Ross Douthat is the best thing going in our punditocracy today, so it’s with hesitation that I take issue with his most recent column in which he explores the changing nature of the “culture wars.” My misgivings are further deepened by the impression of ingratitude that I must present, given that Ross, as an addendum to the column in question, kindly commended a short essay I’d written some time ago about particularly Catholic aspects of the culture wars.  This is a friendly gauntlet, but I throw it nonetheless.

In last Monday’s column, Ross argues that the longstanding narrative of the culture wars – liberal elite who defends lifestyle libertinism vs. the stalwart heartland yeomanry who stand for traditional family values – if once true, has been outstripped by reality in the form of findings in a just-published survey directed by my friend, the sociologist Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia.

In essence, as described by Ross, the survey finds that there are rising levels of “traditionalism” among the college educated, particularly an increase in support for making divorce more difficult (perhaps this is the generation who have felt the effects of divorce most profoundly), as well as increased levels of stated religious belief.  By contrast, the survey finds that among the “moderately educated middle” group of Americans (high school and some college, but no four-year degree), there is overwhelming evidence of rising divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.  As Ross nicely summarizes the findings, “This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.”

I think we should be more wary of concluding that the “culture wars” are now being outstripped by reality; rather, I think there’s considerable reason to believe that underlying aspects of the “gap” between America’s “two cultures” can go some way to explaining this seeming reversal.   In particular, we should be suspicious particularly of the gap between how the highly educated are living and what they are saying, and the particularly pernicious effect of the latter on the deteriorating status of the “moderately middle educated.”

First, I think there is good reason to think that the “highly educated” have come to support marriage because of growing evidence that marriage is a net benefit for one’s economic bottom line.  Driven by success-at-all-costs mentality, the highly educated have proven to be highly flexible in their beliefs, so long as those beliefs contribute to their earning potential.  Yet, it goes a step too far to suggest that they live like “Ozzie and Harriet,” given that their marriages take place usually after a relatively long period of enjoying a succession of multiple partners (famously described by Tom Wolfe in his essay “Hooking Up” and his novel I am Charlotte Simmons.  I just finished teaching the novel to a group of Georgetown freshmen, and their general consensus was that the novel was pretty accurate, and that it was no big deal).   What might be a growing commitment to marriage among a segment of the college-educated class is generally not accompanied by a commitment to the idea of sexual self-control and the felt-need for a broader culture that would support such a commitment; rather, it could be argued that marriage is the conclusion of a long period of serial partnerships and sexual experimentation that colors more broadly the view of the highly-educated.  If marriage is good for one’s bottom line, better to put it off until one has tasted the hedonistic pleasures of Babylon before settling down in Greenwich.  Yet, both decisions are born of a hedonistic calculus – first the benefits of guilt-free sexual experimentation, and then the pleasures of guilt-free Wall Street bonus checks.

These two aspects of the lives of the highly educated – sexual libertinism and picket-fenced greed – bear a direct relationship to the decline of a moral marital culture among the “moderately educated middle.”  First, while it may be the case that there is a growing number of “highly educated” that express the belief that access to divorce ought to be in some ways constrained, in absolute terms (according to the survey) that number is still split 50-50, and I think it’s fair to say that it is our less traditional half of the highly-educated segment of the population that tends to gravitate toward and guide the output of the cultural and educational centers of the nation.   If Ross is right that it’s likely due more to the growing influx of conservative students at the likes of Baylor and Wheaton that is tilting this number than a substantially growing population at the Harvards and Princetons who support more restrictive marriage bonds, then it’s safe to surmise that more of the latter will end up making films, television shows, as well as writing for the likes of Ross’s paper and teaching in schools and colleges.  The culture remains dominated by pervasive sexual saturation, by portrayals of family as generally disfunctional or re-makable at will, by the presentation of youth culture as dominated by irony and sarcasm (Disney!), and a general ethic that we should all be as non-judgmental as possible.  This is the broader cultural mileu that pervades the lives of the “moderately educated middle,” addicted as they often are to any and all forms of popular culture (a highly profitable industry for the “highly educated”).  It may be that the “highly educated” live like “Ozzie and Harriet,” but you can be sure that Ozzie and Harriet aren’t appearing on a television program near you.  Their temporal neighbors – the Drapers – are more likely to be in the TV listings than the Cleavers, the Nelsons, or the Waltons.

At the same time that the dominant cultural narrative (shaped by the “highly educated”) commends exactly the opposite “lifestyle” as that of Ozzie and Harriet – or, the lives increasingly lived by the “highly educated” once they settle into marital bondage – the fact is that the increased separation of the highly educated from the “moderately middle educated” means that these popular cultural portrayals of adult adolescence are the only model of marital and romantic relationships that the “moderately educated middle” are likely to see.   If arguments such as those of Bill Bishop and Richard Florida (as well as earlier iterations such as those of Robert Reich and Christopher Lasch) are to be credited, the country is increasingly geographically segmented by educational attainments and class distinctions, no longer intermingled as they would have been until thirty years ago.   Even as the popular culture is suffused with the ideal of hedonism and irresponsibility, the actual places where the “moderately educated middle” live are all but certain to have been abandoned by the “highly educated,” who now congregate as a “creative class” in various coastal centers around the country and the world.  In fairness, Ross has argued that he would like to see “a willingness [on the part of the highly educated] to translate some of the more conservative habits they’ve embraced (or partially embraced) in their personal lives into law and public policy.”  But – unlikely as this is to be – this would presumptively be done from a distance; what is lacking in this call is the recognition that even more important than a willingness of “noblesse oblige” to encourage public policy guidance on sexual matters is the moral witness of lives responsibly lived within communities where “highly educated” and the “moderately educated middle” intermingle, even intermarry.  One could say that historically, various laws governing sexual propriety simply reinforced these cultural habits and models; in their absence, they would be rightly perceived as distantly imposed Puritanical codes, particularly in the context of the dominant narrative of sexual liberation that our “highly educated” purvey daily on every available screen in the world.

Secondly, the upwardly-mobile “highly educated” behave as they do in order to secure as best they can a place in the highly unstable economic system whose fruits they enjoy.  To succeed in that system, they create islands of stability in and through their marriages (particularly combining incomes with other members of the highly-educated class), but at the same time engage in expanding a system that renders the lives of the “moderately educated middle” completely unstable, unpredictable, and pervaded by the sense of downward mobility.  As well-documented in Stephen Greenhouse’s book The Big Squeeze,  the “moderately educated middle” has not only been geographically abandoned by “the creative classes,” but economically sold down the river by their wanton expansion of “globalization” and attendant practices of outsourcing and off-shoring.  The one main lesson being taught today in our universities is how to be flexible and mobile – the very thing that comes most difficult to the “moderately educated middle.”

Thus, the “moderately educated middle” are learning some important lessons from the “highly educated”: enjoy yourself sexually and abandon hope about your future economic situation.  Can it be any surprise that the “moderately educated middle” is struggling so mightily to hold things together?  And, are the basic features of the “culture war” (if we properly understand what its basic contours are, which Christopher Lasch always better understood than the likes of William Bennett) really behind us, or are the very conditions described by Ross in his recent column really evidence that the war goes on?

One last piece of anecdotal evidence:  the main issues of student debate and interest on the Georgetown campus in recent semesters have been 1. Georgetown’s refusal to cover the cost of contraceptives as part of its student health plan; and 2. the crying need for gender-blind housing, a policy just instituted at George Washington University.   There is very little if any evidence on my own campus of the “highly educated” that there is concern about the marital plight of the poor; rather, there’s every indication that the student’s main attention is on the sexual opportunities of the highly educated.   While Georgetown administrators, faculty and students talk constantly about “social justice” (which is the only way that the Catholic identity can be acknowledged by the campus mainstream), there’s no attention paid to the ways that higher education in general systemically contributes to the plight of the less well-educated. “Social justice” strikes me constantly as a form of “noblesse oblige” purchased on the cheap. Still, having “social justice” as teflon protection against too much introspection, the highly educated can turn their attention to the true injustices of the day, which are the crying needs for free birth control and opportunities for university sponsored co-habitation.

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  1. I also wonder how much of this has to do with demographic changes. Latinos are much more likely to have children and not be married than whites, although the rate has been steadily climbing for whites.

  2. Patrick, I enjoy your posts on this site, but I disagree with your take on the “changing” culture wars.

    The “changing” culture war comes from the growing influence of the very-socially-conservative religious in this country. Since more people are being raised in homes where they are told there is only one right way to live, of course there are more university students that feel this way. Trickle up effect, if you will.

    The fact remains: divorce and abortion rates are higher among the religious because young people feel pressured to marry to be able to have sex or, if they don’t, feel it is unacceptable to have a baby out of wedlock and let their communities find out. Ten years down the road, that young married couple may realize sex wasn’t the best reason for marriage and get divorced. People that can have safe sex outside of marriage have no rush to marry; they can wait until it is the right choice for them (economic or otherwise).

    The liberal and highly-educated continue to fight against this growing tide of religiosity, pushing back with more and more examples of personal choice in the media and, like your students, the right for personal choice on a religious campus. They’re not advocating divorce; they’re advocating choice and tolerance and acceptance. Do your students care about the marital plight of the poor? I bet they do, but they’re not the ones telling those people how they should live their lives, and in doing so, creating more divorces and abortions.

    • Growing tide of religiousity? If true, although I remain skeptical of this assertion, it’s primarily because those who believe in “choice” (read: the choice to be wayward and destructive), “tolerance” (read: the contradiction of tolerating all except perceived “intolerance”), and “acceptance” (read: lack of standards and exaltation of the lowest common denominator in moral and public life) are relatively childless and sterile in comparison to those who adhere to orthodox or fundamentalist religion.

      • So, in your view, we’re lucky the wayward, destructive people with lack of standards are not procreating, while the religious are spawning enough to change the make up of society back to, what, good?

        I knew it’d be an unpopular thing to say on this site–the idea of respecting another person’s choice. But what is so destructive, or lacking in standards, about people who respect and understand that other people might have other sets of values?

        • There’s nothing wrong with the recognition and understanding that people hold different values. In fact, I think that a person should do this because it is to acknowledge that we are human and not automatons. The trouble begins when one asserts the fundamental equality of all values. This has the pernicious effect of emptying all values of content and making them meaningful only in the most superficial and frivolous sense. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing respectful in doing this.

          The better question is why should “choice” be put on such a high pedastal when what is chosen matters not at all?

          • Choice, understood in this modernist way, is inevitably self-defeating, or in philosopher Lydia McGrew’s phrase, it devours itself. One cannot expand forever the list of “choices” without some choices eventually working to the detriment of those who choose the opposite. You cannot have tolerance without limits; the very idea is ridiculous. But of course it is the very people pushing “choice” and “tolerance” who will be the ones, whether they choose such a role or not, who eventually determine those limits. This will, of course, result ultimately, ironically, in fewer choices: choice devours itself. To put it another way, some limitations on choice must be accepted at the beginning of the process, or they will most assuredly be mandated, at gun-point if necessary, at the end.

          • No one suggests that choice should be without limit: no one is saying we should repeal the traffic laws, or (at the opposite extreme) legalize genocide. The argument is over a very small area of choice lying between those things everyone thinks should be unlimited and those which everyone agrees should be controlled.

        • Even if the numbers of religious people are increasing and their childen remain religious, things still change with time. Baptists no longer inveigh against dancing and movies (not all dancing and movies), the Catholic Church no longer supports monarchy as the only proper form of government, the Mormons don’t practice polygamy or bar Blacks from membership, and most churches have made their peace with evolution and modern science. Modern day fundamentalists who imagine some sort of demographic victory for their beliefs and practices need to look at history: it just doesn’t work that way.

    • Dr. Deneen’s post wasn’t about abortion per se, so I hesitated to respond to this. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t let this screamer pass untouched. Fortunately, the nonsense trotted out here as “fact” is easily refuted by real facts:

      In 2008, the 12.8% of women in America who identified as being unaffiliated with any religion accounted for 27.5% of all abortions.

      In the same year, the 86.6% of women identifying as Christian or affiliated with another religion accounted for 72.5% of abortions procured.

      Obviously I shouldn’t have to explain the significance, but in case anyone is without a basic grasp of statistics, I will: “the religious” account proportionately for a dramatically lower number of abortions than those who are not “the religious.” That is, a woman who identifies as not religious is far more likely to procure an abortion than a woman who identifies as religious. (Though I don’t have the statistics to back it up, I’d be willing to bet an awful lot of money that abortion rates go down as church attendance goes up.)

      Of course a discussion about the “causes” of abortion is complex, and probably tied more to economics than any other demographic or social factor, but we need not start that discussion here.

      Sources are Pew Forum and Guttmacher Institute.

      • Oh, and also thanks to Guttmacher:

        “Women obtaining abortions in 2008 were less likely than their counterparts in 2000 to be married or to have a religious affiliation, and were more likely than the earlier cohort to have a college degree.”

  3. Many a political philosopher, or commentator on America, such as Tocqueville, recognized that America’s saving Grace was in fact it’s belief in Grace and its maintenance of the institutions derived from such belief.

    I have long had a problem with the fact that to participate in the “culture wars” in America is to acknowledge the field of battle as the political realm, and to therefore accept defeat, but that to disengage from the “culture wars” means losing America and one’s place in it.

  4. As a member of the “moderately educated middle”, I want to go on record as asserting any “death of the culture wars” is premature for the simple reason that the cussed “culture wars” have been the most fertile area to bamboozle the boobosie in our comical history.

    Marriage requires an imagination and as a result, the only thing which might make it obsolete is the Death of Imagination, a not altogether impossible denouement with the current generation of unrepentant wankering nit wits.

  5. In reading Deneen’s article and the comments that follow I am convinced (yet again) that the responsibility for this mess falls squarely at the feet of the “Church”, in its failure to lead both prophetically and pastorally, and its succumbing to the flood of secular culture, and the resulting erosion of genuine community by that flood.

    And for all you erudite types who are looking to dismiss Colleen’s comments, while there may be substance to disagree with, she is putting her finger on the primary ailment of the Church, and the reason she has failed as protective mother and why so many have abandoned her. Religiosity. The perversion of the Evangelical Right and institutions like Focus on the Family (our modern Pharisees and Sadducees) is, ironically, the real root of the slide into degeneracy.

    Although I tire of citing this verse, it bears repeating: “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” Which is to say that we are exhorted to respect choice even if it means people might choose poorly. (Brandon: Freedom of choice does not then render all values are equal. That is a leap that you and too many others make.)

    • Yes, I suppose so, but the respect of individual choice is irrelevant to larger social context. People will choose to do whatever they like whether it’s respected or not. Transgression has a long history. My point is that a robust notion of the common good will contain standards which encourage some choices and frown upon others through the establishment of mores, folkways, and customs necessary for cohesion.

  6. Pat, I suspect when my generation and the generation of students you are teaching come into maturity and then power, the culture wars will be over. The “Culture War” are in many way an extension of the great divides originating in 1950s and 60s and have lasted as long as the Baby Boomer have aged. They will not go away until they are all dead. Ask yourself what great cultural questions divide your students or the persons of my generation? Of the top of my head I can’t think of any. If the would-be traditionalists can’t keep it together (and in reality those of the working class and poorer strata never really could), it hard to see how the socially libertine are supposed to for them.

    • Mr. Scallon, I know a lot of kids and young adults, agree with you generally and have some hope. But things change – progeny and power dislocate many attitudes. Heck, I used to think crashing on a friends couch was a good travel arrangement. But as D.W. Sabin states, it’s much easier to inflame and induce a war to achieve power than to get elected on the basis of one’s position on, say, transportation policy.
      Put another way, the generations that followed those that fought the American Civil War found plenty of matters over which to disagree. Put yet another way, harmony, like a clean house, comes as a result of intention, sacrifice and hard work. And I hope you achieve it to a greater degree than has my generation.

  7. The writer of Ecclesiastes suggests there is a time for everything. The epistle of Romans, in the eighth chapter, states that creation has been subjected to vanity – the Greek for “vanity” of verse twenty suggests “perverseness, frailty, want of vigour.” Sex and economics in modern times tend to reduce human beings to objects and things to be used for another’s personal gratification. Certainly this implies a “want of vigour”; a perverse idolatry and a wholly jejune and unimaginative way to treat a fellow human being. Yet in being subject to the perverseness of modernity’s tendency to quantify our human existence, we hope. Not for a terrestrial socioeconomic utopia, but hope and wait expectantly for the completion of our redemption begun in Christ Jesus. In that patient, expectant hope, we learn to cultivate and value the fascinating aspects of being alive; of loving others in a most wondrous and wholly other-worldy way; one which attracts a watching world. Jesus said to His disciples that they would be known for their love for one another. “See how He loved him!” was the response of those who observed Jesus weep at Lazarus’s tomb. The incarnate, loving Son of God – the Word Made Flesh. He who knew no sin, became sin for us. This is the hope through the vanity of sex and economics, a hope that can transform and redeem those things. Apart from Christ, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity and grasping after the wind.”

  8. Having lived out of the States for two years, I’ve forgotten the urgent cry of Conservatives, especially Catholics, to battle this “Culture War”. But it seems to me that “Culture War” is quite a misnomer, as it draws on a Communist understanding of class warfare. Certainly, there is a spiritual battle between good and evil that exists in all generations and all geographies but it is unfair to simplify the American personae into those restrictive terms. Perhaps these discussions are better classified as observable trends.

    There is also the troubling reality that undermines Wilcox’s premise– that the sexual experimentation of the “highly educated” makes them indistinguishable from the “declining moral culture” of “moderately educated” Americans. This reduces the “warfare” spoken of to economic rather social mores, bringing us once again to Marxist ideas.

  9. Column expresses things I’ve observed over many years as a highly-educated member of the lower middle class who used to live in coastal areas. It’s part of what makes it difficult for me to take the “leadership” seriously of my betters, whether “conservative” or “liberal” – they are both almost exclusively focused on personal economic gain and narcissistic hedonism, and precious little in American society ever stops them. I don’t share Mr Douthat’s hope that they express more traditional values, because they will do so in a crushing way, like cutting social spending or demanding marital fidelity from those below them, while not changing a thing about their own lifestyles. If one reads this column carefully, it comes across as more cynical that the highly-educated go into entertainment, where they generate materials for consumption of lower classes, who they then criminalize or make permanently dependent (while shaming them for being so). I don’t see this country as divided by parties as much as I do by class experience. I live in Indiana, a very conservative state, whose leadership are of the Right-wing ilk of the “highly educated.” Unfortunately, they’re not restoring any other traditional values, like the dignity of labor, or acknowledging their own submission to any greater power which might chasten their wrongdoing.

  10. As someone very interested in specifically how important cultural matters of worth can be preserved, I am trying to limn the general rationale behind a number of the very interesting posts on this site. Do I have it correctly: Local Place = Restricted Choice; Restricted Choice=Probably More Moral Choice. Ergo, Cosmopolitanism= Immorality. Also, therefore, Freethinking= Ruin.

    Sounds to me like Hobbes’ Leviathan has snuck up and is sitting on the rocking chair of the Front Porch.

  11. I agree with your assessment of Douthat, had read that Douthat piece, was wondering if you all would comment, have to say I admire how you worked your argument, also have to say I don’t know that I agree with you but that’s not really important because I’ll argue about the color of the sky just for the heck of it, and now am wondering about the absence of commentary on Stanley Fish’s last couple of posts on the New York Times web site.

    And I suppose I’ll use this forum to say to you all, including those recently departed for business reasons, hope you all have a good Christmas with your families. I went ahead and ordered Stoner from my local bookstore and it came in today. I hope Peters wasn’t just blowing smoke.

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