In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.
America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:
“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”
That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!
As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.
The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.
The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.
Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”
Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.
But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.