Saturday, June 20, 2015

U.S. moving past “hard work” and “personal responsibility”?

A century ago, the European-dominated world of empires run by constitutional monarchs self-destructed in the Great War (1914-18). That system had kept peace in the century following the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). Europe’s collapse led to America’s democracy and leading economy taking center stage from the 1920s on, and following its “arsenal of democracy” leadership of the Allies’ World War II victory, the United States achieved unparalleled strength with half the world’s GNP as it ruled the Free World. It was the Fifties.

In the following decade, the horror of Vietnam--our own “Great War”-like disaster--underpinned the “triple revolution” of civil rights, sexual freedom, and women’s rights that transformed American life. Besides Vietnam, the U.S. lived through black-led demonstrations and riots and “the Pill”-engendered sexual revolution, while Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique launched women’s liberation. These revolutions have been with us for fifty years now.

Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University, has in A War for the Soul of America sought to put the culture wars -- much discussed here -- into perspective. Hartman, reviewer Tod Lindberg in the conservative Wall Street Journal tells us, documents the political and intellectual clashes beginning in the 1960s that pitted left-wing intellectuals and activists seeking fundamental social change against conservative counterparts protecting “normative America,” Hartman’s phrase for
an inchoate group of assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans during the postwar years. Normative America prized hard work, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification, social mobility and other values that middle-class whites recognized as their own.
Hartman wrote these values included a preference for men as breadwinners and women as homemakers, sexual discretion, and faith in God and American exceptionalism.

Hartman describes “normative America” undergoing a comprehensive challenge from alienated, excluded people devoted to “a nation more open to new peoples, new ideas, new norms.” To Hartman, the “culture wars” began because conservatives fought back in defense of “normative America.”

Lindberg, the reviewer, believes
Hartman is correct to say that the “culture wars compelled Americans, even conservatives, to acknowledge transformations to American life” and to resign themselves to these changes if not to accept them. On matters such as women’s rights, gay rights and exclusionary freedom of association, conservative polemicists of the early years of the culture wars took positions few conservatives would take today.
Lindberg acknowledges “the New Left” got what it wanted: an America more open to “new ideas” and “new norms.” But Lindberg feels the 1960s and 1970s radicals had a greater goal. They sought to discredit the values of middle-class America once and for all. In Lindberg’s eyes,
“Normative America” still prizes “hard work” and “personal responsibility” but now also prizes diversity and expanded opportunities for minorities. . . the biggest deficiency of A War for the Soul of America [is] its lack of sympathy for . . . “normative America.” As George Orwell once famously wrote, “it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive.” [T]he New Left’s view [is] that normal decent persons, in their collectivity, represent a repressive force.
Kyle Smith, in the New York Post, speaks for many conservatives in discussing what the “new norms” mean for our culture:
  • what comes along with this mass departure of moral judgment from public life? 
  • Is it morally acceptable . . . to spark up a joint every day at lunch? 
  • Does being a good and tolerant citizen mean you should shrug when a person chooses to spend his life wasted? 
  • Consider the amazing turnaround in people’s views of single parenthood. As of 2002, only 45% of Americans thought it was “morally acceptable” to have a child outside of wedlock. Today it’s 61%. 
  • And yet, concurrent with that shift in opinion, it’s become obvious that whether or not it’s “morally” wrong to have a kid without being married, it’s undoubtedly bad for that kid. . . if you’re a child growing up in what was once called a broken home you’re six or seven times as likely to witness domestic violence as those brought up by married parents.

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