Monday, March 14, 2016

The Fears of a Christian Conservative

Rod Dreher is one of the conservative writers I follow, an Orthodox Christian without much interest in economics or taxation. What worries him is what he sees as the moral collapse of modern society, which to him is expressed especially through the decline of marriage. He spent the weekend publicizing his new book at a series of events at colleges and private high schools, and he got an earful from educators about the problems of their students: poor kids who have grown up with no family and no structure, or on the other hand kids who seem to have every advantage but have no interest in study, work, or anything else about adult life:
Also over the weekend, I talked to someone who is an administrator at a Catholic school. She said that the teachers at her school say that they are having the worst time trying to get the kids to write logically coherent papers. They simply do not seem to grasp cause and effect. These are not the poor. These are middle class kids. The administrator is baffled and alarmed.

I mentioned to the administrator a conversation I had earlier had with a man whose job as a counselor brings him into daily contact with the public, and who had said to me — in a Trump-related conversation — how frustrated he was with the middle and upper-middle class people he works with. He said that their family life could be falling apart, but they will not accept responsibility for it. They will go to the mat defending indefensible behavior from their children, and defending their own parenting.

The cases, said the man, can be shocking in their obviousness, but these middle-class parents absolutely refuse to look critically at themselves and the way they live, and raise their children. He said that it’s very difficult to pierce the shield of self-protection and self-deception that these people have erected around themselves. It’s always somebody else’s fault.

“Their kids have no direction,” he said. “I’ll have in my office college-age young people with strong test scores and good grades, but no direction. They’re just drifting, and they’re getting no direction from their parents.”
This resonates with me because “They’re just drifting” is an apt description of all three of my sons. So far as I can tell, their main ambition is not to end up with a life like mine, all work, parenthood, duty, and responsibility. So far as I can tell, nothing about adult life appeals to them at all except being done with school. By the time I was 18 I had been through a dozen different career ambitions, from paleontologist to architect, but so far as I can tell my sons find no career appealing in any way. They think the world is horribly screwed up but they have no interest in trying to change it, which they suspect is impossible anyway. They fantasize about somehow dropping out entirely, but I doubt they ever will because that would be too much work.

It is also interesting to note how much of what Dreher hears from Christian educators overlaps with the complaints of professors at major universities, raging against the collapse of liberal education.

Dreher concludes with this:
Honestly, I’ve had it with people. I’ve had it with Trump supporters who think their anger and their outrage gives them the right to punch people in the face. I’ve had it with Black Lives Matter and other Social Justice Warriors who think the so-called righteousness of their cause gives them the right to silence those who disagree with them. I’m sick and tired of people who think everything wrong in their lives is because somebody, somewhere, has wronged them. Guess what? You can’t screw whoever you like, have as many kids as you like, or as many partners as you like, walk away from your marriage (if you ever marry), and expect everything to be okay. You can’t drink, drug, party, “keep it real,” make excuses for your children, make excuses for yourself, allow our degraded popular culture to raise your kids, and expect a good outcomes. You can’t throw money at problems and expect them to go away (e.g., pay to send your kids to a Christian school, and assume that your tuition fee contractually entitles you to opt out of the moral and spiritual formation of your children), or assume that being a Nice Middle-Class Person is sufficient. It’s not. I’m tired of the rich and the middle class who expect everything to be handed to them, and fall to pieces when it isn’t. I’m tired of the working class and the poor who live as if their relative material deprivation gives them a pass from having to live by basic standards of conduct that most everybody understood and affirmed within living memory, but which are all but forgotten today.
Since I am something of an expert on really bad periods of history – the 1940s, the 1860s, the 910s – I am never impressed by “things are worse than ever” sorts of arguments. Every age has it own troubles and its own blessings. But I can't shake a feeling that Dreher is onto something here. Why are so many young people ambitionless, drifting, troubled by depression and anxiety? Why does making the transition from adolescence to adulthood seem to be ever more difficult? Certain sorts of both liberals and conservatives think we are having a crisis of values, which the conservatives see exemplified in poor urban neighborhoods and liberals see on Wall Street. Are we? Or is this just what moralists always think?

Are we really having an economic crisis in which the middle class is losing faith in some new and profound way, or is it just the usual aftermath of a deep recession?

Are educational standards, or even standards of thought, collapsing?

Will the ongoing decline of religion and other "traditional" repositories of values and norms lead to an energized sort of freedom, or a listless indifference?


G. Verloren said...

"Turn on, tune in, drop out."

To be fair, though, in some ways the concerns are right. The world is changing - it just isn't the apocalypse that many people seem convinced it is.

Globalism is here to stay, folks. The Digital Age is going to see massive changes to the very fundamental nature of our society. Nationalism is starting to die out. Religion continues its long, slow decline. Capitalism is still stable, but the cracks and failings have become obvious and will be challenged by coming societal shifts - including the ongoing march of automation and renewable energy.

That last part, more than anything, is what I think will most disrupt western society. As energy becomes freer and human labor becomes less valuable, our entire economic structure is going to warp and shift.

There may within my own lifetime come a point when the concept of a "dayjob" disappears for large portions of humanity. People will start to have more and more free time. Some of them will spend it simply entertaining themselves. Others will use it to educate themselves and learn new skills. Specialization of labor will become more ubiquitous, as unspecialized work will be more readily automated. Human effort will be devoted less toward production and industry which the machines can handle, and more toward cultural endeavors which are uniquely human crafted.

It's going to be a slow change, perhaps even taking a few more centuries to fully play out. But the direction we're heading is so very different than what people are used to, and there is going to be much uncertainty and disruption. Much like the collapse of Monarchies and the Feudal system took time and caused much chaos, so to will the collapse of our current economic and governmental models.

kathy said...

See also