R.R. Reno has a short but insightful column in First Things about how our society is failing the poor: “The Preferential Option for the Poor.” “Social justice” Leftists readily support material assistance to the poor but often fail to see how our society’s increasingly debased culture causes far more harm to the American underclass than material want. Reno notes,
The social reality of contemporary America is painfully clear. By and large, the rich and powerful don’t desire more wealth nearly as much as they desire moral relaxation and the self-complimenting image of themselves as nonconformists living a life of enlightenment and freedom in advance of dull Middle America. Meanwhile, on the South Side of Chicago—and in hardscrabble small towns and decaying tract housing of old suburbs—the rest of America suffers the loss of social capital.
I must admit that I often feel frustrated by my liberal friends who worry so much about income inequality and not at all about moral inequality. Their answer is to give reparations. Are we to palliate with cash—can we palliate with cash—the disorder wrought by Gucci bohemians?
No. Progressives talk about “social responsibility.” It is an apt term, but it surely means husbanding social capital just as much as—indeed, more than—providing financial resources. In our society a preferential option for the poor must rebuild the social capital squandered by rich baby boomers, and that means social conservatism. The bohemian fantasy works against this clear imperative, because it promises us that we can attend to the poor without paying any attention to our own manner of living. Appeals to aid the less fortunate, however urgent, make few demands on our day-to-day lives. We are called to awareness, perhaps, or activism, but not to anything that would cut against the liberations of recent decades and limit our own desires.
Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.
In this and other ways, we can help restore the constraining forms of moral and social discipline that don’t bend to fit the desires of the powerful—forms that offer the poor the best, the most effective and most lasting, way out of poverty. That’s the truest preferential option—and truest form of respect—for the poor.
Reno’s advice is nothing but the consensus of Victorian social reformers who realized that squalor originates from vice and not simply from a lack of opportunity. Redistribution of wealth is but a scam that empowers and enriches bureaucrats who oversee the money exchange; it will do nothing to alleviate the woes of the poor because the vicious character of the underclass is the leading cause of its poverty.
Reno’s main point has been a theme of National Review writer Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg often notes how the sleezy and irresponsible lifestyle of the Hollywood set—with no apparent negative consequences—is ruinous to the hordes of poor Americans who get their values and mental content from trashy mass culture. Pop diva X can get knocked up unwed, leave her boyfriend, have multiple sexual partners, shoplift, and participate in the drug culture while remaining rich and famous. Seeing such over and over again on television, Crystal, LaShanika, and Candy, like millions of their fellow morons in the American underclass, think that they, too, can eschew traditional morality and standards and still live out their dreams. They do not realize that the rich can afford such dysfunction because their wealth, their families, and their friends provide rescue boats that the poor do not have. American pop culture has mocked common sense propriety for several generations now. The standard American social ethic has become non-judgmentalism (except when it comes to being judgmental about recycling, smoking, and others’ judgmentalism, of course). The less intelligent, less educated, less self controlled masses are left without proper models for behavior and are instead fed fare such as rap videos, daytime talk shows, and reality television. Is it any wonder that the lower class is such a mess?
The Republic and The Laws both note the importance of civic education and of stories where good men prosper and bad men suffer defeat and ignominy. Our collective cultural propaganda machine often sends the opposite message. Several months ago, I was discussing the perversities of the Jersey Shore with a group of adolescents, all of whom were from middle class or wealthy families. These teenagers sincerely admired the people on the show and thought that it was appropriate to live the way that “Snooki” and her associates lived. When I asked how such behavior affects life, they pointed to the show and said that such a lifestyle can lead to success. They were unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the media shield the people whom they exploit to make money from the consequences of their actions. Behavior typically associated with the Jersey Shore cast is a quick way to ruin even according to hedonist standards, not to mention that it reduces its practitioners to bestial slavery to the appetites and to a life of exile from transcendence. If only the Athenian Stranger could behold the chaos of contemporary America! Indeed, he foresaw it. The wise know, and the foolish fail to learn.