Friday, March 27, 2009

The Grass is Greener - and More Authentic - Outside the Gated Community

I seem to be on a hypocrisy kick this week.

Here, we have a nice example from the inimitable Charles Murray. Yes, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life has favored us with two outings of his celebration of American exceptionalism and his fearfulness for the collapse of our social vitality. First, in his Irving Kristol Lecture at the AIE, The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, and in a shorter version of the same in the Washington Post, “Thank God America Isn't Like Europe – Yet,” Murray bemoans the weakening of the American character, the creeping insipidity of contemporary life, and the growing tendency of U.S. citizens to want comfortable lives.

Murray’s ‘argument’ has been nicely sliced and diced by Damon Linker at the New Republic (“
Murray’s Miserable, Happy Americans”) and by John Holbo at Crooked Timber (“The Totalitarian Temptation and All That”), so I’ll forego the analysis and head straight for the rant.

Murray’s main concern is that the ‘welfare state’ is taking all the challenge out of American lives, leaving us coddled and without a sense of deep purpose (“transcendence” seems to be his preferred term) just as, according to his two anecdotes from visits to Sweden and Switzerland, has happened to Europeans. Linker aptly summarizes Murray’s view thus:

....because genuine happiness, for Murray, requires spending one's life striving to overcome an endless series of challenges and obstacles, the lavish European safety net ensures that individual Europeans will never experience spiritual contentment or satisfaction. The assumption seems to be that a life of leisure -- or at least a life with open access to health care, quality child care, generous unemployment insurance, and 4 - 6 weeks of guaranteed vacation time a year -- will be an unhappy one.

In Murray’s own words,

…. the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish—it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness.

Let’s put aside for the moment the lack of real data (he swears it’s out there), the apparent ignorance of differences among European nations and peoples, even the strangely unexplicated allusion to Aristotle (more on that next time). Let’s just focus on the message: suffering, difficulty, and insecurity add zest to life; indeed, without real struggle and more or less constant peril, we can never achieve true happiness.

I think there is some plausibility to this claim, or to a more carefully stated and considered version of it. A life utterly without challenge, a life of indulgence, a life that never plumbs deeper than the purchase of the next material ‘must have’ – this would be a life lacking vitality, meaning, and purpose. In other words, the lives of the most advantaged members of the leisure classes are not examples of human flourishing ( a far more Aristotelian term than ‘happiness’). But this is not what Murray is on about. No, he is arguing that guaranteed access to basic health care, affordable child care, and some degree of material security prevents us – as citizens of a nation - from flourishing.

One might find this a bracing, Spartan-like – perhaps, early Stoic – vision of the good life: hard, demanding, and rewarding to those who fight the good fight. Really, very John Wayne western film style. And that’s fine if that is the life one chooses for oneself. But Murray is not recommending this as a self-selected lifestyle; rather, he is urging ‘the elites’ (his phrase) to impose this life on everyone.

More precisely, he wants it imposed on the poor and disadvantaged. He does not quite say that, of course, but it is the only reasonable inference. Taking away the social safety net will not impose a rough and tumble life on the already advantaged, after all; they do not need the net. It is only the disadvantaged and the close-to-being-disadvantaged who will enjoy the benefits of being cast into the stormy seas to swim or sink. Murray and his ilk will watch, no doubt with envy, from the safety of their privately owned yachts while the lucky masses thrill at the chance for true happiness, a chance the wistful wealthy will never have. We can imagine the pitying looks with which the struggling swimmers will look back at those safely on-board and the joy with which they will sink beneath the waves, knowing themselves to have found transcendent meaning in their lives and deaths. Perhaps, if they are very fortunate, they can watch their children drown before them.

Of course, romanticizing the lives of simple folk is a tradition of sorts. But Murray is not pretending that lives of sorrow, hunger, illness, and toil are other than they are. Rather, he celebrates precisely those painful possibilities as necessary conditions for meaningful happiness. This is not romanticism; this is hypocrisy. For, do we picture Murray giving up his own rather privileged position to leap into the waters of strife? Is he suggesting that the pitiable rich should be stripped of their wealth and privileges and made to work as janitors (for whom he seems to have some special respect) or dish washers so that they, too, can have a chance at happiness? No. He is encouraging the privileged to use their power to force this idiosyncratic vision of the Good Life on those not in a position to either choose it or decline it.

I cannot think of any way to understand this other than as hypocrisy. Murray is an educated person (B.A. in History from Harvard; Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT) and, if we resist political hyperbole, he seems to be sane. Murray gestures towards scolding the elites for separating themselves from the ‘real’ people (janitors), but he does not suggest they leave their gated communities to live in slums or marginal neighborhoods. Instead, he seems to recommend a bit of uplifting slumming. You know, sort of like Bette Davis’ ‘Jezebel’ getting down and homey with the pickaninnies on the lawn, all authentic-like while the silly Yankee wife of Bette’s former beau gets politically-correctly upset about an impending duel between the leading men. Or, like those young college men of the thirties and forties who took their dates to Harlem to see black performers be earthy, in white-only clubs.

I’ll end my rant with a bit from John Holbo’s 2003 blog piece on a similarly hypocritical ‘let the little people suffer for the sake of their better selves’ musing from David Frum:

But if it is good for the poor and middle-class to suffer and toil, surely it would do the well-to-do some good as well. We could stiffen upper-classes spines quick by raising the top tax bracket to, say, 95%, while firing all the cops, letting all the criminals out of jail, giving them guns, and busing them to the richest neighborhoods before letting them go. Not a good idea, obviously, but a lot of rich people would learn a lot of important, genuinely meaningful life lessons.

Surely, this would only be fair. Why should the poor and the marginal classes get all the advantages of meaningfulness, while the wealthy only get health care, security, and comfort?

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