Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, has been getting a lot of buzz, and for good reason: Murray presents an important and provocative thesis about the growing disconnect in values between America’s richest and poorest citizens, a rising “cultural inequality”:
Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.
The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it. That “something” has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.
The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.
The upper and lower classes may be pulling away from each other, and living in two different American subcultures, but there is world of experience they continue to share: that of popular culture. I find in interesting that Murray thinks that the elites should start practicing what they preach because one set of elites, those in Hollywood, have turned the experience of being in the bottom 30 percent into a kind of stardom. Think of the MTV shows 16 and Pregnant and True Life, or these prison reality shows, or movies that glorify the experience of being unemployed, unmarried, and lazy—of being a slacker—like The Big Lebowski and Step Brothers. Then there are shows like Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, Maury, etc, which are fueled by the “coming apart” of the bottom 30 percent; they dramatize single parenthood, paternity tests, family dissolution, drug use, criminality, unemployment, etc.
In the case of the television shows I mentioned, they may have been conceived as cautionary tales—look what happens when you get pregnant out of wedlock—or, more likely, they were created to appeal to the culture’s lowest common denominator, that part in many of us that wants to read the tabloids when no one is looking or can’t help but watch the car crash (metaphorical or literal). Regardless, they have turned their subjects into celebrities, aggrandizing their less-than-exemplary experiences by the simple act of televising them to millions of viewers. The Big Lebowski, which is admittedly a hilarious and entertaining movie, has a cult-like following. But its antihero, the Dude, is a jobless slacker who does drugs, bowls, and ends up tangled up in crime.
If the upper class is to practice what it preaches, the pop culture is a good place to start. “Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms,” Murray writes. That sounds like an awfully moralistic and righteous message for television, film, and music. But is it, truly?
Maybe not. Take the show Modern Family. It’s the perfect example of “married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids.” And it’s a hit, which shows there’s a market—a yearning—for this kind of TV. Everybody Loves Raymond is another show in this vein, as was Family Matters, one of my regular childhood watches, which is about a middle-class African-American family from Chicago. In fact, there’s a whole history of comedies that celebrate American values: I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Honeymooners, and more recently, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which bridges the cultural gap that Murray writes about, albeit in black America, not white. The show is about an African-American teenager (Will Smith) from inner-city Philadelphia. At the prodding of his mother, who wants him to have a better life, he moves in with his wealthy uncle (a judge), aunt, and cousins in Los Angeles, where he absorbs their family values and ethic of hard work.
This theme was covered in an excellent essay by Modern Family co-producers Brad Walsh and Paul Corrigan titled “The American Dream: Twenty Two Minutes at a Time.” The essay is in the book Acculturated, and here is a short excerpt:
. . . sitcoms reﬂect something unique about Americans and American culture. We are an aspirational people—just like our favorite sitcom characters. In life, we’re aware that repeated failure can be a deterrent; it can undermine our sense of purpose. It can defeat even the most entrepreneurial among us. But in comedy it doesn’t have to be that way. Failure is something to laugh off, to forget. Tomorrow will be another day . . .
Sitcoms, whether we’re writing them or watching them, bring Americans a certain degree of comfort. While our worlds are in constant motion—particularly thanks to modern technology—and we often feel as though the rug could be pulled from under us at any moment, sitcoms promise stability. The characters will largely behave the same from week to week. The sets will not change much and neither will the setups. That they’re on at the same time every week is even a way to mark time. They’re a reason to gather with family and friends on a set schedule.
But the fact that the characters are always trying to break out of that world—that Ralph Kramden is always trying to be a better husband, that Michael Scott is always trying to be a better boss—to bring about some fundamental change is touching. One man’s aspiration is another one’s inspiration.
So . . . maybe it’s not all bad news after all.
For more on America’s current fixation with matters of class, check my post, “The Two Faces of Class: From OWS to Downton Abbey.”