Cultural Cowardice

In his Feb. 18 column, David Brooks uses the story of the Prodigal Son to explore contemporary social dynamics. He writes:

“We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: ‘You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.’

“But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.”

What a load of nonsense. To begin, the qualities that enable one to become a contributing member of society – working hard, playing by the rules – have nothing to do with questions of good and evil.

I agree that one group should not self-righteously lecture another but only because this is a poor strategy for persuasion. On the other hand, a group that is taxed to the hilt to support their fellow citizens should have some right to expect certain conduct from their beneficiaries. If a goal of society to help people not just reach their potential but stand on their own two feet then it seems appropriate to hold up folks who have accomplished that as role models.

The main problem here is the pervasive moral relativism and cultural cowardice that Brooks’ views represent. One of the great problems in America is that successful people tend to live by traditional values – they work hard, have children after marriage, stay married, and even go to church at higher rates – yet they are afraid to trumpet them. This does more harm to the poor than any budget cut. The one exception is identity politics; there the powers that be are eager to punish those who stray from their orthodoxy (eg. Paula Deen and Phil Roberts). I wish they would exhibit the same confidence in regards to other values issues.

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