You know your reading is taking off when the books you’ve knocked off your list start connecting in your head like puzzle pieces on the dining room table. This happens to yours truly all the time nowadays, and it particularly occurred with two works I read in 2018, Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture In Crisis by J.D. Vance.
The wonderful thing about these two books is that the former creates an intellectual framework which provides meaning to the latter. Hillbilly Elegy is a, by now famous, uplifting personal life story about the author’s escape from the sad plight of the hillbillies dwelling in the Appalachians (a Hollywood adaptation of the book is in the works). Deneen, in turn, makes a convincing case that the present societal decline, documented so graphically in Vance’s book, is not a coincidence and not unintended, but the end result of a few centuries of liberalism. By “liberalism”, Deneen means not just the radical sob sisters dominating our college campuses, our media and the Democratic Party these days (though they are certainly an important part of the problem), but our very system of democratic government and the free-market economy it supports. These were the products of a long lineage of Enlightenment philosophy originating in the minds of Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and a few others.
While I was somewhat critical of certain aspects of Deneen’s thesis, his book is very well argued and extremely thought-provoking. Moreover, his conclusion that Westerners have, over the course of the past century, morphed into autonomous robots devoid of any sense of time and place but mindlessly pursuing immediate gratification, seems rather solid on the face of the evidence, regardless of the question of causation. One doesn’t have to look far beyond one’s own driveway to find the mindless consumerism, godless and broken families, substance abuse, morbid obesity, and all-around moral poverty that now seems to be an inextricable part of the American landscape. While none of these phenomena have ever been absent in human history, their combined occurrence has exploded in the modern-day West, and nowhere more so than among the lower classes in the United States.
It is obvious, therefore, that Hillbilly Elegy’s lamentations on the hillbillies have a reach far wider than the mountains of Kentucky. Where I live (in the Northeast) the same problems persist. Overgrown backyards with rusty clunkers and other junk seem to be the norm ‘out in the boonies’, as do unpainted and otherwise dilapidated homes. Their owners suffer from some level of poverty, even if they sometimes possess many of the luxuries of modern life. Church attendance is low, and love relationships can at best be described as serial monogamy with some overlap at the fringes here and there. I witness the fruits of this phenomenon every day in my capacity as employer. Of course, patterns of this cultural dynamic are also present in many of America’s inner cities, where violent gang life adds a mean twist to it.
The million-dollar question clouding all this is that of causality. Patrick Deneen makes, upon first inspection, a strong case that the picture painted above is the inevitable result of liberal philosophy. The democracy and free markets it spawned, he argues, were specifically designed for us to abandon our virtues and elevate our vices, and to let us forego any horizontal relationships other than the voluntary (and temporary) contracts we make. After all, didn’t Adam Smith contend that we all pursue our rational self-interest anyway? Says Deneen: “In the same way that courses in economics claim merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors, but in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. … Liberalism encourages loose connections.”
These loose connections, Deneen writes, manifest themselves in the erosion and ultimate destruction of civil society: Churches, family, community, town meeting and neighborhood made way for autonomy, career, vacations, philandering, video games and social media. Porch gave way to patio. A sense of time and place was slowly swept aside, and in its void appeared a society whose members had been reduced to a flock of utilitarian sheep which feed nothing but their immediate desires. In the process, any submission to the authority of religion and tradition, deemed obsolete inhibitors of our individual autonomy, slowly went down the drain as well.
It was this development, Deneen contends, that ultimately birthed many of our present societal ills, from dysfunctional underclasses and out-of-wedlock child births — hello to you, Hillbilly Elegy — to climate change, smartphone addiction and the Donald Trump phenomenon. For all its tremendous achievements over the past few centuries, liberalism carried along a philosophical poison pill that gradually dissolved into our society’s bloodstream, slowly killing its structures and leaving the people within exposed to the elements.
In other words, liberalism was successful as long as it, as a cultural force, was held in check by other forces in society, especially Christianity.
One of the critical questions which can be posed of Deneen’s thesis is whether this outcome was inevitable because it’s, per Deneen, baked into our socio-cultural DNA; or incidental, because other factors have to be considered as well. The argument can be made that our liberal society is failing not because of inherent systemic flaws, but because we in the U.S. gradually abandoned American-style liberalism and adopted more and more elements of the authoritarian liberalism found in revolutionary France. That process was galvanized by yet more radical ideologies coming into the picture over time: Marxism, but also, and perhaps even more perniciously, postmodernism. These ideological currents are all external, not internal, to American liberalism.
It’s difficult to understate the evils of postmodernism. Cloaked in a veil of political neutrality and purporting to merely cast a skeptical eye on the nature of truth and knowledge (not a bad thing in and of itself), postmodernism actually placed an intellectual assault on the very foundations of our culture and political system. It ‘deconstructed’ as expressions of the male white patriarchy the nuclear family, religion, patriotism, capitalism and even our liberal democratic system of government.
But if these institutions were merely constructs erected by a few in order to retain their dominance over the rest of us, it logically followed that they needed to be destroyed in order to correct the balance of power. Moral relativism ensued: Why confine sex to marriage and promote healthy families if marriage and family are just expressions of power? Ditto for religion, capitalism and all the rest of it. This is the stuff that breeds nihilism and violence.
Such new notions about our culture were theoretical at first, but spread like an oil stain in the 1960s thanks to a radical young elite eager to adopt its new-found moral liberties, and subsequently trickled down to the rest of society. Gone were the days in which freedom was understood to be freedom from the tyranny of one’s desires rather than a license to do as one pleases. As Charles Murray has demonstrated, these ideas wrought serious havoc among our lower classes, while the elites advocating them went on to live, for the most part, the old-fashioned bourgeois life they did so much to destroy. Ideas had consequences.
Back to the matter at hand. Stephen Hicks, in his excellent book Explaining Postmodernism, puts forward the argument that this philosophy, while deeply rooted in the writings of Kant, Weber and others, was essentially cooked up by a small cabal of hardcore leftist academics in an effort to salvage their faith in Communism after 1956. Rather than facing the truth about the horrendous evils perpetrated by Communists in Russia, China and elsewhere, these intellectuals instead decided to abolish the notion of truth altogether.
If we permit Hicks’ train of thought, various random historical causes for the emergence of postmodernism come into play as well: The rise of Communism cannot be explained without Russian Czarism and World War I, and nothing in the world would have been the same without World War II either.
Hicks’ emphasis on historical fortuities plays into my one beef with Patrick Deneen: His book tends to blame everything that’s wrong with our modern world on liberalism. But events are rarely mono-causal, and Utopia exists only in heaven to begin with. To ignore these truths, and the complexity of human existence and our societies, is an almost Marxist flaw in itself.
Yet it should also be said that, looking at this issue from a more fundamental psychological perspective, postmodernism feeds on one of our basest human passions: resentment. In a democracy, this emotion finds an outlet in the public domain and at the ballot box in ways that would be impossible in other political systems. This is why I fear that democracy will naturally decay into ochlocracy and ultimately into tyranny. The argument can be made that in our free Western societies radical ideologies were bound to emerge, because the temptations are just too great to avoid it. Old Plato had it right.
Regardless of the answer to the above question, it’s important to note that the ills plaguing our lower classes are not primarily economic. Our nation’s ‘democratic socialists’ would have you believe that they are, and that the only solution is more government control of the economy. But conservatives have been concerned about the erosion of traditional mores for decades now—much longer than they have been lamenting the fact that good jobs are being bled to China and automation.
Ultimately, the loss of manufacturing is only one portion of the equation. The fact of the matter is that a single mom with three kids from two different fathers will have a harder time paying the bills than an intact family in which two parents bring home paychecks—even if both work crappy blue-collar jobs. The single mom’s kids will lack a positive male role model as well as the necessary financial and moral support for a solid upbringing and education. But the worst part amidst all this is that the monogamous lifestyle is not even seen as superior to the other any longer, and that the former’s biggest advocate, Christianity, has been all but destroyed.
In other words: It’s the culture, stupid.
Hillbilly Elegy demonstrates to us that all may not be lost. The good news surfacing from the book is that it challenges the deterministic worldview claiming it’s impossible to escape the awful mess and turn one’s life around. Though, as the cliché goes and Vance himself experiences, it is harder to take a culture out of a man than to take a man out of a culture, moving out to join the Marines and/or go to college sure helps. Even if you’re of the sort that would blame the achievement gap between certain groups in our society on their respective median IQs, how can it be denied that a stable family life, as well as encouragement by loving parents and others to go out and reach for the stars, would put a serious dent into the group disparities? If merely one link in the long chain of events in his childhood had been missing, J.D. Vance, clearly a talented and intelligent young man, could have ended up like all those sad individuals he describes in his book. There must be many folks like him, even if the decks are decidedly stacked against the lower classes.
But at the same token — and here’s the bad news — it will be difficult if not outright impossible to change these toxic cultures altogether. I would agree with Vance and Deneen that this or that government policy is not going to cut it. Ultimately all of us, not just the hillbillies, have to arrive at the realization that the only way to improve our society and culture is to improve ourselves individually. On this point a huge dose of skepticism is in order. The social issues plaguing our underclasses are now a generational disease. Kids who have never been part of a normally functioning family and a community eager to support them are not naturally going to develop these factors on their own. And besides, not everybody can, much less should, end up in college like J.D. Vance (but that’s a story for another day).
Famous prison doctor and author Theodore Dalrymple has stated that his patients are well aware of their personal shortcomings when he confronts them with the ugly truth. They smile and shrug in a sign of recognition that their behavior is not considered acceptable by the vast majority of people. Even if we grew up with parents screaming at us and being high on meth on a daily basis, we know instinctively that such a reality is not the default in normal family life, the pernicious teachings of postmodernism notwithstanding. Indeed, J.D. Vance’s story is a case in point. Perhaps this can be our sliver of hope.
In any event, it would be helpful if we could make a collective effort in understanding where and how these problems originated. It would be vastly more constructive than disparaging all Trump voters as a sweaty bunch of dimwitted and gap-toothed deplorables whose communities “deserve to die.”