07 February 2012

Remembering Dickensian Virtues Today

Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens, the esteemed episodic Victorian novelist whose realistic depictions of the hardships of  working class London have remained influential through this day. Literary critics may fault Dicken’s technique of depicting idealized characters in mawkish scenes as unrealistic, but the emotional connection which bonds readers to these memorable characters intensifies Dicken’s social commentary.

At a time when the United Kingdom was the world’s wealthiest superpower, Charles Dickens served as a fierce critic of poverty as well as the social stratification in Victorian society. Even the most brutal of Dickensian circumstances was held together by religious conviction. By exposing the ugly underbelly of crime and violence in London’s underclass, Dickens succeed in inspiring the clearing of Jacob’s Island, the actual setting of Oliver Twist.

It is ironic that we are celebrating Dicken’s bicentenary as Charles Murray has released his book Coming Apart, which is a social study of segments of America between 1960 and 2010 which reveals the formation of  formation of American classes that differ from our past. Unlike in Europe, Americans did not have a static nobility class with its own separate ethos.

Murray abbreviates these social segments as upper class Belmont (modeled after an affluent Massachusetts outside of Boston) and Fishtown (reflecting a historically working class neighborhood in Philadelphia).  But due to changes in American culture during the 1960s, the mores that anchored traditional family values throughout society (marriage, parenthood, supporting a family, religion and community associations) have declined in “Fishtown” and the traditional values are no longer vaunted within society.  But in “Belmont” most of the traditional values are followed but there is more less contact with those not in their social set, an ethos of “ecumenical niceness” which is non-judgmental and less self regulation against unseemliness flaunting of wealth.

Murray argues that there have always been economic classes but none that were so static as today for the upper class. Now there are second or third generations of people who know nothing but “Belmont” and have no real contact with the wrong side of the tracks. Murray contends that is it not economic gulfs that creates the class stagnation but the cultural choices that have long-term economic and social consequences.  Clearly, the acceptability of single motherhood makes having children out of wedlock and divorces both tends to lower income levels and deprives families of male guidance.  The lack of religiosity since the 1960s is profound in “Fishtown” so there is neither an inculcation of virtues and does not encourage volunteerism that is the glue that pulls together communities.

 What is worrisome is that the traditional virtues embodied in the McGuffy reader that influenced all of America prior to the 1960s which the affluent largely follow today are not ardently advocated through the culture.  The problems that stem from what former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan (D-NY)  labeled as “defining deviancy downward” have been assumed by the so called war on poverty via an ever expanding welfare state. In Dickens time, the ugly underbelly of industrialism was not well understood.  Alas, the problems that are perpetuating poverty are well understood yet the behavior is freely chosen without nary a peep of social condemnation.

While Murray uses statistics to chronicle this stratification among whites, he contends that the same phenomenons are mirrored in other American racial groups to varying degrees.  Murray’s concern is that the lack of traditional civics in the underclass combined with a nearly bankrupt Leviathan welfare state threatens what he calls “the American Project”.

During his Bradley lecture at the American Enterprise Institute,  Charles Murray was not entirely pessimistic. The impending collapse of the European Welfare state might wake up the sleeping giant.  It may be possible to change the welfare state and offer alternatives.  Moreover, the indominable spirit of America has over time overcome seemingly insurmountable societal challenges. Alas the social scientist was short on specifics.

But in the spirit of overcoming the challenges and shortcomings of our culture, Glenn Beck has been urging his viewers to right themselfs so that they can be a lifeboat for others to prepare for expected rough waters.  Individuals rebuilding communities is slow in nature and does not generate headlines for the Lamestream Media.  But just as Dickensian social commentary influenced his generation  and arguably the expansion of upper class values throughout Victorian society, a Third Great Awaking may be the impetus for saving “The American Project” as opposed to losing ground (sic.) and coming apart.

No comments: