arrive in America and opt for updated versions of the same lifestyle that have drawn previous generations to the much detested yet still-thriving peripheries of the metropolis.’
Why do people move to the suburbs?
In my experience, it’s because they want the best for their children, and the most bang for their buck in quality of schools, life, property taxes, safety and community. Cities generally have higher crime rates, higher costs of living, corrupt politics and aren’t usually the best places to raise children. Many parents also seek the kinds of ‘community’ (the non-collectivist models) to be found outside of urban cores. They want a safe street for their kids to play on.
“Only when humans are again permitted to build authentic urbanism — those cities, towns, and villages that nurture us by their comforts and delights — will we cease the despoiling of Nature by escaping to sprawl.”
Notice the kind of ‘community’ here is of the collectivist variety, vaguely in harmony with a conception of nature. It also contains troubled relations betweeen the individual and the collective.
Bob Zubrin pointed out the problems of environmentalism, and the authoritarian impulses behind many environmentalist goals and methods, which I’ve applied to the urbanists in parentheses below:
1. There isn’t enough to go around (suburbs waste resources like gas, electricity, and materials in addition to lost productivity and time)
2. Human nature needs to be constrained as a result (Trains, buses and bikes are the preferred method of transportation instead of cars…while apartments, co-ops and living units instead of houses in the suburbs are the places to live)
3. Someone needs to be in charge (Someone like Bloomberg, or a similarly paternalistic leaders are ok as long as they line up with the message and enforce the right laws from the top down)
4. We volunteer ourselves for the job (Someone’s got to build a vision of the future, and the vision of the artist or architect, or city planners for example, may be enough for the rest of us to live in much like occurs in modernist architecture).
If you’ve been following current cultural trends, there’s been some native New Yorker pushback against the hipsters in Williamsburg. These urban dwellers often arrive from the suburbs, moving to urban centers in search of identity, group meaning, and membership with a kind of collectivist, artistic, modernist to postmodernist impulse that lines up with urbanism. They are changing our culture in many ways.
I know I keep posting Roger Scruton here, the conservative, fox-hunting Briton. In this case, he’s thought a lot about environmentalism in Great Britain. Regardless of where you fall on climate change, (I maintain a garden of doubt and skepticism), he’s at least tried to get the motives and methods of the environmentalists back to being responsive to actual people making their own decisions about the problems the climate may pose. In other words, he’s addressing the collectivist and authoritiarian impulses which seek top-down solutions on the way to utopia or some unreachable ideal.
In the interview below with Steve Hayward, he’s discussing the difference between European and American cities, and our conception of nature and space, along with his new book.
Food for thought.
Addition: Of course we need economic growth, and jobs.
Walter Russell Mead takes a look at the blue model (the old progressive model) from the ground up in NYC to argue that it’s simply not working. Check out his series at The American Interest. Technology is changing things rapidly, and maybe, as Charles Murray points out, it’s skewing the field toward high IQ positions while simultaneously getting rid of industrial, managerial, clerical, labor intensive office jobs. Even so, we can’t cling to the past. This is quite a progressive vision but one that embraces change boldly. Repost-Via Youtube: Conversations With History – Walter Russell Mead
‘The system, designed by British cybernetician Stafford Beer, was supposed to allow powerful men to make decisions about production, labor, and transport in real time using up-to-the-minute economic information provided directly by workers on the factory floors of dozens of newly nationalized companies’
A shag carpet probably would have been out of place, but I like the white pod chairs (Captain Kirk to the bridge for fuel price re-allocations).
‘In fact, the network that fed the system was little more than a series of jury-rigged Telex machines with human operators, transmitting only the simplest data, which were slapped onto old-style Kodak slides—again, by humans. The controls on the chairs merely allowed the operator to advance to the next slide’
In working towards a theme, check out Buzludzha, the abandoned communist monument in Bulgaria’s Balkan mountains, which still draws up to 50,000 Bulgarian Socialists for a yearly pilgrimage. Human Planet’s Timothy Allen visited the structure in the snow and took some haunting photos. You will think you’ve stepped into a Bond film and one of Blofeld’s modernist lairs, but with somewhat Eastern Orthodox tile frescos of Lenin and Marx gazing out at you, abandoned to time, the elements and to nature.
Continuing towards that theme, here are two quotes from a recent Harvey Mansfield review of Steven Bilakovics new book, which could possibly help explain how, say, the Chrysler building and St. Patrick’s Cathedral have become two of New York’s most iconic buildings (hint: we’re not a socialist society):
Tocqueville almost uses the above phrase in a chapter on “why American writers and orators are often bombastic.” He says that there is “nothing in-between,” or more literally, “the intermediate space is empty,” implying that there might have been something there. In democratic societies, each citizen is habitually occupied in the contemplation of a very small object: himself. If he raises his eyes, he sees only the “immense object of society” or even the whole human race. If he leaves his normal concerns, he expects it to be for something indefinitely vast instead of something definite and greater than himself.”
Artists have a particularly tough time in America, because they’re often particularly alone in America. Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot abandoned the place completely, and many aspiring artists get their training in Europe. This blog believes Wallace Stevens to especially be representative of this dilemma (he never left). He was an insurance executive by day and perhaps one of America’s best poets; a romantic, a modernist, as well as a man who possibly had a deathbed conversion to Christianity: From The NY Times Via A & L Daily: Helen Vendler On Wallace Stevens ‘The Plain Sense Of Things’
On this view, being the good democratic citizens that we are, we reject the aristocratic elements from gaining too much traction, and thus do not create the vine-ripened literary, artistic, and cultural traditions that can make good artists into what they become, and what makes European cities, novels, poets, museums, and Europeans themselves something of what they are (a broad brush, I know).
Some of these same folks see religion (the Puritan roots especially) as a restrictive, repressive force that needs to be overcome in order for freedom, free artistic expression and individual autonomy to flourish (I believe this is a driving tension in Hollywood). There’s some truth to this, because I believe religion and politics, and even philosophy itself, have troubled relationships with art.
Mansfield goes on:
‘The theorists of materialism tell us that the long term will take care of itself so long as we do not obstruct materialism in the short run in our everyday lives. With a view to supporting political liberty, Tocqueville wants to limit everyday materialism and to concern us with a long-term goal, such as improving our immortal souls. This is why he fears for the state of democratic souls and speaks so strongly, if not fervently, in favor of religion. This is also why he showed such disgust for socialism.’
Perhaps we can keep it simpler, and not get taken with grand theories, or at least socialist ones anyways:
Bork argues that during the 1960’s, likely starting with the SDS, a form of liberalism took shape that promotes radical egalitarianism (social justice, equality of outcomes) and radical individualism (excessive freedom from the moral and legal doctrines which require an individual’s duty and which form the fabric of civil society). This is the New Left.
Grounded in an utopian vision, fed in part by the affluence of the previous decades and the boredom and yearning of largely well-off youth, the New Left blossomed not merely into the anti-draft Vietnam protests across the nation’s universities, but into a movement that has forever altered American life in mostly negative ways (see Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic: That Party At Lenny’s… for a rich account of the times).
Bork is quite explicit about the violence and threats of violence he witnessed, the barbarism on display, and the confused, tense years that unfolded (culminating in the Kent State debacle). He was one of two conservative law professors at Yale during the late 1960’s and he argues that events have rarely been represented accurately as he saw them. It is a personal account.
On Bork’s view, the New Left is still quite with us, for the New Left, to some extent, has morphed into the multi-cultural, diversity politicking, equality pursuing liberal left we’ve come to know and love. How much equality is enough? There’s never enough. How free is the individual? Well, he’s almost, if not totally, free. But definitely free from “the patriarchy” and all those silly religious myths. He’s also adrift, mostly engaged in self-gratification and mostly only able to articulate what he’s free from. Hence, the radicalism of the New Left on Bork’s view.
I think Bork is at his best when he highlights how the radical individualist project continues to seek meaning in life through politics, political ideology, gender equality, feminism etc (whereas I would think Bork finds this meaning, a deeper, wiser meaning, in Church doctrine, but the Natural Law folks have problems with him). Bork even concedes that it may be something in the pursuit of liberty itself, as we do have liberty and equality defined in our Constitution, such as they are. On this view, the seeds of its destruction lie within liberty and our founding documents to some extent. Perhaps the old, classical liberalism (equality of opportunity, free markets, party of the working man) will eventually go soft and give way to more radical liberty, given due time. This is what Bork, as a nearly lone conservative amongst older-school liberals, claims happened at Yale in 1967-69.
Bork also puts forth an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. He makes the case that there are simply a lot of cultural elites legislating from the bench, using the Supreme Court as a means to the end of more diversity and equality-making, and that they’ve wandered far afield from the document itself (some background here, if you have a better link or better understanding, drop a line). They court an ultimate danger of undermining themselves, cultivating radicalized people and setting themselves up as the only authority capable of interpreting and directing those people:
If the Constitution is law, then presumably its meaning, like that of all other law, is the meaning the lawmakers were understood to have intended. If the Constitution is law, then presumably, like all other law, the meaning the lawmakers intended is as binding upon judges as it is upon legislatures and executives. There is no other sense in which the Constitution can be what article VI proclaims it to be: “Law….” This means, of course, that a judge, no matter on what court he sits, may never create new constitutional rights or destroy old ones. Any time he does so, he violates not only the limits to his own authority but, and for that reason, also violates the rights of the legislature and the people….the philosophy of original understanding is thus a necessary inference from the structure of government apparent on the face of the Constitution.
As to the legal aspects, I do know that Justices Clarence Thomas, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia have been/were influenced by originalism to some extent. Of course, like Bork, this makes them targets for attack by the opposition:
I must say I find Bork refreshing reading when he helps to reveal the authoritarian (nay, totalitarian) impulses of the “personal is political” crowd. It’s fun to have someone provide context when observing the tolerance crowd keep on doing intolerant things, yet piously and humourlessly demanding tolerance all the same (see what FIRE does in response at college campuses). Many of these people actually do run our universities.
***As an aside, I think what’s happened at Slate magazine helps advance the theory. While politically left, Slate can be a bit edgy, thoughtful, occasionally more of a haven for artists, writers, creative thinkers and iconoclasts (Christopher Hitchens was a good example). As of this writing, commitment to the shibboleths of the Left is the ruling order of the day (see the NY Times as well): You have to toe the line with political correctness and gender and racial equality, and all that individual freedom has limits, obviously, and coalesces around regulated markets, trying to control the public square, and other Statist projects. Such collectivism should make every individual stop and think about how they fit into such a framework.
As for art, as T.S. Eliot points out, a first-rate poet can also chart a course back to church doctrine, though this blog believes art is best served when one points out the obvious problems that religion, politics, law, and polite society have with it. Robert Bork quoting Yeats and Auden is interesting though potentially problematic, but Robert Bork quoting rap lyrics to show cultural decay is a little humourous, and probably just emboldens the opposition.
I think Bork is arguing that unless we stay religious to some extent, and recognize that truth can be revealed to us through the word of God as well as through reason, we will decline (and there are all sorts of declinists out there).
Belmont and Fishtown are two imagined communities, well-to-do and poor/lower-working-class-white respectively, that Murray invokes in order to stastically argue that many changes have been occurring over the past half-century. He further argues these changes are coming at a cost to social mobility and the virtue necessary to maintain our unique egalitarian American project.
‘In Fishtown, marriage continued a slide that had not slackened as of 2010, when the percentage of married whites ages 30–49 had fallen to a minority of 48 percent. What had been a 10 percentage point difference between Belmont and Fishtown in the 1960s stood at 35 percentage points in 2010. The culprits—divorce and failure to marry in the first place—split responsibility for the divergence about equally.’
Marriage certainly isn’t what it was, but on this argument, people in Belmont may have a duty to the people of Fishtown to promote religious values, specifically that of marriage. What if Belmontians are non-religious believers but accrue all the benefits of marriage, which is to some degree, probably what’s happened? I think it’s easier to stay married regardless of your beliefs if you have a stimulating and rewarding career, money, connections, vacations, good friendships etc. I also think this is Murray’s argument…religion is being drained away from the stew.
Should we aim to put more social shame on women who have illegitimate children…potentially as it was in the 1950’s?
‘The primary indicator of the erosion of industriousness is the increase of prime-age males with no more than a high school education who say they are not available for work—they are “out of the labor force,” in the jargon. ‘
And Murray points out that there are more of them than before. It would be interesting to note how much of this is due to the continued decline in manufacturing in America (perhaps a lot of IT and technology may be going the same way…getting globally competitive as well, and being outsourced). There are external pressures that may not have been present before.
‘Furthermore, the reductions in crime since the mid-1990s that have benefited the nation as a whole have been smaller in Fishtown, leaving Fishtown today with a violent crime rate that is still 4.7 times the 1960 rate.’
Are you honest? Check one:
Why? Why not?
I see what Murray is driving at, but I don’t know how he gets there with the social sciences alone. Isn’t that like falling into a David Brooks-like trap?
‘Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, where the percentage of de facto seculars grew from 29 percent in the 1970s to 40 percent in the GSS surveys taken from 2006–10. But it grew even more in Fishtown, where the comparable numbers went from 38 percent to 59 percent
And, if true, perhaps many of the functions that charities, churches, and religious organizations perform will be co-opted by the government (the Obama administration certainly seems to be trying). Interestingly, old-school Democrat, poor Brooklyn kid, and fellow sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan made a similar argument.
‘The socialization of children in Belmont and Fishtown has become radically different, and everything we have learned about the problems associated with single parenthood forces us to expect that the consequences for the transmission of industriousness, marriage, honesty, and religiosity to the next generation will be profound.
We need not rely on statistics to make these points. The real Fishtown in Philadelphia was chronicled in the 1950s by Peter Rossi, who would go on to become one of America’s most eminent sociologists, and in the 1990s by Patricia Smallacombe, who conducted a detailed ethnographic study of Fishtown for her doctoral dissertation.’
Fishtown, at least, is not imagined. Is some sort of grand conveyor belt at the heart of American life slowly grinding to a halt without these virtues? Has Murray made the case? Would the social sciences ever be enough to make a similar case?