Magazine article The American Conservative

Why Read Christopher Lasch? the Conservative Radical Has Answers to Charles Murray's Hard Questions

Magazine article The American Conservative

Why Read Christopher Lasch? the Conservative Radical Has Answers to Charles Murray's Hard Questions

Article excerpt

When I grew up in the overwhelmingly white blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia known as Levittown, a soft white supremacism was pervasive. When blacks were spoken about at all, it was rarely if ever positively. The conversations generally involved words such as "lazy," "uneducated," "immoral," and "irresponsible." The stereotype employed to justify this judgment was that of the able-bodied black man on some form of public assistance who sired a few children with a few women who were also on welfare. It was a decidedly decadent and self-destructive culture, according to the adults outside my home.

Some 20 years later, the problems once identified with the black community--joblessness, out of wedlock births, criminality--have taken on a lighter hue. As the social critic Charles Murray recently chronicled in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, the white working class has been ravaged over the past half-century by the same afflictions they once looked down their noses at their black neighbors for. Marriage rates have declined. Divorce rates have increased and out-of-wedlock births have exploded, meaning more children raised in single-parent homes. The number of blue-collar white men in their prime working ages who dropped out of the labor force more than doubled. Disability claims skyrocketed. The number of white prisoners is up nearly 500 percent since 1974. For the new white upper class, however, as Murray shows, experiencing these problems is like taking a dip in an otherwise tranquil sea and drowning due to the undertow: it happens, but only rarely.

What makes Murray's book even more horrifying reading is when he pulls back at the end to extend his analysis to the entire U.S. population, "induc[ing] recognition of the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams--not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class." A new upper class, marked by high IQs and great wealth, is self-segregating into affluent bubbles--which Murray calls "SuperZips"--and occupies the commanding heights of our economy and government, while the rest of us become mere spectators. But if you're looking for Murray to explain how this came about, you're out of luck. "I focus on what happened, not why," he says at the outset.

What Murray shows empirically was predicted by another social critic, now dead for more than two decades, who put forth a damning indictment of American capitalism's inability to recognize any limits in its quest for economic growth. Its voraciousness destroyed the very things conservatives hold most dear, he argued, ultimately producing the same destructive tendencies in white working-class suburbs like Levittown that residents previously associated with the inner city.

"In some ways middle-class society has become a pale copy of the black ghetto," this social theorist, Christopher Lasch, wrote in his most popular work, The Culture of Narcissism. "We do not need to minimize the poverty of the ghetto or the suffering inflicted by whites on blacks in order to see that the increasingly dangerous and unpredictable conditions of middle-class life have given rise to similar strategies for survival," he continued. "Indeed the attraction of black culture for disaffected whites suggests that black culture now speaks to a general condition, the most important feature of which is a widespread loss of confidence in the future"

Over the course of his life and work, Lasch, who was the son of progressive parents and was himself initially drawn to Marxism, grew more culturally conservative as he grew more and more tired with American society's tendency to equate the good life with mere consumption and consumer choice. Both Democrats and Republicans, he believed, adhered to the "ideology of progress" a belief system whereby, either through redistribution of wealth or economic growth, "economic abundance would eventually give everyone access to leisure, cultivation, refinement--advantages formerly restricted to the wealthy"

But Lasch's conservatism was always idiosyncratic, fusing respect for the conservative traditions of working-class life also celebrated by Charles Murray--such as faith, family, and neighborhood--with a genuine desire for egalitarian democracy based on broad-based proprietorship. …

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