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That American life has coarsened over the past several decades is not much argued, but the nature of the beast is still in question. Gertrude Himmelfarb sees it as a struggle between competing elites, in which the left originated a counterculture that the right failed to hold back. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has given us the phrase “defining deviancy down,” to describe a process in which we change the meaning of moral to fit what we are doing anyway. I wish to add a third voice to the mix, that of the late historian Arnold Toynbee, who would find our recent history no mystery at all: We are witnessing the proletarianization of the dominant minority.
The language and thought are drawn from a chapter of “A Study of History,” entitled “Schism in the Soul,” in which Toynbee discusses the disintegration of civilizations. He observes that one of the consistent symptoms of disintegration is that the elites–Toynbee’s “dominant minority”–begin to imitate those at the bottom of society. His argument goes like this:
The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along through mimesis, “a mechanical and superficial imitation of the great and inspired originals.” In a disintegrating civilization, the creative minority has degenerated into elites that are no longer confident, no longer setting the example. Among other reactions are a “lapse into truancy” (a rejection, in effect, of the obligations of citizenship), and a “surrender to a sense of promiscuity” (vulgarizations of manners, the arts, and language) that “are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of `proletarianization.'”
That sounds very much like what has been happening in the U.S. Truancy and promiscuity, in Toynbee’s sense, are not new in America. But until a few decades ago they were publicly despised and largely confined to the bottom layer of Toynbee’s proletariat — the group we used to call “low-class” or “trash,” and which we now call the underclass. Today, those behaviors have been transmuted into a code that the elites sometimes imitate, sometimes placate, and fear to challenge. Meanwhile, they no longer have a code of their own in which they have confidence.
A small example will illustrate the broader phenomenon. In 1960, four-letter words were still unknown in public discourse. Among the elites, they were used sparingly even in private. Free use of vulgar language among adults was declasse. Now switch to the fall of 2000 and a Sports Illustrated article about the Oakland Raiders, in which the author conveys the reason for the new coach’s success by quoting the apercu of one of Oakland’s star players: “He don’t take no s — , and he knows his s — .”
One significant aspect of the editorial choice to publish the quote is that the editors of Sports Illustrated, a glossy, upscale magazine, had no reason to think they would offend their readership. Everyone does it–as indeed everyone does. Another significant aspect is that the editors could leave the grammar untouched without worrying that they would be accused of condescension toward the player who was the identified source of the quote.
Most striking of all, the player’s observation was quoted approvingly. The writer sees the words as pithy and stylish–as they are, in their way. If pithiness and style are the sole criteria for selecting what to publish, the writer and editors were guilty of no lapse of judgment. Technical mastery of craft is not at issue here, just as it is not at issue for “South Park” or the average MTV video. At issue is the cultural significance of choosing to approve the vulgar and the illiterate, both of which used to be classic indicators of the underclass.
Respectfulness toward, and imitation of, underclass behavior extend to the other classic signals that used to distinguish nice people from riff-raff. Appearance? The hooker look in fashion, tattoos, and body piercing is the obvious evidence, although Toynbee would probably see as much significance in wearing jeans to church. I find the intriguing element here to be the respectfulness extended toward underclass appearance. No one in the public eye calls any kind of dress “cheap” or “sleazy” any more.
Sexual behavior? As late as 1960, sleeping with one’s boyfriend was still a lower-class thing to do. Except in a few sophisticated circles, a woman of the elites did it furtively, and usually with the person she expected to marry. Behavior that is now considered absolutely normal was considered sluttish in 1960.
Family? The divorce rate in 1960 was only a notch higher than it had been in the first recorded figures from 1920. It happened among members of the dominant minority, but rarely and with extreme reluctance. As for living together without being married and having babies without marrying the father, language alone conveys their change in status over the years. People used to shack up; now they cohabit. The woman used to have a bastard, then an illegitimate child; now she has a nonmarital birth.
Language, appearance, sex, and family: Each of the signs by which we used to recognize a member of the underclass fails today. But the proletarianization of the dominant minority has broader implications than changes in social norms. What we are witnessing is the aftermath of a collapse of the code of the elites, creating a vacuum in which underclass behavior takes on the elements of a code.
By code I mean your internal yardstick for tracking how you measure up to a standard that is accepted by those whose approval you seek. I will focus here on the code of the gentleman as it evolved in this country, where it had nothing to do with being rich or wellborn. To be an American gentleman meant that one was brave, loyal and true. When one was in the wrong, one owned up and took one’s punishment like a man. One didn’t take advantage of women. One was gracious in victory and a good sport in defeat. One’s handshake was more binding than any legal document. When the ship went down, one put the women and children into the lifeboats and waved goodbye with a smile.
They used to be rules. Now they are jokes. Some men still live by them–there is a lot of stealth virtue going around–but they are embarrassed to say what they are doing. The code of the gentleman has collapsed, just as the parallel code of the lady has collapsed.
The collapse of old codes leaves a vacuum that must be filled. Within the elites, the replacement has been tenets, broadly accepted by people across the political spectrum, that tell us to treat people equally regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference, to be against poverty and war, and to be for fairness and diversity. These are not bad things to be against and for, respectively, but the new code, which I will call ecumenical niceness, has a crucial flaw. The code of the elites is supposed to set the standard for the society, but ecumenical niceness has a hold only on those people whom the elites are willing to judge–namely, one another. One of the chief tenets of ecumenical niceness is not to be judgmental about the underclass.
Within the underclass, the vacuum has been filled by a distinctive, separate code. Call it thug code: Take what you want, respond violently to anyone who antagonizes you, gloat when you win, despise courtesy as weakness, treat women as receptacles, take pride in cheating, deceiving, or exploiting successfully. The world of hip-hop is where the code is openly embraced. But hip-hop is only an expression of the code, not its source. It amounts to the hitherto inarticulate values of underclass males from time immemorial, now made articulate with the collaboration of some of America’s best creative and merchandising talent.
Thug code is actively espoused by a tiny minority of the population, and probably not even by many of the kids who love hip-hop. But it is vital, confidently celebrated by its adherents, and coherent. And there can be no counterweight from an elite that has lost the confidence to say, “We will not stand for this.” If you doubt the impotence of ecumenical niceness, consider the recent reaction to the white rapper Eminem. His misogyny and homophobia are a direct, in-your-face challenge to the most central elements of ecumenical niceness, thrown down within an industry that passionately condemns any whiff of discrimination against women or gays when it is done by a peer. If the dominant minority still possessed a cultural code with spine and elan, Eminem would have no more chance of recording his lyrics than a four-letter word had of getting into Sports Illustrated in 1960.
Toynbee entitled his discussion “Schism in the Soul” because the disintegration of a civilization is not a monolithic process. As elite culture begins to mimic proletarian culture, remnants of the elites become utopians, or ascetics, or try to reinvoke old norms (viz. the words you are reading). To recognize a disintegrating civilization, Toynbee says, look for a riven culture–riven as our culture is today.
For every example of violence and moral obtuseness coming out of Hollywood, one can cite films, often faithful renderings of classic novels, expressing an exquisite moral sensibility. On television, the worst-of-times, best-of-times paradox can be encompassed within the same show–“The Sopranos,” “Ally McBeal,” and “The Simpsons” come to mind. In social life, there are signs that the family in the upper half of American society is beginning to reknit itself, even as it continues to disintegrate in the lower half. Religion seems to be taken more seriously by today’s elites than it was 20 years ago.
I used to think these contrasting trends foreshadowed a bimodal America, with the elites doing well and the underclass growing. Now I hear Toynbee murmuring “Remnants” in my ear, and I am not so sure.
If he is right, bean-counting doesn’t work in this case. Whether a culture turns out bits and pieces of the admirable is irrelevant to understanding where it stands on the trajectory of history. If the question is whether America’s elites are being proletarianized, the answer is found by identifying the things that are no longer taken for granted. It may be a positive sign that important voices have again begun to talk about virtue, but the salient fact is that they must start by defending the proposition that virtue and vice are valid concepts. Important voices are talking about the coarsening of American life, but the salient fact is that they can no longer appeal to a common understanding of vulgarity and a common contempt for the vulgar. In these senses, the elites have already been proletarianized, and only remnants protest.
Looking at history through a single prism, even Toynbee’s, is bound to lead one astray in some respects–no one is that good at understanding history yet. Still, the bedrock validity of his argument is persuasive, and not only for America. Elites throughout the West are twisting in apology for every failing they can concoct, disavowing what is best in their cultures, and imitating what is worst. But we in America have special reason to worry about how far the unraveling has gone.
I have waited to make the obvious point until the end, lest I lose too many of my readers before now. But I urge that the following statement is not, at bottom, a partisan one: Bill Clinton’s presidency, in both its conduct and in the reactions to that conduct, was a paradigmatic example of elites that have been infected by “the sickness of proletarianization.” The survival of our culture requires that we somehow contrive to get well.
Charles Murray is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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