Good news? A Comment symposium

 
December 14 th 2007

Are things truly getting better?

Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin in their December 2007 Commentary article "Crime, Drugs, and Welfare—and Other Good News" suggest that government efforts to shape American culture has brought about a significant improvement in several spheres of society over the past fifteen years. Their argument—and responses to it like Michael Gerson's "Turning Back from Gomorrah" in the Washington Post and Jeff Jacoby's "The sky isn't falling" in the Boston Globe—raise several significant questions.

Do we live in a time of relative social progress in North America, or do the policy successes lauded by Messrs. Wehner and Levin mask a continuing, deeper cultural malaise? And, should priority be given to politics or elsewhere in our efforts to bring about positive social change?

Comment invited a number of our friends to join in this conversation.

1. The positives of evil

It certainly is good news that there is some good news. Some of us historical types have been warning for quite a while, to be sure, that history does not proceed in single, straight lines—or circles. Just as some "leading cultural indicators" have shown that some aspects of contemporary North American culture are worse—from unthinking boorishness in parks and cinemas to a widespread acceptance of fornication—other indicators have shown for a generation that some aspects of culture are better, such as how our society treats handicapped people, or people of other races, or people without property, or people who aren't men.

Still, the question is why—why some things are improving. And I'd like to know why Wehner and Levin do not even mention the provocative thesis of economist Steven Levitt, popularized in his book Freakonomics (2005). Levitt suggests that the downturn of violent crime in particular, and certain other social evils as well, can be traced to one fundamental social change deriving from one sweeping official decision, namely, Roe vs. Wade (1973). Add eighteen or so years to this decision and the subsequent years of legal abortion in the United States, says Levitt, and by the time you get to the 1990s and things are turning around, the United States simply has a lot fewer nasty young men born to desperate or deficient mothers. Less crime? That's because there are fewer criminals. Less social pathology? That's because there are fewer sociopaths.

To me, this awful explanation makes a lot of sense. It offers to explain the same wide range of social changes as those listed by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin: such apparently unconnected phenomena as a drop in teen pregnancies and a rise in test scores. Eugenics—which is, in a horrible way, one of the main results of Roe vs. Wade—isn't wrong about everything. It's just wrong. And the implicit eugenics of abortion—which is becoming more and more explicit in our culture every year, as it is totally transparent in, say, Russia and China—is yet another reason to oppose abortion on demand, despite the possible positive social consequences.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford University Press, 2006).

2. "Baby Boomeropathy"

Are Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin correct in their Commentary piece, "Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News" (December 2007), when they argue that the situation in the United States (and as the introduction to this symposium expands, "in North America") is getting better on a number of social fronts?

In his The Omnipotent Child (1983) the late child psychiatrist Thomas P. Millar argued that the late pediatrician Benjamin Spock's child-rearing methods, first published in 1946, were responsible for producing The Big Chill generation of self-absorbed, self-centred, self-actualization-consumed Baby Boomers. Millar also argued that instead of removing an infant's necessary illusions of omnipotence and of residing at the centre of the parental universe, Dr. Spock's methods reinforced these illusions into delusions persisting into adulthood. That Spock's methods raised the probability of sociopaths occurring among an entire generation of Baby Boomers.

When I served with the Ontario Crime Control Commission (2000-2003), we were reminded again and again by years of crime statistics that the demographic group most likely to commit crimes of all kinds, including violent crimes, were men aged from eighteen to thirty-five years. Sociopathic behaviour also tends to be highest among this demographic. After the age of thirty-five years, however, both crime and sociopathic behaviour of all kinds—including criminal—declines sharply.

According to the University of Toronto demographer David Foot, Canada's Baby Boomer generation started in 1943 and lasted till 1967 (although those born at the tail end of the boom from 1961 to 1967 can be identified as "Generation X"). The largest number of Baby Boomers in both Canada and the U.S. was born from 1950 to 1960. This demographic sub-group reached the age (eighteen years) when especially men are most likely to begin committing crimes in 1968 through 1978, and the age (thirty-five years) when men's likelihood of committing crime drops sharply from 1985 to 1995. The period from 1968 to 1995 is precisely when the uptick in the crime rate was occurring in the United States and Canada.

The liberalization of abortion laws in Canada (1969) and the United States (1973) also tracks closely with the period when the largest number of Baby Boomers were beginning their child-bearing years—as does the liberalization of attitudes toward pre-marital sex, having children out of wedlock, and the civil law as well as social attitudes on divorce.

Is it any surprise that the crime rate and the rates of sociopathic behaviours would go up in the approximately thirty-year period when members of a population boom demographic were raised in such a way as to increase the likelihood of sociopathy, leading into the age range when sociopathy and criminal behaviour is most likely? Is it a coincidence that higher rates of pre-marital sex, children born outside marriage, and divorce coincide with the period when Baby Boomers were of an age most likely to be engaging in these?

Should policymakers and policy analysts in either Canada or the U.S. be "passing out cigars" as to any improvements on statistical markers of social well-being, just yet? Is this a case of "moral recovery" from "moral pathology," as Francis Fukuyama suggests in The Great Disruption (1999)? Or, is it simply a case of the U.S. and Canada's recovering from the social pathology we could describe as "Baby Boomeropathy?"

I hope Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin are correct—that we have made headway on social problems apart from these demographic realities. What is called for though is a close analysis and cross-tabulation of social and demographic trends in both countries, particularly in respect of—to use Foot's terms—the "boom, bust, and echo." If social pathologies do not spike up as the largest number of the echo generation reaches the age range of eighteen to thirty-five, we will know better just what kind of social-moral recovery is underway, if any.

Russ Kuykendall is Senior Researcher with the Work Research Foundation. He has been a political party activist since 1990 in Canadian federal and provincial politics.

3. It's not from government

If a single adage could capture the genius of American democracy, it might be this one, courtesy of James Madison, from The Federalist Papers: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

In this sense, Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin stand solidly in the Madisonian tradition. Their Commentary article, "Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News," takes for granted Madison's insistence on prudent and effective government. What seems lacking, though, is sufficient attention to the real object of Madison's political passion: a republic sustained by citizens who could, in freedom, order their common lives together.

To be sure, the authors appreciate the "ebb and flow" of culture. They are careful to qualify their emphasis on improving social indicators. And they admit the tentativeness of recent trends: "The gains made are not yet secure, and could easily be lost."

Exactly right. Yet Wehner and Levin fail to make it clear why this must be so—and why the long-term solutions cannot primarily be found in government policy.

Madison firmly believed that certain habits, customs, and ideals were necessary for republican government. Self-government, in other words, requires citizens who can govern themselves. On this point, government can help at the margins only. Sane and effective policies, for example, have cut crime rates dramatically. But our prisons are bursting with inmates—and government programs have mostly failed them.

The deepest answers to the nation's worst pathologies—its culture of violence, degraded sexuality, lingering racism—are found elsewhere. They are found in our crisis pregnancy centers, homeless shelters, mentoring programs, summer camps, literacy drives, and more. They are found in strong families, neighborhood charities, and vibrant houses of worship. This was Madison's republican hope.

For each of the social gains attributed to better government policy, there's an untold story: a drama of personal struggle and sacrifice, of tears and redemption.

Yes, fewer families are on welfare, but what about the churches that enlisted thousands of volunteers to help them recover their dignity? Yes, some of the problems afflicting youth have lessened in intensity. But where would many teens be today without the youth ministers who keep them from slipping into madness? Unfortunately, Wehner and Levin do not mention them.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky suggests that there is nothing better in life than "some good memory, especially a memory of childhood." More than that, he writes, "if a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his day, and if one has only one good memory left in one's heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving us."

If people have been saved from the ravages of American culture, it is probably not because of a good memory given to them by government. It has come from others, from citizens with a deep sense of God's calling and a rugged love of neighbor. That other bit of good news is worth celebrating as well.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio. His latest book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

4. Only cosmetic improvements

If one is interested in defending the claim that "the progress [in social improvement] has the dimensions of a sea-change," one would need a deeper set of criteria by which to assess cultural health than what Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin, Michael Gerson and Jeff Jacoby offer. The reduction in levels of crime, drug-use, divorce, and abortion are indeed occasions for gratitude. But they are, I believe, only cosmetic improvements which could distract those who care about social well-being from attending to the weightier matters of culture.

These articles suggest that if, in 1996, a crabby Robert Bork could have been given a glimpse into our present moment, he would have realized that we were not slouching toward Gomorrah. One gets the sense that if Judge Bork now fails to admit that he was mistaken, he would be dismissed as a pathologically negative declinist. But let's imagine that a glimpse of our "sea-change" moment could be available to a number of other writers during the 20th century who lamented what they perceived as cultural decline. Can we think that they would be relieved? Hannah Arendt or Richard Weaver, T. S. Eliot or Christopher Lasch, Allan Bloom or Walker Percy, Philip Rieff or George Parkin Grant: would any of these thinkers believe that the statistical improvements cited in these articles are indications that the underlying cultural crises of the West are in the process of being addressed?

Illegal drug use has declined, but the use of Ritalin, Prozac, Viagra, and other lifestyle drugs has increased, perhaps exponentially. (The very idea of a "lifestyle drug" and what it suggests about how we understand our lives should be seen as evidence of the deepening of a cultural crisis.) Abortion and divorce are less frequent among some demographic groups. But the former may be declining in part because of more effective birth control, morning-after pills, and the possibility that oral sex has become a fashionable way of avoiding the consequences of intimacy. The divorce statistics could be related to the fact that cohabitation continues to be practiced without fear of shame. The statistics cited by these articles in no way demonstrate that the understanding of marriage, sexuality, and chastity mediated by our cultural institutions has qualitatively changed for the better in the past 15 years. In the early 1990s, when that deep pessimism began "stalking the American landscape," who could have predicted that same-sex marriage would be an imaginable reality in America, or that Internet pornography would be the ubiquitous force it is today?

The authors of these articles are also heartened by improving scores on standardized tests. Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts just released an important study called To Read or Not to Read, which reports that nearly half of all Americans 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure, that the percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book in a given year fell 7 points between 1992 and 2002, that reading proficiency has declined for almost all high-school seniors between 1992 and 2005, and other less than heartening statistics. University educators have already seen the effects of the loss of bookishness (and the unique orientation of heart and mind it sustains), and frequently continue lament that their students show an unprecedented level of disengagement from the pursuit of knowledge.

Given all of the countervailing evidence, I invite these authors to consider that, rather than a reversal in cultural disorder, what we are witnessing is our ability to domesticate and better manage dehumanizing disorientations of the soul perpetuated and exploited by our most influential cultural institutions. Failing to recognize that disorder will only make things worse.

Ken Myers is host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. The free podcast of Mars Hill Audio can be found at mhadigital.org.

5. Mugged by reality

I'm inclined to blame my skepticism of Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin's findings on age and temperament. Why is it that their glowing assurances that the "sky isn't falling" and that the government has it under control only leaves me feeling more despairing and cynical? Somehow their confidence doesn't connect with my reality beyond the Beltway. It even smacks of spin at a time when the approval ratings of the American President and Congress hover in the mid-30% range. I do not doubt the sincerity or intellect of these men. Even if all these statistics are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, something in their analysis does not seem to add up.

Government has a crucial role to play in protecting and promoting the common good. Wise policy decisions have lasting positive consequences. Here they are right on the mark.

I have two underlying questions. Have the policy decisions cited substantively changed the cultural direction of American society? And deeper still, are political institutions the primary causative agents in such change?

My own view is that public policy supports cultural change, but cannot change its fundamental direction. Government is an institution of coercion, more than persuasion. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about the Internal Revenue Service. Certainly, government—and especially the Presidency—has a "bully pulpit," but still its power is based in force, not dialogue. And yet, the ultimate strength of law is not the fear of sanctions, but the shared convictions that stand behind it. Otherwise, laws are only "parchment barriers." Effective laws depend on shared beliefs. This is just as true in parenting as it is in governing. Political institutions consequently depend on cultural institutions. Cultural ends cannot be changed by political means. Beliefs dictate behavior. Force a change in behavior without a change in belief and it's a pyrrhic victory at best.

It is the role of cultural institutions—primarily education, media, art, and entertainment—to persuade, to shape what is thinkable and doable by most people, to form the invisible matrix we call culture. Today these institutions even trump the traditional influence of family and religion. Public policies mirror this matrix. The legislative gridlock in Congress reflects the culture war in American society. We speak casually of "Blue States" and "Red States," but it's sobering to remember Philip Rieff's warning that "Culture is the form of fighting before the firing actually begins." Culture matters and it is high time we attend to it.

The authors have done a good job of poisoning the well against their detractors. "Pessimism is an easy pose; hope a moral virtue," writes former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson. Critique in this context smacks of vice.

Time will tell. Neo-conservatives, it has been said, are liberals mugged by reality. In time reality will out the glass-is-half-empty pessimists or the glass-is-half-full optimists.

In spite of this snapshot assessment of America's improving health, as a cultural sociologist I find little evidence that the tide has turned toward a traditional understanding of authority, an embrace of self-denial, or an acceptance of objective truth. Instead, we live in a society dominated by self-distraction, self-deception, and self-absorption—celebrating hedonistic consumer nihilism. Things are not as bad as they could be, but the cultural direction of North American society is surely a cause for profound concern.

Statistics reveal the "what" not the "why." One wonders if the decline of divorce is really because of the increasing acceptance of cohabitation—what the Bible calls fornication and what used to be met with untoward social stigma. Marriage as a social institution has largely lost its legitimacy in the public mind. It is thought to be the result of an individual choice, not a sacred or even public compact. Marriage is parodied as a constraint to pleasure and freedom. It's the butt of jokes on television sitcoms. Americans practice a form of serial partnering in a hook-up culture. Shacking up is cool. Thus, Americans hold to a form that lacks substance. This deeper reality is what statistics miss. We are a long way from practicing traditional marriage when politicians cannot agree on a basic definition of the institution itself.

Culture is not a composite snapshot of atomized individual behaviors. It is rather the ideas and institutions that reflect a particular understanding of what ought to be. It is a privately embodied and publicly institutionalized meta-narrative or social story. The current meta-narrative of American society is historically unprecedented. Never before has a society sought to define itself without reference to a sacred symbolic. We speak of the American experiment. Well, this is truly experimental. The American Dream as embodied by Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century would surely make our Founding Fathers cringe.

We may applaud the policy efforts and successes of recent years, but we dare not lose sight of the burning forest for new growth on a few trees.

John Seel is a cultural analyst, educational reformer, and cultural renewal entrepreneur. He serves as a viral marketing consultant to Walden Media. He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Cohasset, Massachusetts.

6. Policy . . . among other strategies

Public policy can make a positive difference in our society. In the last few decades, we have seen some positive changes that can be traced to changes in the law. It is no longer acceptable for men to beat their wives, for example. We can now go to Tim Horton's and come out smelling like coffee, rather than like cigarettes. When I was a kid, we did not even have seatbelts in the back seat of the car. Now kids are much safer with not only seatbelts but also car seats mandatory until age seven.

But some social problems require more than making something illegal. Take the issue of the divorce rate, for example. The American government tackled the climbing divorce rate through a multi-faceted strategy. It funded academic initiatives studying the issue. Some states passed laws allowing covenant marriage. A media strategy encouraged strong marriages.

In Canada, where the divorce rate is much lower, governments have not seen divorce as a social problem. But the federal government sees child poverty as a serious issue and acknowledges that family breakdown is often a key cause of child poverty. One strategy to combat child poverty, then, is to deal with family breakdown.

While even media commentators have recently been acknowledging the negative impact of no-fault divorce on the institution of marriage, governments cannot simply make divorces more difficult and expect that alone will solve the problem. There is a deeper problem, that of the crumbling of the influence of the institutions that support marriage; namely, the church.

Even with changing the law to make smoking more difficult, governments have had to also have strategies to assist smokers to quit.

In the same way, any strategy to reduce family breakdown would require multiple strategies. Where it is currently considered an infringement of human rights to teach school children that marriage is the preferred family form, it is difficult to find long term strategies that will reverse the trend towards common law, rather than legal marriage. Perhaps this is one place to start.

A pro-family public policy would see funding of academic institutions studying the issue. Education for children on marriage and its value. A media strategy would be key. And perhaps covenant marriage should be considered. In addition, the institutions that support marriage in society must be recognized and supported in this important work. Pre-marital counseling and marriage enrichment encourage strong and healthy marriages.

While I have focused on only one area of public policy, it is a good example of how public policy can make a positive difference. But public policy alone is only one part of cultural change.

Janet Epp Buckingham is director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa, and Associate Professor at Trinity Western University.

Topics: Culture