The permissive society’s denial syndrome

Ross Douthat talks (more) common sense to the permissive society in today’s New York Times. Read it all there yourselves. As usual, of course, the mocking foot soldiers of the hedonism load on their stock responses to any common sense in their comments on the article. Why can these people not debate the substance of what he says?

After outlining the evidence for a deeper malaise behind the social dysfunction being experienced among the poor and relatively poor in the US, Douthat concludes:

So however much money matters, something else is clearly going on.

The post-1960s cultural revolution isn’t the only possible “something else.” But when you have a cultural earthquake that makes society dramatically more permissive and you subsequently get dramatic social fragmentation among vulnerable populations, denying that there is any connection looks a lot like denying the nose in front of your face.

But recognizing that culture shapes behavior and that moral frameworks matter doesn’t require thundering denunciations of the moral choices of the poor. Instead, our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of “safe” permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.

This judgment would echo Leonard Cohen:

Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure /
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.


And without dismissing money’s impact on the social fabric, it would raise the possibility that what’s on those channels sometimes matters more.

But, of course, nobody wants to believe this. It would be too threatening to their selfish and self-indulgent life-styles to do so. 

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