FIRST THINGS – Success Is Not Dignity

THE  PUBLIC SQUARE  –  First Things Editorial Pages

By R. R. Reno

Success Is Not Dignity

1           Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam is worried about America. He should be. As Charles Murray put it in the title of his important book, we’re coming apart. (I wrote about Coming Apart in the March 2012 issue: “The One Percent.”) Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, tells pretty much the same story, but he slices the American population differ­ently. Putnam divides society into the college-educated over and against those with a high-school diploma or less. This is a rough but useful distinction between today’s haves and have-nots. The evidence of a growing divide is clear. And not just clear, but familiar to anyone who has been paying attention over the past couple of decades.

Money? The less educated make less money and are less wealthy, and they’re much more likely to feel finan­cially stressed. Divorce? It’s twice as frequent among the less educated. Illegitimacy? Nearly seven times as likely. Single parenthood? Same. Rates of imprisonment? Same. Unemployment? Same. Church? The less educated are less likely to attend. He doesn’t give statistics on drug use, alcoholism, diabetes, and other dysfunctions, but, again, they also affect those lower down on the social scale far more than those higher up.

In his widely read book Bowling Alone (2000), Putnam popularized the notion of social capital, meaning the so­cial assets we have that help us navigate through life. In Our Kids, he looks at data on social trust, breadth of so­cial networks, even the number of friends. One does not need a degree in sociology to anticipate that a population more likely to be imprisoned, use drugs, divorce, and have children out of wedlock will lack social capital. And this is in fact what his research shows.

Putnam is too politically correct to state the blunt truth bluntly, but the details of Our Kids say it again and again: College-educated people are largely functional, while less-educated people are increasingly dysfunctional. There are two Americas. We’re coming apart.

Putnam reports on the implications of the Great Diver­gence for children. It will come as no surprise to readers that the children of dysfunctional people tend to have a hard time in life, while the children of functional peo­ple tend to have an advantage. Dysfunctional parents give their children less time and are more likely to ne­glect and even abuse them. The children live in run-down neighborhoods that have little sense of community. They do more poorly in schools that have less rigorous course-work and more discipline problems. They’re less likely to go on to college and are vastly less likely to graduate. They have more difficulty finding steady employment.

Put simply, and again in a politically incorrect way, the children of dysfunctional people tend to be dysfunctional, which means kids at the bottom of society are only too likely to stay at the bottom.

Our Kids is also full of stories, both of kids fortunate enough to be born to college-educated parents who con­form to the neo-bourgeois standards of the upper middle class, and of those born into the increasingly large un­derclass. The differences are stark. The suffering of those born in bad circumstances anguishes any sensitive reader. It certainly anguished me.

Yet I was also irked, though not for the reasons others have objected to Putnam’s analysis. Some reviewers on the left have attacked Putnam for failing to zero in on the way in which “financial capitalism” and the selfishness of the rich is at the root of all these problems. Where is class politics in this book on class? Those on the right have complained he does not properly blame the deregulation of sex and the general trend to moral relativism that has de­pleted the social capital of the poor. Still others complain that Putnam paints too rosy a picture of 1950s America, a period of relative middle-class equality from which he thinks we have fallen, downplaying the the racism and sexism of that era.

But I did not have these criticisms in mind as I read Our Kids. By and large, Putnam strikes the right balance. It’s absurd to think that the dra­matic economic changes wrought by economic globalization (or “financial capitalism,” if you prefer) haven’t eroded working-class culture. Creative de­struction may promote economic growth, but it can be hell on actual communities. It’s also ridiculous to deny that feminism and the sexual revolution exploded the social norms that once brought order and dignity to working-class communities. One of the greatest spiritual failures of my lifetime has been the self-righteous refusal of feminists, gay activists, and assorted multiculturalists to acknowl­edge the heavy price poor and vulnerable people have paid for their cherished freedoms.

No, I was not irked by Putnam’s refusal to identify the “bad guys.” Instead, what troubled me was his implicit view of human flourishing. We read that bad family back­grounds limit “one’s ultimate economic success,” and that the growing dysfunction of the working class threatens the American dream of “upward socioeconomic mobil­ity.” What do the doleful charts about illegitimacy and other pathologies tell us? “More single parents means less upward mobility,” while “affluent neighborhoods boost academic success.” Our biggest problem is an “opportunity gap.”

I’m all for upward mobility. It’s surely a boon for chil­dren to advance further in education, make more money, and live in nicer houses than their parents did. It makes the inevitable inequalities of our society (any society) more palatable when the rising tide lifts all boats.

But to speak of “success” and upward mobility in the context of the lives of today’s growing underclass seems almost obscenely narrow and impoverished. Those who live in the dysfunctional world of today’s poor and en­dure its misery suffer from a moral and spiritual poverty more primitive than a lack of “opportunity.” Economic and academic “success” are upper-middle-class preoccu­pations. A good college, a rewarding career? That’s what we want for our kids, to be sure. But this sort of focus is largely a luxury. And like so many luxuries, it can seduce and bewitch us.

any of the subjects interviewed by Putnam’s team see as much. Andrew is an eighteen­ year-old in Bend, Oregon, who has every advantage. His father is financially successful. His mom stayed at home during his childhood. He went to a good school. He’s off to college and undoubtedly hopes to be successful. But he senses that climbing the ladder isn’t of first importance, and his life goal isn’t “success.” He gestures toward something more basic: “The first thing that would be good for me would be if I could build a home and have a family. Hopefully I will meet somebody that’s like my best friend, and then give my kids close to the same as what I had.” And what did he get that he wants to give to his children? “My dad always reminds me every day how much my mom and dad love me.” This is something very precious, and it’s not upward mobility.

David is roughly the same age as Andrew. His father is in prison. His mother moved out when he was an infant. Both have revolving-door relationships with alcoholic and drug-addicted partners. Half-brothers and half-sisters are born and neglected. His girlfriend gets pregnant, leaves him, and moves in with a drug addict. He feels he’s reached a dead end. In his darkness he does not think of “success.” Instead, he tries to take care of his neglected half-siblings, and his daughter. “I love being a dad,” he says. Despite having gotten next to nothing from those who brought him into the world, he too wants to give.

Elijah is a young black man in Atlanta. His childhood was brutal, painful. His life has been violent. He says, “I just love beating up somebody.” Yet he does not come across as a monster, because he sees himself clearly, and he does not like what he sees. “I don’t want to go that route now.” He goes to work and to church, “just trying to be a good all-around American citizen.” He seeks decency. Again, this is a precious thing, and it’s not “success.”

I don’t wish to denigrate Putnam’s concern. As its title indicates, Our Kids is a book written to call us—the well-to-do, the upper third—to see the poor as fellow citizens whose burdens we should share. It’s the right call to issue. But utilitarian, individualistic, meritocratic assumptions dominate his analysis.

To a great degree this impoverishment is forced on him by contemporary social science. It can’t see social institutions like marriage, family, neighborliness, and ed­ucation as goods in themselves. They are goods because they have positive utility functions, which are cashed out in terms of how conducive they are to “success.” Read to your kids at night because it will help their brains develop more fully!

As I read the many gut-wrenching stories in Our Kids of poor young Americans who live without stability, without anything resembling a home life, without adults who are responsible enough to take care of them—without love—it became more and more painful to see Putnam worrying that all this means that, to an ever-greater extent, not ev­erybody has an equal opportunity “to get ahead.”

Being poor at any time and in any place has al­ways been hard. But for many in the past, per­haps most, it could be decent and dignified. Putnam’s own stories of Port Clinton, his home­town, show us as much. He tells of Jesse, a black schoolmate he had growing up. Jesse’s parents had fled the brutal racist system in the South. Neither was educated beyond primary school. Both did menial work. Theirs was a hard life we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet, two genera­tions ago, they gave Jesse what Andrew and David want to give. They embodied the decency Elijah seeks.

Today, self-giving and decency are remote ideals for many poor people in America. Basic human dignity seems out of reach for those on the bottom of society. Raised in an environment of moral chaos, David lacks the discipline and self-possession—lacks the basic context of family sta­bility—to give himself to those whom he loves. This is the great crisis of our time, not the lack of upward mobility.

I don’t want to discount the role of poverty. Being be­hind on credit-card payments, losing your job because your car breaks down and you can’t get to work on time, feeling as though the world of opportunity has passed you by—all these and more can be hammer blows on the soul. If rich people are more likely to divorce when a spouse loses a job or piles up debt, the relentless financial battering the poor endure is surely a contributing factor to their dysfunctional lives. But we need to be clear about our brother’s burdens if we are to carry them. Today, the poor lack social capital first and foremost, not financial capital. They are spiritu­ally impoverished more than educationally disadvantaged.

Economic and educational reforms may be necessary. But they won’t address the deeper problem. We have to face the dark fact that over the past fifty years we’ve waged a cultural war on the weak. In the 1950s, when Putnam was growing up, a too common racism dogged the life of his classmate Jesse. But the larger culture supported Jesse’s parents in their main goal, which was to raise their son to be a dignified man: sober, law-abiding, honest, hard­working, faithful to his wife, devoted to his children, and God-fearing. That’s no longer true.

Or at least no longer true for those born poor. As Putnam points out, today’s America has become rigorous­ly segregated. The functional people insulate themselves and their children from the dysfunctional people. Im­bued with a therapeutic ethos that softens the rigors they impose on themselves and their children (drug use and sexual license are “unhealthy,” not wrong) and cowed by multiculturalism, today’s rich won’t speak up for a com­mon culture. Instead, they quietly and covertly pass on their social capital to their children in gated communities and class-segregated schools that celebrate diversity and “inclusion” while forming the young people into the rigid molds of the meritocracy.

0n occasion I’ve spoken up at conferences and meetings, arguing that the prefer­ential option for the poor today means social conservatism (again, not only, but certainly at least). It means policies that punish divorce and reward marriage. It means getting serious about limiting pornography and resisting the temptation to legalize drugs. It means affirming gen­der roles that encourage men to act like gentlemen and women like ladies. It means having the courage to use the word “sin.” Most of all it means fighting against the One Percent’s almost complete conscription of the cultural conversation to serve its own interests. (What could be more One Percent than gay marriage and efforts to break the “glass ceiling”?)

The reaction is almost always one of horror. I’m “blam­ing the victim” or “imposing my white male values.” I’ve come to see that it’s not the victims that most progressives care about. The well-to-do like the way the therapeutic, nonjudgmental culture works for them. It keeps the public domain open and flexible and forgiving, which is conve­nient for those of us who have the social capital that allows us to keep our footing when we screw up. Why should the functional people who succeed today give this up?

The rich almost always want to keep as much of what they have as they can. So perhaps what I need to advocate is a more progressive view of our cultural politics. Just as we have a progressive tax system committed to redis­tribution, we should have a progressive cultural system in which the meritocracy that now rules has to accept a higher rate of moral rigor so that we can redistribute its benefits to the rest of society.

First Things, R. R. Reno, May-June Issue, Page 2-5.


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Our Father, when we long for life without trials and work without difficulties,
remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and
diamonds are made under pressure.
With stout hearts may we see in every mishap an opportunity and
not give way to the pessimism that sees in every
opportunity a calamity…

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery. Today is a gift, which is our reason for calling it “the present!””

Most of us will never do great things  but each of us can do small things in a great way.

Do not fear tomorrow. God is already there.


Humans judge by the success of our efforts.
God looks at the efforts.

Life is like a game of tennis:
the player who serves well seldom loses.

Loving someone is seeing them the way God intended.

God, grant us the light of Christmas, which is faith; the warmth of Christmas, which is love and the radiance of Christmas, which is purity.

A day hemmed in prayer seldom unravels

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when He is silent.

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

In God’s kingdom, the only way up is down. To become great in His kingdom, become the least – the servant of all.

He who wants milk should not sit on a stool in the middle of a pasture waiting for a cow to back up.

One of God’s arrangements is that, after winter, there should come beautiful spring and summer days. It happens every year. And it happens in every life.

There is nothing as strong as gentleness, or as gentle as true strength.

Lord, let my actions be prayer in motion:  silent, effective, and born of love.


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