culture and values

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I know this is late and all, but I can’t let it go. Here’s a quote from Willard “Mitte” Romney’s speech to Liberty University on May twelfth:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.

The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Sen. Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.

OK, first of all, saying people with no education, job or spouse are often poor is not altogether a shocker. But what he is really saying—I should say, what I infer that he is saying—is that poor people are poor because they had sex without first having obtained job, education or a spouse. This is not so. Had they remained unemployed, uneducated single virgins, they would have been poor. Childless and poor. There are childless poor, you know, and many of them don’t have full-time jobs. Some of them do, which is another issue, but many of them don’t.

And, in point of fact, many of the people (such as Your Humble Blogger) who had all the middle-class advantages also had sex when we were teenagers. Some of us were prepared, and used contraceptives of one kind or another, which is also part of American culture (I’ll get to that), but frankly some of us were idiots and got away with it, or were idiots and got pregnant and didn’t carry to term, or, perhaps, were in the quarter of unwed unemployed teenage parents who are not poor. Because we had those middle-class advantages. Because the sex didn’t cause the poverty. Because the sex isn’t even a symptom of the poverty.

I haven’t let go of this almost two weeks after the speech because it seems to me a terribly mean-spirited, blind and arrogant thing to say. The college graduates listening were able to congratulate themselves that they had not done The Thing that makes people poor. If they were listening (it was, after all, a commencement speech) and took it to heart, what it taught them was to treat the poor with contempt and hostility: they are poor because they were irresponsible; they were irresponsible because they lacked American values. The poor are always with us, but they aren’t really with us. They aren’t even really American.

And that’s what gets my goat—it’s not a surprise to hear someone from the Other Party slagging the poor. It makes me angry, but it doesn’t surprise me. It seems to be an article of faith, in the Other Party, that the poor deserve no better than poverty (with the possible exception of infants and very young children, and maybe virgins in their early teens) and the rich deserve no less than riches. It’s wrong, and it’s despicably wrong, and it happens all the time, and I wish My Party would express more outrage more openly about it. But this context—that the poor have rejected American culture in making themselves poor—is really loathesome.

Willard ”Mitte” Romney doesn’t get to decide what American Culture is or is not. He is no longer—and never ought to have been—the haircut monitor who protected the straights from the hippies. The hippies were American culture, which promoted love, community and terrible smells. American culture promotes shallow celebrity worship and prideful ignorance; American culture promotes sexual redefinition and radical inclusion. American culture promotes arrogance, greed and war; American culture promotes humility, liberality and peace. American culture is a big thing. Culture matters, yes. But the Other Party doesn’t get to draw a line around some fabricated, abridged, narrow subset and say that it owns American culture and that everything else is foreign.

Because the thing that the nominee is on about, to the extent that it exists—the culture of poverty, promiscuity and crime, the inner city infantilism that he may have experienced in the occasional film and thinks he recognizes when driving through Jamaica Plain—to the extent that it exists, that is American culture, too. What else is it? Where did it come from? Where was it created? If you think there is such a culture of poverty, then it is surely as American as apple pie.

There will be a lot of rhetoric, this summer and autumn, that will hint at who is really American and who is not. Some of it will hint; some will be far beyond hinting. Not all of it will be racist, either, although it will be hard not to see race in it, too. Some of Left Blogovia will call it out; I hope some of our elected officials and surrogates will call it out. I hope to call it out, too. I hope you will call it out, too, Gentle Reader.

Because ultimately, American culture is what we all say it is. If we want a radically inclusive American culture, a Walt Whitman culture, a democratic culture, if we want an American culture, we have to be it ourselves.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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