Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Know Exactly How Things Always Used to Be....

Because I've seen a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet. Seriously, can we expect pundits to ever tire of cherry-picking a date from the late 1950's or early 1960's as the date that society was perfect, and acknowledge both that the period at issue was anything but perfect - particularly for non-whites - and is not representative of the rest of human history?
In 1957, 57 percent of those surveyed said that they believed that adults who preferred to be single were “immoral” or “neurotic.” But today, as Eric Klinenberg reminds us in his book, “Going Solo,” more than 50 percent of adults are single. Twenty-eight percent of households nationwide consist of just one person. There are more single-person households than there are married-with-children households. In cities like Denver, Washington and Atlanta, more than 40 percent of the households are one-person dwellings. In Manhattan, roughly half the households are solos.
In 1857, what percentage of people do you suppose would have argued that marriage should be based upon romantic love, and that the romantic feelings should last a lifetime? What percentage of people would argue that it is never acceptable for a husband to strike his wife? I've heard it argued that conservatism is predicated upon trying to identify and preserve the best elements of the past, while acknowledging and accepting change of the worst, but the Brooks-style argument is far more prevalent: Pick a point in history, most often when the commentator was a child, romanticize the era, ignore its bad points, ignore the social factors that contributed to the often historically brief high points of the era, and argue that everything would be perfect if only we could build some form of social engineering time machine and force society into the fictionalized mold of that era.

Brooks observes,
A few generations ago, most people affiliated with one of the major parties. But now more people consider themselves independent than either Republican or Democrat.
Um... so what? At one point it was Whigs versus Tories, right? Times change. More to the point, the fact that people call themselves "independent" does not mean that they in fact vote differently than people with stated party affiliations. If you follow up with "do you lean toward the Republican Party or the Democratic Party", you'll get an answer that his highly predictive of how an independent will vote.
A few generations ago, many people worked for large corporations and were members of a labor union. But now lifetime employment is down and union membership has plummeted.
An interesting observation, given that union jobs, stable employment and the ability to earn a solid, middle class salary as a blue collar worker factored into the middle class culture of the late 1950's that Brooks so adores, but I somehow doubt that Brooks is arguing for more unions, higher wages for factor jobs and job protections. It's like that song, Love and Marriage, which I believe was released in 1955 - you can't have one without the other. Except in relation to marriage you can, and for most historical marriages you did. What you can't have is a strong, economically stable blue collar middle class if you don't have job opportunities and labor laws that will support and sustain a strong, economically stable blue collar middle class - history teaches us that lesson, as well.
A few generations ago, teenagers went steady. But over the past decades, the dating relationship has been replaced by a more amorphous hook-up culture.
A few generations ago, boys were allowed to "sow their wild oats" while girls were to remain chaste and to marry, often at a very young age, the man their parents chose for them to marry. Brooks also later suggests that if teenagers hang out in groups instead of going steady, this is indicative society's evolution away from a time when "America was groupy". Um, yeah.... Needless to say, Brooks carries on for a while longer in that vein.

Brooks makes an interesting observation,
But if there is one theme that weaves through all the different causes, it is this: The maximization of talent. People want more space to develop their own individual talents. They want more flexibility to explore their own interests and develop their own identities, lifestyles and capacities. They are more impatient with situations that they find stifling.
Brooks overstates his case. As with his attempt to attribute major changes in society and culture to technologies that have only existed for the past ten to twenty years, he overstates both the role of talent in society and the extent to which talented individuals can carve out their own successful career paths. But there's a lot of truth to the fact that our society has evolved toward an expectation that people have the right to make their own choices, to "be happy", and to be fulfilled, even if we don't have a clear sense of what that means. In Brooks' "groupy" past, there were strong group pressures to tolerate miserable situations lest you lose your status within your groups. I don't consider it to be a bad thing that some of the groups that once dominated social behavior have lost their stranglehold, but at the same time we have evolved into a society in which people feel more free to pursue their individual wants and needs and that the freedom has had an impact on traditional groups and upon the institution of marriage. Like pretty much every process of social evolution, the result is a mixed bag.

Predictably, Brooks imagines that society is composed of two kinds of people:
Over all, we’ve made life richer for the people who have the social capital to create their own worlds. We’ve also made it harder for the people who don’t — especially poorer children.
If life is harder for children who are poor we're not actually talking about social capital, are we? Because poverty is an economic construct. Here Brooks appears to be trying to sustain his weak argument from recent columns in which he attempts to argue that the bottom thirty percent of wage earners have lost their moral bearings but that, even though he sees something close to a perfect correlation between economic trends and the changes in social behavior, their situation has nothing to do with economics. It's a bit like his allusion to union membership in this column - he can identify and track myriad economic factors that correlate with what he perceives to be a shift in values, but then turn on a time and argue without evidence that we're actually seeing some form of transformation of human nature. Correlation should not be confused with causation, but if the correlation holds for pretty much all of human history and you have no other evidence to support your claim....

Brooks concludes,
These trends are not going to reverse themselves. So maybe it’s time to acknowledge a core reality: People with skills can really thrive in this tenuous, networked society. People without those advantages would probably be better off if we could build new versions of the settled, stable and thick arrangements we’ve left behind.
It's a shame he couldn't find room in his column to suggest a means through which we can push the working poor through that social engineering time machine and recreate the world of Ozzie and Harriet. (Perhaps we could call that world Pleasantville.) But really, if Brooks breaks away from his standard cocktail circuit and explores the real world, he will likely find that people with the "skills" and opportunities necessary to create a wholly independent life are few in number, and that most people are pretty much embedded in a culture of jobs and paychecks. One might argue that if we lived in the meritocracy that Brooks imagines himself to be a part of, a better columnist would be composing a column in his place and would be acknowledging that reality.

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