I take my text this week from the Book of Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Chapter 17, “Alternative Futures,” page 286, where he invokes the great historian Arnold Toynbee in analyzing the decline of civilizations.
Murray, as you may know by now, thinks we are in big trouble because the “single-mother” culture that has so dominated and handicapped African Americans over the last several decades is now spreading to the white working class, where marriage is no longer the norm and up to 50 percent of children are now being born out of wedlock.
After laying out his case from social statistics in appallingly complete detail, Murray pauses toward the end of his book to make a few broader observations. The puzzle he poses is this. If anybody in American society is good at preaching “cultural relativism,” a lack of standards and the idea that if anybody wants to do anything we should just go ahead and let them do it. Thus it’s a rare person in the educated upper middle class who’ll be willing to tell anyone in the lower middle class that their best route to prosperity would be to stay in school, get a job, and wait until they’re married before having children. Yet the amazing thing is that upper-middle-class people do these things themselves. The first third of his book is dedicated to showing how people in communities where almost everyone has a college education are working harder than they did twenty years ago, getting married later, divorcing far less than the rest of society, and living practically free of crime. So why won’t they preach this road to success to everyone else?
Perhaps the most notable trend in the arts over the last 20 years has been the rise of pointless vulgarity. We haven’t quite gotten to the point of full frontal nudity or open sexual intercourse on daytime television yet, but we’re getting awfully close. And if and when it happens, you can be sure there will arise a chorus from the liberal intelligentsia saying it’s just “freedom of speech” and anyone who is opposed to it is either “prudish” at one extreme or “fascist” at the other.
I’ve heard things chanted on rap radio stations that I would be embarrassed to read on bathroom walls. And this is music that can be recited line-for-line by 13-year-olds. Now anybody who ever hung around a black neighborhood or a working-class neighborhood knows that there has always been a level of vulgarity that was not native to middle-class neighborhoods — at least not 20 years ago. American culture had a level of decorum that was expressed on television and in newspaper headlines and in political speech. What happened was that upper middle-class people decided that they weren’t tough enough or didn’t sound black enough or hip enough and so the way to sound real and authentic was to adopt the vulgarity of people poorer than themselves. And it was often people poorer than themselves who were embarrassed by all this, but nevertheless it has all now been done.