Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan gave us the phrase "defining deviancy down" to describe how we've switched from moral absolutes to situational morality. Today's morality is situational and depends on what we're doing.
Dr. Charles Murray, a Bradley Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, has come up with another phrase to describe today's America: "proletarianization of the dominant minority." His article, "America's Elites Take Their Cues From the Underclass," appeared in the Feb. 6 Wall Street Journal and is available online at AEI's website.
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Murray credits historian Arnold Toynbee's chapter titled "Schism in the Soul" in his "A Study of History" as the inspiration for the term proletarianization. Toynbee observed that one of the consistent symptoms of a disintegrating civilization is that elites begin to imitate the bottom of society.
Toynbee says the growth phase of civilization is led by a creative minority who have a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along through attempts to imitate the creative minority.
In disintegrating civilizations, the creative minority (elites) are no longer confident and setting the example. They "lapse into truancy" (reject the obligations of citizenship) and "surrender to a sense of promiscuity" (succumb to vulgarization of manners, the arts and language). The groups we used to call "low-class" or "trash" started being called the underclass a few decades ago. The upper class, instead of challenging trashy behavior, often imitates and placates it.
Murray gives a few examples of the proletarianization process. As late as 1960, four-letter words were unknown in public discourse and among the elites, and were used sparingly even in private discourse. Today, vulgar language knows no class, sex, age or place. As late as 1960, sleeping with one's boyfriend was mostly a lower-class thing. It was deemed sluttish and something to be kept secret; today it's open and assumed to be normal.
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Our new language demonstrates an essential part of the proletarianization process -- nonjudgmentalism. People used to shack up; now they cohabit or they're living partners. Unmarried women used to give birth to a bastard, later to an illegitimate child; today, it's a nonmarital birth. In some instances, unwed mothers proudly hold baby showers celebrating their illegitimate offspring. Homosexual marriages were unheard of; today, in some jurisdictions, homosexual marriages have legal sanction. Of course, to be judgmental about the new codes of conduct is to risk being labeled a prude and possibly a racist, sexist or a homophobe.
In earlier days, to be an American gentleman meant one was brave, loyal and true. When one was wrong, he admitted it and took his medicine like a man. Taking advantage of women was totally out. A handshake and one's word were more binding than any legal document. The code of the gentleman has collapsed, just as the code of the lady has collapsed -- but, as Murray says, there's still a lot of stealth virtue going around.
Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and the nation's response is yet another example of Murray's proletarianization of America. After all, "it was just about sex." So what that it involved witness tampering, perjury, obstruction of justice and a presidentially organized attack on an officer of the court?
We make excuses and apologies for failures, and make mascots out of social misfits such as bums. We call bums homeless people; thus, a moral equivalency is created between those who might have lost their homes in a flood and social parasites.
Murray is not entirely pessimistic. He says there are signs that the upper half of American society is beginning to reknit itself, even as it continues to disintegrate in the lower half. Religion seems to be taken more seriously. Abstinence is becoming more respectable. Murray speculates that these contrasting trends might foreshadow a bimodal America with elites doing well and the underclass growing.