Deracinated Meritocrats and the Marriage “Debate”

Despite Americans’ hypermobility, I am told that the majority of Americans still live out their lives within a narrow geographic area (about ten square miles).  The truly mobile are still a minority, and yet they are the “elite” minority, who are taken as the norm and exemplar of what our age deems a good human life.  The mobile are those who not only embrace but exploit an ethos that says upward mobility through measurable (quantifiable) merit is the only standard to which one may appeal in decisions of better-or-worse.  In order to be a good person, according to this standard (which most of us already accept even if we are the losers in it), one must disencumber oneself of all loyalties and obligations save that most ethereal one of affection, which itself entails no particular obligations.  Family serves great emotional needs, and therefore provides good therapy as one makes one’s solitary way from childhood to financial independence.  Like everything outside money, for the modern American, family is a kind of therapeutic technique — to be used so long as one feels the need, but no more (Welcome, Krustians!).

In brief, the present American standard for what makes a successful human being (I use the word “successful” pointedly) is one that views what used to be called community — one’s particular people in a particular place with a particular set of beliefs and a particular conception of obligations and goods — as a mere contingent bit of circumstance.  Requiring some sensation of belonging to a community, that person is permitted strong affections for a nuclear family — a nuclear family that is supposed to encourage him, in the words of Walker Percy, to follow his “hopes and dreams” wherever they may take him.  All that last phrase really entails is that the young person should rise through a “meritocracy” in order, at last, to attend an elite university (failing that, a business school) — a place specifically designed to reward those who already assent to a morality of merit and mobility.  Such places are, of course, the source of those who make public policy for our vast technocratic state.  So, it is precisely those who have risen through the absence of attachment to the citadels of achievement who will, in the future, be best positioned to affect the cultural forms and public policies of communities in which they do not really believe.

I find it unsurprising, then, that those campaigning to defend the nuclear family as the social form par excellence (that is, the being that gives form to society) should meet, not only with incomprehension, but intimidation and vitriol, when they enter the citadels of deracinated meritocrats.  For this latter group, the nuclear family is not a social form but a precious expression of one’s elective affections.  For the TFP and those like them, the family is sacred — it is something that cannot be created, but only submitted to and, if mismanaged, destroyed.  For the Brown students, the family is something like an epiphenomenon that simply puts a stamp of formality on consenual, precious, but easily dissolved feelings of affection.

Presumably, for the Brown students, as for most undergraduate students I know, the only real, binding institution is neither family nor country, but the corporate/welfare State.  The centralized technocracy that promises to order and regulate our lives, and indeed to keep us alive, is the only binding institution for them.  The State is distinct from country, because it does not ask of us either personal affection or patriotism, but only that we be docile, while it encourages some few of us to be ambitious.  And, of course, for the deracinated meritocrats, the State offers two great incentives: a) because it is not based on human affection, it will never abandon them in the fashion that they believe all human relations ultimately do; and b) as the tutelaries of merit, they have reason to hope they may one day enter and manipulate that technocracy in their own interests.

They make for a curious character, these deracinated meritocrats.  They become excellent servants of the state but lousy citizens of their communities.  They are positioned to be our “future leaders” (as the nauseating phrase echoes) but they are a more significant practical threat to American communities, such as they are, than any foreign legion of terrorists.  The meritocrat objects, of course, that he has every intention of helping those he has left behind with new social programs recommended by the highest standards of quantitative assessment.  Surely, he says, this is a service far greater than that offered by the poor slouches who remain in their natural communities and pump gas or run the daycare.  What he calls service, and plumes himself by thinking a “gift,” is in fact a force destructive of the communities it pretends to help.

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