In Praise of Rules image

In Praise of Rules

"This book is essentially an argument that post-Protestant WASP culture is failing," writes R. R. Reno as he concludes his new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, "that it promises freedom, but delivers tyranny. It may work well for the top end of society, but it's hell on the weak and vulnerable. It makes a fuss about diversity but can't deliver solidarity. Its false view of freedom undermines the authority of the two institutions that can limit government: marriage and the church ... At some point, people will notice what the post-Protestant WASPs have done. They have built a culture that suits college graduates like themselves while disorienting everyone else. In fact, given the sincere moral purpose that animates most post-Protestant WASPs, they will start to have their own misgivings, at which point the Christian leaven will go to work on the lump." Quite the peroratio.

But the teeth of Reno’s provocative and challenging book lie in his comments about rules—which is also where we find some interesting overlap with J. D. Vance’s celebrated (and, at the time of writing, #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) Hillbilly Elegy. A few weeks ago Matt quoted Vance’s discussion with Rod Dreher, in which Vance gave a fascinating example of being told by an authority figure how he should live his life (emphasis added):

The other thing the Marine Corps did is hold our hands and prevent us from making stupid decisions.  It didn’t work on everyone, of course, but I remember telling my senior noncommissioned officer that I was going to buy a car, probably a BMW.  “Stop being an idiot and go get a Honda.” Then I told him that I had been approved for a new Honda, at the dealer’s low interest rate of 21.9 percent.  “Stop being an idiot and go to the credit union.”  He then ordered another Marine to take me to the credit union, open an account, and apply for a loan (the interest rate, despite my awful credit, was around 8 percent).  A lot of elites rely on parents or other networks the first time they made these decisions, but I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  The Marine Corps ensured that I learned.

This, in one anecdote, is pretty much the argument of Reno’s book. Our elites insist on nonjudgmentalism, and decry the formal social rules of previous generations (get a job, get married, remain married, have children, put on a tie, sit down at dinner with your family, avoid swearing in public, buy a Honda instead of a BMW, borrow as cheaply as possible, and so on)—but then proceed to get jobs, get married, remain married, sit down at dinner with their families, avoid swearing in public, buy Hondas instead of BMWs, and borrow cheaply:

Members of our upper class may talk the talk of the sixties, but they walk the walk of the fifties. David Brooks, with his usual wit, calls them “bobos”, bohemian in attitude and self-image, but bourgeois in behaviour.

Meanwhile, their insistence on nonjudgmentalism and overthrow of formal rules, especially when it comes to sex, marriage and family life, gradually permeate the culture through mass media, and gradually destabilise the life patterns of the weaker and more vulnerable members of society. Rich people can afford to dismiss social rules and traditional norms, because their support networks and education will make them successful in spite of the mistakes they will make. Poor people, on the other hand, will suffer more when social rules, norms and authority figures—parents, pastors, Marine sergeants, or whomever—are removed from the picture. Channeling Mary Douglas, Charles Murray and Robert Putnam, Reno explains:

What earlier generations took for granted, we must decide. To have sex or not to have sex—and with whom, when, and how? To have children or not to have children? What am I supposed to do when I become a father? To marry or not to marry? Do I need a husband to raise my children? Do I need a woman to have children? Should I freeze my embryos? In a post-conventional society such as ours, there is no end to open questions.

Well-educated people are often prepared to deal with these open questions. People who are good at talking tend to succeed in social systems that encourage talking things through ... Meanwhile, Fishtown goes to hell. This isn’t surprising. In pursuit of post-conventional freedoms we have destroyed the old systems of positional control, leaving adrift the poorly educated and those who lack the skills to navigate the post-conventional seas. Deprived of normative sex roles, poor people today don’t negotiate and renegotiate male and female relations the way upper-class people do. They flounder. Marriage declines. Illegitimacy increases. Male-female relations turn sour.

“We can’t have a society that serves the weak if we don’t end our war on the very possibility of clear rules,” Reno concludes. “A Christian society judges nonjudgmentalism unjust.” I suspect he’s right.

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