Claims About Cultural Superiority (including guest post by Mollie Gerver)


[note: this is introductory material; Dr. Gerver’s post begins below the line.]

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script—which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach—cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

One lesson here is in effective rhetoric.

Look at the first two sentences of that paragraph. Start with a claim that in a literal or straightforward way is both undeniably true and something readers will interpret in a flattering way: “All cultures are not equal.” Who would disagree? Who would want to? Then take your actual thesis and wedge it into that undeniable claim, like a pill you get your dog to swallow by pushing it into a piece of cheese: “Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” Distract your readers from your slide from platitude to oddly specific causal thesis about something very complicated (culture) by asking them to take sides in an artificial and simplistic binary conflict between two factions depicted in emotional and moral terms as evil (“antisocial,” anti-this, anti-that, etc.) and good (“viable democracy,” “reciprocity,” etc.). Finally, accuse your potential critics of a moral failing (say, hypocrisy), so we don’t even have to hear them out.

The second lesson is: if you are an academic who is planning on writing some evidence-free, bias confirming, post hoc ergo propter hoc-ing editorial in a public venue, expect to be called out for it by your colleagues, both on your substantive claims (see the guest post, below) and also for the general impression of causing institutional and disciplinary embarrassment.

The paragraph quoted at the top of the page is from an op-ed, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture,”  by law professor Amy Wax (University of Pennsylvania) and philosophy and law professor Larry Alexander (University of San Diego). It has been circulating widely since its publication in The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month.

What follows is a guest post* responding to Wax and Alexander by Mollie Gerver, assistant professor in international politics at Newcastle University.


Romare Bearden, “The Dove”

A Closer Look At Bourgeois Culture: a Response to Amy Wax and Larry Alexander
by Mollie Gerver

Law professor Amy Wax and philosopher Larry Alexander have co-authored a widely circulated op-ed. In it they argue that the loss of bourgeois culture prevalent in the 1950s has lead to a general decline in society and “impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups”. The op-ed has already been roundly criticizedbut it is worth taking a closer look at their claims to see how the piece goes wrong

  1. ‘Bourgeois culture…laid out the script we were all supposed to follow… Be neighbourly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public… Be respectful of authority… These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.’

These cultural precepts did not exactly reign from the late 1940s to mid-1960s. Throughout Jim Crow South, whites were far from neighbourly, civic-minded and charitable to their segregated black neighbours, not only using ‘course language in public’ against blacks failing to follow Jim Crow, but threatening to murder them as well. Nor was it just segregation and violence that were prevalent. As Isabel Wilkerson outlines in her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, white landowners required that black sharecroppers produce a specified profit in order to end their tenancy agreements, and called the police if sharecroppers left the farm before such profits were reached. To make matters worse, white landowners often lied about the profits black families produced. As a result, nearly all black farmers were forced to farm at risk of imprisonment or death, living in virtual slavery. This practice ended with the civil rights movement, a movement coinciding with the end of “bourgeois culture.”

  1. ‘Did everyone abide by [the precepts of Bourgeois culture]? Of course not. There are always rebels and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.’

I do not know what they mean by this saying. Perhaps they mean, ‘doing the bad things and professing to do good things reinforces how good the good things are.’ If this is what they mean, it seems false. If a priest is a paedophile, this does not reinforce how good not being a paedophile is.

Regardless, Wax and Alexander seem to imply that only rebels and hypocrites were those who failed to abide by the precepts they describe. In reality, it was not just rebels and hypocrites; disrespecting women, blacks, Jews and immigrants was the norm. Just ask my grandmother, who was denied a room to stay in because she was Jewish in 1940s New York, when anti-Semitism was on the rise. Or ask the millions of black families in Chicago, New York, and LA, who risked murder if they attempted to live in a white neighbourhood.

Perhaps Wax and Alexander merely mean that individuals acted with more ‘neighbourliness, charity, civic-mindedness’ in general, even if limited to members of their own ethnicity. But there is little evidence of this either. The non-profit sector has increased dramatically since the 1960s and individuals give roughly the same percentage of their income to charity today as they did in the 1950s. And while it is true that people spend less time with their neighbours today, this is likely because they can leave their neighbourhoods more easily, given the increase in car ownership since the 1950s.

  1. ‘A combination of factors—prosperity, the Pill, the expansion of higher education, and the doubts surrounding the Vietnam War—encouraged an antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfilment ideal—sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll—that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society.’

This sentence is difficult to follow, but this is how I understand it: contraceptives, higher education, and opposition to the Vietnam War encouraged antiauthoritarianism and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and all four were incompatible with prosperity.

There is no evidence that expanded education contributed to antiauthoritarianism, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and young people today have less sex than they did in the 1950s. While voluntary drug use has increased, involuntary drug use has decreased: The CIA no longer kidnaps people and drugs them with LSD against their will. Which also doesn’t seem very neighbourly.

As for the Pill: This has allowed women to who have fewer children, associated with lower poverty levels, rather than lower prosperity.

  1. ‘This era saw the beginnings of an identity politics that inverted the color-blind aspirations of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into an obsession with race, ethnicity, gender, and now sexual preference.’

It is not clear what is meant by ‘an obsession with race’. Clearly they do not mean a strong commitment to improving the rights of racial minorities, because that would mean Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also obsessed with race, and they do not think he was. Perhaps they mean that, today, individuals speak about race too much. This is unlikely, given that black men are being wrongfully convicted and facing prison at significantly greater rates, and society has yet to address this. The same can be said about sexuality and gender, given the prevalence of discrimination against sexual minorities, and gender-based discrimination against both women and men.

  1. ‘Among those who currently follow the old precepts… poverty rates are low.’

No evidence is provided to demonstrate this claim. Even if it were true, it would not establish whether bourgeois attitudes contribute to reductions in poverty, or reductions in poverty simply contribute to increases in bourgeois attitudes. Of course, it might be true that bourgeois attitudes contribute to reductions in poverty. A carefully crafted study, that controlled for confounding variables, would be worthwhile.

As of now, we do have studies demonstrating that other properties contribute to poverty, such as racism in the criminal justice system, an election system that disenfranchises the poor, and an education system that underfunds minority children. Changing these policies will require us to stop romanticizing the past, and work towards ending poverty in the present.

guest
48 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Grad Student4
Grad Student4
3 years ago

See this response in the Daily Pennsylvanian by some Penn Law Professors http://www.thedp.com/article/2017/08/guest-column-bourgeois-bad-historyReport

EDT
EDT
3 years ago

“‘Did everyone abide by [the precepts of Bourgeois culture]? Of course not. There are always rebels and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.’
I do not know what they mean by this saying. Perhaps they mean, ‘doing the bad things and professing to do good things reinforces how good the good things are.’ If this is what they mean, it seems false. If a priest is a paedophile, this does not reinforce how good not being a paedophile is.”

Errr rather I’d imagine they are saying that there is a difference between disobeying norms one professes to follow [hypocrisy, or/and akrasia] and challenging the norms themselves. The former doesn’t challenge and arguably/in some instances reinforces the norm in question. The latter if they are numerous enough can change the social norms.
Someone secretly having an affair is not affecting their societies norms around marriage in the same way someone openly advocating against sexual exclusivity in marriage would be.

I’d like to add I don’t endorse the original Op-Ed, I don’t find the cited passage to be much of a weak point.Report

Mollie Gerver
Reply to  EDT
3 years ago

The word ‘pays’ in ‘hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue’ seems to mean ‘contribute,’ and so the claim is that hypocrisy contributes to virtue, or vice contributes to virtue via hypocrisy. But I agree: it’s not the weakest part of the passage!
Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  Mollie Gerver
3 years ago

At the risk of being an intolerable pendant; that may just be a language issue, the original quote is French “L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu” (La Rochefoucauld Maxim 218). “Rendre Hommage à” is often translated as “pays tribute” but really means something like “shows ones respect for” (from the feudal ceremony where a vassal acknowledges their superior)
So hypocrisy is how vice acknowledges virtue is its superior (by pretending to be virtuous/not vicious).

My tendency towards irritating pedantry aside I’m only harping on this because I do think their is a meaningful distinction both morally and practically in terms of social impact between a vicious agent [or someone a particular society would consider a vicious agent which is not necessarily the same thing] that is hypocritical like say a robber baron singing the praises of generosity and philanthropy versus a vicious agent that sees defends their vice as a matter of principal like say a Gordon “Greed is Good” Gecko type.

Report

J
J
Reply to  EDT
3 years ago

“Pendant”

An example of irony in the wild! (No criticism; just a happy slip.)Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  J
3 years ago

Well as typos go that hits the sweet spot of being ironic enough to be mortifying but minor enough my point is still clear…Report

J
J
Reply to  EDT
3 years ago

Your point was very clear and well put. Like I said, just a happy accident!Report

Mollie Gerver
Reply to  EDT
3 years ago

I am not familiar with studies demonstrating that hypocritical actions have a different social impacts than non-hypocritical actions. If you know of any studies, I would be curious to read them.

Assuming hypocrites who perform wrongful actions and non-hypocrites who perform wrongful actions have the same impact on others, do you think the first are morally preferably to the second? Compare, for example, a proponent of individual liberty living in 1940s South Carolina who shoots a black sharecropper attempting to leave the state, vs. a proponent of slavery living in 1940s South Carolina who shoots a sharecropper attempting to leave the state. I’m not entirely certain there is reason to prefer the first to the second. Report

EDT
EDT
Reply to  Mollie Gerver
3 years ago

Regarding the social impact of hypocrisy I was thinking of the writing of later Iron Curtain dissidents especially Vaclav Havel, arguing that hypocrisy is what enabled Soviet type regimes to persist, because the fact that everyone hypocritically (and/or out fear) supports the regime serves to obscure the extent of dissatisfaction and dissent making dissidents think they are in the minority rather than a majority/plurality and if they realized this real reform and change would be possible(I mean Havel makes a bunch of other points some quite metaphysical but this is definitely a key idea in the Power of the Powerless)
As to studies I can’t find anything direct (I’m sure I’ve read some but citing the Journal of I-Read-It-Somewhere is never a good sign) though I think some of the work of people like Twenge on the rise of narcissism can make a case that a change from condemning behavior (even behavior that is fairly widespread) and out-right endorsing it can have dramatically different impacts on social mores.
On a fairly grim note there is a worrying chance we may all get to see the difference between a North America in which white supremacy is outwardly condemned by mainstream society and its advocates are forced to hypocritically pay at least lip service to racial equality (and use dog whistles however thin and the like) and one in which forthrightly advocating white supremacy is increasingly mainstreamed, over the next decade or so

As to the moral analysis of hypocritical versus forthrightly vicious agents it is complicated by the fact that in English we tend to equivocate between purely duplicitous hypocrisy and akratic or other more complicated types of hypocrisy. (Now I kind of want to write a paper on a taxonomy of hypocrisy)

It seems to me at least that in your example the hypocritical individual liberty proponent is preferable if only because they aren’t advocating for and thus persuading others of a pro-slavery position. Also at least in theory (all else being equal) it ought to be easier to persuade them to change their behavior since it contradicts their own principles (Though I’ll admit that this isn’t a position I’m that strongly committed to)Report

WorkingClassHero
WorkingClassHero
3 years ago

I think all of Professor Gerver’s points are valid and interesting, and I hate it when people make a competition between caring about race, gender, class, etc….. BUT but but…it’s fascinating how the blatant classicism of the paper just goes unmentioned by Professor Gerver. Those of us who come from working-class backgrounds have learned that our “forgetting” to think about social phenomena in terms of racism or sexism is not as innocent as we’d like to think. I don’t know about Professor Gerver’s background. But I hope the very *bourgeois* philosophy academia starts to acknowledge the constant pattern of “forgetting” about classicism and class prejudice, too. Report

Mollie Gerver
Reply to  WorkingClassHero
3 years ago

I agree with you completely: there are statements in the article that are classist, and classism in general is under-addressed and prevalent. But I actually found it difficult to dismantle any given classist statement, partly because they are so frustratingly amorphous. The most concrete claim was that there are ‘antisocial habits…prevalent among some working-class whites.’ It’s not clear what ‘antisocial’ or ‘prevalent’ means, so I struggled to demonstrate that this claim is false. I would be curious, though, to hear how you would go about dismantling the claims regarding class in the article. Report

Howard Doughty
Howard Doughty
Reply to  Mollie Gerver
3 years ago

I am always amused to read people such as Wax and Alexander trumpeting (so to speak) “bourgeois values,” but being reluctant to speak about the “proletariat,” the “lumpenproletariat” (the baggy pants” brigade?) and the emerging “precariat” of Walmart Associates, Adjuncts and aspirant Associate Professors in the new academic labor process, who are increasingly defining the “class structure” in “late capitalism.”

Bourgeois values and bourgeois privilege, like horses and carriages, “go together.” I cannot predict precisely what “dialectical” process will dissolve them both in a new synthesis, but I am confident that a return to the “good old days” when Andy Griffith was the Sheriff of the bucolic southern town of Mayberry – a place where no “Negroes” existed – is just not going to happen. Report

Daniel Restrepo
Daniel Restrepo
Reply to  WorkingClassHero
3 years ago

I’m a little confused about your comment. Gerver addresses poverty in her criticisms of points 1, 3, and 5. True, she doesn’t call it classicism, but to her credit she only uses the term “racism” once and she doesn’t use the term “sexism” at all, yet we can see that she is addressing the underlying problems of sexism and racism in society ignored by this article. Her criticisms at 1, 3 and 5 hit on important intersections of race, gender and class. It wasn’t just that sharecroppers were black but also poor; it isn’t just that birth control helps women control their body but also to avoid poverty; and the entire comment about poverty and the bourgeois culture seems to me to reach beyond just the problems of racism. I think Gerver did a good job of showing how these issues intersect, and I think we do our field a favor if we keep that sort of intersectionality in mind so we don’t see these as competing problems. Maybe I missed your point, but I’m not entirely certain what you were expecting?Report

WorkingClassHero
WorkingClassHero
Reply to  Daniel Restrepo
3 years ago

Thanks for both replies!
So, Wax and Alexander give us examples of bourgeois values:
“Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

First, it is not obvious how half of these values are bourgeois values. Do the working-class people value getting married and having children less than the bourgeois does? Are they less patriotic? And most mind-boggling: do we really want to say that the working class people are less likely to go the extra mile for their employer or client?

Second, when Wax and Alexander identify these values as characteristic of bourgeois, they are implying certain *ways* of understanding these values. Going to a fancy school and getting a fancy job is “working hard, and avoiding idleness”. But dropping out of high school to take care of your family is *not* working hard and avoiding idleness. Having 3 glasses of wine every night is not substance abuse, but drinking a 6 pack of Bud Light every night is substance abuse. Paying money to make your lawn look fancy is neighborly, but taking care of kids when parents are working in the trailer park is not neighborly…. Of course they did not say any of these things explicitly, but how else are we supposed to make sense of what they say? How else are we supposed to think that these values specifically characterize the bourgeois culture, but not the working class culture?

About the second comment: I think talking about the material condition of poverty is not the same thing as talking about class prejudice. Professor Gerver talks about poverty, and I especially like point number 5. Report

Daniel Restrepo
Daniel Restrepo
Reply to  WorkingClassHero
3 years ago

I absolutely agree with your response to Wax and Alexander. I mean, of course its classicist its called “bourgeois culture” and I think your points are spot on. I’d even add that being able to get educated is a certain class issue. I mean, the GI Bill helped educate a lot of working class people, but suppose someone were ineligible to serve because of a disability and was working class?

I’d argue that point 5 is not just about the material conditions of poverty but also prejudicial against working class people. The point reads: ‘Among those who currently follow the old precepts… poverty rates are low.’
I take that to presuppose that working class people are somehow responsible for their poverty for failing to live up to the bourgeois cultural expectations.

I think at a less obvious level dismissing the PIll as some sort of cultural failure is at minimum tone death regarding gender and class, and could arguably be classist. Report

WorkingClassHero
WorkingClassHero
Reply to  Daniel Restrepo
3 years ago

Right, your point about number 5 is well taken. I take back the original criticism that Professor Gerver’s piece does not mention class prejudice at all (apologies to professor Gerver!) … I do think that Wax and Alexander piece is outrageously classicist for calling those values “bourgeois” though.Report

Dale Miller
3 years ago

I’m a little confused by the first words of Gerver’s piece, “Law professor Amy Wax and philosopher Larry Alexander …. .” From what I see online, Alexander has an LLB and he does not appear on the USD philosophy web page. He has certainly worked on philosophical topics, and was apparently a philosophy major, but isn’t he more accurately described as a law professor as well? That’s how he represents himself in the op ed. Of course this is irrelevant to the substance of the piece, but with Justin’s reference to “disciplinary embarrassment” it might be worth being clear about which discipline’s pride is at stake. Report

C. Morris
C. Morris
Reply to  Dale Miller
3 years ago

A glance at Larry Alexander’s c.v. suggests that he is also a philosopher. Reading some of his articles will reveal that he is a very able philosopher.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
3 years ago

A) It seems like many other western nations got the pill, rock & roll and lost bourgeois culture without facing many of the ills that currently plague the US, which seems like a pretty major hole in the original articles’ argument, but that aside…
B) Assume the loss of bourgeois culture has caused much of society’s ills. Why was there a loss of bourgeois culture? Did we all just wake up and think that crippling debt, low education and opioid abuse sound like a good time? I think any theory about culture and the past few decades *really* needs to reference the graphs showing GDP/productivity increasing and real wages staying stagnant for decades e.g. http://www.finfacts.ie/cmsb/uploads/thumb/us_productivity_pay_gap_1973_2014_sept092015.jpg

Far more plausible would be that people were prevented from accessing important aspects of bourgeois culture (ie good jobs, education, stable housing etc) altogether so they gave up. The elites were the ones who changed the rules.

There’s this amazing video of a debate between Bush and Reagan from 1980 where they discuss illegal aliens, and they sound far more bleeding-heart-liberal than even many democrats today. The contrast with the current Republican party is breath taking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ixi9_cciy8w

Wanna talk about people not adopting bourgeois culture as the cause society’s ills? Then start with the bourgeois.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Edward Teach
3 years ago

I’m not sure what to make of either this comment or the original article – not least because many of the “ills” aren’t that bad, by historical standards or by comparison with other western nations (Spain, Italy, Greece?).

The “homicidal violence” plaguing inner cities is, of course, bad. It’s also at historical lows. New York City will shatter their record low for murders this year. It’s hard to see where the crippling debt is, since the debt-service to disposable income ratio in the U.S. is at all-time lows as well. Opioid abuse and home affordability are issues, but they’re issues of the recent recession. Pre-recession home ownership (10 years ago) was at record highs. The working-age-male participation rate is also, seemingly, a recession hangover – and is predominantly a white male phenomenon. Low education? College education is at all-time highs. And even in spite of the recession, Mckinsey did a study a couple of years ago concluding that at least 98% of households are financially better off now than in 2005.

And, it’s worth considering the (lack of) effectiveness of evaluating quality of life by looking only at real wages. Black life-expectancy has made huge strides in the last couple of decades, despite a) no big increases in black wealth, and b) healthcare policy not being especially geared towards positive outcomes for blacks.

The point is that, despite all the gnashing of teeth, this is a very good time for U.S. residents. Does no one remember the late 1980s? Not the good ol’ days. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

I’m not sure that this is the best venue in which to be debunking this piece, since nobody here seems to have found it remotely plausible in the first place.

I would, though, be interested to hear philosopher’s views on whether one culture can, in principle, be superior to another.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

I’m not sure that I have an argument (or believe) that, in principle, one culture can or cannot be better than another. But I think its relatively easy to see that many people, including many philosophers, act as if one culture can be better than another: anyone who acts to change their own culture, or professes to believe that their culture should be changed in some way, is probably best understood to be committed to the claim.

(There will be some counterexamples, for example those who would prefer to a certain kind of music was less prevalent, but don’t think anything of moral weight hangs on it. Setting those aside, I think we’re still left with quite a few people, on many different ends of the political spectrum, with many different normative and metanormative views.)

For example, those on the left who work to end rape culture presumably don’t think that if they were successful, the result would be a culture no better than our current one; and presumably many of those on the right would have no problem explicitly committing themselves to the claim.

In fact, I have a hard time seeing how someone could be a realist (even a reductive realist) about culture and a realist (even a reductive realist) about value and not think that it was at least possible for one culture to be better than another. (One option: maybe culture just isn’t the sort of thing that has value?)

I’m not at all convinced that any of this requires that we get an exact understanding of culture, moral value, or whatever else. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but I take it that I have a decent enough handle on the concept of culture to begin inquiring about it.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Start with moral objectivism. Add the thesis that cultures teach moral values, and that people within these cultures (by and large) learn what is taught and emulate it.

Then we have a recipe, with only two premises, that some cultures are morally superior to others. The morally superior cultures will be those who teach the values aligned with objective morality. It’s really not that complicated, and it doesn’t mean that we have to specify EXACTLY what we mean by “culture”. We just need to be sure that there are such things as cultures that promote values. I think it’s pretty obvious that there are.Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Am I missing something? I didn’t find anything objectionable in Wax and Alexander’s piece. In fact, it struck me as a truism. Not a trivial truism, but one worth hearing and remembering.

There was something admirable and conducive to greatness in the mainstream American culture of the 1950s. Of course, in the 1950s what Wax and Alexander call the virtues of “bourgeois” culture was made possible by entrenched inequality. But that doesn’t make the virtues any less of virtues. It just highlights what we might call Nietzche’s truth: what is great is never independent of what is horrible. It also sets up the Sisyphusian task: to keep trying to separate the great from the horrible.

I am tired of living in the 60s narrative that somehow all great things in American culture began in the 60s. Or that any great things before the 60s were things which lead to the cultural break in the 60s. It is entirely possible – and real – that many great things about the 50s were tossed aside by the hippies in the 60s because the hippies couldn’t separate the great and the horrible well enough – they threw the baby out with the bath water. To regain what was great about the 50s isn’t to embrace racism. But to regain what was good about the 50s which can be independent of the racism, sexism, and so on. Isn’t this after all what is done in every philosophy class where we read Kant and Hegel and Frege? So why can’t we do it with the 50s?

If liberals can’t hold this simple distinction in place, then even if Trump gets impeached, someone else will simply take his place. What the liberals need is a genuine self-criticism of the 60s, and what the 60s got wrong. A form of self-criticism beyond the “And this group was ignored in the liberation…”.Report

Rochelle DuFord
Rochelle DuFord
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Out of curiosity…what are some of those great things about the 50s, to your mind or the mind of the folks who liked this comment? I’m honestly curious about what people would like to bring back from the decade.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

From the article: “Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

This strikes me as right re the 50s. Not that, for example, one has to be married to have children, or that one has to stay married. But nonetheless there was a public affirmation of the virtue of marriage, and of struggling to keep it going. A great example of the Nietzschean truth: the 50s conception of marriage presupposed a lot of sexist structures. But to change those sexist structures we don’t have to ditch the 50s conception altogether. We can still say the 50s were valuable in one way, but not in another.

I get it: the 50s were boring and conformist. But, in a way, that is exactly the point: there are a lot of virtues which go into maintaining stablity. A lot of those people living in “ticky tack” houses followed rules and didn’t question racism, sexism enough. True. But it does still take a lot to keep a family going, to be patriotic in a good way, to respect authority, etc. And the thing is, none of this was unique to white culture in the 50s. This was also the culture of the Black church of MLK, or the Black mosques of Malcom X, as well as Mexican-American Catholic life, and so on.

In the 60s, the white traditional culture of the 50s was replaced by the white rock n roll rebellious culture; we went from valuing Eisenhower to valuing Mick Jagger, from conformism to rock stars getting drugged out, womenizing and destroying hotel rooms and partying on end for no reason. What would have happened if in the 60s we had embraced not white teenager culture but the adult, black culture of MLK? It is a sign of white institutional privilege that America preferred to treat white youth who can play music as role models rather than turn to the grounded, “boring” black leaders who valued many of the same things as the 50s.Report

Rochelle DuFord
Rochelle DuFord
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

I can see why people find the stability and security of the 50s desirable. I think, though, that there are legitimate disagreements about whether or not we can have that safety, security, and stability without all of the oppressive structures that created, enabled, and maintained it.

One clear example of how this works is considering the way that the millennial generation is the most highly educated generation in US history. This hasn’t actually amounted to better lives for most of us. Most of us will have material worse lives than our parents. A sloppy answer to this is that we are lazy or incorrigible or chose career paths poorly. But a better understanding of it takes into account the material conditions in which we received that education. It has amounted to large amounts of student debt…so much so, that we cannot buy houses or cars or afford to have children or to get married (even if we were to want those things). I’m also not sure why anyone today would go the extra mile for their employer, when wages haven’t seen real increases or kept up with the cost of living (despite increased productivity).

It is also worth thinking through why people miss a reliance on unquestioned authority and where that reliance originates and leads. The reliance on unquestioned authority was a cog in the machine that structured the 1950s US experience based on racist, sexist, heterosexist and imperialist structures. I’m not sure I would want us to go back to a model of life that relied on respecting authority–even if that didn’t mean, as it did in the 50s, respecting the authority of well to do white men.

There is also the matter of individuals just wanting their lives structured differently–as many people have always wanted. While there may be some magic to long term pair bonding, that doesn’t mean there is no magic in other human bonding relationships that have long been derided or would have been considered unthinkable in the 1950s. Marriage need not be the model of healthy, happy, and fulfilling human relationships. Perhaps we could take the germ of what is good in this and forward it, but that germ probably doesn’t come from the largely economic and political relation that we call state marriage (setting aside religious marriage, since you note ‘public’ value).

Certainly, there are some good values there. But the ones that are good are mostly timeless human values: be kind, be cooperative, help each other achieve worthwhile goals.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

All fair points. But in order to make the points you highlight, it’s not necessary to deny the 50s had good values which are worth emulating. I am not advocating for unquestioned authority, nor were in the article Wax and Alexander. What is at issue is simply the virtue of appreciating authority, as in thinking that parents might be role models in some ways even for adult children, or bosses for those below them, etc.

The key issue is the one in your first paragraph: how to have the stablity of the 50s without the oppressive structures of that time. But we can’t answer this without some appreciation for what about the 50s is worth keeping, and what perhaps has gotten lost in the revolutionary uproar since the 60s. We especially can’t answer it if the 50s is made synonymous with racism and conformity. Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

We also can’t answer that the stability of the 50s was due to the structures mentioned – maybe it simply happened along with them. The things mentioned by the authors – marriage stability, work ethic, etc. – were hardly unique to the 50s. They were certainly in place in the decades before that – tumultuous decades that included a depression and lots of war.

It’s as likely that the good times were the result of a booming export and manufacturing economy that was made possible because all the competitors were in ruins (Japan, Europe) or not developed (China).

The truth is that things like teen pregnancy rates have been falling for a long time, as have divorce rates and crime rates. We don’t seem to be wading through some cultural morass. Trying to draw causal conclusions here is fraught.

Finally, I find the “this generation will be worse off than its parents” claim frustrating, because again, it only seems to be made with regard to wages. It ignores systemic benefits that are technology driven. Healthcare is one example, ease of travel another, but here’s one more. To buy a new Honda Civic, you have to spend about the same percentage of the median household income today as you would have in 1980. Does that mean we’re no better off today than then. Only if you think a 2017 Honda Civic is no better than one from 1980 (which is ridiculous).Report

RD
RD
Reply to  ajkreider
3 years ago

I think that’s a totally fair critique of the claim that this generation is worse off than their parents. But, many of the things you cite that may make us better off require a certain amount of income that many people are unlikely to have (enough money to pay for health insurance or healthcare, for example–enough money to actually *use* the travel that is ‘available’). Full disclosure: I’m not among those who will be worse off than my parents because my parents were (and are) quite poor.

Also, while a new 2017 Honda Civic is undoubtedly more technologically advanced than it was in 1980, it is still just a way of getting from one place to another. So, in another sense, no…we aren’t any better off today than we would have been in 1980.Report

Led
Led
Reply to  RD
3 years ago

You are significantly more likely to do die in an accident in a 1980 Civic than in a 2017 Civic. Just sayin’. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

ajkreider, When speaking of the stability of the 50s, I am (and I imagine the authors are as well) using it as short hand for American society until the 50s, and not just that particular decade. Agree the prosperity of the 50s in particular has the causes you mention.

This connects to the issue of cultural superiority. It seems to me true that the culture of, say, America till the 50s was better suited to “an advanced economy” (in the author’s phrase) than that of, say, Indians in the 50s, or African-Americans in the 50s. India was just then discovering its sea legs of independence, and African-Americans were disenfranchised from ownership in that economy. So I have no problem at all saying that white American culture – and European culture – were better suited at that time to modern life. I don’t mind saying this because I don’t think it shows any thing essential about cultures in general.

Industrialization, cars, computers, etc. were discovered in the west, and so western societies had a head start in figuring out how to structure life with these innovations. Acknowledging this doesn’t put down blacks, or Indians or Native Americans. Technology is just tools, not culture in any racial or national sense. Same with even democracy and capitalism. So, yes, I do think that other cultures can learn something from pre 1960s America about how to live, and not live, a modern life, and what are some of the struggles. And this is somewhat orthogonal to issues of racism. We can still learn from Hume even though he was a racist, because the best in Hume is dealing with things re modernity that any person has to struggle with. The same can be said for American culture before the 60s. Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

“4.‘This era saw the beginnings of an identity politics that inverted the color-blind aspirations of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into an obsession with race, ethnicity, gender, and now sexual preference.’

It is not clear what is meant by ‘an obsession with race’. Clearly they do not mean a strong commitment to improving the rights of racial minorities, because that would mean Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also obsessed with race, and they do not think he was. Perhaps they mean that, today, individuals speak about race too much.”

I think what the authors mean is that Dr King wanted to move BEYOND race to a point where people were not “judged by the colour of their skin”, which is in contrast to today’s identity politics where racial identity is considered a to be a very significant aspect of one’s personhood that must be respected. So much so, in fact, that to aspire to “colour blindness” is considered to be a form of implicit racism because, it is thought, it fails to pay attention to, and therefore masks, racial biases and dispositions which are related to white supremacy. An obvious point that backs the authors here is our current obsession with gender: one’s gender identity is now considered such a fundamental and important aspect of one’s self that it has reached the level of the sacred. Instead of trying to look past the identities that people choose to express or a socially marked with, we must now ritually acknowledge, affirm and celebrate them.

I am not saying that the authors are correct to lament this state of affairs. Just attempting to give a plausible reading of what they mean. I think the analysis published above misunderstood them on this point.Report

Mollie Gerver
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

If an ‘obsession with race’ means opposition to being ‘colour blind’, and being colour blind reinforces racial biases, and racial biases entail judging people by the colour of their skin, then an ‘obsession with race’ follows from MLK’s goal of not judging people by the colour of their skin. If that’s the case, the norms of today is not so different from the norms MLK supported. Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Mollie Gerver
3 years ago

I suspect that the part of your proposition that the authors disagree with is “being colour blind reinforces racial biases”. I think that they are arguing that affirming individual’s or one’s own racial identity is what further mires us in racism, and that not affirming individual’s or one’s own racial identity is the proper way to overcome racism. Their interpretation of MLK is that he would agree with that. Perhaps there are meaningful differences between “acknowledgment” and “affirmation”. Report

Mollie Gerver
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

That is a good point. Perhaps acknowledging a person’s racial identity entails merely acknowledging that they may have been disadvantaged because of their racial identity, but affirming entails something else. And perhaps Wax and Alexander are, indeed, merely claiming that affirming racial identity mires us in racism. If this is true, they seem to be making three claims without any argumentation or evidence: (a) the claim that affirming racial identity mires us in racism (b) the claim that the 1940s and to mid-1960s was all about not affirming racial identity; and (c) the claim that MLK never supported blacks affirming their racial identity. Though I agree that my interpretation of the phrase ‘obsessed with race’ could have been more charitable.Report

SD
SD
3 years ago

I’m of two minds about all this. My parents pulled themselves up from really pretty desperate poverty (they didn’t have running water or electricity in some of the places they grew up) and having the so called “bourgeois virtues” were a lot of how they did so. But on the other hand for those virtues to have any point for them to even really be virtues in the sense that they benefit the person who has them, they need to be rewarded. So they presuppose a certain social contract: Get a good education and you will get ahead. Go the extra mile for your employer or client and they will do the same for you. That’s all broken down though. Most employers have absolutely no loyalty to their employees these days. If your employer pays you the minimum amount they can and will fire you the second that doing so helps their bottom line, then it’s not virtuous to go the extra mile for them. Rather it’s letting yourself be exploited. And if your employer is trying to exploit you, then doing the bare minimum you can is I would argue the more virtuous course of action than going the extra mile since it shows due self-respect. Or take education. If getting an education is a route to better things then of course it’s virtuous to do so. But if education won’t be rewarded then again it’s not so virtuous to go off to school and rack up debt. In fact, it’s foolish and not a good use of resources. The same considerations go for patriotism as well. For it to be any kind of virtue it has to be the case that your country really is looking out for people like you.
I suspect that’s why many of the groups that the authors disparage never bought into these virtues to the extent that middle class white people did: They never paid off for them. And I suspect it’s why working class whites are abandoning them since it’s getting to the point that they don’t pay off for them either. (I rather doubt that someone in my hometown, which is pretty deep in Appalachia, could pull themselves up the way my parents did in the current economic environment. In fact, my friends and relatives who’ve stayed there have struggled to even stay in the same place, much less get ahead, and many of them have the virtues Wax and Alexander laud to a very high degree.) Liberals are I think wrong to blithely dismiss any and all cultural factors in questions of poverty, but to pretend that it’s all cultural factors, or even that cultural factors can be separated from the wider economic background, as right-wingers like Wax and Alexander like to do is a bunch of self-serving nonsense.Report

Charles Littlewood
Charles Littlewood
3 years ago

+One of our greatest living philosophers comments on this fuss here, item “05 — Let’s hear it for bourgeois norms”.

http://www.vdare.com/radios/radio-derb-witch-hunt-bad-people-making-trouble-amy-wax-and-bourgeois-norms-etc#05Report

Daniel Restrepo
Daniel Restrepo
3 years ago
Led
Led
3 years ago

Is it just me or are the sentences in this op-ed really quite easy to understand and parse, contrary to Gerver’s faux-uncomprehending “closer look”? There’s lots of room for robust criticism here – actually that’s too weak: there’s lots of room for regarding this op-ed as a simplistic piece of fluff – for one thing, it takes for granted the compatibility of “bourgeouis” family life and communal norms with advanced international capitalism – but Weinberg’s amateur rhetorical analysis is not persuasive to anybody who isn’t already on the “side of the angels” here: op-eds are not scholarly papers, surprise! And academics write post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc, confirmation bias-ridden op-eds daily with no blowback from their colleagues – speaking of confirmation bias, is there any reason whatsoever to think, as Weinberg implies, that this piece, even if it is all those things, would have been widely circulated and panned regardless of its topic and political valence? Please.

Gerver’s “closer look” is not a substantive refutation: it’s a casual and uneven response with almost no interpretive charity.

“There is no evidence that expanded education contributed to antiauthoritarianism”
First, that’s not even what they said – they pegged increased access to *higher ed* as one of several contributing cause to the spread of anti-authoritarian ideology. Last time I checked there was a major phenomenon of campus-based movements in the 60s with significant cultural effects. That that movement was larger rather than smaller surely *contributed* to those cultural effects.

“Perhaps Wax and Alexander merely mean that individuals acted with more ‘neighbourliness, charity, civic-mindedness’ in general, even if limited to members of their own ethnicity.”
[Yeah, exactly. And that’s not a new or out-there thesis. See Robert Putnam, etc.] “But there is little evidence of this either. The non-profit sector has increased dramatically since the 1960s and individuals give roughly the same percentage of their income to charity today as they did in the 1950s.”
[So charitable giving is the only/best evidence of neighborliness and civic-mindedness?? Especially if you are on the left this is a really weird thing to assume. And it makes no sense as a response to analyses like Putnam’s, which look at a much wider range of communal activity than cutting a check for a charity.]
“And while it is true that people spend less time with their neighbours today, this is likely because they can leave their neighbourhoods more easily, given the increase in car ownership since the 1950s.”
[So what follows from that? At most, that other factors besides ideological ones also undermined communal closeness.]

Others have already pointed out that their reference to MLK, Jr., while of course disputable, is not hard to understand: the “content of their character” and all that.

Similarly, Gerver simply points out that “no evidence is provided” [in an op-ed – shocker!] to demonstrate the claim that those who follow the precepts mentioned have a low poverty rate. But that’s widely available, clearly established, and much publicized stuff. Two seconds of Googling turns up studies to that effect, think-tank papers, etc. Of course the op-ed won’t convince those who are persuaded that the political and economic factors, as well as persisting oppression in various forms, explains the “cultural script” presence or absence, rather than vice versa.

Really I’m so tired of smart people pretending not to understand other (perhaps slightly less smart) people, substituting a pose of incomprehension for an admission that those other people see complex parts of the world differently than they do. Report

Benedict
Benedict
Reply to  Led
3 years ago

‘“no evidence is provided” [in an op-ed – shocker!]’
vs
‘it’s a casual and uneven response’ [in a blog – shocker!]

I think you need to be more consistent in your charitable treatment of short, fun-to-read pieces on the internet. Clearly this isn’t a formal refutation, but an attempt to demonstrate the weakness in many of Wax and Alexander’s claims, without casting their claims as sexist or racist as other response pieces have done.

It seems that you are familiar with some of the possible evidence and clarifications that might have made Wax and Alexander’s piece more meaningful – I certainly was not, prior to your post, and found Wax and Alexander as unclear as Gerver did. Without any references or clarifications to their meaning, it is difficult to constructively engage with Wax and Alexander’s claims without making inferences that may be imperfect, and it seems Gerver did a reasonable job conveying this difficulty.

However, even with your context, it seems the response piece is still reasonable and consistent, if incomplete. Putnam, for instance, seems not to discuss “civic-mindedness” but social capital and participation rates in social activities. “Civic-mindedness” is “actively carrying out one’s concern for the condition and affairs of one’s community” – not participation in sporting clubs. Charitable participation rates seem a reasonable proxy for “one’s concern for the condition … of one’s community” to at least demonstrate that Wax and Alexander’s claim is not as obviously true as they suggest.

“Gerver simply points out that “no evidence is provided” … that those who follow the precepts mentioned have a low poverty rate” – here you seem to be wilfully misinterpreting Gerver. The rebuttal is to the claim that these precepts _cause_ the low poverty rate, since correlation does not imply causation. Gerver seems to assume here that the empirical claim of correlation is valid.

“So what follows from that? At most, that other factors besides ideological ones also undermined communal closeness” – this is a reasonable criticism, as it is not fully explored (to be charitable, one would assume this is for not wanting to produce a polemic). One would assume the point is that time spent with neighbours is not a good proxy for how “neighbourly” an individual is – when circumstances forced more time spent with neighbours, more time was spent with them; that time may not have been typified by the traits associated with “neighbourliness” – and there is limited evidence to suggest this. Furthermore, geographical proximity is only a portion of the meaning of neighbourliness, and none of its synonyms carry this part of the meaning. If the qualities of neighbourliness are now being practiced further-afield due to improved transport, it is not clear this means a decline in society, and if this is indeed the claim it needs to be made explicit, and some justification provided.
Report

Mollie Gerver
Reply to  Led
3 years ago

I agree that charitable-giving is not the best method of establishing neighbourliness and civic-mindedness. It is, rather, one of the best methods of establishing charitableness, one of the properties which Wax and Alexander claim was more prevalent in the 1950s. That is what I was responding to. As for neighbourliness: people were more friendly to their neighbours in the 1950s if their neighbours were of the same ethnicity. That doesn’t feel very neighbourly. Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Wax has done a dialogue with Glenn Loury on the op-ed and the backlash.
https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/47423

Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Coming to this late, but:

From Justin’s OP:
“The second lesson is: if you are an academic who is planning on writing some evidence-free, bias confirming, post hoc ergo propter hoc-ing editorial in a public venue, expect to be called out for it by your colleagues, both on your substantive claims (see the guest post, below) and also for the general impression of causing institutional and disciplinary embarrassment [link].”

I’m not entirely sure what’s involved in calling out someone for “the general impression of causing institutional and disciplinary embarrassment”, but I assume it’s intended to mean something like: this article is not just wrong or badly argued, but violates basic scholarly norms. (I can imagine wanting to call an author out for plagiarism, or reckless disregard of sources, or dishonesty.) But that’s a very strong remedy. It’s clear from the discussion here and elsewhere that people differ widely in their take on Wax and Alexander’s op-ed, but it seems quite a stretch to argue that it fails some basic standard of scholarship (particularly for the standards appropriate to an op-ed!)

The casual move from “this article is wrong in ways XYZ”, through “this article violates basic scholarly and disciplinary norms”, to “the authors of this article are an embarrassment to the profession” is dangerous to academic freedom and free speech. As can be seen from the link that Justin includes, I assume approvingly, in his OP after the phrase “institutional and disciplinary embarrassment”. The author of the linked article doesn’t just criticize Wax and Alexander’s scholarship. He calls for them to be fired.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

I meant to add: this is entirely a comment on the OP’s introduction. It’s not a comment on Professor Gerver’s guest post, which seems entirely appropriate (irrespective of what one thinks about the merits or demerits of the original Wax/Alexander article).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

Understood, thanks for clarifying.Report