Himmelfarb’s Depravity Nostalgia

Having noted that Republicans are starting to express nostalgia about the federal budget deficit (see “Deficit Nostalgia“), Chatterbox will now consider whether Republicans are starting to miss the socio-cultural entropy, real and imagined, that was the subject of roughly one-third of all neoconservative commentary during the previous three decades. (The other two-thirds was about affirmative action and the Soviet Union.)

We take for our text Gertrude Himmelfarb’s op-ed piece in the Feb. 4 Wall Street Journal, “Panglosses of the Right Are Wrong.” Himmelfarb, a scholar of Victorian England, is one of neoconservatism’s most prominent exponents of the “to hell in a handbasket” critique of liberal social mores. The “Panglosses” Himmelfarb refers to–Chatterbox has no idea who they are, but suspects an ultimate source is David Whitman, author of The Optimism Gap, who isn’t really “of the right”–are touting various favorable social trends such as fewer divorces, fewer abortions, and fewer out-of-wedlock births. These are just the sort of developments you’d expect a neoconservative Queen-Victoria-loving values buff to greet with an enthusiastic “good show!” But Himmelfarb thinks it “prudent to restrain our enthusiasm and self-congratulation.”

Sure, the divorce rate has fallen, but “cohabitation has almost doubled in the past decade alone, and couples living together without benefit of marriage can separate (and do so more frequently) without benefit of divorce.” (That second “benefit” strikes an odd note: Would Himmelfarb prefer that these folks get married, so that they can later get divorced?) Similarly, Himmelfarb says we shouldn’t whoop it up if fewer unmarried women of child-bearing age are having out-of-wedlock babies, because “the ratio of such births (relative to all births) has only leveled off, and at a very high level.” (Well jeez, Gertrude, ya gotta start somewhere!) And: “If there are fewer abortions, it is partly because unmarried motherhood has become more respectable.” (Hmm. More respectable but less common? Or, if you prefer Himmelfarb’s “ratio” approach, more respectable but no more common? This datum feels “soft.”)

If Himmelfarb were urging vigilance while expressing at least a little pleasure in these positive social developments, Chatterbox would understand. (Chatterbox is no friend to complacency.) However, Himmelfarb mostly seems annoyed by them. Her stated reason is that people are losing sight of the fact that we still live in a time of “social and moral disarray.” But she sure sounds like she plain old misses the days when traditional family values were going down the toilet. Today, they mostly aren’t. As Gerald Seib pointed out last year in his scrupulously nonideological Wall Street Journal column (which runs in the news pages), William Bennett’s much-vaunted Index of Leading Cultural Indicators has become something of an embarrassment to the conservative-values crowd, because it’s, er, um, pretty favorable.

Whitman’s book is about the weird gap between most people’s unrealistically sunny assessment of their own good fortune and their unrealistically gloomy assessment of other people’s bad fortune. (He calls it “The I’m OK–They’re Not Syndrome.”) In the book’s epilogue, Whitman observes that “only days before the Lewinsky saga broke, polls showed that most people still did not think that the country was moving in the right direction.” But after Flytrap burst forth, “amid all the loose talk-show chatter about impeachment, roughly 60 percent of the electorate decided that the nation was moving in the right direction after all.” Whitman then quotes William Bennett telling a Heritage Foundation gathering that “these are times in which conservatives are gong to have to face the fact that there is some good news on the landscape. We’re going to have to live with it.” (Bennett said this in September 1997, four months before Flytrap gave Bennett a new lease on moral outrage.)

Apparently, Himmelfarb will have none of it. She ends her piece with the “good news” that “there is a minority that resists the dominant culture, that abides (in principle at least, if not in practice) by traditional values, and that is unembarrassed by the language of morality. This minority constitutes, in effect, a dissident culture.” To hell with the majority culture! Up with intractable cultural pessimism! If Chatterbox were a conservative, this sort of talk would worry him. Since he is not, he will sit back and enjoy seeing the right mimic the left of he 1970s by turning itself into a grumpy minority culture. Be Chatterbox’s guest! Binge on nostalgie de la deviance!

Timothy Noah