Monday, July 16, 2012

Decline of the West?

Some thoughts on this article, attributing much of the problem with American values to single parenting, and a concomitant decline in moral values.

Quotes like this give me pause:
Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed. (That change received a burst of attention this year with the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” which attributed the decline of marriage to the erosion of values, rather than the decline of economic opportunity.) 
We might be seeing a decline of values in modern north America.  (I am not yet convinced that we are.  Since at least the nineteenth century, the morals of the "working class" in the West have provided a freak show at which the better off have stared in alternate horror and fascination.)  But if we are, then the solution is emphatically not socializing marriage (or healthcare, or housing, or anything else, if we can help it).  Disrupting stable homosexual relationships -- devaluing them, attacking them (with specious "defend the family" arguments) -- does nothing to make fewer dumb heterosexuals go the way of Britney Spears (who seems to flout the Deuteronomistic narrative of people like Charles Murray by being at once wealthy and a tramp: maybe her children will be utterly ruined, or maybe they will retire happy with the hefty fortune their mother has piled up shaking her booty).

The people saving marriage are the ones making theirs work.  They don't have time to save yours.  That's your job.  As is deciding to have sex (or not).  No one can make those decisions for you.  There are no shortcuts.  Blaming the people who make what end up looking like "bad" decisions might make us feel a little better (for avoiding the trap), but it cannot really help those making the mistakes.  The most we can do is provide information, and accomodate others with as much grace and dignity as they will allow.

I don't despise single parents.  I don't think that they "failed" because they were somehow morally inferior to me.  (Heck, if something happens to my wife, then I am in the same boat -- not necessarily because I am a sinner, but because life is tough and we don't always have all the resources necessary for optimal human expression.)  I don't think it is useful to cultivate a moral outlook that pats the lucky winners (who were rich, went to school, and fell in love with partners who happened to remain alive, mentally stable, and still in love) on the back, and calls the losers (who lose for many different reasons) to a belated repentance: "Your life sucks now, because you are a hopeless jackass.  I thought you should know this.  You'll never be as cool as those of us who didn't slip up, but we'll generously let you have a place at our parties (where we celebrate our good fortune and lament the existence of miserable wretches like you)."  This is not the message that always makes it across, of course, but it is too often the way things shake out, in my (limited) experience.

Instead of fearing failure so much that we punish people (and ourselves) reactively, we really ought to cultivate success.  Not everyone gets it right the first time.  Not everyone gets two parents (or one) who care.  Not everyone gets sufficient food and shelter.  More important than assigning blame is learning how to recover from (inevitable) setbacks.  If you need to beat yourself up a bit, confess to a priest, and go through the whole sackcloth-and-ashes routine, then that is fine -- but it isn't going to help everyone, and I find its application in real life to be quite limited (much more limited than its widespread prescription would suggest).  Maybe if we allowed sex education ("hey, if you have sex all the time, i.e. inserting this tab of his into this slot of hers, then you should be aware that children are a common consequence") instead of pretending that such things are better ignored, then young people would think more before doing it.  Maybe if we modeled better relationships, they would have more to aspire to.  Maybe if we spent more time cultivating really useful relationship tools (empathy, honesty, openness, compassion) -- and less time teaching bad history ("eighteenth-century marriages were all ideal") and worse psychology ("God loves sinners, so he makes them miserable single parents") -- then we would see fewer marriages fail.

I am speaking past the article that triggered these thoughts at this point (as I may have been doing the whole time), but I think this is important (for me, if for no one else).  If we are experiencing the implosion of our culture, then what saves us will not be a heftier dose of whatever medicine we are already taking.  If we are losing our heritage as moral beings, then the answer is not more of whatever is already not working.  For me, the solution starts with radical honesty: what do we really know about human behavior? what is success? how do we cultivate it?  I don't believe those who pretend that there are easy universal answers to these questions that anyone can have for the price of tithing.  I think reality is more complicated than that.  I doubt these kind of pat solutions very much.  But I have faith in the human race.  We can rise above the challenges that face us.  The first step is to confront them directly, swallowing our fear and denying our desire to pass the buck to someone else (like the parents who don't get married, the priests who promise absolution for tithing, or the politicians who are always vowing to save the world in exchange for a few votes).

Bottom line: from my perspective, there is a lot more to success and failure (and life generally) than a deceptively simple "I do" (which I didn't even get to utter at my wedding, by the way).

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