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Phil-osophically Speaking - November 27, 2009

As the most successful multicultural society in history, America allows us to directly experience the strengths and possibilities of a pluralistic culture. But there also exists, in the milieu of diversity, the element of division and fragmentation that create differences difficult to bridge.

This is especially true when, socio-economically, trends suggest that instead of moving away from what divides us we are moving into the maw of a more sustained and divisive disunity. Class politics, based on hard economic realities, is the fault line of American democracy.

During the American Revolution, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, an emigrant from France, published “Letters from an American Farmer” in which he marveled at the “mixture of blood” of all the different ethnicities that existed nowhere else: “These Americans were not bound by ancient prejudices but individuals that melted into a new national identity —- a new race of men.”

The unifying ideals of democracy, tolerance and equal protection under the law were the connective tissue binding Americans. America was not about bloodlines but a Creed, E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, one.” The language of the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary because it proclaimed, “All men are created equal” —- and not just all Englishmen. America’s birth was not a partial injunction on human rights, but a universal annunciation with worldwide implications.

These lofty ideals did not insulate the United States from the pressures of having peoples of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages, settling in the same nation and all living under a single, sovereign government. The rattlesnake of slavery and then the malodorous Jim Crow Laws lurked menacingly in the tall grass of American politics. Moreover, xenophobic tendencies bristled during the first waves of mass immigration as an essentially Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation recoiled from foreigners whose patriotism they viewed with skepticism. The 19th century exclusionary laws against Chinese immigrants and “No Irish need apply” pinpointed national anxieties, even as these groups built transcontinental railroads that became the colossus of America’s economic infrastructure.

But these prejudices were obviated by assimilation and upward mobility that occurred, not infrequently, within a span of a generation. For this reason perpetual antagonisms never took root because the children and grandchildren of immigrants would become so part of the social fabric that the ways of the old world (including the native language) were either treated with benign neglect or, completely discarded.

Today’s melting pot, however, is not melting everybody as this nation of individuals is increasingly bollixed as a nation of sweeping, self-conscious, competing ethnicities. The upshot is a fever swamp that magnifies differences, stirs hostility and cripples individual initiative. Instead of climbing the economic ladder, significant segments of our population remain insular and economically disadvantaged despite hundreds of billions of public monies spent on social and educational programs. Moreover, this gap has very little to do with the legacy of white racism and a great deal to do with the breakdown of social structures in various communities.

This is hardly a novel diagnosis. Back in the mid-1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in uncompromising language, authored a study that combusted into a full-blown controversy regarding the evaporation of the nuclear family: “There is one,” wrote Moynihan, “unmistakable lesson in American history. A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future —- that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Last Father’s Day, President Obama, in his best speech yet, echoed those very sentiments. The president stated that children who grow up without fathers are 5 times more likely to commit crimes, 9 times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. Moreover, the poverty rate among married couples with families is 5 times less than families headed by single females —- a modern day phenomenon known as the “feminization of poverty.”

While Obama and Moynihan were mostly addressing the African-American community, alarming numbers regarding the Hispanic community have recently come to the forefront: In 1980, 23.6 percent of Hispanic births were out of wedlock; in 1990, 36.7 percent; in 2000, 42.7 percent and in 2008 the number has grown to more than 50 percent.

These are lacerating statistics; high voltage numbers that virtually guarantee that poverty will be self-perpetuating and intergenerational. It will fuel racial and ethnic resentments as children of the more affluent will have, in the marketplace and elsewhere, ever greater advantages over children of the urban poor. A single-parent family, whatever the ethnicity, is inherently disadvantageous to a child’s future.

In 1940, out-of-wedlock births constituted 3.5 percent of all births in the U.S. That number has now exceeded 40 percent for the overall population. Among the urban poor, out-of-wedlock births exceed 70 percent while it is less than 4 percent for the affluent. This means fertility rates are shrinking in higher income groups and growing among the lower.

Scholars are embroiled in a collage of theories regarding the nature of this permissiveness, but it is clear that behaviors that become more acceptable also become more widespread. Widespread behaviors are habit-forming; habit-forming tendencies become a way of life; a way of life morphs into a culture and culture, even more than personality, is hard to change.

Poverty is more than a material condition; it is also a frame of mind, an attitude, and a lifestyle.  There are reasons for it and behaviors that cause it. If the entire U.S Treasury were sunk into anti-poverty programs, it would, I’m convinced, fail to cure inveterate poverty. Some solutions cannot come from without, only from within. This is a challenge in a society whose growing secularization and materialism invites unreflective, self-gratification.

There are physical laws such as the turning of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, the change of seasons. Nature’s clockwork is intricate and immutable. But there are also laws, just as unchangeable, that govern the spirit of man, the stability of societies and human progress.  

In the frenzy for unbounded self-liberation, individualized ethics forgot the importance of human experience, tradition and community of which the most basic and important tie is the family. Today, as if it were Silly Putty, we willfully play with the family’s natural boundaries by ignoring it, truncating it and parodying it —- but we do so at our own peril.     

Will Durant, who co-authored with his wife, the magnificent 10 volume history of the world understood, better than most, that freedom had to be tempered with obedience. He, too, had once been a reactionary who heard the voice of freedom against authority, of the child against the parent, the pupil against the teacher, of men against the state. But now, in 1963, at the dawn of the “Age of Aquarius,” he began to reflect as only a man in his eighties could. And as he reflected, he lamented:

 “I shared in that individualistic revolt. I do not regret it; it is the function of youth to defend liberty and innovation, of the old to defend order and tradition. But now that I too am old, I wonder whether the battle I fought was not too completely won … Have we too much freedom? Have we so long ridiculed authority in the family, discipline in education, rules in art, decency in conduct, and respect for tradition that our liberation has brought us close to chaos in the family and the school, in morals, arts, ideas and Government? We forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves free.”