America's Growing Unseemliness
Unseemly: not proper or appropriate. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us a simple definition for a simple word. It is not a word much in vogue these days, but it should be.
In his new book, "Coming Apart - The State of White America, 1960-2010" (don't let the title fool you, he gets to everyone else), Charles Murray, author of several social commentaries and co-author of "The Bell Curve," makes quite a point of it.
This book describes, in cold, hard statistics, what Murray believes to be the disintegration of the American social fabric over the past 50 years. As a libertarian, he ascribes much of the blame to the government, which, he believes, has abetted the decline of what he calls the four fundamental national virtues as understood by the founders: marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity.
He presents innumerable charts to go along with very pedestrian prose, all of which demonstrate quite convincingly the changing value Americans have placed on these aspects of life since social policies and attitudes began to change dramatically 50 years ago.
He describes the decline in marriage, the rise in illegitimate births, the polarization of wealth and poverty, the changes in what is viewed as acceptable or desirable behavior and what is not. He notes that these trends have gone on uninterrupted through all administrations, and focuses on their impact on society, rather than placing specific blame.
He writes at some length about unseemliness. I'm not sure whether he views it as a cause or a symptom of our modern culture - perhaps both.
What he means by the term is behavior that, while legal, is detrimental and, well, unseemly. He cites such examples as Aaron Spelling's 56,600-square-foot, 123-room house, and Henry McKinnell, Pfizer's CEO, leaving with a $99 million golden parachute and an $82 million pension after a tenure that saw the company's stock plummet.
He does not overlook politicians. He describes the scramble of lobbyists to influence and write legislation, with the full cooperation of legislators accepting their campaign donations.
We can all find our own examples of unseemliness, large and small. I find it unseemly that the speaker of the House would urge the passage of the biggest spending bill in history so that "we can know what is in it." I find the parade of former legislators to overpaid lobbying gigs extremely unseemly. I find it unseemly that a lottery winner would buy a second house while continuing to receive food stamps. I find overweight men in tank tops unseemly. You can take it from there.
Murray views unseemliness as an indication of the collapse of codes of behavior that depend on a shared acceptance of common ideals rather than codified laws. He believes that the growth and acceptance of the welfare state is a proximate cause of this social trend, and he hopes that the impending implosion of the European model will serve to awaken us.
This is a book with a very strong viewpoint, and even recognizing that I share it, it is hard to debate the evidence he has assembled. Defining a problem is one thing; finding a solution is something else. Murray tries to offer some hope in his conclusion. We can only hope he is right.
This book is a slog. You will not find it entertaining in the least. You may find it offensive and overwrought. You should read it.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by email at fwolferman@ sbcglobal.net.
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