The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.4 (Fall 2013)
FAITH AND CULTURAL MELTDOWN
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Our Own Worst Enemy: How the American Bourgeoisie Has Undermined Marriage and Other Institutions Vital to Its Survival
John R. Harris
I. The Enemy Within
A documentary on YouTube titled Grinding America Down was recently recommended to me. The video was created by U.S. Representative from Idaho Curtis Bowers, and it runs about ninety minutes. As documentaries go, this isn’t a bad production—yet I had, in fact, encountered most of its content before. Like so many other observers of our accelerating cultural degeneracy, Bowers has rediscovered The Naked Communist (by W. Cleon Skousen), a classic of those Cold War days that produced the McCarthy Scare. I can well remember, as a toddler, looking up and seeing the volume on my father’s bookshelf, the front panel of its bright red dust jacket branded with a menacing male shape—almost ape-like—in black silhouette. Most of the time, of course, the frontispiece was hidden from view. The red spine, however, was the most luminous thing in the room. As an Old Irish proverb says, all that’s red is beautiful.
Skousen, a former FBI agent, should not be neglected by any bipartisan historian. At the very least, he demonstrates that Joe McCarthy had plenty to be scared about. Yet I would raise the same objections to the book’s thesis that I entertain concerning Bowers’ argument. The honorable representative (two words that I would seldom use together these days) seems to me a little too credulous in the power of ivory-tower conspirators to mobilize. The conspiracy in question, while both real and evil, is also less potent than the popular mind supposes it. True enough, we should be alarmed at the incestuous relationship between the Communist Party, the Fabians, the Students for a Democratic Society, ACORN, the labor movement, and various individual unnamables—what Manzoni would have called the innominati. (Inasmuch as The Center remains a 501(c)3 charity, there’s no point in looking for trouble.) What does this ideological incest really prove, though, other than that most normal people find politics boring in normal times, and that the twisted little Napoleons who like nothing better than redrawing lines of global power over absinthe or weed tend to have a wallet full of membership cards in subversive organizations?
My point, then, is that the Red Mouseketeers may plan street riots and palace coups all they want—but that they can do little or nothing without the collaboration of the broader culture. Even when one of them finally cajoles, subduces, or purloins enough official authority to appoint his fellow megalomaniacs to positions of arbitrary power, he still requires enabling by various accessories among the “loyal opposition” who have decided not to oppose him for their own sordidly ambitious reasons. (Again, I invoke the innominati: supply the names of your favorite “evolving thinkers”.) Where does such sordid ambition come from? From the darkest depths of the human heart. No Marxist university professor has forced any senator to court with citizenship non-Anglophone tribalists by the million so that he may rise on their massed shoulders to become Fürhrer. No Communist-mole priest or preacher has convinced any congressman to betray solemn vows to his constituency so that he may divide the nation’s spoils with his partners in “compromise”. These people have willingly pursued self-aggrandizement—and never more so than when they tell themselves that their country needs their unique talents more than it needs honesty. Most, we may concede, were good men and women at one point. They were perverted by a voice originating in their own breast. If someone has filled their skulls with mush, they themselves took the initiative long ago in emptying their hearts of decency, humility, and duty.
We need hardly doubt that campus-revolutionary types would like to take bows for having instigated the sexual revolution, along with its undermining of spiritual values and the nuclear family. Yet Representative Bowers and others appear to have forgotten the Pill. I never heard that Alger Hiss was charged with smuggling in the formula for that. Or we may wish to give a dishonorable mention to Hollywood for teaching young people how much fun promiscuous sex is—how boldly assertive a servile subjection to the senses can be. Yet that dog, too, will not hunt historically. You will seek in vain through the fifties and the early sixties for any screened entertainment that subverts family values, especially on television. Even at the movies, for every one Otto Preminger, there were hundreds of would-be Disneys. To be sure, the industry was awash in avant-garde chic—at beach parties and boozy soirees. Yet these people knew which side of their bread was buttered, and their profession indeed consisted of nothing so much as replicating successes, aiming for the middle, and gauging areas of maximum profit. They didn’t dare sow subliminal nihilism into their Wild West saloon girls and their suburban housewives. They whored their talents, instead, to an Eisenhower America in which few of them, perhaps, believed. Who knows, for that matter, if their daily cult of thespian impersonation and moral duplicity did not drive stars, directors, and writers to weird, wild varieties of anarchy in their private lives as a passive-aggressive kind of corrective—a ”There, take that!” middle finger lifted in a dark, empty closet?
No, these were no spearheading terrorists from a script of 24. How, then, did they dare to start grinding out garbage like Baywatch, Family Guy, and Desperate Housewives? Because the great American public rewarded them for their dumpster-diving: the stimulus responded to the response given to keener stimuli. Television, especially, introduced us to an unwholesome truth about ourselves, since the classic TV serial had to return each week and renew its magnetism upon the audience. We grow easily bored, unfortunately. We want the new and different, or at least the same thing pressed harder and harder until it bursts its seams. What we enjoyed yesterday is predictable and trite tomorrow. Give us something more risqué: push the envelope. Show more skin; say a new obscenity; linger over the bullet hole; turn the murderer from an armed burglar into a psychotic child-torturer. Just as we demanded that our phones connect faster and our clothes dry quicker with fewer wrinkles, so we expected our entertainment to shake up its stock genres and scenes. Communist plants at MGM didn’t do this to us. Our basic nature cracked the door; and our culture of “wait, there’s more” appetite for “new and improved” titillation—our marketplace mindset about every value’s being negotiable according to demand—lured us away from the stable tastes that real culture breeds. In an irony that now appears quite grim, the very restlessness and hunger that made American capitalism so dynamic (and which stunned Alexis de Toqueville just a few years after our Revolution) eventually threw that cracked door wide open to moral degeneracy. Marx had said that we would bring about our own ruin; but then, the Old Testament had said the same thing long before Marx, and for better reasons. As a credible motive, human nature trumps class-struggle utopian dialectics every time.
For make no mistake: Marx’s alternative, too, in all of its many morphs—the British Fabians, the American Progressives, the Soviet Communists—will fail in the future as it always has in the past. It is failing right now in the West, at the zenith of political appeal and power, as its very triumphs transform the victors into rapacious authoritarian hypocrites before the eyes of anyone who isn’t blind. Its faithful standard-bearers are actually chanting, “Hail, Satan!” in the streets. So much for righting wrongs, promoting charity, and all the rest of the Socialist Superman mystique… and diabolical power unmasked, its eyes flaming and its scythe mowing, will never quite eradicate common decency in its most bloodthirsty hour. Even if the palace guard should execute him who writes this essay and them who read it, the very boy behind the rifle will feel something squirming within him, and another boy who bulldozes our mass grave will decide that he has lost his last ounce of self-respect.
Yet on the day that the pendulum irresistibly begins to swing in the other direction and the butchers start to fall at their own block, their excesses will be punished with counter-excesses… and the seed of the next progressive conspiracy will have been planted.
This will go as long as our technology-based economy endures unless we understand that every social conspiracy in such an economy is truly the “insidest” of inside jobs—that we ourselves hasten it along. It wasn’t the Communist professoriate that turned my generation against capitalism; it was the sight of our fathers dragging home late every night from work they detested, growling testily at their children, speaking of retirement as of the Golden Isles, and then suffering a heart attack within a year punching their last clock. It wasn’t the Communist plants in the ministry that convinced us to ignore our immigration laws and fashion some cuddly, nursery-rhyme version of brotherhood out of canned-food drives and cots for identity thieves in the rec hall; it was our own guilt that our ridiculous salary demands were actually met and our outrageous mark-ups of merchandise were actually paid by the public. The closet Communists in Hollywood didn’t teach American youth that sex is to adolescents what ice cream is to toddlers and that marriage is legal prostitution; this we learned as adolescents through simple observation of the “finer class”, where marriage was often a society-page victory lap after Jane bagged a millionaire. Lately the New Woman has decided just to make and keep her own money—a renunciation of the “prostitute” strategy all but forced upon her by the disappearance of good jobs for young males; and this, too, is not the final stage of a Betty Friedan plot nearly so much as it is the sterile fruit of bourgeois America’s equating marriage with “getting settled” materially in life.
The fatal flaw in the dynamic American middle class—as Toqueville saw long ago (and as his spiritual heir, the late Christopher Lasch, eloquently detailed)—is its love of the salary over the job. If we cannot live the life we love each day, then we must necessarily oppose our taste, genius, and imagination to “the job” in an adversarial fashion; and the only thing we will then draw from “the job” will be a paycheck, which we will try to increase as much as we can as fast as we can in order that we may be the sooner rid of “the job” forever. Yet few of us retire early even if we strike it rich. Since we hate our job, we seek solace in extravagant playthings and exotic vacations away from the workplace; and since these indulgences are monstrously expensive, we end up being more subjugated to our loathsome yoke than ever. And it leaks out, that introverted misery… it leaks everywhere. It pollutes our family life, it corrupts our faith, it hardens our arteries… it acidifies whatever it touches.
Frankly, the deadly political pendulum of post-agricultural, high-tech society—the mad race to create and acquire gizmos followed by the nausea of having eaten too much candy—may never be stilled. It hasn’t been since the first steam-engine started hissing. As long as tock succeeds tick, progressive protests will wax and wane: protests that our life as a collective has too much disorder, is too wasteful, leaves too many with too little, and (an ironic protest in an atheist, yet true) is too cruel to the spirit. Yet technology might just hold the key to the exit, even as it certainly holds the secret of the prison’s impenetrable walls. Why can we not use—why, indeed, have we not yet begun to use—our technical genius to liberate people from vast, impersonal workplaces where they robotically suppress their identity every day? The potential for a society of self-sufficient neighborhoods, all creating their own food and clothing and shelter and security and amusement, has never been greater since the days when every household had a gun, an axe, a plow, a cow, and a banjo; and in fact, frontier independence came at a cost from which we could easily liberate ourselves. Why, instead, is all of our technology centripetal? Why can we not become more like the idyllic communities on a child’s train board rather than the regimented communities in a child’s ant farm?
II. The Destruction of Marriage
I am not an economist, and this section of Praesidium is not dedicated to economic issues. Pursuing the present discussion along the axis of corporatism versus small business, then, seems appropriate neither to my personal competence nor to the interests of my likely audience. Instead, allow me to examine one of the specific crimes named in my indictment of the American bourgeoisie: the ruination of marriage.
In the previous section appeared an equation of bourgeois American marriage customs with society-page prostitution. This formula will have struck many as excessively cynical. I might respond that the accusation was attributed to the feminists of my generation and not to my own analysis; but that would be rather disingenuous, since—perhaps in this matter alone—I can sympathize with the radical feminist point of view. No doubt, my youthful experiences of dating severely jaundiced my outlook—or my complete inexperience of dating, I should say. I was sent to an elite private school (thanks to long hours worked by both my parents) whose august threshold someone of “my kind” ought never to have darkened. From the inaugural year of fourth grade all the way through high school, I was given to understand in ways subtle and unsubtle that I should stay away from the merchandise. Naturally, there were a few girls who shared my humble circumstances; but they were either fishing for a much bigger catch (“You of all people should understand,” they would imply), or else they served as… how shall I put it? They were “demo’s” upon whose well-worn upholstery the sons of our local swells refined their sexual driving skills.
Since I was raised to be a gentleman (as opposed to having blundered at birth into gentle circumstances), I ended up remaining a mere spectator throughout these years. It’s a habit that has never left me, perhaps. At any rate, I can lay claim to having observed many, many sizzling flares in the sexual Bonfire of the Vanities that was the late sixties and the seventies; and of these many, the few that abated into the steady burn of matrimony practically all shifted their fuel from the kerosene of hormones to the dried peat of greenbacks. Bear in mind that I speak of the privileged—the preppies who went off to college: the quintessential representatives of middle-class values in full flower. A good marriage was a “good deal” for any country lass who landed a med student (like the blonde pillar of virtue I most seriously tried to court). For the less virtuous and better-healed, it was a union of two equally potent bank accounts. The annoyance of having to instruct one party or the other in driving a golf cart or absorbing booze at the proper rate during the Cotillion never arose.
It is a statistic-turned-cliché that worries over money figure prominently in the causation of most divorces. The bearing and rearing of children also seems to make the top three. If my experience of high society’s nuptial meat-market was so skewed, then why do such stats exist? On our great-great-grandparents’ farms a century and a half ago, young people undertook marriage almost as a vow of poverty. They expected the contract to involve harder work, not greater ease; and as for children, not only did they never quarrel because Jill wanted one and Jack wanted none—they had child after child without a second thought (and probably with far too little thought—but infant mortality ran high).
Only as a result of massive urbanization (and “bourgeois”, remember, derives from a word meaning “town” or “settlement”) did the “eligibility” factor begin to include the degree of luxury offered by the male and the degree of conditioning to luxury offered by the female. A man who worked up a sweat in any manner other than walking the greens with his putter or hiking up a hill with shotgun and retriever was a ruffian. A woman who acquired dirt under her fingernails in any manner other than tidying roses in the parlor (gardening was permitted, but only with gloves) was a hussy. These ways belonged to the haute bourgeoisie as intimately as their investment portfolio: they really had nothing to do with the Old World aristocracy that the great American middle class formally detested and secretly envied. A German Graf or Scots laird of the same period might have been found digging up his own grounds (or someone else’s halfway around the world) in search of pagan amulets and ancient pottery, his dungarees rolled up and his floppy felt hat pulled down. A Hurst or a Rockefeller would never have risked “being seen” in such a state.
A crypto-eugenic racism also informed the growing middle class’s marriage-and-family customs. Lower species always produced more offspring, while higher ones had fewer. (Recall the lion-mother’s boast about her one cub in Aesop’s fable.) In this neo-Darwinian atmosphere, Catholics had far too many children to be respectable: so did those yokels who remained back on the farm. Though there was probably an implicit presumption in these times before the Pill that such degenerates just couldn’t lift their minds for long out of the sexual gutter, equally implied was an understanding that smaller families meant more disposable income. And I hasten to add that one cannot deny the truth of this equation. If Victorian thought’s condescension to the world’s dark races that endured famine after famine is now hard to swallow, its ascribing such famines to constant child-bearing was also based in sound observation.
At some point, however, the bourgeois attachment to wealth occupied so formidable a chunk of the class’s collective psyche that its well-programmed members found children almost entirely dispensable. This critical shift occurred at about the same time as the sexual revolution—and for the same reasons. As I argued earlier, Hollywood and feminism were not necessary to convince the young bourgeoisie of the Eisenhower Era that marriage should be about convenience and pleasure: such materialist hedonism was already the class’s creed. The purpose of life was to be happy and respected (two objectives scarcely separable in the bourgeois mind, even long after Queen Victoria was laid to rest: to this day, many Americans attend Sunday church at least as much to sustain a certain standing in the community as out of religious conviction). How does one achieve happiness and respect? By acquiring wealth and its comforts in a socially approved manner. How does marriage assist in this endeavor? Either by yoking a richer partner to a poorer one or by pairing two wealthy people—but the former scenario actually diminishes the wealth of one party. What, then, can be that party’s consolation for dividing a fortune? An increase in pleasure. What pleasure has marriage to offer if not greater wealth and social status? The pleasure of sex, of course. A wealthy man could marry a sexy starlet, and a wealthy widow could marry a lithe, lean golf pro. Nothing about that outraged the Ghost of Darwin very much.
Yet not only did children play no role in this kind of calculus; marriage itself quickly became a tortuous route to a readily accessible end once sexual pleasure was overtly admitted as a healthy, even respectable motive (which admission was facilitated by the Pill’s elimination of pregnancy from extra-marital affairs). A lifetime of happiness/pleasure with one partner indeed began to seem unnatural. One spouse might lose his or her looks or “drive” with age—or the well-documented enticements of the forbidden fruit, the greener grass just beyond the fence, might prove stronger than those of a mate who remained “hot” yet had the misfortune to be entirely licit. For women, too, a new door upon wealth and comfort opened as feminism promoted their entry into the professional world. Surely here, at last, we detect radical left-wing activism’s taking the initiative in undoing bourgeois society… but in what a very bourgeois manner! For what could be more materialist than the female CEO’s obsession with being paid at least as much as her male counterpart, and what could be more “status-conscious” than the female professor’s obsession with promotion and tenure? The community of respected peers had shifted from quiet suburbs to city skyscrapers and ivory towers—but the indexing of success to the judgments of those peers had lost none of the Victorians’ snobby tribalism and crass attention to high-priced facades.
Need I state the obvious: that once the achievement of wealth and of pleasure alike had been thus severed from marriage, bourgeois America retained little use for the institution? Nowadays conventional marriage has turned into a battlefield as homosexual couples demand its respectability for their unions. Traditionalists see this clamor as a feint in the great cultural fencing match whose objective, for the progressive Left, is to drive a blade through the heart of every reverend custom. They have good cause to hold such a view. Yet I think it not completely implausible that “gay marriage” agitators, good little bourgeois offshoots that they are, also genuinely desire the “respectability” component of the “happiness” formula. They have the wealth, and the sex… and how (they ask) is a monogamous relationship year after year with a same-sex partner less respectable than the wife-and-mistress or four-wives-in-a-decade relationship grown typical since America liked Ike? Bourgeois logic has no ground of rebuttal.
I have been working lately (for classroom purposes) on a video about the medieval romance. This is a variety of story where heroes—and, often, heroines—wander far and wide haphazardly through many exotic lands (as opposed to the mythic hero, a demigod who ranges from Olympus to Hades on specific missions). Sexual love is not always an element of such tales, despite the word’s associations for us today; but historically speaking, as enterprising members of vibrant societies begin to trade and travel and the extended family of the tribe is forgotten, relationships with a single “soul mate” do start to grow more common. Especially in the European Middle Ages, the journeys and the love affairs of written romances acquire a mystical power through allegorization. We are seldom entirely sure that the knight isn’t doing a penance or learning a catechism as he pursues a perilous quest, and his courtship of a fair lady often seems strangely like an adoration of Heaven’s guiding light.
It occurred to me in the course of this project (now complete at http://youtu.be/sUaTsND8DCg) that we very much embraced the notion of allegory in our personal romances when love ennobled us—i.e., before the bourgeois mind made marriage a fine calculation of material profit + good sex + respectability. Our mate once drew us closer to God. A man’s lady made him more of a gentleman—more charitable, compassionate, selfless, and courageous. In her approval was mystically bound the approval of God on High. The fair lady in the tower, for her part, kept herself more aloof from vulgar words and crude acts that she might more closely resemble the ideal that her knight saw in her. Her duty was not to be perfect, for no human being is that (and none but a mad Orlando would expect his lady to be a marble statue): it was to aspire to be perfect, and especially to let her man understand that his vision of her assisted her in approaching so lofty an aspiration.
The man, in return, loved his lady the more for finding her flawed yet sensing that he helped her to prevail over her flaws. Most of us like feeling needed, and that like can multiply the power of devotion, just as feeling quite unneeded usually destroys devotion. The lady, in return, loved her man the more having recognized the despair that assailed him when he did not have her to lift him from self-preoccupation; for a man without a woman is almost always a study in despair. This indefinite reciprocity of inspiration—a mirror placed before a mirror in such fashion that all images were shared by both and none began in either—created a bond of innumerable knots. One plus one became more than two.
When the pop psychology—the “you’re okay, I’m okay”, “self-actualizing” pap—of the late sixties and seventies declared all such starry-eyed mysticism dead, it made big bucks; and it did so because the bourgeois mind had long ago rejected the allegorical life. Objects are commodities, and people are consumers. Things objectively are no more than what they appear: market forces determine their perceived (i.e., illusory) value. When feminism of this era declared the chivalric ethic of self-sacrifice a patriarchal trick to preserve the existing power structure, it was speaking in the same tongue. Sex is just sex. If you have an itch, scratch it—and don’t let marketers convince you to pay a dime for what you can have free. Rivals for the same debased turf, both the commercialist Right and the iconoclastic Left agreed that you and I are static, unitary quantities—that our souls do not mysteriously grow or mingle with other souls. The epistemology of both sides was empirical. The Right, of course, has found our natural desire to change and grow—to seek the Other, the Higher—very marketable, like the snake oil of the prototypical frontier huckster. The Left has also, especially in recent years, perversely doubled back on its “you’ve come a long way, baby” solipsism (a slogan originally penned by marketers to sell cigarettes!) to a nanny-statism that requires “baby” to cling gratefully to Big Brother. Such contradiction shows only that we humans cannot live without a belief in higher mystery—not that the mystery’s persecutors have seen the error of their ways. Where productive mystery has been systematically uprooted, degenerate mysteries spring up like dandelions in April.
If I were to attempt a book instead of an essay on this subject, the rise of empirical science would also have its share of the villain’s role—for the cultural forces that fueled the scientific revolution substantially overlapped those that fueled the middle class’s growth. All the same, science cannot fairly be charged with having objectified all of man’s creative and spiritual life, any more than Darwin can correctly be accused of having taught Victorian society to disparage the underclass. The real lesson to draw here is that bourgeois society must constantly police its acquired reflex of assigning value based on marketability—on convenience, ease, novelty, “sex appeal”, and the rest. This approach doesn’t work for all aspects of reality. The free market is an economy’s best friend, but it can also be the soul’s worst enemy. Our society will never be able to identify and avoid the pitfalls of progressivism, feminism, and other kinds of introverted idolatry until it recognizes the risk factors at the very core of its own foundation.
Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.
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