In 2017, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax stepped outside the shrinking perimeter of permissible thought when she wrote a short essay in defense of “bourgeois culture.” Wax drew campus-wide censure for “assertions of white cultural superiority” and remains a controversial figure at the Ivy League school.
What did Wax say that was so heinous? She praised traditional marriage with children in wedlock, hard work, patriotism, and good conduct as antidotes to social pathology. “If the bourgeois cultural script—which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach—cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all,” she warned.
While this might seem obvious, the social assumptions that have driven historical America are on the defensive in centers of power and authority. Even modest efforts to safeguard time-honored practices and values meet violent antagonism. The entertainment-media-tech complex pitches the post-bourgeois replacement script nonstop. After decades of aggravation, many purists have surrendered. They say live and let live. They don’t believe this for one second but are exhausted by assaults on their judgment and character.
Declaring that “all cultures are not equal,” Wax violated the first principle of the replacement script. Condemning babies born out of wedlock, trans-activism on aircraft carriers, or menacing crazies panhandling at the local 7-Eleven is very uncool—possibly actionable. Insisting on standards of speech, dress, or behavior in public spaces might lead to charges of harassment or employment trouble. All-purpose smears like racist or hater can ruin lives.
As the bourgeois cultural script diminishes in authority, no public event, ceremony, course of study, or liturgy can be certain of escaping inspection and overhaul. Watched by 45 million on New Years Day, the Rose Parade caters to old-timey, heartland nostalgia. So on New Year’s Eve in a self-congratulatory Los Angeles Times op-ed, Louise Siskel felt compelled to announce, “I am Jewish. I wear glasses. I am bisexual—and I’m the Rose Queen,” replacing festivity with “awareness.” Blame the Times editors for giving an attention-seeking teenager the chance to promote its agenda, using Louise as a proxy.
Karl Marx condemned capitalism and the immiseration of workers. Molière and Ibsen exposed ample false proprieties. “No shepherd and one herd!” said Nietzsche in disgust. “Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.” Sinclair Lewis did the heartland version for 20th-century Americans, and the Greenwich Village style, born a century ago, is still alive and well from Brooklyn to Malibu. Scandalizing the bourgeois is an old game, but today’s shock troops have come to comprise a self-stated moral elect and clerisy.
What Americans call liberalism has been “largely concerned with the rights of the individual—with freedom from oppression, from confinement, from hierarchy, from authority, from stricture, from repression, from rigid rule-making, and from the status quo,” Thomas B. Edsall observed years ago. What he called insurgent values sought to break free of inhibitions, hierarchy, authority, rules, and traditional mores. A generation later, those who for reasons of taste or conscience do not adjust to this insurgency and more might find themselves excluded from opportunity—and possibly labeled kooks or haters.
It’s not just identity politics. The replacement script grants anomie legal protection. It condones the outré, which then of course ceases to be outré. It thrills to outlaw culture. While humans worldwide evidently like juicy entertainment and video gaming, alcohol and drugs, casinos, porn, and tattoos, some polities contain or prohibit the juice. The contemporary West, however, sanctions license and free play. Still, millions of normies—including those who are no strangers to temptation or vice—act consciously to police themselves. They try to shelter themselves and their loved ones from lifestyles once considered tawdry, shiftless, shameful, criminal, or insane. Doing so often requires make believe or an unhealthy degree of insularity—and in metro areas, gobs of money.
It was not quite so in the past. From Methodism to the Scout law, spoken and unspoken creeds cemented everyday virtue. Sermons and hymns, school primers, and popular art reinforced commonly held, deeply felt assumptions of honorable conduct. Instead of expressive individualism or hedonic rapture, many citizens channeled the Gospels: “narrow is the gate and straight is the way which leadeth to the house of God.”
Born as an adjunct of Atlantic civilization, the United States remained closely bound to London and Europe’s capital cities, creating its own vernacular, building a middle class unlike any before it in history. By the 20th century, a Protestant establishment vested in schools, colleges, clubs, and churches guided politics and culture, conveying ideals embodied in hortatory Time Inc. editorials and the Century Association in its prime. Pillars of the community in smaller cities and towns nationwide imitated style and mindset, creating a middle-class American Dream fetishized in mid-century newspaper and magazine advertising.
Legal and extralegal codes tried to contain sexual anarchy, alcoholism, vagrancy, and ravages of the id, sometimes crudely or cruelly by today’s standards. Widely held social axioms rendered confrontation and adjudication unnecessary in most public circumstances. Public drama was discouraged, and whining was considered bad form. American elites often had direct, amicable connections with the yeoman republic, primus inter pares.
Forged by the New Deal and World War II, statesmen like John McCloy, Potter Stewart, and Prescott Bush stood solidly in such a profile, examples of high bourgeois probity and rationalism, comfortable as models for Americans of all backgrounds. The same cannot be said of silver-spoon legates such as Al Gore, John Kerry, or Howard Dean—or, for that matter, George W. Bush. And let’s not forget Punahou’s Barack Obama and Woodberry Forest’s Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, all of them shaped by multicultural televised politics. In an age of celebrity, public officials live grandly inside the imperial bubble and donor class, whatever their democratic rhetoric. Untouched by squalor and crime, far removed from dicey neighborhoods, bad schools, and skeezy neighbors, they can barely conceive of what makes yeoman America depressed, angry, and fearful.
Contemporary America is dotted with “Hate Has No Home Here” lawn signs. Old America features “Thank You Jesus!” banners. Such front yard declarations indicate a nation with diminishing interstices. Told that families, flag, and faith no longer count, and stripped of economic security and respect, native-born yeomen turn for relief to a crass demagogue president who is cynically mining their desperation. Can anyone be surprised?
Robert Merry has observed in an American Conservative essay on immigration, “For most of our history, we have been largely a country of Europeans, a country of the West, with Western sensibilities and a shared devotion to the Western heritage. Now we are in the process of becoming something else—a mixed country without a coherent, guiding heritage of any civilization and certainly not of the West.” The incoherence is growing more insistent and demanding. Indictments of white privilege and racism, patriarchal oppression, and capitalist plunder replace classical liberalism, nationalism, and plain virtues as cultural drivers. This constitutes a remarkable turn in social standards.
Politics follows culture. A rising generation of Democratic politicians disparages white, native-born Americans. California Senator Kamala Harris tweets: “We won’t be silent about race. We won’t be silent about sexual orientation. We won’t be silent about immigrant’s rights. These are the very issues that define our identity as Americans.”
Professor Wax said, and this is a key point, “restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture—the academics, media, and Hollywood—to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics.” Abandoning identity politics and currently fashionable underdog badges would require an unimaginable volte-face on the part of crowd-conscious entertainers, athletes, and politicians.
The 68-inch monitor in the living room and smartphone-on-the-go are irresistible sirens. Dream crazy, say today’s ad makers. Pop-star producer Scooter Braun creates lurid Justin Bieber, who has 100 million followers on Twitter and is worth an estimated $265 million. Media lawyer Larry Rudolph transforms chameleon-like Miley Cyrus from Hannah Montana into skank. Miley has 55 million followers on Twitter and is worth $100 million. That’s power ready to be unleashed in unknown directions. Who can bell the cat?
Education could be “devoted to encouraging and refining the beautiful,” the University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom once observed. “But a pathologically misguided moralism instead turns such longing into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality.”
In the long run, nature surely has the upper hand. But in the meantime, political theology does its best to overthrow instincts, institutions, and traditions that have made order and freedom possible.
Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.