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July 12, 2006

One Nation, Two Cultures

Gertrude Himmelfarb – ISBN 0375404554

In her usual lucid and scholarly fashion Himmelfarb dissects and explains the conundrum of the age: the cultural divide between liberals and conservatives.

The counterculture, in attempting to liberate all from the influence of “bourgeois values,” succeeded in separating most people from all those values which had a stabilizing, socializing and moralizing effect on society. This has lead to the rapid acceleration of crime, out-of-wedlock births, and welfare dependency. The sexual revolution was that! Indeed it was that, and much more.

The Victorian pooh-bahs, while not necessarily adhering to the rules they espoused, created a stable culture followed by the masses. The Great Awakening worked. Tragically, the cultural elites of the 60’s legitimized and glamorized the counterculture. This dislocated their own lives only temporarily, but affected the masses disastrously and perhaps permanently. Some progress is being made. Time will tell.

The appropriate function of civil society is to mediate between the individual and the state to restrain gross individualism and overweening design, and to socialize and educate the individual in the duties and responsibilities to, as well as rights and privileges of civilization. The counterculture destroyed this sense of community.

Even modern “communitarians”, while retaining some of the old romantic aspects of community have little of its substance. Self-help and support groups, youth and singles clubs, Bible and prayer fellowships, etc. are voluntary, transient, and encourage people to move in and out as the occasion requires. All this has little of the flavor of historic community.

Modern civil society is called upon to repair the moral fabric of democratic society but it simply isn’t up to the task. There is no realistic mediating structure between unrestrained individualism and an all-powerful government; between the unencumbered self and the nanny state.

Most institutions of civil society have been enervated and demoralized by intrusive government. Even private charities are, in many circumstances, conduits for government money. Governmental regulation has subverted the institutions and bourgeois ethos upon which capitalism once depended.

While modernity is happy to acclaim charity and compassion as virtues, it is resistant to stigmatizing egotism and hedonism as vices. Even those “civil revivalists” who support civic renewal are disinterested in moral revival.

It is not enough to restore civil society. It is also necessary to reform and remoralize its institutions. Modern democracies all face problems in education, welfare, crime, popular culture and family, and all of these must be reconstituted. These cannot be, approached thru government, per se, and cannot be done without moral revival and recovery of the old structures of community.

The much derided “Norman Rockwell” image of the ‘50’s family may have been romanticized, but most subscribed to it. The current vicious characterization of is inauthentic, and contemporary suggestions for its replacement are even further removed from reality.

It is said that “morality cannot be legislated,” yet civil rights were legislated in the 60’s with reasonable results. Thus it is clear that certain kinds of behavior can be legitimately legislated. Law changes incentives, and incentives shape behavior. Good laws and judicious government legitimize civil society itself. Properly conceived and executed, law serves as a reaffirmation of moral sense of society.

As for the recent “welfare crisis,” there was none--rather, it is a moral crisis. Bobby Kennedy sagely remarked that what is given can be taken, what is begged can be refused, but what is earned is kept and what is self-made is inalienable; what you do for yourself and for your children can never be taken away.

Just as 19th century reformers consciously sought to fashion social policies in accord with moral objectives, modern successors, just as consciously, tried to divorce social policies from morality. After decades of Nonjudgmentalism we find that all policies have moral consequences, and only with deliberate policies in accord with desirable ends can the good outweigh the bad.

Aristotle observed that only within the polis is man truly human, and thus different from other gregarious animals. Civic virtue—the self-control and self-discipline required for self-government—is an essential attribute both of those who govern and those governed. Madison added that “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

The West in general and America in particular was derived from religious convictions and experiences. Religious conservatives are obstinate not so much because they are religious, but because they are conservative. They do not subscribe to the conventional liberal positions on social and cultural issues, and deplore the fact that their culture is being debased by such attitudes and beliefs.

Secularists complain of the articulate, active religious movement while the religious groups feel beleaguered by the Supreme Court which has abandoned long-standing traditions and customs. But “pragmatic alliances,” across religious and political lines, are being formed with the traditionalists of all religious faiths, and many of no religious faith. They are joining to find common cause against these “progressive” attitudes.

A culture war can be adjudicated, and a reasonable accommodation reached. Persuasion is preferable to violence, and democratic etiquette, while not diluting or blunting differences of belief allows civil expression (i.e. “civility”.)

The cause of tolerance is poorly served by those who pride themselves on their tolerance while identifying religious conservatives as intolerant, and equating them to Puritans or fanatics as found in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Some expect another Great Awakening, but Himmelfarb predicts the coming revival will become more moral rather than religious. There is a realization that people of all religious creeds—and none—recognize the need to arrest the moral decline in the culture, and that this revolution will embrace liberals and conservatives, religious and non-religious. No one any longer argues that there is pervasiveness--even glorification--of violence, vulgarity and promiscuity, all of which are degrading our youth and our culture. It is a remarkable achievement to have reached this point.

For now, however, the two cultures are living together despite a degree of tension and dissension, but without civil strife or anarchy. That is the strength of America.

Someday . . . .

Posted by respeto at July 12, 2006 11:59 AM